Reggie Bush only needed a one-word endorsement to convince me that his comeback bid could be successful.
Bush caught a screen pass from Tyrod Taylor during a Buffalo Bills full-squad drill on Monday, weaved through the first-team defense and then burst along the sideline. "Damn!" shouted one of the linebackers in pursuit, pronouncing the word in two long syllables as he whiffed on the 31-year-old running back, who is returning from a season-ending MCL injury in 2015.
Bills defenders chase LeSean McCoy all the time, so a quick cut shouldn’t catch them off guard. Bush obviously still has some niftiness in him.
Bush won’t recapture the success of 2011 through 2013 this year. He won’t have the breakout season we have been waiting on since The Da Vinci Code was in theaters. His primary role will be as a kick and punt returner. But the Bills offensive line helped guys named Karlos Williams and Mike Gillislee combine for 5.6 yards per carry in relief of Shady last year. Bush could rack up a lot of yardage in a changeup role.
We must tread carefully when predicting comebacks, especially on the eve of the first round of preseason games. Many returning veterans will face their first full-contact action in months this weekend; others could be held out until the regular season begins.
There can be slow recoveries, minor setbacks that become major or changing circumstances that turn a former superstar into a role player. A fully healthy veteran can discover he suddenly has nothing left in the tank. A guy we all gave up on, like Bush, can suddenly leave defenders tackling shadows and cussing.
That said, here are my impressions and predictions for veterans who are on the comeback trail this year.
Le’Veon Bell: Bell took a lot of handoffs with Pittsburgh's first team during joint practices with the Detroit Lions this week. He was cutting quickly and with confidence. Fans oohed and aahed at Bell’s first few carries, then started shouting, "Get him off the field!" when shoulder pads really started popping.
Bell is coming off a right knee injury that ended his 2015 campaign, and faces a four-game suspension to start the season for missing "several" drug tests, according to NFL Media Insider Ian Rapaport. The running back should be at full speed when he returns though.
Kelvin Benjamin: Benjamin sounded like he was ready to play again when I spoke to him during Super Bowl week. He probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference if he did somehow suit up in the Super Bowl.
Benjamin’s eagerness aside, Ron Rivera has carefully limited his work during the offseason and is expected to only give him a cameo in Thursday night’s preseason opener against the Baltimore Ravens, per the Charlotte Observer's Joseph Person.
While Benjamin was away, his quarterback became MVP and the Carolina Panthers became one of the best teams in the NFL. Yet they kept his seat warm as the go-to receiver. Combine Cam Newton’s development with a more experienced Benjamin, and we could be looking at a leap into Antonio Brown-DeAndre Hopkins territory this season.
Jamaal Charles: The 29-year-old Charles is still on the PUP list while recovering from last year’s ACL tear. There is no timetable for his return. The Chiefs got solid play from Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware in Charles’ absence, and Knile Davis has been effective in the past. Read the writing on the wall. Andy Reid might try to craft a 10-carry, five-catch role for Charles the way he did for Brian Westbrook late in his career. But the 1,000-yard seasons are over for Charles.
Victor Cruz: Cruz was healthy and participating fully in practices when I visited the New York Giants last week. Then I wrote about his good health and, WHAM, his groin started bothering him. Cruz told reporters it was not a big deal. Unfortunately, Cruz’s injuries always start as no big deal then last for months.
Assuming the aches and pains don’t derail him, Cruz still does not look like the same player we saw from 2011 to 2013. The 29-year-old receiver has not flashed the deep speed and separation ability he once had. But Cruz remains a master slot technician, and with Odell Beckham Jr. around, he should be able to settle into an Anquan Boldin-type role, catching eight-yard passes on 3rd-and-7 while Beckham provides the pyrotechnics.
Joe Flacco: Flacco has not missed any first-team reps in training camp while recovering from an ACL tear, though coach John Harbaugh told reporters Flacco's not expected to play in Thursday night's preseason opener. Mobility isn’t exactly a big part of Flacco’s game, so it won’t matter much that he now needs to rely on plate tectonics at his back to provide that extra burst.
Flacco should have no problem returning to his previous form. You probably have strong opinions about Flacco’s "previous form," and nothing I write in a sentence or two is likely to change them.
Arian Foster: Foster is listed behind Jay Ajayi on the Miami Dolphins depth chart right now. Don’t read too much into that. Those depth charts are often assembled by the interns in the public relations department; I think one team listed a unicorn as a starting "Sam" linebacker.
Foster is almost 30 years old (August 24) and coming off an Achilles injury, so it’s foolish to expect another 1,200-yard season. He has great value as a "reliability back," however: the guy who catches short passes out of the backfield, pass protects, holds on to the football and avoids negative plays. That will keep him on the field even if the sizzle is gone.
Andrew Luck: He’ll throw for 4,500 yards and over 30 touchdowns this year. But Twitter will burst into flames every time he throws an interception. On 3rd-and-20 while trailing in the fourth quarter. That was tipped in the air by his receiver.
DeMarco Murray: Unlike the other players on this list, Murray is not recovering from a major injury, just a lost season marooned on Chip Kelly Island.
Murray can return to Offensive Player of the Year form as long as everything is just right. He needs enough carries to keep him happy. (All of them.) He needs to be able to run downhill; none of that shotgun-handoff stuff. The Tennessee Titans offensive line must block as well as the Dallas Cowboys line did two years ago.
Come to think of it, under those circumstances most running backs would be capable of an Offensive Player of the Year season.
Derrick Henry is getting good reviews as both a runner and receiver in Titans camp, per Jason Wolf of The Tennessean. That could cut into Murray’s carries, which will result in some awkward postgame flights for the Titans’ decision-makers. Veterans like Bush, Charles and Foster can easily slip into committee roles. Murray spent a year in Philadelphia proving that he would not be happy with that.
There’s nothing mysterious about suffering an overcompensation injury during rehab. But it can be a troubling sign of biomechanics thrown out of whack, which can lead to all sorts of other setbacks. The Packers are hinting at a return to practice for Nelson next week, via Tom Silverstein of The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, but everyone is being evasive and Patriots-ish about Nelson’s health. This is a bated-breath situation until Nelson catches his first pass and gets tackled by his first live defender.
But, hey, the term "hiccup" is adorable. It reminds me of that kid in How to Train Your Dragon. Wait, didn’t that kid have his leg bitten off? BAD CHOICE OF EUPHEMISMS, JORDY.
Jason Pierre-Paul: JPP looks like his old self. He sounds like a man who has found peace with what happened last year. "My (right) hand feels like my left hand, just missing a couple of fingers," he told reporters after scooping up a fumble and scoring during a full-squad drill.
JPP and Giants newcomer Olivier Vernon will combine for at least 20 sacks; how they are divided will depend on which way quarterbacks run when they try to escape.
Maurkice Pouncey: Hey, it’s not all about fantasy football: offensive linemen can come back, too! Pouncey has been a full participant in Steelers camp after missing all of last season with a broken ankle and a staph infection.
Pouncey’s health will have an impact on the productivity of Bell and DeAngelo Williams. It will make life easier for Ben Roethlisberger as he shakes out a depleted (besides Brown) receiving corps. So yeah, it really is all about fantasy football. Oh, and the Steelers’ chance to compete for a Super Bowl.
Tony Romo and Dez Bryant: Sometime in the last year or so, "Starting quarterback is fat!" replaced "Starting quarterback is NOT ELITE!" as the official schoolyard taunt of the internet. When it becomes "Starting quarterback has cooties," I will retire.
A photo of a portly looking Romo jogging onto the practice field exploded across the web last week like it was Russell Wilson with a funnel cake in each hand. Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News, who took the photograph, explained that it was just a case of "poor camera work." That’ll happen when you accidentally use the Vince Wilfork-scopic lens.
Romo is apparently in fine shape, and the only practices he has missed have been pre-planned recovery days. Despite some video of Dez Bryant whiffing on passes from a JUGS machine (the machine was set to "rocket launcher" and Bryant was just a few yards away), Bryant is also a full participant, showing no signs of lingering effects of his foot and ankle injuries.
The health of Romo and Bryant is practically the only good news coming out of Cowboys camp this year. So instead of worrying about a 300-pound Romo or Bryant dropping screen passes, Cowboys fans need to worry about a defense so bad that Romo and Bryant can’t get onto the field and are forced to play catch-up when they arrive.
Steve Smith: Smith is now 37 years old. There have only been nine seasons in pro football history in which wide receivers aged 37 or older have caught 50 passes or more. Jerry Rice had five of those seasons, Charlie Joiner two and Tim Brown and Terrell Owens one each.
With his unique blend of athleticism and sheer determination, Smith could be a candidate for a Joiner-caliber late career. But he is still on the PUP list, and an Achilles injury can sap an older athlete’s burst. The Ravens are still targeting a Week 1 return for Smith, per ESPN.com Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley, but it’s not a safe bet that Smith will still be Smith the next time he takes the field.
That said, I’m not visiting Ravens camp this year, and it’s a lot easier to be negative about Steve Smith when you don’t have to say anything to his face.