25 NFL Greats Likely to Retire Without a Super Bowl
Brett Davis-US PRESSWIRE
No NFL player ever wants to be told that he'll never reach the pinnacle of his sport. And when someone does tell a player that a championship is a mere pipe dream, it’s perhaps the biggest motivation possible, especially when that lack of a title is defining the athlete's media-driven legacy.
Let’s be clear: This is not an indictment of anyone’s talent. Obviously, it’s not easy for an organization to win a championship. For all of the parity in the NFL these days, the bottom line is that 14 of the 32 franchises still have not won a Super Bowl in its 46-year history.
To the bigger point: A player’s greatness need not be defined by championships, which are a team accomplishment. Case in point was the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2012, where the six outstanding inductees combined to win zero NFL championships during their standout careers.
So here are our thoughts on which current greats—who have played at least five NFL seasons—will walk away from the game minus a Super Bowl title. And with any luck and more, here’s hoping over the next few seasons that we’re very wrong about the ensuing list of stellar players.
WR Larry Fitzgerald (Arizona Cardinals)
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In 2008, the Arizona wideout went from Pro Bowler to household name after enjoying one of the best playoff runs in league history.
In four postseason games, Fitzgerald totaled 30 receptions for 546 yards and seven touchdowns; the last of those scores gave the Cardinals the lead over the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII with less than three minutes to play.
Entering his ninth season and with the team’s current quarterback situation in disarray, Fitzgerald is hoping that his team can just get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2009. And once in the tournament, anything can happen.
SS Adrian Wilson (Arizona Cardinals)
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The versatile strong safety was named to his fifth Pro Bowl in 2011, his 11th season. While he shows no signs of slowing down, time catches up with all of us.
Still, the Cardinals could field one of the better defensive units in the league and Wilson, who finished third on the team in tackles last season, will play a vital part. With 22.5 sacks and 35 career takeaways, the hard-hitting defender is always in the mix.
Are Wilson’s offensive counterparts up to the task? Larry Fitzgerald is. Running back Beanie Wells is coming off a career season. But there’s uncertainty at quarterback as well as the offensive line, making another Super Bowl appearance for Wilson and company a tough sell.
TE Tony Gonzalez (Atlanta Falcons)
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Only Hall of Famer Jerry Rice (1,549) has totaled more receptions than Gonzalez (1,149), who begins his 16th NFL season still searching for his first playoff win, much less an NFL championship.
The former 1997 first-round pick has appeared in the postseason with both Kansas City and Atlanta but so far hasn't been on a winning team in the NFL’s second season.
And with the speculation that this could be his final season, it’s perhaps now or never when it comes to hoisting that Lombardi Trophy for the most productive tight end in league history.
FS Ed Reed (Baltimore Ravens)
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The Ravens are the only team in the league that's been in the playoffs each of the past four seasons. John Harbaugh and company have reached the AFC Championship Game in two of them, but getting back to the Super Bowl for Baltimore has proven to be elusive.
The Ravens still have as good of a chance as any in their conference to get to New Orleans and Reed figures to play a big part in that. The former first-round pick is one of the great ball hawks ever, totaling 57 interceptions in 10 seasons and has added eight more in 11 postseason games.
It may be a different kind of season for the Ravens in 2012, not in the sense of winning but how they win. In any case, they should be in the mix for a title.
So why is Reed on this list? If Harbaugh’s team doesn’t get it done this season, it will be interesting to see if the perennial Pro Bowler indeed returns as the last two offseasons have featured Reed retirement speculation.
WR Steve Smith (Carolina Panthers)
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The Panthers embark on their 18th season in the NFL in 2012, and you could make a case that the Pro Bowl wideout has been the best offensive player in their short history. That includes his impressive 2003 season when the team made its first and only Super Bowl appearance.
A year ago, Smith teamed with quarterback Cam Newton to form one of the best big-play combos in the league, teaming for 29 pass plays of 20 or more yards. That was quite the turnaround from the mess that was 2010, when Carolina went through four different quarterbacks and won only two games while Smith totaled only 46 catches.
Last season, only four teams in the league scored more points than the Panthers. Unfortunately, only five clubs gave up more points than Ron Rivera’s team. As Smith enters his 12th season, how long will it take for the defense to make significant improvement?
DE Julius Peppers (Chicago Bears)
The second overall pick in the 2002 NFL draft, Peppers begins his second decade in the NFL looking for his crack at the title. In his sophomore season with the Panthers, the former Tar Heel and company fell to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
These days he’s emerged as a leader on the Bears’ defense and makes Chicago’s line that much more formidable. Last season, Lovie Smith’s team appeared looked primed for a playoff run after a 7-3 start. While injuries to Jay Cutler and Matt Forte were costly, the truth is that these “Monsters of the Midway” weren’t very scary on a consistent basis defensively.
With more weapons on offense than in recent seasons, are the Bears capable of winning another championship? Unfortunately, getting out of the NFC North could be just as tough of a task.
MLB Brian Urlacher (Chicago Bears)
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Like his current teammate Peppers, the Bears’ middle linebacker has gotten one shot at playing for the Lombardi Trophy, losing to the Colts in rainy Miami six seasons ago in Super Bowl XLI.
These days there’s been some recent concern about Urlacher’s health, although he figures to be ready for his 13th season when his team opens the season against Indianapolis. This is now a veteran Bears defense with linebacker Lance Briggs and defensive end Julius Peppers, although the organization did use its first-round pick in April on defensive end Shea McClellin.
Last season, injuries proved costly to a team that was coming off winning the NFC North and hosting the conference championship game in 2010. This may be the most balanced the Bears have been in quite some time and hopefully for Urlacher and Co. they manage to seize the moment.
T Joe Thomas (Cleveland Browns)
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Five Pro Bowls in five seasons for the third overall pick in 2007. In half a dozen years in Cleveland, Thomas has already played for three head coaches: Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini and Pat Shurmur. This season, the massive tackle will be blocking for a pair of rookies: running back Trent Richardson and quarterback Brandon Weeden.
So is it far too soon to give up on the franchise’s hopes of appearing in a Super Bowl in the not-too-distant future?
To say it’s been mostly a rocky return to the NFL for the Browns since reappearing in 1999 is an understatement, and the team has just changed owners.
Since stability seems to be one of the biggest problems with the franchise—Thomas being one of the few exceptions—the standout tackle could perhaps go down as one of the steadiest players of his era who may, may not get a chance to play for a championship.
QB Tony Romo (Dallas Cowboys)
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While the former free agent find begins his seventh season in terms of substantial playing time, it’s the 10th year in Dallas for the suddenly 32-year-old signal-caller.
Romo comes off a season in which he rebounded after an iffy start. After serving up nearly as many touchdown passes (eight) as interceptions (six) in the team’s first five contests, the Cowboys’ quarterback was hot, throwing for 23 scores while being picked off just four times. That didn’t prevent Jason Garrett’s team from dropping four of its last five games after a 7-4 start, including a pair of setbacks to the Giants, whom the Cowboys open against next week.
So "how ‘bout them Cowboys" winning the NFC East and/or making a Super Bowl run? Unfortunately, something always seems to go awry in Big D.
LB DeMarcus Ware (Dallas Cowboys)
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You’ve heard about windows closing in Dallas. Admittedly, some of the Cowboys’ best players won’t be in their primes much longer.
Of course, Ware has never looked better as he begins his eighth year in the league. Since entering the NFL in 2005, no player in the league has more sacks (99.5). But it’s the last four seasons that have been very eye-opening for the All-Pro defender. He has 66.0 sacks in his last 64 games, including a team-high 19.5 in 2011.
Unfortunately, some of the outside linebacker’s best work goes to waste, hence, you wonder if he’ll get that title. Last season at Philadelphia, Ware totaled 10 tackles, four sacks and a forced fumble in a 34-7 loss to the Eagles.
CB Champ Bailey (Denver Broncos)
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The last time the Broncos won the Super Bowl was 1998, the year before Bailey was drafted seventh-overall by the Washington Redskins.
Now the veteran corner enters his 14th season. Fifty interceptions and 11 Pro Bowl appearances later, he’s still searching for that elusive ring. His closest encounter came in 2005 when the Broncos lost the AFC Championship Game. But perhaps his best opportunity may be this year as Denver is the new home of four-time league MVP Peyton Manning.
While the defense made some strides following an abysmal showing in 2010, does John Fox’s team have enough to get to New Orleans come early February? It may really come down to the Denver defense, where Bailey remains a force, but time is certainly at a premium.
WR Andre Johnson (Houston Texans)
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Always in the discussion when it comes to the best wide receiver in the league, Johnson and his Texans are now being mentioned as a team that could win it all this season.
Ironically, the year in which the franchise’s all-time receiving leader was least available, playing in a career-low seven games in 2011, was the team’s most successful as Gary Kubiak and company secured the Texans’ first-ever playoff berth by winning the AFC South.
Now people are expecting an even bigger encore. For that to happen Johnson needs to remain healthy, which has been an issue the latter half of his nine-year career. He’s missed 12 games over the past two seasons. It will not only be interesting to see if the team can get back to the playoffs, but also what role the sure-handed veteran wideout plays in that success.
RB Adrian Peterson (Minnesota Vikings)
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Forget the Super Bowl. There was a time that we weren’t sure exactly when we were going to see the Vikings’ workhorse. Peterson hurt his knee in Week 16 at Washington last year and it seemed like a sure bet, given the severity and date of the injury, that he wouldn’t be ready for opening weekend.
But that was then and this is AD. Of course, the productive runner—6,752 yards and 64 scores in just five seasons—will be ready for the opener vs. the Jaguars.
So how long will it take until the Vikings, with a combined nine wins in their last two seasons, are Super Bowl contenders once again. In this day and age of the NFL, perhaps they are now. Realistically, it may take some time and it starts with learning how to once again beat the teams in their own division.
DE Jared Allen (Minnesota Vikings)
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The relentless performer enjoyed a 2011 campaign reminiscent of Hall of Fame defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy’s magnificent 1992 season when he was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year for the 2-14 Seahawks.
Allen totaled an NFL-high 22 sacks for the 3-13 Vikings—who tied for the league lead with 50 sacks in 2011—and his numbers in Minnesota include 62 sacks in 64 games.
But while the All-Pro’s stats are gaudy, the Purple Gang has gone from 12 to six to three wins the last three seasons and will have their work cut out for them getting out of the NFC North basement once again.
WR Wes Welker (New England Patriots)
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Since coming to Foxboro via a trade with the Dolphins in 2007, no player in the NFL has caught more passes than Welker, as the former undrafted free agent has 554 receptions during that span.
The sure-handed receiver has been the common denominator of both of New England's recent offensive systems, putting up big numbers when Tom Brady and Matt Cassel were busy throwing touchdown passes to wide receiver Randy Moss to these days when Brady does most of his damage scoring via tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Of course, this may be Welker’s final season in New England after he and the organization failed to agree on a long-term deal this summer. If he and the team fail to win it all this season, could he indeed “catch on” elsewhere? Stay tuned.
G Logan Mankins (New England Patriots)
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The Patriots' reward for repeating Super Bowl XXXIX and repeating as NFL champions was the last pick in the draft the following April. And they used it to grab the talented offensive lineman from Fresno State in 2005.
When in the lineup, he’s arguably the best guard in the league, evident by being named to four of the last five Pro Bowls. And he’s been a big part of an offensive front that has led New England to two of the last five Super Bowls.
But this season could be particularly challenging now that veteran blocker Matt Light has called it a career. Enter second-year pro Nate Solder, who has had issues this summer keeping defenders away from quarterback Tom Brady, and while the new left tackle will benefit from Mankins' presence, how much will this issue prevent the Patriots from making that trip to New Orleans?
C Nick Mangold (New York Jets)
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Back in 2009, Rex Ryan’s debut season with the Green and White, the Jets were indeed ground and pound, leading the NFL in rushing yards and riding that formula to a berth in the AFC title game. A year later, they again wound up one game from the Super Bowl using that same formula.
Last season, despite a fourth-straight Pro Bowl invite for Mangold, the Jets were a disappointing 8-8. And during this summer of discontent—zero touchdowns in three preseason games and a new right tackle—it’s hard to figure where this team may be headed.
Mangold’s club has teased its fans in recent seasons and this year may be the most trying for a franchise that hasn’t won a division title since 2002 and the Super Bowl since, well, you know.
CB Darrelle Revis (New York Jets)
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He remains an anomaly in the National Football League, an absolute shutdown cover corner in a league where they’ve made it harder and harder to cover anyone.
There’s little doubt that Revis is one of the best defensive players in the NFL. There’s also little doubt that the New York defense always seems to be ahead of its offense, although the Jets were inconsistent at best on that latter side of the ball last season.
And it always seems to be a tricky situation with Revis, who avoided a third holdout in six years this summer by reporting to training camp on time. It will be interesting to see what the future holds.
QB Michael Vick (Philadelphia Eagles)
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It’s been an interesting career for the gifted athlete. He gave the Falcons some terrific years and got them within a game of the Super Bowl in 2004. Incidentally, that’s also the last season Atlanta won a playoff game.
Now the main man at the helm for the Eagles, Vick has shown more of a passing touch these days but he can still get the job done with his legs. Staying healthy is getting harder and harder—witness a few bumps and bruises this preseason against the Steelers (thumb) and Patriots (ribs).
Vick’s latest "Birds" have put a lot into refurbishing their roster the last two offseasons, but in 2011, they failed to make the playoffs. And with the Super Bowl champion Giants residing in the always-tough NFC East, the Eagles are no postseason cinch, making it tougher for the former No. 1 pick to be a champion.
CB Nnamdi Asomugha (Philadelphia Eagles)
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Like Logan Mankins, Asomugha was the final pick in the first round of a draft (2003), a choice the Raiders obtained from the Buccaneers for head coach Jon Gruden, who handed the Silver and Black a loss in Super Bowl XXXVII and as it turned out, the 32nd selection three months later.
The timeline should tell you that not only has the current Eagles cornerback not won an NFL title, he’s yet to appear on a playoff team as his first season in Philadelphia proved to be a disappointment for all involved.
So much is put on the quarterback in this league and teammate Michael Vick did struggle last year, but the Eagles defense had its own issues under first-time coordinator Juan Castillo. It will be interesting to see if those problems have been rectified. If not, Asomugha’s lone appearance in the "postseason" may only be in Pro Bowls.
RB Steven Jackson (St. Louis Rams)
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The Rams’ all-time leader in rushing yards has played on a team that has won just 15 games the last five seasons combined and hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2004, Jackson’s rookie campaign.
The St. Louis workhorse can also join some rare air this season with another 1,000 yards on the ground, which would be his eighth consecutive year, a feat achieved by only five players before him.
Still, Jackson’s Rams come off a 2-14 season and have a new head coach in Jeff Fisher who hopes to help the team escape the NFC West basement and earn a playoff berth. And who knows how many productive years the talented runner, entering his ninth season, has left?
QB Philip Rivers (San Diego Chargers)
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Since Drew Brees took the free-agent route to New Orleans, Rivers has played in every game for the Bolts and his 96 consecutive starts are topped only by the Giants Eli Manning among active quarterbacks. The Chargers enter every season as “the most talented team in the league,” but it’s gone particularly wrong as of late with a pair of non-playoff seasons following four consecutive AFC West titles.
Still, the Bolts finished tied with the Broncos and Raiders at 8-8 last season, but Denver won the division on tiebreakers. Despite an influx of free agents and some promising rookies, it’s hard to tell if this team is as talented as those others.
And until Rivers gets that ring on his finger, being a member of the quarterback class of 2004—Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, to name a few—will be a curse rather than a comparison, unfair or not.
TE Antonio Gates (San Diego Chargers)
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Think about all the great offensive players in the history of this franchise, especially when it comes to catching the football, and now realize that the former undrafted free agent has more receptions than anyone in Chargers history.
When it’s all said and done, it’s possible that only Tony Gonzalez will have put up better numbers from the tight end position than Gates, who remains a favorite target of Philip Rivers when healthy.
But the eight-time Pro Bowler has to be wondering what’s going on around him. Former teammates such as running back Darren Sproles and Vincent Jackson are now in the NFC South, putting more pressure on him and veteran Malcom Floyd to produce, although former Saints receiver Robert Meachem and one-time Broncos burner Eddie Royal should help.
Since injuries have taken their toll in recent seasons, it will be interesting to see how much longer the prolific pass-catcher will be around.
G Steve Hutchinson (Tennessee Titans)
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At one time, the former Michigan Wolverine teamed with Seahawks stalwart Walter Jones to form arguably the best left side of an offensive line in football. The duo helped paved the way for NFL MVP Shaun Alexander in 2005 as the franchise made its first and only Super Bowl appearance.
Years later, Hutchinson spent some time with left tackle Bryant McKinnie and center Matt Birk to form one of the better units in the league on a Vikings team that reached the NFC title game in 2009 only to fall short in overtime.
Now, the seven-time Pro Bowler will line up next to former all-star tackle Michael Roos in Tennessee. But with second-year quarterback Jake Locker taking over the offense and the defending AFC South champion Texans in the way, getting to the playoffs could be too difficult of a challenge this season.
WR Terrell Owens (Currently Unsigned)
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It’s hard to ignore a player who is tied for second in NFL history with 153 touchdown receptions, especially after he was attempting a comeback this season after sitting out all of 2011. Unfortunately, he basically wound up having a cup of coffee with the Seahawks and would occasionally drop the cup.
So what are Owens' chances of latching on with another team this season? It’s hard to tell, but injuries will likely play a part in any opportunity. It will be interesting to see if he is the choice over someone like Plaxico Burress, also unsigned but coming off a season in which he caught eight touchdown passes with the Jets.
It’s actually too bad Owens couldn’t stick in Seattle because it eliminates the chance of seeing he and Randy Moss (who also has 153 career touchdown grabs and didn’t play in 2011) square off twice this season.
Regardless, let's see if he finds an NFL home in 2012.