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Friday, October 22, 2010
Have at It: Comparing comebacks

By Kevin Seifert

In many ways, "Have at It" this week was about personal values. What's more important when it comes to gauging a player's comeback? Current level of play? The gap between pre- and post-comeback performance? Importance to the team? The severity of injury?

Your opinion on those questions largely drove our debate on the comebacks of two NFC North middle linebackers, Brian Urlacher (Chicago Bears) and E.J. Henderson (Minnesota Vikings).

Urlacher has returned after dislocating his right wrist in Sept. 2009. Henderson fractured his left femur in a gruesome December collision, and original projections called for 9-12 months of rehabilitation. With a titanium rod providing permanent stability in his leg, Henderson was back on the field during a June minicamp and was cleared for full practice by the end of July.

E.J. Henderson
Linebacker E.J. Henderson, who suffered a fractured femur in December, is a force again for Minnesota.
Regardless of its speed, Kirbyster197123 called Henderson's return "nothing short of a miracle." Gabehart1979 was among those who used the severity-of-injury argument: "Henderson is coming back from a horrific break in his leg. His recovery was phenomenal in and of itself. The fact that he's putting up these numbers, let alone playing, is very impressive."

While that may be true, several of you wrote the Bears' defensive improvement this season puts Urlacher's impact in greater relief than Henderson's. Wrote JBiu14:
"E.J. Henderson's injury was more gruesome than Urlacher's. Both of their numbers are similar. However, Urlacher means everything to the Bears. With the Vikes you could argue that Adrian Peterson, Randy Moss [and] Jared Allen all play bigger roles than Henderson. For Chicago to be a playoff team, Urlacher needs to be dominant.

"The Tampa-2 scheme requires a very, very special talent at middle line backer and without that piece in place, the defense is a mess. Last year the defense gave up 40+ points to the Bengals and Cardinals. When was the last time the Bears gave up more than 40 points in a game, let alone twice? Their defense had never played so poorly during the Urlacher/Lovie Smith era.

"The Icing on the Cake: Urlacher had more pressure. He has been the face of the franchise for the last ten years. Chicago fans and the media clings to star linebackers the way most other teams cling to star quarterbacks and wide receivers."

Urlacher appeared on the downside of his career pre-injury, wrote Realfootballisplayedongrass, but is now "flying around the field and making big plays in every game."

Added LambeauOrWrigley: "Stats-wise Henderson is winning this battle so far but make no mistake about it, based off what I have seen, the Bears minus Urlacher are toothless in the front while Vikings minus Henderson are still sound. For his respective team, Urlacher is a greater value by far. Add to that, Urlacher is simply a man possessed. I expected him to slow down but he tracks down everyone and has come back to be the tackling machine."

But those details, wrote daviddonze, shouldn't cloud the bigger picture. Henderson's path to playing at a high level was much more difficult than Urlacher's: "That was the kind of injury that would make many not even think about coming back, and he not only recovered, but came back just as strong. Hands down Henderson."

My take? This was a difficult question because we have two players who have returned from serious injuries to play at a high level. You hate to devalue what either has done.

But here's why I'm going with Henderson. About six weeks after the injury, I saw Henderson riding a scooter to the center of the Vikings' indoor practice field so he could participate in the post-workout call-up. It was the kind of scooter you see provided by grocery stores for the elderly or disabled.

As the thing puttered along, I looked at Henderson's face. He didn't appear embarrassed or depressed. He looked angry. And it's clear he channeled that anger to re-write the book on recovering from a fractured femur. When I saw him grab the second of his two interceptions last Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys, I thought about him getting around in a scooter just 10 months ago.

Please don't construe this as a slight of Urlacher. He's playing his best football in years. But I don't think his journey to this point can surpass Henderson's.