Prior to the 2013 NFL season, New York Giants cornerback Terrell Thomas told CBSNewYork, "I’m pushing myself to say this is my last chance to prove a lot of people wrong and to get back on the field."
Although Big Blue departed AT&T Stadium with the blues on Sunday night, a 28-year-old Thomas must have been feeling pretty good. The expression, "Third time's the charm," generally embraces those who have failed time and again but eventually triumph.
After a healthy preseason and a solid performance in Week 1, it looks like Thomas' third ACL reconstruction is a success—he is the comeback kid.
He missed all of 2011 and 2012 due to injuries of his right knee's anterior cruciate ligament. He tore it in 2005 while playing for Pete Carroll's USC, he tore it again in a 2011 preseason game against the Chicago Bears and he re-injured it—again—in training camp in 2012.
The 2013 season was no lock for the 28-year-old, either. He worked from Day 1 of training camp to secure a spot on the 53-man roster and, if nothing else, he looked reliable and healthy on Sunday.
But simply returning to the gridiron and the Giants secondary is not enough for Thomas.
No, the DB who hadn't played a regular-season matchup in over two years covets an award-winning season, too. He is gunning for the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year.
"I texted Brian Cushing, I said: 'You got the bank, let me get Comeback Player of the Year,'" Terrell Thomas joked, according to Tom Rock of Newsday. Cushing, the Houston Texans' linebacker, suffered a similar season-ending ACL injury in 2012, but he fortunately signed a recent extension for six years and $55.6 million. He also attended USC and was Houston's first pick in the 2009 draft.
Thomas did not have a shining game against the Dallas Cowboys, and he still resides at third on the Giants depth chart at left cornerback (behind veteran Corey Webster and two-year man Jayron Hosley). And as the season progresses, he will continue to battle the likes of Aaron Ross, too.
But after Prince Amukamara and Ryan Mundy collided head-on at the end of Sunday's first half, Thomas was inevitably reinserted into the Dallas game. Despite the Giants staff designing to limit his playing time in his first week, he was forced to step in. He finished the night with six tackles, one assisted and one pass defended.
Coming into the game, the Giants medical staff and defensive coordinator Perry Fewell had trusted in the strength of his knee and his ability to make plays.
Fewell had stated before the game in Arlington (via Rock), "We think he's ready. We're not going to shy away from putting him on the field. We believe that he's going to go out and prove himself, and we like the way he's looked in practice as well as the preseason games. It's game time.''
And on Sunday, after his knee held up on quick cuts, vicious bursts of speed and some hard-nosed slot tackles, Fewell, Tom Coughlin and the rest of the New York Giants must feel confident moving forward.
The defensive backs for the men in blue could certainly use some veteran leadership and inspiration, with the inexperience of youngsters like Hosley and Amukamara, the latter of whom continues to show promise. But Thomas also brings much-needed defensive versatility, able to split time between cornerback, safety and nickelback.
In response to teammate and safety Antrel Rolle jesting Thomas about his return, the cornerback clarified (via Rock): "I think he's just excited because he don't have to play nickel no more. He can go back to playing safety.''
Perhaps most importantly, they could use some depth, timely playmaking and physicality, especially when they face off at home against the Denver Broncos in Week 2.
In a hammering of the Ravens in Week 1, Peyton Manning thrashed the Baltimore secondary for 462 yards, a 64.3 completion percentage and a mesmerizing seven touchdowns—the first quarterback to collect that many passing scores since 1969 (per CBS Sports).
Thomas led the Giants in tackles in 2009 and 2010, and it would be a tremendous comeback—award or not—to see the corner return to a level close to where he played a few years ago.
The Giants certainly are not down and out following a typically bewildering 36-21 loss in Arlington, Texas Sunday night.
Despite six turnovers, the GMen had a potential game-winning drive in the hands of Eli Manning. Of course the quarterback, or the turned back of Da'Rel Scott, made sure Giants fans experienced the annual wall-punching quotes—"You're kidding...I don't even understand why...why would he even..."—as early as Week 1.
The Giants were down 30-24, yet threatened to take the first game of the 2013 season in a fourth-quarter comeback. Then Eli's check-down pass bounced off Scott and into the arms of Brandon Carr for a clinching 49-yard pick-six with 1:50 remaining. As recent New York memory must go: As soon as you sniff victory, the Giants snuff it out.
At least the Giants possess that hopeful sentiment that they gift-wrapped the win for the Dallas Cowboys: If they had taken better care of the football, or if their backfield was more experienced or if Eli wasn't being that Eli when it mattered most—and the hypothetical list goes on for reasons why they should have won.
But there is added hope in Terrell Thomas, and he is not taking anything for granted (via CBSNewYork): "A lot of people have been rooting for me and I’m happy just to be in a position to be blessed to have another opportunity."
That said, he is fully aware of the constant vying for both a shot at the NFL and, specifically, a chance at stealing his own role (CBSNewYork): "That’s how I look at it, to be honest with you because in this league, it comes by and they’re looking for the next guy and there’s always competition, especially when you have a lot of injuries, they count you out."
For now, though, Thomas has (knock on wood) 15 remaining regular-season games upon which he can improve and build up his physical and mental strength.
Luckily, the prospects of winning the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year award should not loom too large for a player who has battled back from three ACL injuries, three surgeries and two consecutive missed seasons.