Comeback Player of the Year is the award that I feel has the vaguest definition because it depends on your definition of comeback. Guys like Aaron Rodgers, Julio Jones, Randall Cobb, Harrison Smith, and Von Miller missed significant time last season (7 games, 11 games, 10 games, 8 games, and 7 games respectively) and were among the best at their respective positions this season, but I think one player fits the definition of the word comeback to a tee and that’s New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
While the aforementioned quintet came back from significant injuries, broken collarbones, torn ACLs, broken legs, serious foot injuries, etc, Rob Gronkowski came back from injuries to pretty much every part of his body. Not only did he return from a December 2013 ACL tear, but when he had January 2014 surgery on that knee, it was his 7th surgery since November 2012, including 5 on a twice broken arm, and one on his back. When Gronk was limited to 7 games in 2013, only 3 of those 9 missed games were because of the torn ACL, as he missed 6 games to start the season with arm and back problems. Throw in a significant high ankle sprain that limited him severely in the Super Bowl after the 2011 season and the fact that his back problems dated back to his days in college, when he missed an entire season with a back injury, and you had a guy that, even only going into his age 25 season, looked like damaged goods and someone who might never be the same again.
Instead, Gronk was Pro Football Focus’ best tight end by a wide margin. He finished 15th in the NFL in receiving yards and had 116 more yards than Greg Olsen, who was 2nd among tight ends in receiving yards this season. That was despite the fact that he wasn’t 100% to start the season, catching just 13 passes for 147 yards and 3 touchdowns in the first 4 games of the season, and despite the fact that he didn’t play in a meaningless week 17 game for precautionary reasons. That means that Gronk had an 11 game stretch in which he caught 69 passes for 977 yards and 9 touchdowns. The Patriots moved the chains at an 80.87% rate in those 11 games (and went 10-1), as opposed to 65.47% in their other 5 games (2-3).
Gronk made it through the whole season injury free and was nothing less than he’s always been, which is possibly the most valuable offensive skill position player in the NFL (excluding quarterbacks). He’s caught 294 passes for 4231 yards and 49 touchdowns in his last 57 games and he averages 2.41 yards per route run in his 5 year career. For comparison, Jimmy Graham averages just 2.08 yards per route run over that same time period and Gronkowski is a significantly better blocker.
In games where Gronk plays over the past 4 years (since Gronk’s 2011 breakout year), Tom Brady completes 65.1% of his passes for an average of 7.80 YPA, 114 touchdowns, and 33 interceptions, including playoffs. When he doesn’t over the past 4 years, Brady completes 58.1% of his passes for an average of 6.84 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. That’s a significant dropoff in production and there’s enough sample size on both sides to confidently attribute a lot of the difference in Brady’s production to the big tight end. After all he went through injury wise, the future is still as bright as it’s ever been for Gronkowski, which is the definition of a comeback.