It's an award that any NFL player would be proud of, but none would choose to endure.
Comeback player of the year.
The field is especially crowded this season, with an inordinate number of standout players returning from season-ending injuries, the type of infirmities that in another era would have terminated a career.
There's Peyton Manning, of course, the Denver Broncos quarterback who sat out his final season with the Indianapolis Colts and underwent four neck procedures. Five of the last six players to receive the award were quarterbacks — Chad Pennington (twice), Tom Brady, Michael Vick and Matthew Stafford.
But just as impressive is the unbelievably quick return of Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson, who, in a game last Christmas Eve, suffered torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his knee. Eleven months later, he leads the NFL with 1,236 yards rushing — 172 more than second-place Arian Foster of Houston.
Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs, last season's defensive player of the year, went down because of a partially torn Achilles' tendon while playing a basketball game in late April. Another player might have needed a full year to recover. Suggs was back by mid-October, and seven plays into his return he sacked Houston's Matt Schaub.
"We right now have a collection of some of the NFL's best ever who are coming back from potentially career-ending injuries," said sports surgeon Neal ElAttrache, who four years ago rebuilt the shredded knee of New England's Brady. "People know their names. If we go down the roster of guys who have gotten injured, we're going to find a lot of guys that were injured at the same time as these guys, were operated on at the same time as these guys, that are not at the level that these guys are and are not coming back as quickly."
Kansas City's Jamaal Charles, coming off a serious knee injury, is ranked eighth in rushing. Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis has broken new ground by becoming the first player to return from three ACL reconstructions on the same knee.
Another high-profile comeback is in the pipeline. Baltimore's Ray Lewis, a future Hall of Fame member, reportedly could be ready to return from a torn triceps in mid-December when the Ravens play Manning and the Broncos. Lewis, 37, was injured in a Week 6 win over Dallas, and has spent most of his time since rehabbing in Florida. Initially expected to miss the rest of the season, Lewis began working out at the team's facility this week.
"If he gets out to practice, it would be pretty amazing," Ravens running back Ray Rice told reporters this week. "The guy, to me, is my modern-day Superman. … Why is he coming back? People ask that question all the time. He's coming back because he firmly believes that this is a team that can go ahead and do it. He does it for us. He's not doing it for the stats. He's not doing it for the fame. He's doing it solely because he loves the Ravens, he loves his teammates [and] he loves this organization."
ElAttrache, of the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles, said there are many reasons why elite athletes are able to make such rapid recoveries from devastating injuries, and not all of them have to do with ever-improving surgical and rehabilitation techniques.
"What we've seen when we're looking at these studies in the NFL is that All-Pros come back more predictably and quicker than other players," he said. "One of the reasons you can't overlook is the sport is willing to wait for an All-Pro to come back.
"Look at Peyton Manning's injury. You're not going to get the teams taking a chance or waiting for that kind of recovery on a bubble quarterback. So a guy who had the same injury as Peyton Manning might not have had the chance to show what he could do coming back."
The fact that a player is elite in the first place, ElAttrache said, speaks to his physical abilities — which include healing quickly — as well as his focus and determination to get back up to speed.
Any time an NFL player recovers far more quickly than the norm, the situation raises a red flag: Were performance-enhancing drugs involved? Did he skirt the rules to get back on the field quicker?
"Knowing the way that testing is currently performed, I don't believe any of these cases are performance-enhanced," said ElAttrache, a member of the NFL Physicians Society. "It would have to be wide-ranging conspiracy for [the players] to feel that they could get away with it."
Peterson's case is so remarkable it almost defies explanation. That he was able to return for this season was impressive but not unheard of (the typical recovery period for that type of knee reconstruction is six to nine months). But it's the level to which he has returned that has experts rubbing their eyes.
"Statistically, he should not be up to 80% to 90% of his peak performance until at least his second season back," ElAttrache said. "What we would not have expected is that he would be vying for one of the best years of his career."
Dr. James Andrews performed the surgery on Peterson, then referred him to Russ Paine, a physical therapist in Houston who has worked with professional athletes for decades.
"To come back at the professional level and be a skill player — pivot, cut, twist with confidence — is very special," Paine said. "When you get hurt, you're either better than you were, or worse than you were. You're never the same.