For Joe Johnson, the operations were out-numbering his sacks and that's no way for a defensive end to live.

Johnson came back from major surgery on his right knee, back surgery for a bulging disc and an arthroscopic procedure on his left knee to earn The Associated Press's NFL Comeback Player of the Year award Thursday.

The New Orleans Saints' lineman beat New York Giants quarterback Kerry Collins by one vote, 9-8, in voting by a panel of 50 American sportswriters and broadcasters who cover the NFL.

"This is a great year for me, to get back out there, to get back to regular form and have the team do so well and be going back to the Pro Bowl," said Johnson, a seven-year veteran.

"Everything just came into place."

Johnson was selected for the Pro Bowl in 1998 after recording 70 tackles and seven sacks.

Then he injured his right knee in training camp last year even though he wasn't hit and had to be helped from the practice field.

He missed the entire season.

While recovering from the injury, he had surgery to repair bulging discs in his spine.

And last June, he needed arthroscopic surgery on his left knee.

"It was a lonely time, I didn't feel like a part of the team anymore," said Johnson. "I was cut off from my teammates.

"All they had been through during a 3-13 season and I hadn't been able to do anything to help."

He helped plenty in this year's turnaround to 10-6 and the NFC West title. Johnson had 12 sacks and, most significantly, was the stabilizing influence on a line that included La'Roi Glover, Norman Hand and rookie Darren Howard.

"Joe's a force that every team has to account for," said Glover, also a force and Pro Bowl selection. "Everyone has to make plans for him.

"He didn't lose a thing except some time while he was out."

Johnson believed he had lost much early this season and it wasn't until midway through the schedule that he felt completely healthy.

"I could feel it and I could see it on film," he said. "I wasn't all the way back.

"I was rusty, my body wasn't responding the way it normally would. I could feel it late in the game, third and fourth quarters. It took a lot of hard work and repetition, sticking with it."

His diligence impressed new coach Jim Haslett.

"I think it was a tribute to him that a guy could work that hard to get back to the point where he's at right now," Haslett said. "He's one of the best defensive ends in the league again."

Johnson was one of 20 players to receive votes for the award, which was won by San Francisco defensive tackle Bryant Young in 1999.

Following Collins, who has put his career back together after alcohol problems, were Baltimore quarterback Trent Dilfer and Philadelphia defensive end Hugh Douglas, each with four votes.

Dallas defensive lineman Dimitrius Underwood and Miami running back Lamar Smith each got three votes.

By Barry Wilner