NFL comebacks take many shapes

Comebacks are the rage in the NFL.

We don’t mean overcoming large deficits to win games, although
in 2011 that’s happening plenty, too. Players who disappeared from
the headlines, from lineups, from the league entirely – those
comebacks are especially impressive.

Talk about quarterbacks (Alex Smith, Tony Romo, Matt Hasselbeck)
or kickers (Mike Nugent), tight ends (Jermichael Finley) or
wideouts (Plaxico Burress, Steve Smith), defensive ends (Elvis
Dumervil) or linebackers (DeMeco Ryans) or backs (Carlos Rogers),
comebacks are in style.

Finley had the most successful layoff. He missed the final 11
games last season with a right knee injury, so he sat and watched
his teammates win the Super Bowl, easing the, uh, pain, but making
him even more eager to get back on the field.

For much of this season, in which Green Bay is 13-1, the speedy,
powerful Finley has been unstoppable, although a case of the drops
hit him recently.

Finley has 45 catches, averaging 15.2 yards, and six
touchdowns.

The most difficult hiatus was spent by Burress, who was in
prison for 20 months for accidentally shooting himself in a
Manhattan nightclub. He signed with the Jets as a free agent once
the lockout ended, and his impact has been solid, if not
spectacular.

New York leads the league in red-zone touchdown efficiency with
32 in 47 trips, a huge improvement over the previous season.
Burress has eight TD catches and has become Mark Sanchez’s go-to
receiver near the end zone.

”Personally, I just think I needed a fresh start,” Burress
said. ”If I wanted to go somewhere and get more money, I could’ve
went to a couple more places and signed a two- or three-year deal,
different things like that. I just wanted to put myself in a
situation to go somewhere fresh and have an opportunity to play for
a great organization and for a great head coach in Rex (Ryan) and a
great team.

”I feel that I’m in the right place.”

Steve Smith feels that way once again about Carolina, in great
part thanks to the arrival of top overall draft pick Cam Newton.
Smith was coming off a down year in which Carolina was the league’s
worst team, with no quarterbacks who could get him the ball. It was
a miserable situation, and Smith has been known to blow a fuse.

Then Newton showed up, and Smith was revitalized.

Smith now is over 10,000 yards receiving for his career.

”You know, it doesn’t matter how many articles are written
about me – about how I’m a bad character guy, or erratic or moody –
no matter how many negative things are written, the power of public
opinion doesn’t win on this one,” Smith said. ”This is a stat
that I’ve earned, with the help of a lot of other people, that
can’t be taken away.

”It’s a milestone that I would say really counts. It really
matters.”

One thing that really has mattered for Denver has been the
return of Dumervil. He missed the entire 2010 season with a torn
chest muscle suffered in the preseason. The previous year, his 17
sacks led the league.

It took a while this year for Dumervil to get back to his old
form. A left shoulder injury hampered him, but as the Broncos began
their surge to the top of the AFC West, Dumervil was one of the
leaders.

”Sometimes you just have to get your body right, man,” he
said. ”That’s been the biggest issue for me.”

At issue for 49ers QB Alex Smith has been, well, everything.
He’s played for seven coordinators in his seven pro seasons,
stymieing any chance for growth in one season.

This year, under new coach Jim Harbaugh, who immediately
displayed his faith in the 2005 overall No. 1 draft pick, Smith has
flourished and the Niners won the NFC West – their first playoff
berth since 2002.

”He wants to be successful and learn as much as he possibly can
about this game and try to find ways to help this team get better
down the road,” tight end Vernon Davis said. ”I’m all for it. I’m
a big supporter.”

Bengals kicker Nugent couldn’t be sure how much support he had
in Cincinnati as he returned from a major injury to his right knee
suffered in mid-November 2010. His accuracy on field goals erased
any doubts, and he’s been the league’s most pinpoint kicker, 27 for
29 thus far.

”It was tough because when you tear your ACL, you lose your
quad (muscles), which is the first thing that stops doing
anything,” Nugent said. ”It’s basically the whole offseason
getting your quad back to where it was before. It was tough at
times because I felt like I was a level behind everyone else.”

Not any longer.

Others who have made impressive comebacks this year include
quarterbacks Romo of Dallas, Hasselbeck of Tennessee, and Matthew
Stafford of Detroit; 49ers CB Rogers; linebackers Ryans and Connor
Barwin of Houston, D’Qwell Jackson of Cleveland, and Nick Barnett
of Dallas; and two running backs who have been sensational
recently, Marshawn Lynch of Seattle and Reggie Bush of Miami.

”It definitely means a lot,” Bush said of becoming the
dependable, every-down back he wants to be. ”It means that I’m
doing everything that I expected I was going to be doing. This
isn’t so much me being surprised this happened. It’s more the fact
this is something I expected.”

Even if not a lot of others did, which makes a comeback even
more special.