NFL Injuries: Comeback Players and Early Victims
By Kyle Sorgi, Staff Writer
The NFL has taken on a new identity this year in two main ways: its inaugural 18-week regular season schedule, and the return of several star players from season-ending injuries in 2020. The latter is more impactful towards the level of play because so many of the league’s premier players suffered devastating injuries last season. New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, and Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey headlined a laundry list of the sport’s best players that were stuck off the field in 2020 but now eye strong comeback campaigns.
The NFC East was by far the NFL’s worst division last season, as the Washington Football Team earned a division title and their first playoff berth since 2015 with an uninspiring 7-9 record. Part of the explanation for Washington’s opportunity to win was Saquon Barkley’s torn ACL in Week 2 against the Chicago Bears. He missed the final 14 games of the season and watched his Giants tie for second place in the division with a 6-10 record. The only bright side to Barkley’s injury was the timing: it enabled him to undergo surgery early enough to rest for much of the off-season and play Week 1 against the Denver Broncos. While he only ran for 26 yards on 10 carries, the process of coming back from a torn ACL requires patience in performance and a return to full health. Several questions hover Barkley’s effectiveness because he was incredibly shifty, speedy, and dynamic in his rookie season before the injury, but make no mistake about his drive to reach near-MVP form as soon as he can.
Dak Prescott was the other big reason that the NFC East had one less legitimate contender. An ankle compound fracture/dislocation forced Dallas’ gunslinger to exit their Week
5 contest against the Barkley-less Giants and watch them match the Giants with a 6-10 record. Prescott was arguably the most visibly impactful loss of last season because the Cowboys were a shell of their former selves and desperately missed his leadership and skill set. A bottom-five-ranked defense in points per game allowed also inflated the impact of Dak’s absence, as they went 4-7 without him. His off-season regimen was gradual and cautious; while sitting out all of Dallas’ preseason games, he made it back for Week 1 against Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While the Bucs won the game, Prescott shined with 403 passing yards and three touchdowns in a riveting 31-29 result determined by a last-second field goal. While he will not do this well every week, it served as an indicator of Dallas’ potential with Dak healthy (who can potentially contend for the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year Award).
In the NFC South, the division was run by the New Orleans Saints in Drew Brees’ farewell season. Although, if any storyline was bigger than that or the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl run, it was Christian McCaffrey’s absence from the gridiron. While the Carolina Panthers were never likely to contend for a playoff spot, McCaffrey is undoubtedly the focal point of their offense. He was sidelined by multiple ailments and saw the Panthers win only four out of 13 games without him. Now back, and with new quarterback Sam Darnold, McCaffrey is ready for a bounce-back campaign. He exploded against the New York Jets (Darnold’s former team) in his debut Week 1, converting 30 total touches into 187 all-purpose yards in a 19-14 victory. Right from the jump, McCaffrey reminded all that his injuries from last season were things of the past. Fantasy football managers do not doubt McCaffrey’s abilities, as he was the consensus number one pick in most drafts, and neither does the Stanford man himself as he strives to reassert his status as one of, if not the, best running back in the NFL.
While there were others painful losses throughout 2020, these three were among the most valuable to their teams and situations. But now their returns spell a new look for the NFL as they work to reaffirm their grasp on the game. However, as they take the stage in 2021, the curtain has already been pulled on some other budding stars. The Baltimore Ravens alone lost running backs J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, and Justice Hill, cornerback Marcus Peters, and rookie wide receiver Rashod Bateman to injured reserve (IR) prior to Week 1. These players comprise the 13 Ravens on the IR through Week 1 (five of which were added within a 20-day period). Other notable losses across the league include Jacksonville Jaguars rookie running back Travis Etienne, Minnesota Vikings tight end Irv Smith, Jr, Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas, San Francisco 49ers running back Raheem Mostert, and Washington quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. More names will almost certainly join this list as the season wears on, but hopefully not too many to deter from our enjoyment of watching our favorite players and teams compete for the playoffs and/or Super Bowl.