NFL Free Agency: The Worst FA Signing in the History of Every NFL Franchise

Gene StrotherCorrespondent IIIMarch 29, 2011

NFL Free Agency: The Worst FA Signing in the History of Every NFL Franchise

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    NFL free agency ought to be underway. Unfortunately, all 1,500-plus NFL players are, in a manner of speaking, free agents right now. The owners have locked them out and the NFL Players Association has lawyered them up.

    But that will all pass. There will be a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, and when that happens, the players not currently under contract can go about selling their talents to the highest bidder.

    While they are doing that, they should offer a thank-you to the late, great Reggie White, whose lawsuit against the NFL paved the way for today's free agents.

    White proved himself worth every penny of the big contract the Green Bay Packers gave him to entice him away from the Philadelphia Eagles. In 1997, he teamed up with a young Brett Favre and led the Pack to their first Super Bowl win since Super Bowl II.

    Later, Favre himself would become the NFL's highest-profile free agent and would lead his former nemesis, the Minnesota Vikings, to within one bad pass of their first Super Bowl trip in 33 years.

    Between White and Favre, however, there has been a long list of free agents that did not work out so supremely. Players signed big contracts, generated a ton of excitement for fans of their new team and then either became completely disastrous or simply a bust.

    The free agent ought to be a better bet than the rookie. He has a body of work to examine. However, there is no accounting for the influences of scheme, personnel and coaching on one's personal success.

    Following is a list of the worst free agent each NFL team has signed since Reggie White's fateful day in court. We will address the teams division by division, beginning with the AFC North. 

Baltimore Ravens: Elvis Grbac, the King of the Blues

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    Adam Rank of rates the Baltimore Ravens' move to sign Elvis Grbac as history's second-biggest blunder concerning free-agent quarterbacks:

    "Trent Dilfer led the Ravens to a Super Bowl championship in 2000 and was rewarded with the team turning to Grbac, who was coming off a 4,000-yard season with the Chiefs. Things didn’t work out for the Ravens, as Grbac threw more interceptions (18) than touchdowns (15) and the team was bounced from the playoffs by the Steelers. Grbac retired after only one season in Baltimore."

Cincinnati Bengals: Mining That Laveranues Vein Rendered Coles, but No Gold

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    Laveranues Coles. Any mother who makes her kid's first name that difficult to spell deserves to have him on a list like this.

    Coles belongs on the Jets. That is where he made his name. That is where he had his best days as a receiver. And that is the place to which he returned once his one-year stint in Cincy proved uninspiring and forgetful.

    The Bengals signed Coles to a four-year, $28 million deal, saw him underachieve with 43 receptions for 543 yards, and cut him after year one.

Cleveland Browns: Jake Delhomme vs. Jeff Garcia

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    Jeff Garcia-to-the-Cleveland Browns makes most of the top 10 lists of NFL free agency busts. After building a name for himself with the San Francisco 49ers, Garcia tested the free agency market and signed a $25 million, four-year contract.

    Garcia rewarded the Browns with one year, in which he started 10 games and threw 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He was easily the Browns' biggest disappointment until they signed another "proven" veteran, Jake Delhomme.

    Delhomme only started four games. He threw two touchdowns and seven interceptions before being replaced by rookie Colt McCoy.

    I think more was expected of Jeff Garcia. Delhomme had the look of a quarterback that just didn't have it anymore. Therefore, I officially give the nod to Garcia as the Browns' biggest FA blunder.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Sean Mahan Was Not the Man

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    In 2007, the Steelers signed Sean Mahan to be their next center, giving him a five-year, $17 million deal. Mahan became, instead, an expendable backup.

    So, the Steelers traded Mahan back to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his original team, after just one season.

Chicago Bears: Thomas Smith, the Man with a Forgettable Name and Game

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    In 2000, a $22.5 million, five-year contract was a big deal. For most of us, it wouldn't be chicken feed even in 2011.

    The Bears signed defensive back Thomas Smith away from the Buffalo Bills for that very contract. It was a sweet deal. Well, for Smith it was a sweet deal.

    For the Bears, the Smith signing was just one reason to be miserable as the team stumbled out of the gate to a disappointing 1-7 record. The Bears would finish the year 5-11 and Smith would not record a single interception, but would make 62 tackles (an indication of how many completed passes he was giving up).

    Smith would play one more year in the NFL, but not with the Bears.

Detroit Lions QB Scott Mitchell: Poster Boy for Failed Free-Agent Signings

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    Do an Internet search for worst NFL free-agency signings and Scott Mitchell not only shows up on everyone's list, he is usually found right at the top of it.

    Scott Mitchell went from backing up Dan Marino in Miami to the $11 Million Man in Detroit. He was to be the savior of the franchise. To Mitchell's credit, he did get the Lions to the playoffs, which we all know to be no small feat for that franchise.

    He did have this guy at running back named Barry Sanders, which didn't hurt.

    Once in the playoffs, however, Mitchell found himself overmatched and forged an anemic 23.1 QB rating. In his first four years as a Lion, Mitchell threw 54 interceptions against 78 touchdowns. In '96, he had 17 touchdowns and 17 interceptions.

Green Bay Packers: Joe Johnson Ruptures His Career on the Frozen Tundra

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    Defensive end Joe Johnson had a solid eight-year run in New Orleans, where he earned two Pro Bowl trips and recognition as a solid defender.

    Free agent Johnson signed a six-year, $33 million contract with the Green Bay Packers in March of 2002. He only played a total of 11 games in two injury-riddled seasons. His final year there, he started six games at left end before rupturing his right quadriceps tendon.

    The Packers cut Johnson in June 2004.

Minnesota Vikings and Their Fatal Attraction to Brett Favre

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    Brett Favre passed his way into an inevitable induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. As a Green Bay Packer.

    For 16 years, he tormented the NFC North with sometimes brilliant play. He led his team to two Super Bowl appearances and to victory in Super Bowl XXXI. The Vikings were too long the victims of Favre's gunslinging ways. So, when the chance came to sign him as a free agent in 2009, they jumped on it.

    Favre rewarded the Vikes with a trip to the NFC Championship Game. He was one bad decision away from taking Minnesota to its first Super Bowl in 30 years. But Favre threw an untimely interception, and the Vikings lost to the New Orleans Saints.

    So Brett retired. Again.

    If Minnesota had left well enough alone, the Favre signing would have gone down as one of the better decisions ever made in free agency. They didn't. They sent a three-man posse to Favre's home in Mississippi and sweet-talked the aging wonder into giving it one more go.

    That was a mistake. Favre fizzled. He played like the old man he had become. Then he got hurt and the longest streak of consecutive starts in NFL history came to an end.

    The Vikings fell to 6-10 in 2010. Mayhem set in. Head coach Brad Childress lost his job before the season ended. Favre became embroiled in a lurid "sexting" scandal. All the good will the legend had brought to Minnesota soured. 

Houston Texans: Ahman Takes the Green but Does Not Run with It

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    Ahman Green was a stellar running back in Green Bay. He surpassed 1,000 yards rushing six times in nine years. The Houston Texans had an anemic running game during that span, one that featured forgettable ball-toters like Domanick Williams, Ron Dayne and Steve Slaton.

    Ahman Green signed on with the Texans to provide that spark they needed on the ground. Instead, he got hurt a couple of times, played only 14 games in two seasons, and amassed a total of 554 yards rushing.

    The sizzle and pop fizzled and popped. But what else do you expect in Houston?

Indianapolis Colts: Homegrown and Corn Fed

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    The Indianapolis Colts simply do not make many free-agent moves. Take a look at their roster from the mid-90s through the current decade and what do you see? Mostly draft picks of the Indianapolis Colts, that's what.

    And what does that get you? Multiple Super Bowl trips and nine straight years of 10 regular season wins or more.

    The Colts' worst free-agency move has yet to be made.

    Stay tuned.

End Run: Jacksonville Jaguars Miss on DE Hugh Douglas and DE Bryce Paup

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    Vito Stellino of the Florida Times-Union rated Hugh Douglas as the second-worst free-agent pick-up in Jaguars' history. He rated Bryce Paup as the worst.

    I suppose you could go either way on that. Both were costly. Both men were busts in Jacksonville.

    Concerning Douglas, Stellino wrote the following:

    When Douglas signed a five-year, $27.11 million deal with a $5 million signing bonus in 2003, the deal was hailed. called him one of the most "prized commodities" on the market and said the Jaguars "snatched him from the clutches of his more publicized suitors.'' Well, they also overpaid him. Like Paup, Douglas was at the end of his career. He had 3 1/2 sacks in 2003. The Jaguars brought him to camp in 2004, but they cut him before the start of the season. He returned to the Philadelphia Eagles for a final season.

    Paup was coming off of four consecutive Pro Bowls when he was signed by the Jaguars. Douglas, however, cost more than Paup. Neither man had much impact or lasted long in Jacksonville.

    I gave Douglas the nod over Paup. Congratulations to him.

Tennessee Titans: Yancy Thigpen and the Inglorious End of an Era

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    You have to way back in Tennessee Titans' history to find the team's worst free agent-signing. In fact, you have to go back to when they were the Tennessee Oilers.

    Back to when people in Houston were still smarting over Bud Adams' defection to the Volunteer state. Back to when the only name more reviled than Adams in South Texas was Santa Ana...and it was a close race between the two.

    All the way back to 1998 and the signing of wide receiver Yancey Thigpen, who had a decent six-year run with the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he surpassed 1,300 yards receiving twice. He was meant to be the veteran wide receiver that would provide a solid target for young Titans quarterback Steve McNair.

    Thigpen failed to deliver. He averaged just 30 receptions per year for three seasons in Tennessee and scored a total of nine touchdowns.

    McNair would find his legs and prove his arm. Just not with Yancey Thigpen. 

Atlanta Falcons Lawyer Up with Milloy

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    First Guy: Did you hear they were thinking of replacing lab mice with lawyers?

    Second Guy: No? Why would they do that?

    First Guy: There's more of them and you do not get as emotionally attached.


    Ah! Everyone loves a good lawyer joke. Lawyer Milloy, however, is no joke. During his seven years with the New England Patriots, the safety made four Pro Bowls and was named All-Pro once.

    The Atlanta Falcons signed Milloy in 2006, after he had spent three years in Buffalo. The signing was not really a bust. Milloy did anchor the safety position for three seasons, but his production was not what it had once been. He only recorded three interceptions for the Falcons.

    Still, if Milloy is your worst free-agent signing, you could do worse. 

Sean Gilbert Breaks Carolina Panthers and NFL from Sucking Eggs

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    Ever wonder why no NFL team gives up the two first-round picks necessary to steal away a franchised player?

    Two words: Sean Gilbert. In 1998, the Carolina Panthers enacted a trade with the Washington Redskins when they tendered a $46.5 million offer to the franchised defensive lineman. The move proved costly as it hamstrung the Panthers for two drafts and Gilbert failed to perform at a level anywhere close to expectations.

    In five years with Carolina, Gilbert recorded just 15.5 sacks and 141 tackles.

    Nobody steals franchise players anymore, thanks to Sean Gilbert and the Carolina Panthers. 

Bear Market: New Orleans Corner RFA CB Jason David

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    If you do not reside in the Big Easy and follow New Orleans Saints football, you may not remember Jason David. If you do live there and follow Dem Saints, I doubt you have forgotten the 2007 restricted free agent that cost your team a fourth-round pick to the Indianapolis Colts.

    When David was cut in the 2009 preseason, ESPN blogger Pat Yasinskas offered the following note:

    In his first game for the Saints, he returned a fumble for a touchdown, but also gave up touchdown passes of 27, 28 and 45 yards against his former team, the Indianapolis Colts. During the past two seasons, he made eight interceptions, but often drew boos from the Louisiana Superdome crowd as the receivers he covered piled up yardage. 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers Raid Cowboys for FA Alvin Harper

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    In 1995, the Dallas Cowboys were coming off of two straight Super Bowl victories. Free agency was gaining its sea legs and teams desperate to improve their own status were raiding the Cowboys roster like pirates on the high seas.

    The swashbuckling Tampa Bay Buccaneers were among the biggest pirates. They stole away Alvin Harper, the man who labored under the considerable shadow of Michael Irvin.

    Harper had made some big catches in key moments. He was big and fast and always a deep threat. In '94, Harper led the NFL with 24.9 yards per reception.

    The Bucs signed Harper to a big contract, hoping he would become the featured receiver in their air attack. His first year in TB, he caught 46 passes for 633 yards and two touchdowns. It was a pedestrian effort at best. After year two, the Buccaneers cut him.

The Bad-Luck Buffalo Bills Sign LB Chris Spielman

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    The worst free agent signing in Buffalo Bills history is more of a hard-luck story than a bad move. Linebacker Chris Spielman did not underperform when the Bills signed him in 1996. Just the opposite. He started all 16 games and recorded 111 tackles.

    Then he got hurt. In 1997, Spielman suffered a neck injury that required a delicate surgery. Although the linebacker did return to football, he did so with the Cleveland Browns. In keeping with what became team tradition in Buffalo, the Bills were left with nothing but "what ifs." 

Miami Dolphins, Drew Brees and Other Reasons to Hate Nick Saban

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    I doubt a Dolphins fan needs another reason to hate Nick Saban. I will give you one anyway.

    Drew Brees.

    With the logjam at quarterback in San Diego, Brees was to be the odd man out. Miami could have gotten him on the free-agent market. Saban thumbed his nose at the idea and elected instead to trade for Daunte Culpepper.

    The rest is history.

    Oh well, You still have South Beach...and LeBron.

New England Patriots: Free-Agent Mistakes? Yeah, Right!

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    Far be it from me to nitpick the best-run organization in the National Football League.

    The New England Patriots have been to four Super Bowls in the past 10 years. They have posted the first and only 16-0 regular season record. And they have done it because they are superb talent evaluators and know how to build a roster and keep it churning.

    The Patriots do not sign your free agents. You sign theirs...once they are done with them.

    Bill Belichick and company just do not make many mistakes with personnel.

    Now, if you want to bash the coach's sense of style, I am in.

    Otherwise, forget it.

Neil O'Donnell Does Not Fly for NY Jets

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    Anyone who saw Neil O'Donnell's performance for the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXX would wonder why any team would sign him to a five-year, $25 million contract.

    But the Jets did. Even after O'Donnell threw away the Super Bowl by throwing two passes right into the breadbasket of the slow-footed Dallas Cowboys defensive back Larry Brown, the Jets pegged their Super Bowl aspirations on the man with the last name better suited to an Irish pub than a franchise QB.

    His first year in New York, O'Donnell suffered a separated shoulder. He started just six games that year. The Jets finished 1-15. The next year, Bill Parcells came to town. He benched O'Donnell a few times for poor play and then cut him.

    And everyone lifted a pint and sang Roddy McCorley.

Dallas Cowboys Kick It Out of Bounds with Mike Vanderjagt

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    For years, the Dallas Cowboys were content to sign any old kicker and pay him somewhere around the league minimum. Any kicker will do, they thought. Save that money and spend it on other positions.

    But when bad kicks at the wrong time began costing them games, they rethought their position and signed Mike Vanderjagt, formerly of the Indianapolis Colts. Vanderjagt had the best field goal kicking percentage in NFL history at the time.

    The Cowboys gave him a three-year, $4.5 million contract with a $2.5 million bonus.

    Here is how Gerry Fraley of the Dallas Morning News remembers Vanderjagt's stint in Dallas:

    Vanderjagt made 13-of-18 attempts and had limited range. He was only 2-of-5 on attempts of 35-plus yards. The combination of two bad misses against Indianapolis and an ugly 22-yarder against Tampa Bay convinced Parcells to make a move. The Cowboys released Vanderjagt after 11 games, replacing him with Martin Grammatica.

    The guy Peyton Manning once called "our idiot kicker" proved no better in Dallas than the parade of minimum wage earners that had preceded him. 

NY Giants Can't Win with Chris Canty

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    Chris Canty was a four-year veteran and a solid starter for the Dallas Cowboys at defensive end. When he became a free agent in 2009, the New York Giants, who were thin at the end position, signed the big lineman to a six-year, $42 million contract.

    The first year in New York, Canty started only eight games, made just eight tackles and was credited with half of a sack. In 2010, Canty started 16 games, made 28 tackles and recorded 1.5 sacks.

    So far, the Giants have paid him $388,888 per tackle. That is a good gig if you can get it.

    Sucks for the employer, though. 

Philadelphia Freak Show: Eagles Cursed with Jevon Kearse

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    Jevon "The Freak" Kearse is among the best pass rushers of his generation. That is why, when the Tennessee Titans could not get a deal done with their superstar after the 2003 season, the Philadelphia Eagles stepped in with a record-breaking deal for the defensive lineman.

    They gave him an eight-year, $65 million contract with a $16 million signing bonus. No defensive lineman had ever been given so much.

    And few have ever done so little to earn it. In five years in Philly, Kearse recorded a grand total of 75 tackles and 22 sacks. For that kind of investment, the 22 sacks would have looked better in a single season than spread over the four years he actually lasted in Philadelphia.

    The Kearse deal proved nothing is a sure thing in the NFL. 

Washington Redskins: The NFL's Elite Free Agency Bungler

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    If it is a free-agent signing and it can go wrong, then chances are better than zero Dan Snyder and the Washington Redskins are somewhere nearby.

    Where to begin with this team? We could begin with Jeff George and his $18 million contract. How about Jeremiah Trotter? He was brilliant with the Eagles, but a bust in DC. Then there are Adam Archuleta, Dana Stubblefield and Deion Sanders.

    And the hits just keep a-comin'.

    The cake-taker, however, has to be Albert Haynesworth. Another Tennessee Titan who got away, it would take big money to land the big nose tackle. Little Danny Snyder has big money if nothing else. He signed Haynesworth to a $100 million deal.

    In his first two seasons in Washington, Haynesworth has recorded 43 tackles and 6.5 sacks.

    Go ahead and calculate how much he is being paid per tackle if you want. My calculator just broke.

    Last year, Haynesworth landed in head coach Mike Shanahan's doghouse. The big fellow was unhappy with the new defensive scheme and Shanahan figured he was hired to coach the team, so he would.

    This can only get better if you are a Redskins hater.

Denver Broncos Caught in Talent-Versus-Character Trap with Dale Carter

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    Dale Carter spent seven seasons in Kansas City. He was named to four Pro Bowls and was arrested three times. When he became a free agent in 1999, the Denver Broncos, AFC West bunkmates with the Chiefs, knew full well that Carter was a character risk.

    The Broncos thought Carter's talent would trump any potential behavior problems. They thought wrong. Carter did little to impress in '99 and was suspended for the entire 2000 season for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. It was his fourth offense.

    The Broncos cut ties with Carter in 2001. 

KC but No Sunshine Band: Only Chester McGlockton

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    Remember that franchised player rule? If an NFL team designates a player as a franchise player, part of what it takes to wrest him away from that team is two first-round picks.

    Carolina did it with Redskins defensive lineman Sean Gilbert, and Kansas City did it with Oakland Raiders defensive lineman Chester McGlockton.

    Neither panned out and no one has done it since.

    McGlockton lasted three years in KC. He recorded a total of 87 tackles and seven sacks.

    And all it cost was a couple of first-round draft picks and a boatload of money. 

Oakland Raiders: Desmond Howard or Larry Brown?

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    The Oakland Raiders, like the Washington Redskins, have long made a living signing other people's castoffs. The Raiders have made fewer glaring mistakes than the 'Skins in that department. (They usually save their best blunders for draft day.) But they did make a couple of big ones.

    Each involved a Super Bowl MVP. First, in 1996, they signed defensive back Larry Brown, the MVP of Super Bowl XXX. They forgot, I guess, to check whether he could outrun molasses. Brown lasted two seasons in Oakland and managed somehow to snag one interception.

    Then, in 1997, the Raiders signed Super Bowl XXXI MVP Desmond Howard. Unlike Brown, Howard could run. And he did. All the way to the bank.

    Where Howard did not run was to the end zone. He scored only one touchdown in two years with the Raiders.

    I am calling this a draw. Brown and Howard share the honor of being the Raiders' worst free-agent signing.

San Diego Is a Long Way from Boston, but Not Far Enough

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    David Boston went to the San Diego Chargers in 2003. He left in 2004. He was there but one season.

    Boston put up decent numbers with the Chargers. He caught 70 passes for 880 yards and seven touchdowns.

    It was not on the field where Boston failed. It was in the locker room. He had a public feud with fellow receiver Reche Caldwell and head coach Marty Schottenheimer.

    The Chargers were 4-12 in 2003.

Derek Anderson Not the Answer in Arizona

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    The Cardinals had a quarterback that could flat play. No, it was not their first-round draft pick, Matt Leinert. Nor was it free agent QB Derek Anderson, the Cleveland Browns castoff.

    It was long-in-the-tooth, long-since forgotten and written-off Kurt Warner. And he got them to the Super Bowl.

    Derek Anderson will not be taking the Desert Yardbirds or anybody else to the Super Bowl any time soon, or my name is not Nostradamus. 

    But at least the contract is only a two-year, $7.25 million deal. As quarterbacks go, that is a bargain even for a bust.

San Francisco 49ers Pan Fool's Gold in the Lawrence Phillips Deal

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    Coming out of Nebraska, Lawrence Phillips was a can't-miss running back sure to turn the NFL on its ear.

    He did turn it on its ear, but only in the spectacular way he failed. Phillips was a head case. The Rams signed him with the sixth pick in the 1996 NFL draft. Ten games into his second year, Coach Dick Vermeil tearfully parted ways with the volatile back, shipping him off to Miami, where he started only two games.

    The 49ers signed Phillips in 1999. Phillips had spent the '98 season setting a rushing record for the Barcelona Dragons in NFL Europe.

    Phillips' most infamous contribution to the 49ers was to end QB Steve Young's career. He missed a block on a blitzing defensive back, and Young sustained a career-ending injury.

    Some have speculated that the troubled back missed the block on purpose.

    Post-career, Phillips attacked his girlfriend. Later, he hit some kids with his car after becoming upset over a pickup football game. Phillips was sentenced to 31 years in prison.

Seattle Not Great for Nate Odomes

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    Nate Odomes was a great defensive back for the Buffalo Bills in the early '90s, and a vital part of the team that went to four straight Super Bowls.

    Naturally, when he became a free agent, he was a hot commodity. The Seattle Seahawks signed him in 1994. He was with Seattle for two years, but suffered a knee injury each of those seasons.

    Nate Odomes never played a single down for the Seahawks.

Rams Fans Do Not Feel Good About AJ Feeley

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    During the 2010 free agency period, the Rams signed free-agent quarterback AJ Feeley and the move was met by a collective, "Meh."

    The Rams knew they needed a quarterback to have any hope of lifting themselves out of the NFL cellar they had languished in for too long. The Rams' fans knew that too. They also knew that AJ Feeley was not the man for the job.

    In reviewing the free-agent signing at the time, Mark Peterson at wrote,  "Why are we signing another lame QB?  We already have 3 in Bulger, Null, and Boller.  Feeley is cut out of the exact same cloth as the others.  This is a bad signing."

    I put the Feeley signing on this list because of its impact on fan morale. It had little to no impact on the team, but the fans were not happy with it. They felt that hopelessness gripping their throats again.

    That was before Sam Bradford. Now all is forgiven.