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NFL comebacks take many shapes

By Barry Wilner

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Dec. 22 2011 4:30 p.m. MST

Miami Dolphins running back Reggie Bush loses his footing while running the ball against the Buffalo Bills during the third quarter of an NFL football game in Orchard Park, N.Y., Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011.

Derek Gee, Associated Press

NEW YORK — 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.

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