The 10 Best Final Seasons in NFL History

Bryn SwartzSenior Writer IIIApril 11, 2014

The 10 Best Final Seasons in NFL History

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    TOM PIDGEON

    One of the hardest things for an NFL player to do is finish his career. Players rarely get to go out with a storybook ending, a la John Elway with the 1998 Denver Broncos or Ray Lewis with the 2012 Baltimore Ravens.

    No, a player usually ends his career the way Donovan McNabb did. A six-time Pro Bowler from 1999 to 2009, McNabb's skills diminished so quickly that he was out of the league in 2011, just two years after his final Pro Bowl selection. Playing for weak Washington Redskins and Minnesota Vikings teams didn't help either. 

    In the NFL, a player can go from elite to out of the league in no time. Besides McNabb, guys like Ed Reed and Nnamdi Asomugha fell off the face of the earth just a year or so after earning Pro Bowl selections.

    The following slides will highlight the players throughout the league's history who walked away while they were still at their peak. Some of these players chose to walk away, while others suffered serious injuries and were forced to retire. But all were still elite players, even during their final season. 

    Honorable mentions go out to Philadelphia Eagles offensive end Pete Pihos (1955), Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders (1998), Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez (2013), Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Terrell Owens (2010), Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith (1968) and Cleveland Browns quarterback Brian Sipe (1983). 

10. Bobby Boyd, CB, Baltimore Colts (1968)

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    William A. Smith

    Had Bobby Boyd played three or four more seasons, he could have retired as the NFL's all-time interceptions leader. Instead, he's not even in the Hall of Fame, and he's been all but forgotten over the last four-plus decades.

    Boyd's 1968 season resulted in eight interceptions, including a touchdown. He ranked as the best player in the NFL, per Pro Football Reference's approximate value

    The Baltimore Colts went on to win the AFL championship. Boyd's final career game was the famous Joe Namath guarantee. 

9. Tiki Barber, RB, New York Giants (2006)

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    Tom Mihalek

    You don't usually see a running back get better with age. Tiki Barber was an exception. 

    Barber was a disappointment from 1997 to 1999. He was good from 2000 to 2003. And he was dominant from 2004 to 2006. 

    In his final season, Barber carried 327 times for 1,662 yards and five scores, an average of 5.1 yards per carry. He also caught 58 passes for 465 yards, giving him a total of 2,127 yards from scrimmage. 

    The Giants reached the postseason as a wild-card team. Barber's final career game? 26 carries for 137 yards. 

8. Robert Smith, RB, Minnesota Vikings (2000)

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    TOM OLMSCHEID

    A first-round pick by the Minnesota Vikings in 1993, Robert Smith struggled for his first four seasons but turned into a star during the second half of his career. 

    His best season was his last, when he rushed for 1,521 yards and seven touchdowns on 5.2 yards per carry with the 2000 Vikings. 

    He walked away from football to pursue a career in medicine and to avoid suffering any serious injuries. 

7. Kurt Warner, QB, Arizona Cardinals (2009)

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    Patrick Semansky

    It's hard to find a more unusual NFL career than Kurt Warner's. He was dominant from 1999 to 2001 with the St. Louis Rams but fell off the face off the earth for the next five years. 

    Warner rebounded with the Arizona Cardinals in 2007 and led the team to the Super Bowl in 2008. He turned in another dominant season in 2009, throwing for 3,753 yards and 26 touchdowns while leading the Cardinals back into the postseason.

    In the wild-card playoff game against the Green Bay Packers, Warner completed 29 of his 33 passes for 379 yards and five touchdowns, easily one of the most dominant single-game postseason performances in NFL history. But a concussion against the New Orleans Saints the following week led him to retire at age 38. 

6. Don Hutson, WR, Green Bay Packers (1945)

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    Carl Linde

    The most dominant wide receiver the sport has ever seen, Don Hutson chose to walk away from the NFL in 1945 after a typically great season.

    He caught 47 passes for 834 yards and nine touchdowns. In a 12-game season, those numbers project to 64 catches for 1,112 yards and 12 touchdowns.

    That's without factoring in the extreme difference in eras between amount of passes thrown. 

     

5. John Elway, QB, Denver Broncos (1998)

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    Evan Agostini

    For 14 seasons, the story was the same in Denver. John Elway would turn in a great season, the Broncos would make the playoffs and they wouldn't win the Super Bowl. 

    Everything changed in 1997, with Elway posting the best touchdown-to-interception ratio of his career and leading the Broncos to an improbable Super Bowl title. 

    In 1998, his final season, Elway led Denver to victories in its first 13 games. He threw for 22 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions, and he posted the highest single-season passer rating of his career. In the postseason, he again led the Broncos to a Super Bowl title, winning MVP honors over the Atlanta Falcons. 

4. Sterling Sharpe, WR, Green Bay Packers (1994)

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    CHRIS O'MEARA

    One of the biggest what-if stories in NFL history belongs to Sterling Sharpe, who would have been one of the top five receivers ever if he hadn't suffered a career-ending neck injury after the 1994 season.

    During his final season, Sharpe caught 94 passes for 1,119 yards and a league-leading 18 touchdowns. 

    He finished his seven-year career with 595 catches for 8,134 yards and 65 touchdowns. Give him seven more seasons and he would have had a career stat line of 1,190 catches, 16,268 yards and 130 touchdowns. That would have made him one of the top five receivers in NFL history.

3. Roger Staubach, QB, Dallas Cowboys (1979)

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    Associated Press

    One of the most underrated quarterbacks in NFL history, Roger Staubach didn't begin his NFL career until age 29 because he chose to serve in the military. 

    In his final season, he set career highs in completions (267), attempts (461), yards (3,586), touchdowns (27) and passer rating (92.3).

    But according to Lindsay H. Jones of USA Todayhe suffered two concussions and was told by doctors that another concussion could result in life-threatening consequences. So he chose to retire. 

2. Norm Van Brocklin, QB, Philadelphia Eagles (1960)

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    Paul Vathis

    Norm Van Brocklin turned in the most memorable season by a quarterback in Philadelphia Eagles history in 1960.

    At age 34, The Dutchman threw for 24 touchdowns and averaged 8.7 yards per attempt. He led the Eagles to 10 victories during the regular season (12 games), including five victories in the fourth quarter. 

    The NFL championship was a typical 1960 Eagles game, as they battled to take a 17-13 lead midway through the fourth quarter. They held on for their third, and last, NFL championship. 

    The victory made Van Brocklin the only quarterback in NFL history to win a championship with two different teams. He's also one of two Hall of Fame quarterbacks to win a championship in his final NFL game. 

1. Jim Brown, RB, Cleveland Browns (1965)

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    David Richard

    Jim Brown is the only player in NFL history to win a league Most Valuable Player Award during his final season.

    He turned in one of the best seasons of his career in 1965, winning his fourth rushing Triple Crown. He rushed for 1,544 yards and 17 touchdowns on 5.3 yards per carry. He also added four receiving scores, giving him a career-high 21 touchdowns. 

    Brown chose to walk away from the game at age 29 to pursue a professional acting career.