Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson was named the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year at the annual honors event in Houston on Saturday night.
Nelson, 31, returned from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee that cost him the entire 2015 season to play 1,080 snaps and turn in a statistical performance among the best in the league. He finished with 97 catches for 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns during the regular season.
Nelson was the overwhelming choice, receiving 36 votes in the Associated Press' balloting of a nationwide media panel. Miami Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake was second with 11 votes, Baltimore Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta was third with 2 and Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell received 1 vote.
Nelson is the first Packer to win the award and only the second wide receiver. Carolina’s Steve Smith was a co-winner in 2005.
"This is an extremely great honor to be up here in front of all these great players, present and former guys," Nelson said in accepting the award. "First I want to thank our athletic trainers with the Packers, Nate (Weir) and (Bryan) Flea (Engel). The last two years they’ve done a lot of work to get me on the field and keep me on the field.
"To be able to be out there again this year and play in all 16 games was an honor and you realize how much you miss it when you miss a whole season. My wife, my two boys who are back home, thanks for being patient. These last two years I probably spent about three or four months on crutches. That’s not great when you have a 7-year-old, but they’ll understand."
With coach Mike McCarthy and the medical staff holding him out of all four exhibition games, Nelson began the year slowly as he reacquainted himself with both the game and his quarterback, Aaron Rodgers. Though his speed and explosiveness waned, Nelson remained an extremely effective red-zone target whose precise route running and overall intelligence frustrated defenders, especially against zone coverage.
As the year went on, Nelson spent more and more time in the slot, a position he is likely to occupy at an increasing rate for the remainder of his career. Rodgers, who connected with Nelson on 35% of his touchdown throws during the regular season, was happy to reap the rewards of Nelson’s short-yardage prowess in tight spaces and clutch situations.
Nelson finished the regular season first in the NFL in touchdown catches, fifth in receptions and sixth in receiving yards.
But what might have been a magical season for the Packers began to dampen as Nelson doubled over in pain during the wild-card playoff victory over the New York Giants. Nelson, who had jumped to catch a pass along the sideline, absorbed a strong hit by safety Leon Hall, whose helmet, hands and shoulder crashed into the receiver’s ribs.
Nelson was diagnosed with multiple broken ribs and missed the thrilling win in Dallas. He returned for the NFC championship game with thick padding around his midsection and, somewhat remarkably, played nearly every meaningful snap. He caught six passes for 67 yards against the Atlanta Falcons and scored a touchdown on a short slant from Rodgers.
Nelson refused to discuss his level of pain with reporters after the game and did not believe the damaged ribs influenced his performance.
“That’s Jordy Nelson, man, he’s a fighter,” defensive back Micah Hyde said the morning after the season ended. “Obviously (you) saw him all last season, not being able to play. You could see how much that hurt him. Not being able to participate with his teammates, with his brothers out there. He was going to be out there regardless.
“Throughout all the talk all week how Jordy might not go — everybody in this locker room knew he was going. That’s just the type of person he is, the type of player he is. He’s going to give his all for this football team. He’s definitely not the only one who would have did that. There’s a lot of guys in the locker room that put team first. I’m thankful that I got to play with him for the last four years.”
Nelson remains under contract through the 2018 season. He would be 34 years old by the start of the following year.