Earlier this week, when filling out my awards ballot for the PFWA, I was initially inclined to place New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski or Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. as my comeback player of the year.
Both players have had remarkable seasons. Harris tore his ACL in January of 2014, and has returned to have his best season as a pro, emerging into an all-pro talent for a resurgent Denver Broncos defense. Gronkowski, as you know, tore his ACL in November of last season, and returned to form as the best tight end in all of football this season (as well as a fringe league MVP candidate).
While it will likely be one of those two that actually land the award, I ultimately ended up casting my vote for a different Patriots player: defensive tackle Vince Wilfork.
When Wilfork tore his achilles tendon at the quarter mark of the 2013 season, some speculated the injury could be career threatening. After all, Wilfork was in his tenth season, weighing at more than 350 lbs, and played an anchor-like position that puts a lot of stress on the lower body.
The coaching staff and players had faith in Wilfork. Vince himself said that he had no doubts that he would return in 2014 and beyond. The team and Wilfork moved past an offseason contract dispute that ensured he would be with the Patriots this season and then some.
Nonetheless, I'm not sure anyone expected Wilfork to return to the level of play that he has in 2014. Wilfork showed up to camp with a slimmer physique. He played in all 16 regular season contests. He played nearly 75% of the total snaps, good for sixth on the team and earning himself playing time incentives. He played that anchor role on the line. He played nose and end in three man fronts, and 3-technique in 4-man fronts.
Like usual, Wilfork didn't put up any insane stats. He recorded 47 tackles but did manage to seal two victories for the Patriots (an interception in week three against the Raiders and a blocked field goal against the Jets later in the year). But he did all the little things that Wilfork has always done. Pushed the pocket, occupied multiple blockers, made key stops in the running game, remained a vocal leader.
This isn't to take away anything from Gronkowski or Harris. Although more and more players are returning from ACL injuries, they are always career threatening and can take years to truly recover from. But what Vince Wilfork has done in 2014 has been nothing short of awesome considering the circumstances. Perhaps Wilfork's efforts will end up with him securing his first Super Bowl ring since 2004 - his rookie season. The Patriots will need him and his ability to stuff the run badly tomorrow against a rejuvinated Ravens rushing attack led by Justin Forsett and a ferocious interior offensive line.