In 2019, quarterback Ryan Tannehill shook years of rust off and led the Tennessee Titans to their first AFC Championship Game in 17 seasons. Tannehill, who succumbed to injuries and the coaching of Adam Gase with the Miami Dolphins, transformed into a relaxed, aggressive, and efficient passer. He won last year’s Comeback Player of the Year award because of it.
Tannehill was able to rewrite the narrative that already had a predictable ending after six seasons in Miami. Instead of being a rest-of-his-career backup, he became a potent piece of Tennessee’s offense, which continues its success this season at 6-3—tied for first place in the AFC South. There are some other players rewriting their own stories this year and two, in particular, are frontrunners for this year’s Comeback Player of the Year honors: quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Alex Smith.
The two passers’ stories have different, yet similar, plots; as they both work to turn back time, they’re in contrasting scenarios. Roethlisberger is manning the NFL’s only undefeated team, scoring at a higher rate than nearly the entire league and working with one of the most efficient defenses. Smith found himself in the midst of a confusing quarterback situation, a looming rebuild, and a sputtering 2-7 team. Both, however, are coming off impressive performances in Week 10. If Smith would have secured the come-from-behind win against the Detroit Lions, this would probably be a much different story. The narrow 30-27 loss, despite how well Smith played in spurts, makes this award a two-person race with Roethlisberger looking better and better each week.
It’s not just a successful and failing franchise that separates these two. There’s a completely different tone with Roethlisberger. Confidence and consistency are a few of the characteristics of a comeback receipt, and Roethlisberger has both from a personnel and team perspective.
“There was less anxiety, in terms of dealing with him in these circumstances, maybe than some of the other circumstances he and I have been in in the past, where his health was a factor in terms of availability,” head coach Mike Tomlin told the media after Roethlisberger’s performance Sunday. “His health was not a factor, so we had very little reservations about his ability to perform once we got him to the stadium.”
This from a quarterback who could have also walked away. Roethlisberger’s gruesome season-ending elbow injury two weeks into the 2019 season sent a wave of speculation over whether he would return. In Roethlisberger’s mind, he wasn’t done, but as is the case with football’s most important position, it’s what he would do on the field that matters most. No quarterback has come back from an elbow injury this severe. He tore three tendons off the bone, had surgery, and, while he’s not the same passer from his prime, he returned to play some of the best football in the final stages of his career.
Roethlisberger had his best game of the season after a week of no practice due to COVID-19 protocols. He was in isolation for five days after he was deemed as a "high-risk close contact" to tight end Vance McDonald, who tested positive for the coronavirus a week ago. Roethlisberger never tested positive and was able to join the team for a walkthrough Saturday. Prior to that, he threw about 50 balls Friday. It seems the rest did him well as he completed 27-of-46 passes for 333 yards and four touchdowns, which were both season highs. It’s an impressive feat for a quarterback whose throwing elbow was surgically repaired. What’s most impressive is he’s sustained this high-level of play for back-to-back games. He’s been extremely focused after a three-interception performance nearly ended the Steelers’ undefeated streak in Week 7. In the time that’s passed, Roethlisberger hasn’t had a quarterback rating under 101 and has thrown for nine touchdowns and no interceptions. Consistency is one of the biggest factors when naming a comeback player and Roethlisberger has been exactly that for a team that’s unbeaten in the competitive AFC.
However, the fact that Smith is able to even take a step is a miracle, and while watching him is still extremely uncomfortable, he has returned to the NFL as a starting quarterback. In any given season, this feat alone would have been enough for Comeback Player of the Year, but quarterback play has been too good and Smith isn’t there—yet. Like Tannehill, like Roethlisberger, Smith needs to be able to perfectly place a game-changing heave. He wasn’t able to do that Sunday. The Washington Football Team will keep Smith in as a starter and he proved he can be close to the player he once was after throwing for 300-plus yards in consecutive games for the first time in his career.
Both are defying the odds, no matter how their seasons end. With all the talk of awards, postseason implications, pending franchise quarterback decisions, and more, we should be enjoying (or trying to enjoy) the product both quarterbacks are delivering without foreshadowing or making the mistake of finishing their story while it’s still being written.