How Players Win NFL Comeback Player of the Year & How to Bet It

How Players Win NFL Comeback Player of the Year & How to Bet It article feature image

Diamond Images via Getty Images. Pictured: Baker Mayfield

So you want to win NFL Comeback Player of the Year? Great. A few questions:

  • Are you a quarterback? That'll help a lot.
  • Did you have an injury or medical condition that ended your season? Bonus points if it was so severe everyone thought you'd never play again.
  • If you weren't hurt, did you have a bounceback statistical season, and there were no other notable players returning from serious injury? OK, you've got a chance.

Comeback Player of the Year is a narrative-driven award, depending on who is eligible. And there's not really "eligibility." Different sportsbooks list different players, because they don't really know who can win.

Below I'll dive into previous winners, their statistical and narrative profiles, and much more, to help you make better decisions when betting subjective futures like this.

The Definition

The official definition: CPOY is given to the player "who shows perseverance in overcoming adversity, in the form of not being in the NFL the previous year, overcoming a severe injury, or simply a poor performance."

But what defines adversity? And does "overcoming a severe injury" still count if we saw them play at the end of last year?

I have lots of questions.

  • Titans RB Derrick Henry is the CPOY favorite in 2022, but he played in last season's playoffs. Can he still be Comeback Player of the Year when he already came back and we saw that he can still play? Same with Rams RB Cam Akers.
  • Browns QB Deshaun Watson is +1200. But no one's voting for him, right?
  • Cardinals WR Deandre Hopkins is listed at +8000. He's suspended for PEDs to start the year. Can you win after a PED suspension?
  • 49ers QB Trey Lance is +5000. He missed one game. What's he coming back from?

That leads to our definition: "CPOY is (usually) given to the player who missed most of the prior season due to serious injury and returned to form. The player is judged both on the reason he missed last season and performance the following season."

The Previous Winners

Most CPOY winners are coming off season-ending injuries. Since the AP started giving out the award again in 1998, here's how each player won:

  • Injury: 15
  • Bounceback Performance: 5
  • Medical Condition: 3
  • Return to NFL: 2

Many players who won after being injured missed the entire season prior.

Joe Burrow appears to have missed the fewest games to end the previous season (six), but his injury was particularly gruesome and notable since he was the No. 1 overall pick.

The Positions

Does the award gravitate toward a certain position?

This is a quarterback award, unless:

  • Another player had a serious medical condition and returned to action.
  • There was no injured quarterback.

Here's the positional breakdown since 1998:

All three players who won after suffering serious medical conditions were non-quarterbacks.

  • LB Tedy Bruschi (stroke)
  • RB Garrison Heart (avascular necrosis)
  • DB Eric Berry (cancer)

The five players who won only due to improved performance from the year prior were quarterbacks.

When in doubt, it's a quarterback.

The Voting

How does the voting work?

Who votes: A nationwide panel of media votes on the award. The NFL uses the AP's award as its official one, though several other outlets also give it out.

How many votes: Voters pick one player, so there are only 50 total ballots.

When do they vote? End of the regular season.

Any voting biases? There doesn't appear to be a bias toward high-profile teams — Dak Prescott missed more games in 2020 than Joe Burrow, put up better numbers in 2021, yet finished second to Burrow.

How many players get votes? It depends on the year. When there's not an obvious return-from-injury candidate, the voting can get pretty spread out.

When Phillip Rivers won in 2013 with a bounceback statistical season and no injury, 12 different players got votes. Rivers won with just 13/50 votes.

When Alex Smith won after nearly losing his leg, he got 49/50 votes.

The Narrative

Does a player need some "positive narrative" in their favor to win?

Yes. 100%.

Players who win this award typically have a major obstacle to overcome, then bring their team back to the playoffs, or at least improve.

It's almost always a feel-good story.

I won't pretend I've diligently followed this award for 25 years, but the only winner who would've gotten blowback was Michael Vick, two years after he was released from prison for his involvement in a dogfighting ring.

That's why it's impossible to imagine Deshaun Watson winning CPOY in 2022, because voters won't want to back him after sexual assault allegations. He was the second favorite (+500) at DraftKings in May, but has since dropped to +1200, the seventh betting choice.

The Stats

What kinds of stats do voters care about?

Stats sort of matter here. There seems to be a ratio of severity of injury/illness to performance.

1) If your injury/illness was so serious that everyone is shocked you even played football again, your stats don't need to be quite as impressive.

That's the 2020 Alex Smith or 2015 Eric Berry: After a horrific leg injury in 2018, Smith started the final six games for Washington in 2020 and went 5-1 to win the division at 7-9. He might have won even if they went 0-6. Berry was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2014 and played well in 2015. Defensive players don't usually win, but his reason for missing time was so serious it didn't matter.

2) If you had a more common injury like an ACL tear, you likely need to be a top player at your position.

That's the 2016 Jordy Nelson or 2017 Keenan Allen: The player had a great year, but nothing earth-shattering. Allen tore his ACL in the 2016 opener. He posted career-highs in catches and yards in 2017. Both were top-5 among receivers.

Nelson got hurt in the preseason and missed all of 2015, then tied for first in receiving touchdowns and was fourth in yards the next season.

The Team

Does the winner have to play for a good team?

CPOY winners mostly play for teams that improved over the previous year.

The only recent CPOY winner with a losing record was Smith, whose injury was so horrific he probably just needed to get back on the field. And even though Washington went 7-9, it won the NFC East.

The 2022 Candidates

Like I touched on at the top, it's a weird award. We don't really have clear criteria. It's narrative driven and often goes to a previously-injured quarterback, but it depends on how bad the injury was.

It's not an award I'm really interested in betting right now, considering the prices and hold. DraftKings has a massive 41% hold on this market, because it's so difficult to price.

In 2022, the field could be wide open because there are only two injured quarterbacks returning.

  • Jameis Winston returns to a Saints team that was awful on offense without him, and he should be a favorite.
  • Daniel Jones did miss the last six games, but the Giants were so bad I'm not sure most voters will remember that. He also didn't have a clear season-ending injury — he was questionable for several weeks before being ruled out.
  • None of the other players suffered what we'd consider a "he-may-never-play-again" injury or medical condition like Alex Smith, Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck.
  • Some of the favorites already came back in the playoffs, like Derrick Henry and Cam Akers.
  • Three of the top nine choices at FanDuel were not injured, and have just been bad-to-average quarterbacks.
  • Deshaun Watson won't have the feel-good narrative going for him, and he's one of the favorites.
  • By my count, there's no one coming back from a serious medical condition.

Players to Watch

This award has primarily gone to favorites, though we only have odds history for a few years.

  • Jameis Winston and Michael Thomas stand out among the favorites, though Thomas still isn't working out. Both are coming off injuries (Thomas missed most of the past two years), the Saints offense was awful last year once Winston went down, and they have a new coach. So the narrative is there if these two can lead New Orleans back to the postseason.
  • There are two quarterbacks who fit the "he was bad but if he's good, he could win" narrative. That's Mitch Trubisky and Baker Mayfield, who have a strong narrative — their teams gave up on them, and they're seeking redemption.
  • Though running backs don't win often, Christian McCaffrey and J.K. Dobbins are poised for big years if they can stay healthy. CMC playing almost every game and returning to elite form could be enough to win — it's very similar to Jordy Nelson in 2016.
  • I could see voters falling in love with J.J. Watt or Khalil Mack (now with the Chargers) because they're big names and can rack up sacks, the only defensive stat voters seem to care about in most awards. They're both north of +4000.

The three things to look for:

  • Was the player injured?
  • Is the player a quarterback?
  • Is there some narrative that voters can sink into — like Winston helping the Saints terrible offense improve, Mayfield/Trubisky getting redemption, or someone like Allen Robinson finally getting away from the Bears offense?

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