The word "bust" is thrown around a lot in the NFL. The ones in the Hall of Fame are the dream of every rookie—but a poor first season can end with the word being used in a way that couldn’t be further from Canton.
The omnipotence of Twitter means that any reaction to a game or player is public before the game is even over, often sent directly to a player’s personal account in the form of unimaginable abuse and threats of violence—as evidenced in the aftermath of Kyle Williams’ mangled punt returns in this year’s playoffs.
In an earlier article I considered the hype surrounding Andrew Luck and the criticism of Blaine Gabbert—two players yet to establish themselves, but also two players about whom a lot of people seem to have made up their minds.
A look back at some Hall of Fame players reveals many who survived poor starts to cement their places in the upper echelons of the NFL—players who may not have been given second chances had they played in today's league.
The man they called "Sweetness" did not have the sweetest of starts to his NFL career. In his first game of the 1975 season, he carried the ball eight times for zero net yards. The Bears completed just six first downs in that game as the Baltimore Colts eased to a 35-7 victory at Soldier Field.
His fortunes improved in the next game and he put up 95 yards from 21 attempts—but this was a false dawn and by the fourth game his numbers had returned to zero, this time from 10 carries.
In the final game he finished with a season-high 134 yards from 20 attempts as the Bears completed a 42-17 victory over the New Orleans Saints, also a season best. They finished in third place with a 4-10 record and Payton ended on 679 yards with an average of 3.5 yards per carry.
Thankfully these numbers proved to be a career low for Payton and he went on to be one of the most celebrated athletes in NFL history.
He was named to nine Pro Bowls, and at one point he held the records for career rushing yards (16,726), attempts (3,838), yards in a single game (275), career 100-yard games (77), 1,000 yard seasons (10), most consecutive seasons as NFL leader for attempts (four), career combined net yards (21,803) and career attempts (4,368).
When you also factor in that he lost 11 games to strike action, these numbers are even more impressive.
Following his death in 1999, the NFL Man of the Year Award was renamed the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award. It’s easy to see why.
Bradshaw was the first player selected in the 1970 draft, and he went to Pittsburgh after the Steelers won a coin-flip with the Chicago Bears to decide who picked first due to both teams posting identical records the year before.
In his first NFL game against the Oilers, Bradshaw managed four completions from 16 passes and was removed from the game. Coach Chuck Noll adopted a "tough love" stance and grabbed Bradshaw’s facemask, screaming obscenties at him like a violent parent while his replacement, Terry Hanratty, threw a touchdown from the first play without Bradshaw on the field.
A man who needed encouragement rather than abuse, Bradshaw sat alone in his car after the game and cried.
In his rookie season, Bradshaw’s completion rate was 38.1 percent and his 24 interceptions were the highest in the NFL that year.
The fans hadn’t warmed to him and were getting impatient—a feeling that only intensified after the 1971 season when the Steelers finished 6-8. Bradshaw passed for 2,259 yards and 13 touchdown passes, and showed definite improvement—but was intercepted 22 times and suddenly his future looked a little uncertain.
It took two more seasons (11-3 and 10-4) before Bradshaw was given full control over the Steelers offense, and suddenly he looked to be the quarterback the fans were promised. During the Bradshaw years, Pittsburgh won eight AFC Central Division championships and four Super Bowls.
The postseason was where he was at his best, never more so than in Super Bowl XIII. Bradshaw tore apart the Dallas Cowboys almost single-handedly, throwing 318 yards for four touchdowns and being named MVP in the process. He then did it again a year later, this time to the Los Angeles Rams, with a 309-yard, two-touchdown MVP performance.
When he arrived into the league he was told he was dumb. But when he left the league it was his detractors who looked stupid.
In the Heisman Trophy ballot of 1968, Orenthal James Simpson emerged victorious with 2,853 points, defeating runner-up Leroy Keyes of Purdue by a margin of 1,750—which remains a record.
The odds were stacked against him when was drafted by a Buffalo Bills team that had only won five games in the previous two years, and this poor run continued for the first three years of Simpson’s AFL/NFL life. The Bills would manage just eight wins in that time.
What was even more worrying was the fact that they actually seemed to be getting worse with Simpson on the team, with the solitary win of the 1971 season proving to be their nadir. O.J. averaged 622 yards per season over this dark period and never looked to be recapturing the destructive power of his college years.
It would have been easy to have read this decline in productivity as an omen of things to come and offloaded Simpson for draft picks or established veterans, but in the 1972 season he started to repay the Bills’ faith and forged a relationship with newly-drafted guard Reggie McKenzie to run for 1,251 yards.
Things got even better in ’73 with the drafting of Joe DeLamielleure—the Buffalo Bills rushing offense led the NFL in yards, yards per carry and rushing touchdowns on their way to a 9-5 season. “The Juice” finished that season with 2,003 yards (the first time this had been achieved) and is the only man to reach this landmark in a 14-game season. He was named NFL Player of the Year and remains the only player to rush for over 200 yards in six different games.
In 1985 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. O.J. Simpson had reached the zenith of the footballing world. In hindsight it’s easy to see that the only way from there is down, but no one could have predicted just how far Simpson would plummet.
Unlike O.J. Simpson, Dan Fouts arrived into the NFL in 1973 unburdened by expectation—but he would still have a lot to prove.
Drafted out of Oregon in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, Fouts arrived at a time when Johnny Unitas was still on the roster and wouldn’t get his first taste of life as a Charger until the fourth game against the Steelers, which was a 21-38 loss.
Losing was something the young quarterback would get used to as he went through the ’73 season, only savoring victory once under center (against the Saints) as the Chargers finished the campaign with a 2-11-1 record.
Unitas retired at the end of that year and the Chargers drafted Jesse Freitas as Fouts’ competition going into the 1974 season. Fouts began the year as starting QB, but after leading the team to 3-8 Freitas was given the nod and had a 2-1 starting record over the last three games of the season.
Things continued in much the same manner for both Fouts and the Chargers until 1978, when head coach Tommy Prothro was sacked four games into the season with the team at 1-3.
Don Coryell was named as head coach and the Chargers lived up to their name, ended the season at 9-7 and never looked back—they would post four straight trips to the playoffs, three straight AFC West titles and two AFC championship games.
Dan Fouts in particular was a revelation over this period, leading the league in passing yards while having the enviable luxury of John Jefferson and Wes Chandler as his receivers.
It’s worth noting that during the strike-shortened 1982 season, Fouts threw for 2,883 yards over nine games, which if continued over a regular 16-game season equates to 5124.8 yards and the history books remembering Fouts, not Marino, as the first quarterback to pass for 5,000 yards in a season.
Steve Young survived the collapse of a league, being labeled a bust, being traded, being Joe Montana’s replacement, seven concussions and only playing three full seasons in 15 years to make it into the Hall of Fame in 2005.
But it could easily have gone the other way.
Following the collapse of the United States Football League in 1986, Young was selected first in the 1984 NFL supplemental draft of USFL and CFL Players by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—and promptly had a terrible time.
Young’s two seasons with the Bucs went the same way—a 2-14 record and a lot of criticism.
He threw almost twice as many interceptions as touchdowns, completed just 55 percent of his passes and was sacked 68 times— 47 of those coming in 1986 alone.
Although the Bucs team was acknowledged to be the worst in the NFL and he received no support from the likes of Phil Freeman and Gerald Carter, Young’s days in Tampa Bay were numbered when the Bucs selected Vinny Testaverde with the first overall pick in the 1987 draft.
Young was traded to the San Francisco 49ers before the start of the season.
Going to the Niners during the reign of Joe Montana meant backup duties with question marks still hanging over his head after his time at the Buccaneers. However, Bill Walsh obviously saw potential in Young and traded two draft picks for him, and Young negotiated the season by taking the field whenever Montana was injured.
Young evidently decided that if he was indeed destined to be a backup, then he would be the best backup in the NFL. Over the four years he served in this position he threw 23 touchdowns and six interceptions before being promoted to starter in 1991 following injuries to Montana.
Young himself struggled with injury that year and missed five games after a midseason knee problem, but then turned in a remarkable eight-year performance that saw him sitting on top of the NFL in a number of categories—passer rating (six times), completion percentage (five times), touchdown passes (four times) and interception percentage (twice).
His passer rating of 96.8 is ranked third on the all-time list. His average yardage per pass attempt is ranked fifth. His completion percentage is seventh.
The thing all of these statistics have in common? They all rank higher than those of Joe Montana, widely considered the best of all time. In conjunction with Young’s 43 rushing touchdowns, this is a phenomenal achievement from a player who didn’t even start an NFL game until he was 30 years old.
I wanted to include more players within this list but there was a point where it looked to be getting overrun with quarterbacks, or players with similar problems (bad team, injuries etc). Dropping the list down to five meant that I had to differentiate between individuals to a more concentrated degree, inevitably meaning that some would be left out. Below are three players who almost made the list.
Troy Aikman (QB, Hall of Fame Class of 2006)
Finishing his rookie season 0-11 as a starter with 9 touchdown passes to 18 interceptions, Aikman was on the list from the very start. However, as the list went on it was clear that he was not the worst performer, and in the end the “quarterback problem” described above also meant that he had to be removed.
Larry Csonka (RB, Hall of Fame Class of 1987)
I really wanted to put Larry on the list. Two concussions, a broken nose and a cracked eardrum within three weeks of each other is immediately a bad first year, but add that to the fact that Don Shula actually had to teach Csonka how to run with the football and his journey to the Hall of Fame is even more remarkable. However, he was also one of toughest players of all time (stories of him “walking off” a suspected broken back are legendary) and I figured that he would have overcome a lot more than a poor inaugural season.
John Elway (QB, Hall of Fame Class of 2004)
Refusing to play for the team that drafts you is a guaranteed way to raise the pressure on your rookie performance, and Elway didn’t live up to the hype. A starting record of 4-6 and a completion rate of 47.5 set him up for a big fall in his sophomore season. He sidestepped it neatly and threw for 2,598 yards and 18 touchdowns (11 more than the year before) and improved to 3,891 yards and 22 touchdowns the year after that, so he failed to make the final five.