NFL Players Who Went Out on Top

Gary DavenportNFL AnalystFebruary 4, 2013

NFL Players Who Went Out on Top

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    The Baltimore Ravens' 34-31 victory in Super Bowl XLVII marks the end of the line for linebacker Ray Lewis, who is calling it a career after 17 seasons in the NFL.

    Not only will Lewis go down as one of the greatest inside linebackers to ever play in the National Football League, he'll also join a relatively short list of star players who rode off into the sunset either after a big win or while they still had plenty left in the proverbial tank.

    Here's a trip down memory lane for a look at some of them.

Ray Lewis, LB, Baltimore Ravens

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    Might as well get him out of the way.

    Before the Baltimore Ravens began their magical postseason run, Ray Lewis indicated that it would be his last ride in his playing career.

    In fact, Michael Silver of Yahoo! Sports reports that Lewis gave an 11-minute pep talk to his teammates on Saturday night that left the room in tears.

    That talk, according to linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, was about love:

    Love put us over the top. You wouldn't think it, because football is a game known for machismo and violence and toughness, but love is what drove our success. Just like the most epic action movies end up being love stories -- The Matrix, Star Wars, Gladiator. This Ravens team is a love story.

    Although Lewis was definitely a step slower after a triceps injury forced him to miss the final 10 weeks of the 2012 season, Lewis still managed to come out on top as the postseason's leading tackler by a comfortable margin. Which ended, of course, with Lewis hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in the final game of his career.

Tony Gonzalez, TE, Atlanta Falcons

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    This one may be a bit premature, since Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez hasn't officially retired yet.

    In fact, as recently as Thursday, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff was lobbying Gonzalez to stay, telling ESPN's Pat Yasinskas that "A guy who is 36 (years old) catching 100-plus balls (including the postseason), it just doesn't seem like it's time for him to move on."

    However, as Yasinskas points out, Gonzalez indicated that he was "97 percent sure" he was going to retire after Atlanta beat the Seattle Seahawks in the playoffs. After the Falcons lost the NFC Championship Game, Gonzalez said he was still leaning in that direction.

    Should Gonzalez indeed hang them up, he'll do so after one of the best seasons of his career and go out with a bang.

    That playoff victory over the Seahawks was the first of Gonzo's 16 NFL seasons, and he had the most receptions, yardage and touchdown grabs of his four years with the Falcons in 2012.

Michael Strahan, DE, New York Giants

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    Former New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan came up short in his first year of eligibility for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

    However, the same certainly cannot be said for his final season in the NFL.

    As he was for most of a 15-year career that saw him amass 141.5 career sacks, Strahan was a feared pass-rusher in 2007, racking up 57 tackles and nine sacks for the season.

    Strahan made the most of his last NFL game as well, sacking quarterback Tom Brady in the Giants' shocking victory over the previously undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.

Jerome Bettis, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Much like the aforementioned Michael Strahan, running back Jerome Bettis was left on the outside looking in when the 2013 Hall of Fame class was announced Saturday, Bettis' third year of eligibility.

    That doesn't take anything away from Bettis' 13-year career with the St. Louis Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers, and it certainly doesn't subtract from Bettis' last game in the NFL.

    That game was Super Bowl XL.

    Bettis was no longer a force in the NFL at that point in his career and only gained 43 yards in the contest. But the bruising ball-carrier did exit the NFL as a world champion after the Steelers downed the Seattle Seahawks 21-10.

    After the game, Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward told Tim Dahlberg of NBC Sports that “It was all for Jerome. We were going to fight for him.”

John Elway, QB, Denver Broncos

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    For much of John Elway's 16-year NFL career, the Hall of Fame quarterback had the reputation as a talented player who couldn't win the big game.

    Elway had guided the Denver Broncos to the Super Bowl three times, and the team came up short in each one, including a 55-10 pasting at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers that is still the most lopsided game in Super Bowl history.

    However, in Super Bowl XXXII, Elway finally got the monkey off his back with a win over the Green Bay Packers. And at that point, the 37-year-old quarterback decided to give it one more shot.

    That final season ended with a second straight Super Bowl victory, making Elway one of seven men to win back-to-back Super Bowls under center.

Barry Sanders, RB, Detroit Lions

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    Unlike most of the players on this list, Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders never got to taste the thrill of championship glory, but that doesn't mean he didn't go out on top.

    In each of Sanders' 10 NFL seasons, he topped 1,100 yards on the ground. He remains one of a handful of ball-carriers who averaged at least five yards a carry for his career.

    In fact, there was absolutely no sign that Sanders' skills were in decline during his final NFL season.

    Sanders rushed for 1,491 yards in 1998, but as Leonard Shapiro and Mark Maske of the Washington Post reported at the time, Sanders stunned the NFL when he abruptly retired in July, 1999.

    Sanders said:

    The reason I am retiring is very simple...My desire to exit the game is greater than my desire to remain in it.

    I have enjoyed playing for two great head coaches, Wayne Fontes and Bobby Ross, who are good coaches and leaders. I am not involved in a salary dispute of any kind. If I had played this season, I would have earned a more than satisfactory salary. . . . I have searched my heart through and through and feel comfortable with this decision.

Ted Hendricks, LB, Oakland Raiders

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    For 15 years, Ted Hendricks terrorized opposing offenses in the National Football League, winning four Super Bowls with two different teams.

    Hendricks got his first taste of NFL glory with the Baltimore Colts, but the Hall of Fame linebacker enjoyed most of his success as a key member of the Oakland Raiders defense of the 1970s and early '80s.

    By the time Super Bowl XVIII rolled around, Hendricks was a part-time player, and the Raiders had moved to Los Angeles. But that didn't make his last game any less sweet.

    The Raiders clobbered the Washington Redskins 38-9, and Hendricks ended his career as the personification of owner Al Davis' famous mantra: "Just Win, Baby!"

Jim Brown, RB, Cleveland Browns

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    This is a statement that always draws an argument, but it's one that has merit: Jim Brown was the greatest football player in the history of the National Football League.

    By the time Brown's nine-year pro career was over, he had rewritten the record books at his position, setting marks for single-season (1,863 in 1963) and career rushing (12,312) yardage, rushing touchdowns (106), total touchdowns (126) and all-purpose yards (15,549).

    Brown also led the Browns to the NFL Championship Game in each of his past two seasons, including a victory in the 1964 title game (the last championship won by any major sports team in Cleveland).

    However, after team owner Art Modell threatened to fine Brown for being late to training camp as a result of delays in the filming of The Dirty Dozen, Brown simply walked away from the game of football at the age of 30.

Norm Van Brocklin, QB, Philadelphia Eagles

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    This may come as a surprise to some of my younger readers, but there was an NFL before the Super Bowl.

    Not only that, but the Philadelphia Eagles were once the kings of the mountain.

    Norm Van Brocklin was the quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1960, the last year that they can lay claim to that title, and Van Brocklin's last game as a player.

    Over 12 NFL seasons, Van Brocklin won two championships, led the NFL in passing three times, was selected to nine Pro Bowls and twice led the league in punting.

    Not only was Van Brocklin the quarterback and punter, but he was also the de facto coach on the field. An Eagles player once told a reporter looking for head coach Buck Shaw that “If it’s the game plan you want, see Dutch.

Otto Graham, QB, Cleveland Browns

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    If there's one thing that Cleveland Browns quarterback Otto Graham knew, it was playing in championship games.

    In fact, Graham played in one for every season that he was the team's quarterback.

    Each season from 1946-1955, Graham's Browns played for all the marbles, including Cleveland's first season in the National Football League in 1950, when it defeated the Los Angeles Rams 30-28.

    Graham retired after the 1954 season, but he was convinced by Paul Brown to come back for one more season at the helm.

    Graham then departed the NFL just as he entered it, leading the Browns to a 38-14 win over the Rams in the 1955 title game.