NFLSport

The most notable NFL comebacks

Nearly a decade removed from his last regular-season game, Tim Tebow is attempting to make a stunning NFL comeback. Tebow making the Jaguars’ roster would complete one of the most unique re-emergences in league history. But several other players have managed to return to the league after a meaningful hiatus. Here are the NFL’s most notable comeback efforts.

 

George Blanda

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Blanda retired after the 1958 season but returned in 1960 to play a whopping 16 more years. The Bears’ starting quarterback for a bit in the mid-1950s, Blanda became dissatisfied with George Halas using him primarily as a kicker and backup by the end of his first run. The QB/kicker re-emerged in 1960, joining the upstart AFL. Given the controls of an offense that included standouts Charley Hennigan, Bill Groman, and Billy Cannon, Blanda led the Oilers to three straight AFL title games and two championships. By the late ’60s, he was back in a kicker role. The Raiders used him as such until 1975 when he was 48. No one can match Blanda’s 27-season run.

 

Rocky Bleier

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A 16th-round pick in 1968, Bleier arrived in Pittsburgh one year before Chuck Noll. But the running back was drafted into service for the Vietnam War, stopping his career 10 games in. Bleier suffered life-threatening leg injuries in Vietnam and was told an NFL return would not happen. Yet, the Steelers maintained support for a comeback. Bleier returned in 1971 but did not make an impact on offense until the mid-’70s. Bleier won four Super Bowls and held a high-profile RB2 gig until he retired after the 1980 season. In 1976, he and Franco Harris became the second teammates to each clear 1,000 rushing yards in a season.

 

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Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski

Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski

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Mike Evans and Chris Godwin combined for three Super Bowl receptions; Tom Brady’s hired guns did the heavier lifting. Gronkowski unretired in April 2020 after the Patriots granted his wish to rejoin Brady for just a fourth-round pick. The WWE talent picked up where he left off, scoring nine touchdowns (two in Super Bowl LV) and collecting a fourth ring. Brown spent 2019 with three teams and saw a sexual assault allegation and a 2020 arrest exile him. But Brady lobbied the Bucs to sign him midway through a suspension. The All-Decade wideout, who lived with Brady last season, contributed in spurts and added a Super Bowl TD grab.

 

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Larry Csonka and Paul Warfield

Larry Csonka and Paul Warfield

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Hall of Famers who helped the Dolphins to three straight Super Bowls in the early 1970s, Csonka, and Warfield stepped away from the NFL for more money in the World Football League. They missed the 1975 season, playing with the Memphis Southmen. The fledgling WFL folded that year, making Csonka and Warfield free agents. Csonka chose the Giants, while Warfield returned to the Browns — his original NFL team. Compensation later went to the Dolphins for both. Csonka spent three unremarkable years in New York during a bad Giants period. Warfield, 34 by 1976, played two seasons back in his home state.

 

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Randall Cunningham

Randall Cunningham

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Burned out after an Eagles tenure that ended with his benching in 1995, Cunningham sat out the ’96 season. Dennis Green lured the former superstar to Minnesota in 1997, doing so on a one-year deal worth just $425,000. That investment changed the NFL record book. Paired with ex-Eagle teammate Cris Carter, Cunningham took over late in the 1997 season and led Minnesota to a wild-card comeback win. Summoned off the bench again in ’98 for an injured Brad Johnson, Cunningham capitalized on Randy Moss’s arrival. More of a pocket passer in ’98, Cunningham led the Vikes to a then-NFL-record 556 points and a 15-1 season.

 

Steve DeBerg

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Although Brady is about to play a non-kicker season at age 44, this has been done. DeBerg retired after the 1993 season, his 16th, and went into coaching. He spent multiple seasons as Dan Reeves’ quarterbacks coach with the Giants, but after a Mark Rypien injury in summer 1998, Reeves convinced DeBerg to suit up again. DeBerg, who played for Reeves with the Broncos in the early ’80s, signed to back up Chris Chandler. He was needed for extensive action in multiple games during Atlanta’s first NFC championship season. Warren Moon (2000) and Vinny Testaverde (2007) later followed DeBerg as age-44 backups.

 

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David Diaz-Infante

David Diaz-Infante

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Tim Tebow aims to join Diaz-Infante by going nine years in between NFL games. Diaz-Infante has the recent minor league outfielder beat for uniform volume. A scab during the 1987 players’ strike, Diaz-Infante did not play a regular-season game again until 1996. In between were training camp cuts and stays in the now-defunct World League of American Football, CFL (the also-defunct Sacramento Gold Miners), and XFL 1.0. The Broncos signed the O-lineman in 1996 and used him as a starting guard in seven games during their Super Bowl-winning ’97 season. He collected a second ring as Denver’s long snapper in 1998 and played until 2001.

 

Bill Dudley

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One of many NFLers to serve in World War II, Dudley made a significant impact upon returning. The NFL rushing champion as a rookie in 1941, the Steelers running back was gone for nearly three full seasons. In his first year back, 1946, Dudley reclaimed the rushing title by gaining 604 in 11 games with Pittsburgh. He went on to play until 1953, making multiple Pro Bowls — with Washington — and doing enough to warrant Hall of Fame entry.

 

Doug Flutie

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Flutie went from Heisman winner to USFL prize to overmatched Jim McMahon Bears replacement. After 11 starts with the Patriots, the undersized QB tried his hand in Canada in 1990. That went well. Flutie won three Grey Cups and six CFL Most Outstanding Player awards. The Bills gave the dual-threat QB another chance in 1998; Flutie rewarded them by leading the remaining Super Bowl-era cogs to two more playoff berths. Despite his ill-fated benching for Rob Johnson ahead of the “Music City Miracle” game, Flutie outlasted his younger teammate/rival by playing six more seasons. He retired, as a Patriot, at 43 in 2006.

 

Josh Gordon

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After authoring one of the all-time great wide receiver seasons — a 1,646-yard rampage in just 14 games — the Browns weapon wound up suspended for 10 games in 2014 and out of the league throughout the 2015 and ’16 seasons. Battling drug issues throughout his career, Gordon worked his way back by the end of the 2017 slate. Fed up with more uncertainty in 2018, the Browns traded Gordon to the Patriots for a fifth-round pick. Though more off-field trouble prevented him from playing in Super Bowl LIII, Gordon (720 yards in 11 New England games) helped the Pats secure another playoff bye and collected a ring.

 

Lou Groza

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While known for his kicking prowess, Groza was one of the NFL’s best tackles in his first AAFC/NFL run. The Ohio native was the Browns’ left tackle starter from 1948-59, but he retired at age 36. That exit did not stick. Owner Art Modell brought Groza back to be Cleveland’s kicker. Groza did double duty in the 1940s and ’50s but focused on his special teams role in the ’60s. He operated as the Browns’ kicker for seven more seasons, helping them to another NFL title — in 1964 — and ending his career as one of the longest-tenured players (21 seasons) in league history.

 

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Richie Incognito

Richie Incognito

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After wearing out his welcome with the Rams, Incognito caught on with the Dolphins in 2011. He landed the team in PR hot water as the ringleader in 2013’s Bullygate scandal, leading the talented guard out of football in 2014. The Bills took a chance on Incognito after his year off, and the veteran blocker helped the team lead the NFL in rushing in 2015 and ’16. Despite three straight Pro Bowls, the Bills moved on. Multiple off-field incidents resulted in Incognito being out of football again in 2018. The Raiders, however, gave him yet another chance. The soon-to-be 38-year-old blocker remains with the team.

 

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Ed “Too Tall” Jones

Ed "Too Tall" Jones

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One of the NFL’s best defensive ends walked away in 1979, doing so at age 28. Jones wanted to try boxing, a sport he enjoyed more than football, and entered the pro ranks as a heavyweight with an 88-inch reach. (For perspective, 6-foot-9 lineal champ Tyson Fury has an 85-inch reach.) The 6-9 Cowboys defender went 6-0 during what became a boxing sabbatical, knocking out five of those opponents. Jones returned to Dallas in 1980 and crafted a memorable second chapter. He made three Pro Bowls and helped the Cowboys remain contenders until the mid-’80s, playing all the way through Jimmy Johnson’s first year in 1989.

 

Yale Lary

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Lary immediately became a starter for a loaded Lions team as a rookie, teaming with Jack Christiansen and Jim David in the secondary to help Detroit win back-to-back championships in his first two seasons. The future Hall of Fame safety, however, missed the 1954 and ’55 seasons due to military service during the Korean War. He returned in 1956 and helped a Lions team missing Bobby Layne to another championship a year later. Lary later played alongside two more Hall of Fame DBs — Dıck “Night Train” Lane and Dıck LeBeau. Lary played nine more seasons after his comeback, finishing his career with 50 INTs.

 

Marshawn Lynch

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As expected, Lynch’s first retirement did not lack originality. The Seahawks Pro Bowler tweeted a pic of hanging cleats during Super Bowl 50 and skipped the 2016 season. He made a memorable return a year later, coming back to play for his hometown Raiders. After a trade for a fifth-round pick, which became cornerback Tre Flowers, Lynch became a revered presence shortly after the Raiders announced they were again leaving Oakland. Lynch played two Raiders seasons, eclipsing 1,000 scrimmage yards in 2017, and helped a ravaged Seahawks backfield by coming back again for Seattle’s final three games in 2019. He appears fully retired now.

 

Tommy Maddox

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The Broncos put Maddox in a tough spot in 1992, drafting him in the first round despite John Elway being just 31 at the time. Maddox started four games for an injured Elway that year but was out of the NFL by 1997. After moving into the insurance field, Maddox played in the XFL in 2001, earning league MVP honors. While NFL options were scarce, the Steelers became the only team to respond to a Maddox fax seeking a tryout. He ended up replacing Kordell Stewart in 2002, winning Comeback Player of the Year acclaim and leading Pittsburgh to a shootout playoff win. Maddox stuck around as a backup through Pittsburgh’s 2005 Super Bowl season.

 

Tony Mandarich

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Known for legendary bust status as a Packers, Mandarich went off the 1989 draft board just before Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas, and Deion Sanders. The muscle-bound tackle lasted just three seasons in Green Bay. Mandarich took four years off and continued to battle substance abuse, but a Colts tryout in 1996 landed him a second chance. This chapter is not discussed as much as his Packers years, but Mandarich started for a playoff-qualifying ’96 Colts team and was their full-time right tackle in 1997. He ended his career as a guard on Peyton Manning’s first Indianapolis squad a year later.

 

Mike McCormack

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A Pro Bowl offensive lineman for the New York Yanks in 1951, McCormack spent the next two years serving in the Korean War. When McCormack returned in 1954, the NFL’s Yanks no longer existed. The Colts ended up acquiring McCormack’s rights, but a 15-player trade sent him to the Browns. McCormack, a future head coach, and GM, spent the next nine seasons in Cleveland, blocking for Otto Graham — on two NFL champion teams — and later Jim Brown en route to five more Pro Bowls and the Hall of Fame.

 

Randy Moss

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Moss’s dreadful 2010 season included him being traded from the Patriots to the Vikings and teaming him with Brett Favre. The union did not last, and the Vikings waived Moss amid a turbulent second Minnesota stint. The Titans claimed him and received just six catches in eight games. Moss initially retired after that season but ended up walking away on better terms two years later. The 49ers signed the once-elite wideout in 2012. At 35, Moss worked as an auxiliary target for Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick, catching 28 passes for 434 yards and two TDs. He added two catches in San Francisco’s Super Bowl XLVII loss.

 

Bronko Nagurski

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On the other end of the NFL’s World War II talent drain, Nagurski ended up receiving another opportunity years after his initial football exit. Out of the NFL since 1937, the Hall of Fame fullback returned to the Bears at age 35. Nagurski played tackle to start his comeback, but in a playoff-clinching season finale against the Chicago Cardinals, the Bears moved him back to his former post. Nagurski gained 84 yards on 16 carries, rushing for a touchdown. This propelled the Bears back to the championship round when Nagurski scored another TD to give the team its third title in four years.

 

Terrelle Pryor

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Pryor’s Raiders highlights are interesting. The former Ohio State quarterback rushed for a 93-yard touchdown — the longest in NFL history by a QB — and gained 576 yards (6.9 per carry) in 11 games in 2013, bridging the gap between Carson Palmer and Derek Carr. By the time Pryor resurfaced in a regular-season game, nearly two full seasons later, he was playing wide receiver. Three teams later, the Browns gave Pryor a surprising opportunity in 2016. He capitalized, amassing 1,007 receiving yards for a 1-15 team. While this ended up being fluky, Pryor pocketed $8 million from Washington in 2017 as a result.

 

John Riggins

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The ex-Jet enjoyed a second life in Washington and entered the 1980 season on the heels of back-to-back 1,000-yard showings. But a contract dispute led to Riggins retiring just before the start of the ’80 slate. The Kansas native spent time in his home state during his year off, with farm work commencing, while Washington went 6-10. Riggins returned to Washington in 1981 and became an essential piece for new coach Joe Gibbs. The outspoken fullback’s dominant 1982 postseason led Washington to its first Super Bowl title; Riggins added a then-record 24 TDs a year later before retiring after the 1985 season.

 

Tobin Rote

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Although Rote put together a dominant performance in the Lions’ 59-14 NFL Championship Game win over the Browns in 1957, Detroit released him after the 1959 season. He ended up in Canada, playing three seasons with the Toronto Argonauts. In 1963, however, a 35-year-old Rote became part of an even more lopsided championship game. The Chargers signed him and coaxed an MVP season from the former scrambler. Rote started in the Bolts’ 51-10 romp over the Patriots in the AFL title game; this marked passing-game forefather Sid Gillman’s lone AFL crown and Rote’s only full season in San Diego. The duo maximized their time together.

 

Deion Sanders

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Sanders left his “NFL Today” gig in the summer of 2004, unretiring to sign with the Ravens. While that team rostered three of the best defenders ever — Sanders, reigning Defensive Player of the Year Ray Lewis, and ’04 DPOY Ed Reed — the iconic cornerback was 37 and had not played in three years. Sanders retired after a 2000 season with Washington, a mess of a Dan Snyder signing spree, but signed a one-year, $1.2 million Baltimore deal. Sanders worked as a part-time corner with two Kyle Boller-limited Ravens teams but added five INTs — one a pick-six on a tipped pass — to his career totals.

 

Aldon Smith

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Smith reappeared out of the blue last year, signing with the Cowboys following a four-plus-year NFL hiatus. The oft-suspended pass rusher saw a midseason ban halt his career in 2015 after the Raiders had signed him, and multiple varieties of off-field trouble ensued during his time away. Unafraid to take chances on checkered-past players, the Cowboys gave Smith $2 million. He immediately became a full-timer, starting in 16 games. Though the Cowboys deployed a pitiful defense, Smith recorded five sacks and returned a fumble for a touchdown. This surprising comeback led to a 2021 Seahawks signing.

 

Michael Vick

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The 2007 dogfighting scandal sent Vick to prison for two years, shutting him down at 27. It was uncertain if the polarizing passer would return to the NFL immediately, but Andy Reid signed off on a two-year, $6.9 million contract in 2009. Vick still backed up Donovan McNabb that year, but the Eagles traded their longtime starter in 2010. Vick did not return to his Falcons arc as a longtime QB1 himself, but he shined in that 2010 season — his fourth Pro Bowl campaign. Vick played well enough the Eagles used their franchise tag on him in 2011. He played until 2015.

 

Reggie White

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White’s second act in Green Bay worked out marvelously for all parties. Despite being 32 when he signed with the Packers, White went 6-for-6 in Pro Bowls and only missed one game with his second NFL team. White walked away in 1999, however, joining Mike Holmgren in leaving the franchise then. The Panthers lured a 39-year-old White out of retirement in 2000. Carolina has a history of receiving quality production from aging rushers, as Kevin Greene and Julius Peppers showed. White tacked on 5.5 sacks to his then-record total, making Bruce Smith play three more years to pass him, and retired again after a 7-9 Panthers season.

 

Doug Williams

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Williams piloted the Buccaneers to the 1979 NFC championship game, but by 1982, he was the NFL’s lowest-paid starting quarterback. Some backups earned more than Williams’ $120,000-per-year salary at the time. A raise request led to an impasse between Williams and then-Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse, and the veteran QB did not play football in 1983. However, Williams trekked to the USFL and played two seasons in the new league. The Bucs sent his rights to Washington in 1986. A year later, the then-32-year-old passer won Super Bowl MVP honors after torching the Broncos for four second-quarter TD passes.

 

Ricky Williams

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Part of the reason Williams was able to play until age 34 stemmed from missing two full seasons for non-injury reasons in the mid-2000s. The former 1999 draft prize abruptly retired just before the 2004 season, bolting from a Dolphins team that had given Williams historic workloads (383 carries in 2002, 392 in ’03) and lacked a viable quarterback. This also came after a marijuana suspension; Williams returned in ’05 but saw a drug ban shelve him for all of ’06. He was not a workhorse upon returning but teamed with Ronnie Brown in Miami — most notably in 2008’s Wildcat unveiling — and did eclipse 1,000 yards in 2009 at age 32. 

 

Barry Word

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Although Word served four months in prison upon coming out of college, the Saints used a third-round pick on the Virginia running back in 1987. He gained just 133 yards in New Orleans and left the team two games into the 1988 season. Seeking time away so early, Word could not get back to the NFL until the 1990 season. But he made an impact on a rising team. Pairing with reigning rushing champ Christian Okoye, Word produced a 1,000-yard season to lead the Chiefs in ground yards. Somehow supplying Okoye-era “Martyball” with more power, the 240-pound Word helped lift the Chiefs back to the playoffs a year later.




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