With 2:37 left in a wild game Sunday, the Chargers led Tennessee by eight but faced a third-and-seven from their own territory. The Titans had a timeout left and plenty of time to chase a game-winning touchdown, but first they needed a stop.
Philip Rivers handed off to Melvin Gordon, a conservative play call that easily could have resulted in a San Diego punt. Gordon had other ideas. He blew through a Kevin Byard tackle attempt at the line, darted around Da’Norris Searcy just before the first-down line and then outraced Jason McCourty another 30 yards before he finally was shoved out of bounds.
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“Every guy wants the ball in their hands, because every guy wants to make the play,” Gordon said in his postgame press conference. “You don’t want to be that guy where [your coaches] look like, ‘I don’t wanna give him the ball.’ So when you get that opportunity and they put the ball in your hands, it’s your job to make something happen.”
Gordon tacked on another first down after the two-minute warning to ice the game, the finishing touch on a career-best performance of 196 yards rushing. Through nine weeks of the regular season, Gordon leads the league in rushing attempts (193) and touchdowns (nine), a remarkable 180-degree turn from his complete bust of a rookie season.
And because of that turnaround, Gordon is a legitimate contender for Comeback Player of the Year.
The argument against him (at least when I floated that idea on Twitter last week) centered around this idea: What is he coming back from? He has no history of NFL success to his name, in just year two of his career, so why would he be up for such an honor?
This is a good spot for a reminder that the Comeback Player of the Year criteria is, well, not exactly precise. It’s presented each season to a player who thrives while “overcoming adversity,” as it was phrased by Devon Still when he and his daughter, Leah, presented the award to Kansas City’s Eric Berry, who like Leah is a cancer survivor. Berry was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma during the 2014 season, then made both the Pro Bowl and All-Pro team in 2015.
Gordon’s adversity, as it were, doesn’t come close to that standard. He was the No. 15 pick in the 2015 NFL draft, embracing all of the pressure that comes with a first-round draft pick. However he completely flopped as a rookie, finishing last year with 641 yards rushing and zero touchdowns—Danny Woodhead was a far more productive option out of San Diego’s backfield.
So, Gordon’s “comeback” has been of the production variety, as he already has 768 yards on the ground in addition to his league-leading numbers elsewhere. That could make for a tough sell given the history of the Comeback Player of the Year award—Adrian Peterson was the last RB to win it, in 2011, following his return from a devastating knee injury; before him, Willis McGahee (knee) and Garrison Hearts (ankle) both took home the award after injuries nearly ended their careers. While Gordon did end last season on injured reserve with a knee injury, that setback cost him just two games and he was fine by the preseason.
McGahee offers a little precedent for Gordon’s case, because he sat out his entire first NFL season (2003) before winning Comeback Player of the Year in 2004. Gordon’s current teammate, QB Philip Rivers, also won CPOY without first being dealt an injury blow. He struggled through a trying 2012, then bounced back with a stellar 2013, winning the award on that basis.
So, Gordon’s Comeback Player of the Year hopes—as a player with limited NFL experience and with only a relatively minor injury in his recent past—are not unprecedented. He deserves to be in the conversation, as he’s completely changed course on his career outlook.
“I think it’s a little bit of everything, but I felt it this training camp,” said Rivers of Gordon. “He had a 10-day span where I thought, ‘Uh oh, here he comes.’ … He had a couple fumbles [earlier this season] that I knew tore him up, and he’s fought through that. And then in these last few weeks just how hard he’s running and how smooth he’s running, you can just tell, you can tell … he knows what he’s seeing and he’s making quick decisions. It’s been awesome to see him progress.”
Gordon still faces an uphill battle for Comeback Player of the Year. Who else could take home the trophy? A rundown of the likeliest candidates through nine weeks:
Jordy Nelson, WR, Packers: Barring a massive second half of 2016, Nelson is not going to hit his pre-ACL injury heights (1,519 yards in 2014), but he has regained his spot as Aaron Rodgers’s top target. Nelson actually is on pace to top his TD total from two years ago (he had 13 then; he’s on pace for 14 now). He’s made 38 catches for 509 yards this season.
DeMarco Murray, RB, Titans: Perhaps the leader in the Comeback Player of the Year clubhouse as the season turns for home. The league’s top rusher and a third-place MVP finisher in 2014 with the Cowboys, Murray’s career took a well-publicized detour through Philadelphia last season. The 28-year-old back never found a fit in Chip Kelly’s offense, finishing the year with 702 yards rushing and was then traded to Tennessee in March. There, his resurgence has been swift. Murray is averaging 89.7 yards per game, which puts him on pace for upwards of 1,400 yards rushing this season.
Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Panthers: The Panthers lost Benjamin to an ACL injury last summer mere days before Nelson went down. In six of his eight games so far this season, Benjamin has topped 70 yards receiving—he had a 108-yard, two-TD outburst against San Francisco. He and Greg Olsen have made up the majority of Carolina’s passing attack, combining for 1,200 yards thus far.
Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons: Similar to Rivers’s 2012-to-’13 turnaround, Ryan is in the process of shaking off the cobwebs from a miserable ’15 season. He has his Falcons atop the NFC South at 6–3, and he leads all NFL quarterbacks in yards passing (2,980) and touchdowns (23). Ryan is just nine TDs off his career high, with seven games left. He’s not only a CPOY contender, he’s in the MVP mix.
Terrell Suggs, OLB, Ravens: There are multiple Ravens who could make a Comeback Player of the Year claim (which could hurt each of them, if the vote splits at all). Suggs, 34, tore his Achilles in Week 1 of last season but has returned to lead the team in sacks so far (5.0). His in-house competition comes from 37-year-old WR Steve Smith, who has come back from his own Achilles tear, and TE Dennis Pitta, whose career was derailed several times by injury.
Andrew Luck, QB, Colts: At one point last season, a doctor told the Indianapolis Star that Luck’s injuries (lacerated kidney, torn abdominal muscle) were most commonly “associated with motor vehicle crashes or motorbike crashes.” Luck wound up playing just seven games last year, and he wasn’t all that good when he suited up. This year, he’s back to almost singlehandedly carrying the Colts. Despite being sacked a league-high 33 times, Luck has thrown for 2,565 yards and accounted for 18 touchdowns.
Jay Ajayi, RB, Dolphins: If Gordon is going to get 750 words supporting his candidacy, we have to talk about Ajayi, too. A fifth-round pick in 2015, Ajayi missed half his rookie season with a rib injury and rushed for a total of 187 yards. This year, thanks to a remarkable three-week stretch, he has 646 yards and six touchdowns, plus a league-best 5.9 yards per carry.
Tyrann Mathieu, S, Cardinals: He was an odds-on favorite to win the award headed into the season, after he tore his ACL late last year. Mathieu started slow—injuries forcing him into a different role than he in 2015—but he picked up his game around the start of October. Unfortunately for him and the Cardinals, a Week 8 shoulder injury could keep him out until mid-December. That’s too much time to miss if he wants to be an award-winner.
Jimmy Graham, TE, Seahawks: Graham’s disappointing first season in Seattle ended with an ugly Week 12 knee injury. He reportedly didn’t even start walking again until March, so any production this season counts as a welcome bonus. And despite that, he is just 39 yards off the team’s receiving lead (442, behind Doug Baldwin’s 441). Graham’s lacking in the TD department—he has one so far—but there is no doubt that he has “overcome adversity.”
Le’Veon Bell, RB, Steelers: Bell, whose 2015 season ended on a severe knee injury, has averaged 131.5 yards from scrimmage per game in 2016. The problems: He was suspended for three weeks to open the year, and he still has not found the end zone. We know what he’s capable of doing, so don’t rule out a big second-half surge.