NFC-AFC PRO BOWL
Two QBs glad to be playing
A YEAR ago at this time, NFL quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Drew Brees were trying to make it back onto a football field, any football field.
Now they are back among the best in their field practicing for Saturday's Pro Bowl.
Cincinnati's Palmer missed last year's all-star game when he tore ligaments in his knee in a playoff loss to the Steelers while Brees, then of the Chargers, tore the labrum in his throwing shoulder on the final day of the same season.
Both quarterbacks rehabbed aggressively and picked up right where they left off, with Palmer returning to throw 28 touchdown passes to only 13 interceptions and Brees -- who signed with the Saints -- throwing 26 touchdowns and being picked off only 11 times for his new team.
"A lot of people didn't think I was going to play at all this year, much less get to the playoffs or the Pro Bowl," Brees said. "It didn't exactly drive me, but it was nice to prove people wrong."
Brees, who played in the 2004 Pro Bowl, came back better than ever. He led the surprising Saints to the NFC title game after wondering if he would ever regain his form. Brees said he wasn't completely confident in his abilities until two games into the season, but just getting under center again was enough of a miracle.
"Faith and belief," Brees said. "It was such a mental thing that it is not possible unless you have faith and believe. I kept telling myself, 'There is no doubt that I will come back from this,' but there were questions of how I am going to do it."
Palmer agrees completely. Throughout the summer, the question was whether Palmer would be able to return at all this season, but his convictions won out over his shredded knee.
The quarterbacks both say that returning to the top of their profession was the last thing on their minds. They were too busy trying to win their old jobs back.
"I think people were a little surprised, but I really wanted to get back on the field," Palmer said. "That is really all that drove me."
"I really didn't think about the Pro Bowl a bit," Palmer said. "I just wanted to get back on the field for the Bengals. I appreciate being here, but the team is all that really matters."
Veteran Seattle Seahawks fullback Mack Strong
said he plans to stick around for his 14th season next year.
"It (retirement) was a thought in the beginning," Strong said. "But I think I will give it another go."
Part of the reason the road grader wants to give it another go is that the dirty work he does for his team is finally getting noticed. Strong played in 180 NFL games before appearing in his first Pro Bowl last year. That's 13 years of escorting Shaun Alexander, Ricky Watters and Chris Warren to multiple Pro Bowls while never getting the nod himself.
Now that he's made it, he wants to enjoy the view.
"It's always a pleasure to be here," Strong said. "You just hope the team does well enough for you to get recognized, because really that's what will get a fullback here more than anything else. But it took me so long to get here, I'm not quite ready to leave."
Ayanbadejo makes the trip:
Chicago's Brendon Ayanbadejo
has always been the man on the outside looking in.
From his time as an undrafted free agent out of UCLA to stints in the Canadian Football League and NFL Europe, Ayanbadejo has always been looking for a job.
Ayanbadejo tried a new one yesterday, lining up at linebacker for the NFC alongside New York's Antonio Pierce. The NFC only has five linebackers, so the special teams ace will do what he has always done -- fill in where he can.
His spot on the NFC roster is a confirmation of his skills. He sat by and waited for his trip to the Oahu in each of the last two years when he was an alternate, waiting for someone to decline or get hurt before making the trip.
"The first two times I was an alternate waiting for the call, but it never came," Ayanbadejo said. "This year I was at home in Miami when our linebackers coach called me and I knew he wouldn't be calling for any other reason."
Champ is everywhere:
Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey
spent some time on the other side of the ball yesterday. He lined up as a receiver and did an out pattern before lining up as a cornerback on the next play. True to form, the quarterback didn't throw his way.
Bailey lined up at receiver in last year's Pro Bowl, but failed to catch a pass.
Back in action:
Miami linebacker Zach Thomas
has built a reputation as something of a tough guy around the NFL for his willingness to play hurt.
That attitude extends to the Pro Bowl.
Thomas, who has been named to the squad after six of his 11 seasons, didn't get to play in the exhibition last year after having surgery immediately after the season.
"Last year I missed the game because I had surgery," Thomas said. "And I missed the game. It's funny, because I really did miss it."
Thomas had extra incentive to make the trip this year, as he was married recently and wanted his wife to get a flavor of the Pro Bowl for herself.
"I wanted her to be able to experience it for herself," Thomas said. "It is such a special week and I am getting older, even though I did have my best season, so who knows how many more of these I have in me."