Coach, play­ers rally all sea­son

Man­ning, Peter­son, Pagano make 2012 a year to re­mem­ber.

Austin American-Statesman - - NFL - By Arnie Sta­ple­ton

DEN­VER — From Pey­ton Man­ning over­com­ing four neck surg­eries to Adrian Peter­son’s re­bound from a shred­ded knee to Chuck Pagano’s fight with leukemia, this has been the Year of the Come­back in the NFL.

A sea­son be­smirched by tragedies, re­place­ment of­fi­cials and a bounty scan­dal also will go down as one in which some of the game’s greats not only re­gained their old form but some­how sur­passed it.

There are al­ways feel­good sto­ries about those who over­come long odds and bro­ken bod­ies to re­gain at least a sliver of their past glory. This sea­son pro­vided an abun­dance of them.

When the sea­son started, who could have ex­pected Man­ning to re­cap­ture his MVP play so quickly with a new team? Or for Peter­son to come back less than nine months af­ter shred­ding his left knee. Or for Ja­maal Charles to re­turn bet­ter than ever af­ter suf­fer­ing a sim­i­lar in­jury.

Then there’s Pagano beat­ing the big­gest op­po­nent of his life.

A year ago, Man­ning was in the midst of four neck op­er­a­tions to fix a nerve in­jury that had caused his right arm to at­ro­phy and had side­lined him for an en­tire sea­son. Soon, he would say a tear­ful farewell to Indianapolis, a city he’d put back on the NFL map, and hook up with John El­way in Den­ver.

Peter­son’s left knee was still swollen af­ter he’d shred­ded it on Christ­mas Eve, an in­jury sim­i­lar to the one Charles suf­fered ear­lier last sea­son. Yet both would defy medicine and con­ven­tional wis­dom alike to re­bound as bet­ter run­ners than they were be­fore get­ting hurt.

Pagano’s fight started three months ago when it was dis­closed he had can­cer, forc­ing the first-year Colts coach to take time off for chemo­ther­apy treat­ments. He re­turned to work this week, tak­ing the reins from as­sis­tant Bruce Ari­ans, who guided the team to a sur­pris­ing play­off berth in his ab­sence.

“When I asked for Bruce to take over, I asked for him to kick some youknow-what and to do great. Damn Bruce, you had to go and win nine games?” Pagano said. “Tough act to fol­low.”

If all goes well at prac­tice this week, Pagano will be on the side­line for the reg­u­lar-sea­son fi­nale against Hous­ton. That’s a fi­nal tuneup for the AFC wild-card play­offs that no­body saw coming for the Colts so soon af­ter cut­ting ties with Man­ning, who switched teams, coaches, cities and col­ors and didn’t miss a beat in 2012.

De­spite a new sup­port­ing cast and a 36year-old body he in­sists con­tin­ues to con­found him, the quintessen­tial quar­ter­back has had one of the best sea­sons in his sto­ried ca­reer. Man­ning set fran­chise or NFL records just about ev­ery week while com­plet­ing 68 per­cent of his passes for 4,355 yards with 34 TDs and just 11 in­ter­cep­tions.

And yet, he in­sists he’s not any­thing close to what he used to be.

“If he’s lost any­thing, I can’t see it,” said Broncos re­ceiver Bran­don Stok­ley. “I’m sure in some ways he’s bet­ter than he ever was. And he’s al­ways been great.”

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