Rolando McClain Robbed of Comeback Player of the Year Award


On Saturday night, the NFL announced New England tight end Rob Gronkowski as the winner of the Associated Press Comeback Player of the Year award. But the results only proved that the voting criteria is more like a popularity contest then an actual assessment of what a comeback actually is.

For me, there was only one real comeback player of 2014. And that was Dallas Cowboys’ linebacker Rolando McClain.

First off, let me say I don’t want to take anything from Gronkowski and the terrific season he had in 2014. Recording 82 receptions for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns is nothing to scoff at. And certainly, performance should be taken into account when voting for this award.

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But shouldn’t the voting criteria also consider the context in which the player returns? Gronk was playing at this very same level for the first three seasons of his career, recording 187 catches, 2,663 yards and a whopping 38 scores in that timespan. Injuries, like they do with most NFL players, hindered his play last season.

In 2013, following back and four forearm surgeries, Gronkowski returned to the Pats in late October. But just two months later, the All-Pro tight end tore his ACL and MCL, ending his season prematurely. He still managed to record 39 receptions for 592 yards and four touchdowns in that time.

So, for basically playing 15 games this season, Gronk was granted 27 of the 50 votes required for him to win the Comeback Player of the Year award. But was his comeback story really better than McClain’s?

First, you must realize McClain was considered a draft bust prior to joining the Cowboys. After three rocky seasons with the Oakland Raiders, Rolando essentially retired at the age of 24.

McClain returned to the University of Alabama, missing the entire 2013 NFL season in the process. After a halfhearted attempt to return in the summer of 2014 as a member of the Baltimore Ravens, McClain retired for a second time.

In desperate need of a middle linebacker due to the season-ending knee injury suffered by Sean Lee, the Cowboys contacted McClain about a possible return. In fact, owner and general manager called Rolando personally to gauge his interest.

McClain was excited by the prospect and soon the Cowboys had made a trade for the linebacker’s services. Still, no one could have anticipated how well McClain would play upon his return.

Despite not having played in a professional game since November 25, 2012, the now 25-year old linebacker recorded 81 total tackles, two interceptions and 1.0 sack in 13 games for the Cowboys.

McClain’s play was instrumental in resurrecting a Dallas defense that had been ranked dead last the season prior. Behind his solid presence in the middle, the Cowboys would go undefeated on the road, end the regular season with a 12-4 record and get their first postseason win since 2009.

Initially the favorite to receive the award earlier in the year, McClain was slowed by nagging injuries in the later half of the season. Not a real surprise for a player nearly two years removed from the grind of the sport.

Regardless, Pro Football Focus still ranked McClain as the 8th best inside linebacker in the NFL at seasons’ end. For a player to be out of the NFL as long as Rolando was, and then return only to become the eighth best player at his position in the NFL is nearly unheard of.

Not only that, but McClain’s presence really helped to save the Cowboys’ season in the absence of their defensive leader in Lee.

Despite those accomplishments, McClain received only seven measly votes for the Comeback Player of the Year award. Seriously?

Gronkowski came back from injury to return playing at the same level as he had established in years’ before.

McClain, on the otherhand, came out of early retirement after spending nearly two years away from football only to return to dominate his position.

For me, that makes Rolando the real Comeback Player of the Year.

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