Doubters Be Damned: Why Cameron Wake Should Be the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year
When someone finds out that you write about sports, they’ll often ask you a series of questions that you’ve undoubtedly answered 100 times before. I never mind being asked who I think the greatest quarterback of all-time is (Brady), who’s going to win the Super Bowl that year (again, Brady, but Dallas could make it tough) or any number of questions I’ve rehearsed answers to for years.
Sometimes, current events will force an answer to change.
I’ve been asked what the greatest comeback I’ve seen in sports is. This question is open-ended; are we talking about an individual player’s comeback, or a team’s? For a team, it’s hard to beat the Miami Heat in Game 5 of the 2006 Finals, or LeBron James’ Cavaliers returning from a 3-1 deficit (yes, the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead) to win the championship.
However, Cameron Wake has provided a new answer for the greatest individual comeback I have seen in my life.
On Thursday, October 29th, I left class early to make sure I got a seat at the bar for the Dolphins’ Thursday night showdown with the Patriots (sorry, mom). A friend and I spent a full season glued to our seats at a Barney’s Beanery in west Los Angeles, watching NFL action unfold. On a slightly different schedule, we settled in for the Dolphins’ first true test under interim head coach Dan Campbell.
Largely, the game went as expected. The Patriots held the Dolphins to just seven points, showing that Miami’s surge was not enough to outclass the NFL’s perennial superpower.
On a 3rd & 12 with 1:10 left in the third quarter, a moment occurred that was anything but normal.
After a Tom Brady pass fell to the ground, the camera shifted to Cam Wake, lying in the turf. His face looked calm; he wasn’t showing significant pain. He then was helped off the field, many speculating (hopefully) that the injury was minor.
In that moment, a political science major and a history major nodded at one another, suddenly experts in the field of sports medicine.
However, when Cameron Wake was seen heading to the locker room on a cart, it became obvious that the situation was much more serious.
Wake was diagnosed with a torn Achilles tendon. For a generation of Dolphins fans who grew up in the post-Jason Taylor era, Superman had fallen.
The recovery from a torn Achilles tendon can test even the NFL’s youngest stars. Some never return to their previous physical state, even with advances in medical procedures. It was reasonable to expect that even if Cameron Wake were to return from such a severe injury that he would be a shell of his former self.
Writing my post-game column after Wake’s injury felt like a eulogy. It seemed reasonable to expect that the 33-year-old defender wouldn’t be the same pass rusher that he once was, having relied on athleticism and other-worldly speed to make plays during his career to that point.
In the back of my head, I knew that it wouldn’t be the end of the line. However, I didn’t think that he would be able to return to his previous form.
I should have known better.
We all should have known better.
During the offseason, the Dolphins actually offered Cameron Wake an extension. The team restructured his deal, while adding another year and securing him for the 2017 season. Obviously there was some confusion among those outside of Davie. It didn’t make much sense to onlookers that the team would offer an extension at a high price to a player who most assumed wouldn’t be the same after injury.
Not only has Wake proven himself to be worth the money, but he has also shown that he is still one of the NFL’s top defensive ends.
Early in the 2016 season, Wake was being used as a role player. He came in for obvious passing situations, with the team’s hope being that he’d remain fresh for the full season. About five games into the year, they did away with that line of thinking.
Mario Williams was struggling as the starting DE opposite Andre Branch, and the Dolphins clearly needed a change. In Week 7 against the Steelers, Wake and Williams flipped their snap allotment. Wake played on over 50 defensive snaps, while Williams was on the field merely as a reserve option.
All in all, the strategy has worked remarkably.
Wake entered Week 6 with just one sack. Since then, he has notched six in a matter of four games (including four sacks in the last two).
It hasn’t just been a dominant run for Wake in the stat sheet; the Dolphins’ star pass rusher is putting just as many eye-popping plays on film as he did in his 20s.
Against the Bills, Wake demonstrated explosiveness that no 34-year-old should have coming off of a torn Achilles.
Against the Chargers, Wake had an even more absurd sack, leaving his feet and helping to bring down Philip Rivers while airborne. (Also of note: Look how low Wake gets before the snap, allowing himself to shoot out of his stance and around the edge.)
In addition to blowing by offensive tackles with his absurd combination of bend and speed, Wake has been effective using a bull-rush at times.
Cameron Wake has once again become the centerpiece of Miami’s pass rush. He is proving himself to be one of the league’s best defensive ends, despite his age and recent injury. Less than 13 months after tearing his Achilles tendon at Gillette Stadium, Wake has earned Pro Football Focus’ third-highest grade for rushing the passer. He’s only below Brandon Graham and Khalil Mack.
Wake’s 2016 performance has done more than enough to earn him a place among candidates for the NFL’s 2016 Comeback Player of the Year award.
If the Dolphins continue winning, and Wake keeps performing at the level he currently is, then I see no player that would be more deserving of the award. Obviously, this will be up to the sports writers around America that cast their votes for the honor.
Who are some other players who could receive consideration?
Andrew Luck strikes me as a possible candidate. After missing seven games with a myriad of injuries in 2015, Luck has returned with a strong campaign in 2016. He is on pace to close in on 5,000 yards and 30 TDs and will have the Colts in the playoff hunt. Right now, the AFC South is wide open. If Luck guides his team there, it would be tough for Cameron Wake to overcome the QB-based statistical bias that goes along with these awards.
Another player who could benefit from that statistically-driven focus is Le’Veon Bell. Midway through 2015, Bell tore his MCL. After missing the first four games of 2016 with a suspension (obviously the suspension isn’t part of his Comeback Player of the Year case), he is back to his usual productivity. Bell has over 400 yards rushing and 300 yards receiving through just six games. While Bell could have a case for the award, his four-game handicap (a self-inflicted handicap at that) will damage his case.
DeMarco Murray could be a dark-horse candidate. Depending on how the voters choose to interpret a “comeback” (whether or not it is limited to injuries, which I don’t believe it should be), Murray could warrant consideration. The 2014 NFL leading rusher declined quickly in Philadelphia, amassing just 700 yards for the Eagles last season. At times, he was benched in favor of Ryan Matthews. In 2016, Murray has gone back to being the centerpiece of the offense, this time with the Titans. His 930 rushing yards and eight TDs put him among the league’s best running backs through 10 games.
While Murray could be the player whose case I believe comes closest to Cameron Wake’s, nobody has climbed a larger mountain to return to such a high level. Murray’s case could be strong, but would a player simply not being a good scheme fit in a prior year make him worthy of the Comeback Player of the Year? For Luck, I don’t know that his injuries left any question that he’d return to his maximum ability; everybody seemed to assume that the Colts’ star passer would be back to 100% quickly. Le’Veon Bell’s case is difficult – while he did suffer a significant injury (though not as extreme as Wake’s) and is performing at a high level, he missed four games due to an NFL suspension, costing him important statistical opportunities. For running backs, it takes a wild stat-line to win these annual honors.
While the numbers will be flashier for the players listed above, Cameron Wake’s comeback from a torn Achilles at age 34, in less than a year, deserves recognition. His performance isn’t just impressive for someone of his age coming off of an injury – any defensive end in the NFL would be happy to be having the season Wake is.
At the end of the day, Cameron Wake would be too modest to entertain the thought of the award. If you told me he genuinely hadn’t thought of it, I’d believe you. While he would be worthy of the honor, and has to this point built a case that surpasses that of any other player, there is a greater prize that Cam Wake has his eye on.
If the Dolphins make the playoffs, granting their star defensive end his first postseason appearance, it will be the only thing that Wake needs out of 2016.
Even if he isn’t Comeback Player of the Year, those who follow the Dolphins know that Wake not only deserves to win that award, but also has done everything a player could do to earn themselves a place on one of the game’s biggest stages.
Hopefully, you’ll be seeing Cameron Wake on your television in January.
And not just for an awards ceremony.