NFL Comeback Player of the Year: Your Definitive List of Past Winners

comeback player of the year geno smith 53c41a e1706715380794
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In the NFL, like all professional sports leagues, there are statistics and awards for just about everything imaginable, such as NFL Comeback Player of the Year. From conversations about who the best kickers of all time are, to inarguable facts like who has the most rookie rushing yards, we use metrics and awards to celebrate everything under the sun that goes on during games, seasons, and careers. There are so many records and leaderboards to keep track of, that sometimes, players just seem less like real people and more like calculable numbers. That's where recognitions like the Associated Press NFL Comeback Player of the Year come in, to remind us all that players are much more than their statistics.

The AP NFL Comeback Player of the year is precisely what it sounds like. The first award was given out in 1963, had a several decade hiatus, but has since been handed out each year again since 1998.

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The 2023 NFL Comeback Player of the Year Finalists:

The winner of the 2023 AP Comeback player of the year will be announced on February 8, 2024 at the 13th annual NFL Honors. The finalists for this years' award are:

  • Damar Hamlin
  • Joe Flacco
  • Matthew Stafford
  • Baker Mayfield
  • Tua Tagovailoa

As we wait to hear who wins this year, let's take a look back through all of the players who have received the award since its inception.

What Is the AP NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award?

The Associated Press Comeback Player of the Year Award is awarded annually to an NFL player, chosen by panel of 50 sportswriters and broadcast personalities at the end of each regular season. The award recognizes a player that has shown extreme resilience during a season, overcoming all sorts of physical and external challenges. Past awards have been given to players who returned to a high level of performance following adversity such as an injury, a rebuilding year, or other personal challenges.

2022: Geno Smith (Seattle Seahawks)

Jane Gershovich / Getty Images
  • Position: Quarterback
  • College: West Virginia

When Geno Smith was named the AP Comeback Player of the Year in 2022, he became the first Seattle Seahawk to receive the award. Smith has been in the league since 2013, and has experienced plenty of ups and downs in all those years. When the Seahawks named him as their starting quarterback for the 2022 season, expectations were up in the air. Despite the doubters, Smith came out strong in the season, started every game, and took every offensive snap -- the only NFL quarterback to do so in 2022.

After Smith was named Comeback Player of the Year, Seattle coach Pete Carroll had this to say about Smith and the season he had: "It's a great story for a lot of players, in other sports, wherever you want to go, if you keep hanging in there and you believe in yourself and you don't let the messaging outside of you affect who you are and what you are, you'll find your best."

2021: Joe Burrow (Cincinnati Bengals)

nfl comeback player of the year joe burrow
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  • Position: Quarterback
  • College: LSU

Cincinnati Bengals fans were thrilled when their team selected Heisman Trophy winner and College Football National Champion Joe Burrow to be their new quarterback. Expectations were about as high as could for the new starting QB, and he was living up to those expectations until Week 11 of his rookie season, when a low hit resulted in a torn ACL and MCL. He would not play another game in the 2020 season.

He worked hard in physical therapy and rehab, making a full recovery in September 2021, and went on to take the Bengals all the way to the Super Bowl in 2022, their first big game appearance in 33 years, just months after suffering his injury, and in just his second season in the NFL.

2020: Alex Smith (Washington Football Team)

nfl comeback player pf the year alex smith
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  • Position: Quarterback
  • College: Utah

Alex Smith suffered one of the most devastating leg injuries in 2018 that an NFL quarterback has ever seen. By all accounts, the injury could have been career-ending, even despite his unwavering strength and talent. After surgeries and years of rehab, Smith defied all odds and worked hard enough to become an active quarterback in the NFL again, as a backup QB for the Los Angeles Rams.

Smith went back and forth between starter and backup for the next several games, but whether or not he was starting or even winning games did not matter. His resilience and determination made him a shoe-in for the 2020 Comeback award, of which he received 49 or the 50 votes.

2019: Ryan Tannehill (Tennessee Titans)

nfl comeback player of the year ryan tannehill
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  • Position: Quarterback
  • College: Texas A&M

Ryan Tannehill was once believed to be the answer for the Miami Dolphins, who were desperately seeking a franchise quarterback. Unfortunately for the team and the player, the first-round pick did not work out the way it was envisioned, resulting in him being traded away to the Tennessee Titans.

It seemed like it was destined to be a classic story of a hyped college quarterback star that could not rise to the challenge of playing quarterback in the NFL. However, in his first season with the Titans, Tannehill did not fold to the pressure, and instead shocked everyone with his resilience that helped lead the Titans to a playoff berth and subsequent post season run. Tannehill received 16 out of 50 votes, edging Jimmy Garoppolo out by one vote to win the award.

2018: Andrew Luck (Indianapolis Colts)

nfl comeback player of the year andrew luck
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  • Position: Quarterback
  • College: Stanford

Andrew Luck was on his way to becoming an elite quarterback in the NFL after a couple of seasons improving with the Indianapolis Colts. Then, a devastating shoulder injury in 2016 put him on the injured reserve, and it would not have been crazy to think that his NFL career was over. He missed the entire 2017 season, during which it was still unclear how extensive the injury was, and if he was ever going to be able to play again.

Following a long path of going all over the world to receive surgeries and therapy, Luck was miraculously ready to start for the Colts in Week 1 of the 2018 season. Not only did he start, but Luck was one often best quarterbacks in the league that year, even cracking into the conversation for NFL MVP. He received 44 of the 50 votes for AP NFL Comeback Player of the Year.

2017: Keenan Allen (Los Angeles Chargers)

nfl comeback player of the year keenan allen
Icon Sportswire / Getty Images
  • Position: Wide Reciever
  • College: California

There's no other way to say it -- Allen could not catch a break in early in his career, first suffering a kidney injury in 2015, and then suffering a torn ACL in the first half of the Chargers season opener in 2016. It was enough to make a player give up on football altogether

Despite the hard luck, Allen entered the 2017 season eager to be the best wide receiver on the field, and this determination lead him to be third among wide receivers in yardage. It was an incredible thing to watch, and a well-deserved award for the resilient player.

2016: Jordy Nelson (Green Bay Packers)

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  • Position: Wide Receiver
  • College: Kansas State

From a torn ACL in a preseason game in 2015 that resulted in a lost season, to a lights out 2016 season, Jordy Nelson was an easy choice for the 2016 AP Comeback Player of the Year.

After a mentally and physically tough year of rehab, by 2016, Nelson and Aaron Rodgers were back to their old QB to wide receiver ways, connecting for 97 receptions and 1257 receiving yards.

2015: Eric Berry (Kansas City Chiefs)

nfl comeback player of the year eric berry
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  • Position: Safety
  • College: Tennessee

Eric Berry's story was one of the most memorable moments of resilience and inspiration in NFL history. Toward the end of the 2014 season, Berry had to take a break from football to deal with his diagnosis of Hodgkin's lymphoma.

In an emotional acceptance speech, Berry said, "There were some tough times. There were times I felt like I couldn't do it anymore... There were times of uncertainty." With the help of his family and teammates, Berry battled the diagnosis head on, and re-joined the Chiefs in Pro-Bowl fashion. He received 38 of the 50 votes for 2015 Comeback Player of the Year.

2014: Rob Gronkowski (New England Patriots)

nfl comeback player of the year rob gronkowski
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  • Position: Tight End
  • College: Arizona

With all of his triumphant moments, it's easy to forget all of the obstacles to success that Rob Gronkowski faced from 2011 to 2013. First, it was a ankle injury that required surgery and time to heal, then in 2012, he broke his forearm in the regular season, and it was re-injured in the playoffs. Once finally healed in the 2013 season, Gronk tore his ACL. It was all more than most people could take.

In true Gronk form, these challenges only made him work harder and get stronger. It did not come easy; in fact, when he finally returned in the 2014 season, he had a rough start. After a couple of weeks of uncertainty in the tight end position, Gronk returned to his old self and continued on to have another dominant season.

2013: Philip Rivers (San Diego Chargers)

nfl comeback player of the year
Michael Reaves / Getty Images
  • Position: Quarterback
  • College: NC State

Unlike many of the past and subsequent Comeback Players of the Year, Philip Rivers was not chosen because he came back from an injury or physical ailment. Instead, the panel picked Rivers because of the mental toughness he showed after statistically rough 2012 in which many though might be a signal of the end of his career.

Rather than caving to the doubters, Rivers came out hot in the 2013 season, and helped to bring the Chargers, who had not had many high expectations for the season to a late season run to the playoffs. He ended the season with almost 1000 more yard than he did in 2012 and led the NFL in completion percentage.

A Complete list of NFL Comeback Player of the Year Winners Since 1963

  • 2012: Peyton Manning (Denver Broncos)
  • 2011: Matthew Stafford (Detroit Lions)
  • 2010: Michael Vick (Philadelphia Eagles)
  • 2009: Tom Brady (New England Patriots)
  • 2008: Chad Pennington (Miami Dolphins)
  • 2007: Greg Ellis (Dallas Cowboys)
  • 2006: Chad Pennington (New York Jets)
  • 2005: Tedy Bruschi (New England Patriots)
  • 2004: Drew Brees (San Diego Chargers)
  • 2003: Jon Kitna (Cincinnati Bengals)
  • 2002: Tommy Maddox (Pittsburgh Steelers)
  • 2001: Garrison Hearst (San Francisco 49ers)
  • 2000: Joe Johnson (New Orleans Saints)
  • 1999: Bryant Young (San Francisco 49ers)
  • 1998: Doug Flutie (Buffalo Bills)
  • 1966: Gale Sayers (Chicago Bears)
  • 1965: Jim Brown (Cleveland Browns)
  • 1964: Ed Brown (Pittsburgh Steelers)
  • 1963: Lenny Moore (Baltimore Colts)
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