Plenty of aging veterans are proving skeptics wrong

Too old. Too hurt. Too little to offer.

Such labels are easy to slap on NFL players, so media and fans do it constantly.

Terrell Owens? At 36, he won't make a noticeable impact at receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals.

Brian Urlacher? At 32 and returning from a season in which he missed all but half a game with a wrist injury, he won't be the dominant middle linebacker he once was for the Chicago Bears.

LaDainian Tomlinson? At 31, he won't amount to much more than a third-down back who sees limited action for the New York Jets.

Yep, that's what a lot of us said ... and then the season began.

Owens, Urlacher, Tomlinson, and several other players for whom expectations were low have been writing impressive comeback stories so far.

What do they all have in common?

Wide receiver Mark Clayton, who has surprised numerous observers around the league by catching a team-high 22 passes after the Baltimore Ravens practically gave him to the St. Louis Rams in a trade less than a week before the beginning of the season, said it is all about holding themselves to an even higher standard than media and fans do.

"Truly, within the guys, we are our biggest critics," said Clayton, a sixth-year veteran whom the Ravens dealt for late-round considerations after acquiring T.J. Houshmandzadeh. "(Media and fans) are tough and can be tough. But trust me, we are bigger critics of ourselves than you think."

Consequently, they are driven to make their doubters look foolish. And Clayton steadily gained them as his production steadily fell after he caught a career-high 67 passes for 939 yards and five touchdowns in 2006, his second year in the league. He had 48 receptions in 2007, 41 in 2008, and a paltry 34 last season.

Michael Vick might be the best-known comeback player through the first quarter of the season for snatching the Philadelphia Eagles' starting quarterback job from Kevin Kolb after replacing him halfway through the season-opener against Green Bay. Two years in prison, followed by a season at the bottom of the Eagles' quarterback depth chart in 2009, gave Vick one of the longest and hardest paths to follow to redemption.

But Vick, who has since suffered a rib cartilage injury that has put him back on the sidelines, is far from the only player who has told the rest of the NFL, "I'm back, so deal with it."

In four games, Owens has 24 receptions, including 10 for 222 yards and a touchdown against the Cleveland Browns last week. The 10 catches were the second-highest total of his 15-year career, and it marked the third time he has surpassed 200 yards. Not bad for someone who has struggled to a find a team that would sign him in each of the last two years.

Urlacher is having one of the best of his 11 NFL seasons. Through four games, he has been credited with 30 tackles, including a sack, and has a forced fumble. Quarterback Jay Cutler might be getting pounded by opposing pass-rushers, but Urlacher and the rest of the defense have done their part to put the Bears in a first-place tie in the NFC North at 3-1.

"I've coached him since 2004, and he's playing as well as he's ever played for these first four games," Bears linebackers coach Bob Babich said. "His speed is there. He's playing extremely physical. He's playing downhill."

Urlacher's wrist has healed, and the rest of his body had a chance to do the same after nearly a full season of inactivity. As usual, he spent the bulk of the offseason working out at the team facility and is in top condition. Urlacher also has never been sharper when it comes to knowing his assignments, relaying defensive calls, and making adjustments when necessary according to the offense's formation or whether it is motioning.

"He's playing extremely fast mentally, which allows him to play fast physically," Babich said. "It's exciting. To enjoy one of his best seasons at age 32 is really unbelievable. Absolutely the last thing on my mind is when he'll be done (playing)."

Tomlinson, who was thought to be washed up after getting bounced from San Diego, has looked every bit like the player he was in establishing himself as one of the best running backs in league history with the Chargers. He has, in fact, been the Jets' best running back and a key reason they are 3-1 and looking like they might very well back up coach Rex Ryan's prediction of a Super Bowl victory.

In three games, 32-year-old Thomas Jones, whom the Jets released to effectively make room for Tomlinson, has rushed for 217 yards on 52 carries for the Kansas City Chiefs. The 11th-year veteran was the Jets' leading rusher last season, but a poor showing in the playoffs made him expendable. Now, he is forming a strong duo with Jamaal Charles, who leads the Chiefs with 238 yards on the ground.

At 30 and entering his eighth year in the league, Anquan Boldin had apparently outlived his usefulness for the pass-happy Arizona Cardinals. The rap on him was that he might be losing a step and was prone to injuries. So during the offseason, the Cardinals traded him, along with a fifth-round pick, to the Ravens for third- and fourth-round choices. Boldin has responded by leading the Ravens with 27 receptions for 355 yards and three touchdowns, all of which came in a Week 3 victory against Cleveland.

Remember that bad hip that was bothering 28-year-old New York Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora entering this, his eighth season, in the league? It still bothers him. He also has not one, but two, bad knees. But last Sunday, Umenyiora pushed through the pain and was part of the feeding frenzy the Giants' defense had against Cutler, registering three of the unit's first-half sacks before the quarterback suffered a concussion.

Babich could have been speaking for the entire group of comeback players when, in reference to Urlacher, he said: "He's extremely competitive. He wants to win at everything he does, and I think that's what drives him."

» Follow me on Twitter @viccarucci

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