It's always a sad day, even if you can see it coming. The day a well-known NFL player hangs up his cleats is always a downer. Oftentimes, however, that day is preempted by years of visible decline in which fans and analysts wonder, sometimes out loud, when that player will decide he's had enough.
That moment is inevitable. Even with DeSean Jackson's speed, you can't outrun Father Time.
Some players make time catch them from behind, their attempts at ignoring age only going so far. Some spare themselves the pursuit and embrace it, ignoring the humiliation that comes with hanging on even a little bit too long.
Either way, for the following players, that moment is fast approaching. They've all had successful careers, but the glory can't last forever.
He was once as feared a safety as there was in the league. These days, Bob Sanders is the one fearing for his health when he suits up for an NFL game.
He was a heat-seeking, 5'8", 206-pound missile with the Indianapolis Colts, but the problem with 5'8" players that launch themselves full speed into receivers is that they tend to break down.
After his career peaked with a Super Bowl in 2006 and Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2007, Sanders began a rapid decline.
He played six games in 2008, two in 2009 and one in 2010. The Colts gave up on him before this year, and the Chargers signed him, hoping for a renaissance of what originally looked like a Hall of Fame career. It wasn't meant to be, however, as Sanders lasted only two games before a knee injury forced him onto injured reserve for a third straight season.
It should be his final time on IR. Sanders at this point can't play the game of football without something going wrong. It's a tough reality, but Sanders will have to accept that his body can't handle the strain of the violent sport.
Donovan McNabb's excellent career has hit an exceptionally rough three-year stretch.
His last year in Philadelphia was characterized by calls for second-round draft pick Kevin Kolb to take over the franchise. His coach and longtime supporter, Andy Reid, finally gave in before 2010 and traded McNabb to Washington, where coach Mike Shanahan benched him midseason for Rex Grossman. He then landed in Minnesota, where he's been benched for rookie Christian Ponder.
He can't hang on to a starting role. He's proving unable to even play the position. He threw for an incredibly meager 39 yards in a Week 1 loss and didn't show an ability to spark an offense. He's not terrible, but teams can't rely on him to be more than mediocre.
His contract is up after this year, and at this point no teams are looking for a stopgap veteran quarterback. McNabb won't find suitors out there—at least, not ones that allow him to be the Donovan McNabb of old.
After leaving the Atlanta Falcons, where he was a fixture as the focus of the linebacking corps, Brooking proved he had some game left by becoming a strong voice and on-field presence for the Cowboys, averaging over 100 tackles in his first two seasons in 2009 and '10.
But the 36-year-old five-time Pro Bowler has shown signs of decline. He's recorded only 22 tackles in seven games in 2011, and though that's due largely to the emergence of Sean Lee as a fixture in the linebacking corps, it's still a surprising number considering that 100-tackle seasons have been a lock for him during his career.
The end could come soon for Brooking. His contract is up after this year, and Dallas has Lee and DeMarcus Ware, the league's best pass-rusher, to anchor the position. With a reduced role and an expired contract, Brooking could see the writing on the wall.
Derrick Mason's been finding it tough to make an impact anywhere lately.
He was released by Baltimore right after the lockout and then traded by the New York Jets in the middle of this season. He couldn't get on the field with the Jets, reportedly due to his not knowing the playbook, and his impact with his new team, the Houston Texans, hasn't been much better. He's been held to one catch twice in three games since being traded, and his snaps will go down when Andre Johnson returns.
He's still under contract for next year, but that may not matter. Mason has retired before, which, combined with his playbook snafu, suggests that he's not dedicated to the game.
He's no longer the reliable receiver he was, and Houston won't feel much incentive to keep around a player who will be 38 years old by the end of the season. He won't be in demand after what's transpired this season. He'll walk away.
OK, this one's a simple call, but Mark Brunell's on his last legs' last legs.
It can be easy to forget that Brunell is even playing. After all, his career gained notoriety 15 years ago, when he was the gunslinging leader of an upstart Jacksonville Jaguars team that reached the AFC championship game.
Since then, the Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans have entered the league, 19 teams have changed stadiums and Peyton Manning's played 13 seasons and been pretty good.
Brunell hasn't been a starting quarterback in the league for five years, but even the clipboard gig is nearing an end. His contract is up after this year, and he's 41 years old. Think any teams will be making a move to give up a roster spot and keep him around?
At only 33 years old, Kevin Curtis isn't biologically due for retirement. His body, however, is old beyond its years.
Like Bob Sanders, Curtis was at his peak in 2007, when he caught 77 passes for 1,110 yards. He seemed poised for a productive stretch of years, but he played only 14 games over the next three games as his body failed him. The Titans gave him a shot this preseason, but a hand injury ended that recovery attempt before it started.
That should be enough for Curtis. The nature of the position makes it hard for receivers to shake the injury bug. There's just no way to play the game without being on the brink of a recurrence every snap. He's out for the year, so he's already said goodbye to the game, but it'll be official once the season's over.
This one is just a hunch.
Hines Ward is still a productive player in this league. He's had at least 59 catches each season since 2000, and he's been exceptionally durable (this current injury notwithstanding), having missed only six games over his first 13 seasons. Even with the emerging explosiveness of the offense, Ward remains a security blanket for Ben Roethlisberger, and the more is on the line, the more dangerous he becomes.
But Ward seems ready to hang 'em up. He was evasive about the topic before the Super Bowl in February, and there was some thought that he would make XLV for him what XL was for Jerome Bettis had the Steelers defeated Green Bay.
He obviously returned, but this isn't the offense he led in the middle of the decade. With Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, this is a youth-based, vertical attack. The longer Ward sticks around, the less he'll fit in.
Ward has long said he respects how Bettis left the game, so it's a good bet that he'll still be a quality player when he leaves. With the Steelers looking like a lock for the playoffs, he could have the stage set to "go out on top." If Pittsburgh wins lucky No. 7, it'll be a no-brainer.
Either way, Ward leaves after this season as one of the franchise's most popular players.