“A setback is a setup for a comeback.”
Those were the first words spoken by coach Jeff Fisher to our Titans team in the locker room after our Super Bowl 34 loss to the Rams.
I thought about Fisher’s words as I watched Tiger Woods triumph in the Masters last weekend. Woods’ setbacks were plentiful – four back surgeries, personal scandal, even chipping yips – before his comeback was truly completed with his victory in the Masters for his 15th major title and first in 11 years.
Many are proclaiming Woods’ victory the culmination of the greatest comeback in sports history, which is a bold statement. It made me dig into the archives to see if there are any NFL comeback stories that match or exceed what Woods achieved in winning his fifth green jacket 14 years after his last at Augusta National.
There are plenty of great NFL comeback stories. Most recent are two dramatic returns to top form just last season by J.J. Watt of the Texans and Andrew Luck of the Colts. The careers of both Pro Bowl players appeared to be in serious jeopardy; Watt had missed 24 games in 2016-17 due to major injuries, and Luck had battled injuries to his throwing shoulder for three years and had missed the entire 2017 season post-surgery. Watt tallied 16 sacks in his amazing 2018 season, while Luck threw for 4,593 yards and 39 touchdowns. Both players were integral parts of teams that rebounded from sub-.500 seasons in 2017 and returned to the playoffs.
Peyton Manning rates consideration in the great comebacks conversation after he endured multiple neck surgeries and was dumped by the Colts but had a late-career renaissance in Denver; an MVP award in 2013 and a Super Bowl title in 2015.
Drew Brees is another legendary QB who overcame a serious shoulder injury in his last season with San Diego, an injury that caused the Dolphins to fail him on a physical before he signed with the Saints. In his first season with New Orleans, Brees led the team to a turnaround from a 3-13 team to a division champion. Three years later, he was the catalyst of a Super Bowl champion that galvanized New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina.
Tiger is often called the GOAT. So how about the GOAT of the NFL, Tom Brady, who led the Patriots to three Super Bowl wins in four years from 2001-04 and then waited 10 years for his next championship in the 2014 season (the start of a run with three titles in five years)? During that decade-long wait, he tore his ACL in the 2008 season opener and missed the rest of the year before leading the Patriots to a division title upon his return in 2009.
Further back in the Super Bowl era, the story of Jim Plunkett is stirring. He was the No. 1 overall pick by New England in 1971 who struggled with injuries before being traded to San Francisco. He was released by the 49ers after two lackluster seasons and joined the Raiders, for whom he sat on the bench for two years. He finally got a chance to start in 1980 and led Oakland to four playoff victories, including a Super Bowl in which he was the game’s MVP. His career comeback included another Super Bowl title with the Raiders three years later.
I also love the story of Doug Williams. A first-round pick and productive quarterback for Tampa Bay who directed the team to its first playoff season, he left the Bucs in a contract dispute a few months after his wife had died of an aneurysm. He played three years in the USFL before the Redskins signed him as a backup in 1986, and while not the full-time starter in 1987, he was chosen by coach Joe Gibbs as the playoff starter and led the team to the Super Bowl and a blowout win over Denver.
Like Tiger’s tale, all of these NFL comeback stories are products of prideful, highly motivated players having an incredible work ethic and intense desire to prove they could once again excel in their sport.
What separates Woods is the length of time between his success early in his career and later with his Masters win at age 43. The 14 years between Masters titles, and 11 years since his last major title, are unprecedented in any sport.
We are talking about a player who could barely walk when he attended the Champions Dinner at Augusta two years ago, when he told several people he thought he was “done” as a pro golfer. He was simply hoping to be able to play with his kids again when he underwent the spinal fusion surgery that finally got him back on track.
No one expected him to ever be able to return to his major champion form. It was presumed to be a lock that Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors was safe, at least from Woods’ pursuit. Even if he could miraculously return to the PGA Tour, the level of competition was considered much stronger today than when Woods dominated in his 20s.
A victory in the Tour Championship in September was the first serious sign that Woods was back to form. But the doubts remained that he could make a return to the winner’s circle on golf’s biggest stages – the majors. Yet there he stood on the 18th green Sunday after tapping in for the win, more exultant and demonstrative than we have ever seen him. And then to see Woods’ joyful and emotion-filled embraces with his son, daughter and mother afterward was emotional for most everyone.
I have not always been Tiger’s biggest fan due to his arrogance at his peak and his transgressions off the course. But like most golf fans, I was in awe of his immense talent and respected his focus on the course, his will to win and love of the game, again similar to the great NFL players who battled back to the top.
It also has been nice to see a more humble Woods after his struggles on and off the course. That his fellow pros were lined up to congratulate him last Sunday speaks to a kinder Woods these days.
So it was a thrill to see how he won the Masters under the most intense pressure after overcoming so many obstacles along the way.
Sorry, NFL players mentioned above and even athletes in other sports: In my view, Tiger Woods had indeed completed the greatest comeback in sports history.
Jeff Diamond is a former president of the Titans and former vice president/general manager of the Vikings. He was selected NFL Executive of the Year in 1998. Diamond is currently a business and sports consultant who also does broadcast and online media work. He makes speaking appearances to corporate/civic groups and college classes on negotiation and sports business/sports management. He is the former chairman and CEO of The Ingram Group. Follow Jeff on Twitter: @jeffdiamondNFL.