10 NFL Legends Who Went Out on Top
NFL players reach the highest level of their sport because they combined their athletic ability with extraordinary competitiveness. This is one of the reasons why we see some players end their career on a high note.
It must be a great feeling for someone who wants nothing more than to succeed to finish strong. This list looks at several of the NFL’s all-time greats who went out on top, via personal and/or team success.
Ray Lewis, Linebacker, Baltimore Ravens
Ray Lewis’ final season closely resembled something we typically see on a movie screen. He faced a tough obstacle when he suffered a torn triceps muscle, made a surprising recovery and ended his career with a Super Bowl win.
Lewis was always known as a fiery leader who inspired his teammates. The motivation he provided during the Baltimore Ravens’ recent playoff run might have had more impact than his play on the field.
Due to his age and years in the league, Lewis lost a few steps by the time his final season came around. He mainly relied on his tenacity and good instincts to make plays on the field. Even if he didn’t play at an elite level, he was still a major part of the Ravens’ Super Bowl win.
Michael Strahan, Defensive End, New York Giants
Michael Strahan is one of the few NFL stars who has successfully transitioned to life after football. A lot of this has to do with the fact he had the foresight to prepare himself. Strahan also realized he could build off finishing his career with a Super Bowl victory.
The New York Giants’ surprise win over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII helped keep Strahan in the media spotlight.
While I’m sure he’s proud of his off-field success, Strahan has the luxury of saying he finished his career at the top of his sport.
Jerome Bettis, Running Back, Pittsburgh Steelers
Jerome Bettis’ ability to move the chains with both his strength and quickness made him an extremely effective runner. His hard-nose running style was a perfect fit for the way the Pittsburgh Steelers wanted to play.
Despite not playing as big of a role as he did in previous seasons, Bettis was able to help lead the Steelers to a Super Bowl win in his final game.
Pittsburgh’s 21-10 win over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL helped cap off a long and productive career for Bettis.
John Elway, Quarterback, Denver Broncos
It’s amazing to think that John Elway played 14 seasons before he finally won a Super Bowl. The fact he then won back-to-back Super Bowls and retired is even more amazing. Finishing his career in this fashion fit the way he played.
Elway was known for his ability to execute last-minute drives and lead his team to victory. He orchestrated a sort of come-from-behind win with the way he ended on a high note.
The Denver Broncos' fans will never forget the success Elway had on the field, but they're starting to see he also has what it takes to build a team. Elway's ability to land Peyton Manning via free agency has put the Broncos back in the Super Bowl hunt.
Jim Brown, Running Back, Cleveland Browns
Jim Brown is arguably the most dominating running back in NFL history. Although he only played nine NFL seasons, he had a major impact on the game. Brown’s decision to end his career when he did only added to his legacy.
In his final season, Brown rushed for 1,544 yards and 17 touchdowns. His play helped the Cleveland Browns finish with an 11-3 record. His hard-nose, physical running style is the most likely reason for Brown’s short career.
To this day, he remains one of the most recognizable sports figures in Cleveland history.
Lawrence Taylor, Linebacker, New York Giants
Lawrence Taylor is one of the most prolific pass-rushers in NFL history. Throughout the course of his career, Taylor was able to register 132.5 sacks. That number currently places him No. 9 on the all-time list.
Unfortunately, things have gotten messy for Taylor since the end of his football career. He has had his share of off-the-field incidents including a few run-ins with the law.
Barry Sanders, Running Back, Detroit Lions
Barry Sanders’ decision to end his NFL career came as a major surprise. He was coming off the best stretch of his career having surpassed the 1,400-yard mark in the previous five seasons. Sanders was in the prime of his career and showed no signs of slowing down.
To say Sanders went out on top might be a little bit of a stretch. His individual play was excellent, but the Detroit Lions were among the league’s worst franchises.
The Lions were never able to make use of the advantage Sanders provided. In a film made by NFL Network/Films, Sanders said the following about his early retirement:
"Over the next few years it looked like we would probably be rebuilding and we had gotten rid of some good players,” Sanders said. “I just felt like it was time to make a change.
"I knew going into (the final game of 1998 season) that was pretty much it, so I remember after the game I just broke down. I didn't really say what was going on. I was glad to get out of there."
It appears that the thought of going through another losing season took its toll.
Joe Montana, Quarterback, Kansas City Chiefs/San Francisco 49ers
Joe Montana made his name with the San Francisco 49ers, but he also helped the Kansas City Chiefs reach the playoffs in the final two seasons of his career. His first season in Kansas City was the more successful of the two.
Montana led the team to two playoff victories and an appearance in the 1994 AFC Championship Game.
His success in Kansas City came as a surprise because he was in his late 30s, and most felt his best years were behind him. His age is one of the main reasons the 49ers decided to hand the starting quarterback job to Steve Young.
Rod Woodson, Defensive Back, Oakland Raiders/Pittsburgh Steelers
Rod Woodson enjoyed a long and very productive career. Most of his better days were spent with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he also had a short and successful run with the Oakland Raiders. He’s one of the few players who can say the end of their career enjoyed some strong success.
While his final season with the Raiders wasn’t pretty, Oakland did make a Super Bowl appearance the previous season.
Woodson was one of the leaders of that defense both in the locker room and on the field. He finished that season with a total of eight interceptions, which tied for the highest total of his career.
Roger Staubach, Quarterback, Dallas Cowboys
Roger Staubach is still one of the more notable players to ever wear a Dallas Cowboys uniform. His ability to will his team to victory earned him all sorts of recognition. It also helped him secure two Super Bowl victories.
Staubach finished his career by reaching the 11-win mark, having won five playoff games (including one Super Bowl) and having won the Super Bowl twice. His success is one of the reasons why some called the Cowboys “America’s Team."