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Five of the most peculiar comebacks in NFL history

Paul Spinelli / Associated Press
Deion Sanders collected five of his career 53 interceptions with the Ravens.


As if Plaxico Burress' potential return to the NFL after having the unfortunate mishap of shooting himself in the leg at a night club wasn't weird enough, the news came down that Tiki Barber is contemplating a return to the NFL after a four-year hiatus.

The former teammates will be playing for somebody in 2011 -- maybe the Los Angeles Jaguars. But before Barber starts taking handoffs from David Garrard, perhaps he should read Steve Wyche's take on his potentially non-triumphant return.

Either way, it got me thinking about the most unusual comebacks in NFL history. So, without further ado, here are five of the most peculiar returns to the game, starting with a Hall-of-Fame shutdown corner turned 37-year-old nickel back.

5. Deion Sanders

Sanders' return as a nickel back in 2004 was about as rockin' as anything Nickelback has ever done, which is to say not much. Sanders was an excellent player, one of the best to ever play the game irrespective of position, but by 2004 he was in his late 30s and hadn't played football in four years.

In fairness to Sanders, a big reason for his retirement after a one-year stint in Washington was a nagging toe injury that bothered him in his final days in Dallas. After flirting with the Raiders in the early part of the decade, Sanders finally pulled the trigger on a return to the game with the Ravens, who were known for their lock-down defense.

Unfortunately, that Baltimore team was not a playoff-caliber club, and Sanders didn't have the benefit of 4.2 40 speed anymore. To his credit, he did pick off five passes in two seasons with the Ravens and got into the end zone for his 19th career return touchdown.

4. Ricky Williams

Williams' retirement two days before training camp in 2004 shocked everybody: The media, GMs, coaches, and even his own teammates. Was anyone unaware that Williams was a different dude? Of course not. Nothing about his career wasn't strange, from the fact he had an over-the-hill rapper negotiating his contract, to Mike Ditka trading his entire draft to select him with the No. 5 overall pick in the 1999 draft, to his interviews in football gear.

By the time of his "retirement," the NFL's modern-day Earl Campbell was the biggest workhorse in the NFL, carrying the ball a staggering 775 times -- 775! -- over the 2002 and 2003 seasons. Then he shut it down to live out of tents and learn holistic healing. While Campbell presumably never dreamt of Bikram yoga, he probably wouldn't have played a year in the CFL after returning to the NFL, either.

Williams did. First, he re-signed with Miami in 2005, playing part time and without his signature dreads. When he was suspended from the NFL for violating its substance abuse policy (for the fourth time), Williams joined the CFL's Toronto Argonauts and played pretty average football for 11 games. Then he came back again, joining a Dolphins team that sorely needed his services in 2007. To complete the ridiculousness of his story, Williams would go on to gain 1,000 yards in 2009, six years after his last 1,000-yard season. That's an NFL record.

3. Robert Edwards

Williams' teammate for one season had one of the craziest -- and most inspiring -- comebacks ever. Edwards didn't make it this high on the list for being famous. It's doubtful that even 20 percent of fans watching the NFL today even remember him, and that's too bad.

A first-round pick of Pete Carroll's Patriots in 1998, Edwards was a steady runner who accomplished the unenviable task of replacing Curtis Martin in the Patriots' backfield. Despite a so-so offensive line, the rookie out of Georgia rushed for 1,115 yards in his first season. He wasn't rookie of the year, thanks to some dude named Randy Moss, but he was recognized enough to be invited to play in a rookie flag football game in Hawaii with Peyton Manning, among others. That's when all his career goals were crushed.

Edwards landed awkwardly on his knee trying to defend a pass in that exhibition, tearing his ACL, MCL and PCL. There was a very real fear his leg would have to be amputated below the knee, and that he would never walk again. From 1,000 yards to never walking again -- just like that.

But Edwards would not quit on his dream, and after two full years of rehabbing, then getting cut by Bill Belichick in 2001, Edwards made it all the way back with Williams and the Dolphins in 2002. He scored two touchdowns in the season opener against Detroit, completing the most unlikely of comebacks after three years out of pro football. Edwards would only play that one last season in the NFL, but if anything represents perseverance in this world, it's Edwards.

Associated Press
Bronko Nagurski came out of retirement to help lead the Monsters of the Midway to the 1943 NFL championship.

» Watch: Nagurski forced to retire

2. Bronko Nagurski

Edwards could've helped a lot of teams in 1943, when World War II decimated every club's roster as well as gate receipts. Chicago was hit particularly hard: 14 Bears would serve their country in one capacity or another, with George Halas running the team out of a military base in Norman, Okla.

It was then and there that he reached out to the 35-year-old Nagurski, a legendary Bear who had retired six years earlier in a contract dispute. Despite having not played since the 1937 season, the legendary fullback played tackle ably, helping the Bears to a 7-1-1 record. But it was the final game of the regular season that would seal Nagurski's legendary status.

Needing a win over the crosstown Cardinals to make it to their record fourth consecutive championship game, the aging Nagurski stepped into his old spot at fullback.

Trailing 24-14 in the fourth quarter, Chicago handed the ball off to the Hall-of-Fame fullback time after time on a drive that ended with him plowing into the end zone. Then Nagurski scored the go-ahead touchdown on the next possession. All in all, Nagurski gained 84 yards in one quarter, on what essentially amounted to a bunch of fullback dives. The following week, he scored again for a Bears team that won its third championship in four years, leveling the Redskins 41-21. Coming back from five years off to lead a team to the NFL championship ... good stuff.

1. Michael Vick

While a running back from 70 years ago made our list, there's a long list of cool comebacks that didn't.

Steve DeBerg returned from four years of retirement to back up Falcons quarterback Chris Chandler in 1998 -- at 44! Running back Marcus Dupree suited up for the Rams in 1990 after not playing professionally in five years. Jim Brown threatened to resume playing at age 47, saying he could outrun Franco Harris, who was still playing at the time. That's enough to merit mention.

Players we'd like to see return
While Tiki Barber plots his return to the NFL after a four-year hiatus, Adam Rank has six players fans might actually want to see come out of retirement. More ...

» Wyche: Return won't be easy
» La Canfora: A run to darkness
» Hey Tiki, how about the UFL?

Then there is former Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham, who went from laying tile in Las Vegas in 1996 to tossing 34 touchdown passes for the Vikings in 1998. But our most noteworthy comeback belongs to another Eagles passer.

Approve of Vick or not, the man's circuitous path from cheered to hated to prison (for two years), only to come back and play better than ever at age 30, is nothing short of incredible.

What made Vick's 2010 season so unbelievable was how well he threw the ball. A guy who had never completed more than 56 percent of his passes ended up with a 62.6 percent completion rate, not to mention a 100-plus passer rating. Were inmates running digs and fly routes in prison so he could get his timing down?

On top of that, he looked faster this year than in 2009. He's still far from a pocket passer at 30, averaging 6.8 yards per carry this past season despite being out of football for two years. Obviously, the script is still being written on this one, but there's no doubt that Vick's comeback story is the most unusual in league history.

Elliot Harrison is the research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.

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