Not all NFL franchises are created equal. From the owner to the ball boy, there are wildly varying degrees of skill for every member of the organization. Some teams, like the Lions, Bengals, and Browns, are perennial losers. Others, like the Steelers, Packers, and recently Patriots, seem to always find themselves in playoff contention.
This goes beyond the talent of the players on the field. Some teams are just better, even with a salary cap, over long stretches of time. Sure, the lowly Colts can get lucky and have an Andrew Luck fall in their laps after tossing Peyton Manning to the curb, but most teams must work from the ground up in order to maintain success.
Smart players, like John Elway or Eli Manning, use their leverage to force these dreadful teams to ship them off to greener pastures, but most do not have a choice. They land where they land and deal with the hand they're dealt. It takes more than one person to make an NFL legend, and usually more than one to make a dud (unless you're Johnny Manziel and you just don't care, but then again, he did play for the Browns).
You get my point. Some players are screwed by their cheap and/or incompetent bosses, while others reap the rewards of having wisdom in the front office. It’s sad that so many greats wasted so much time stuck in the mud of a bad franchise. By the same token, it's somewhat inspiring to see the luckiest few get paid tens of millions of dollars for basically doing nothing. You might notice some crossover on the list, and that's because a winning tradition or the stink of poor management can last for decades.
20 Wasted: Philip Rivers
There's a reason Eli Manning stated his refusal to play for San Diego Chargers prior to the 2004 Draft; they're a complete mess with a crumbling stadium and fan base. Eli made the right call as the Chargers shipped him to the Giants for Rivers on draft day. Since then, Manning has stumbled his way into two Super Bowl rings while Rivers has struggled to keep his team afloat. Philip quickly beat out Drew Brees for the starting job and led the Chargers to multiple playoff appearances.
19 Saved: Michael Vick
When Michael Vick came out of prison in 2009, teams weren’t exactly lining up to sign him. The Philadelphia Eagles gave him a chance and signed him to be their 3rd string quarterback. Vick looked rusty at first, never getting into a rhythm on special wildcat plays drawn up for him. The Eagles traded Donovan McNabb the following offseason moving Michael up to play the backup role. After an injury to Kevin Kolb in the season opener, Vick once again had a shot at greatness. He seized the day and rallied the team the next few weeks, took the starting job, and didn’t look back. Vick had the greatest season of his career and earned himself a $100 million contract, which he desperately needed after his 2007 bankruptcy.
18 Wasted: Maurice Jones-Drew
17 Saved: Randy Moss
At his best, Randy Moss is arguably the greatest receiver to ever play. The only problem was consistently getting him to play at his best. His first team, the Minnesota Vikings, were able to get the most out of him more often than not. But a few inconsistent years and some distracting behavior led them to send Moss to the Oakland Raiders in 2005, where careers have gone to die the past decade. He did not enjoy his two seasons there and it seemed like Moss might fall into mediocrity. Until he was traded to New England.
16 Wasted: Calvin Johnson
15 Saved: Matt Cassel
Following the almost perfect 18-1 Patriots season, the keys of the offense were handed off to Matt Cassel when Tom Brady tore his ACL versus the Chiefs. Cassel steadied the ship with a shaky start, but the offense gradually improved as the season continued, winning the last four games to go 11-5. Because of an absurdly unlucky standings situation, the Patriots did not make the playoffs. Even so, Cassel was rewarded handsomely signing a $63 milion contract after being traded to the same Chiefs who tore Brady's ACL.
14 Wasted: Barry Sanders
13 Saved: Troy Aikman
Let’s make things clear, Troy Aikman was a terrific three-time Super Bowl winning quarterback well deserving of accolades including his golden Hall of Fame jacket. That being said, he was served a golden platter of hall of fame talent to work with in Dallas. Behind the league’s best offensive line with the league’s best guard, Larry Allen, Aikman threw the ball to Michael Irvin and handed it off the the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, Emmitt Smith. This Dallas dynasty was the last of the pre-salary cap era and they were truly dominant.
12 Wasted: Dan Marino
Dan Marino may be the greatest passer the NFL has ever seen, but will rarely get mentioned in that conversation for one reason: "he never won the big one". In just his second season, Marino set single-season records for passing touchdowns and passing yards leading the Dolphins to a 14-2 record as MVP before losing to the 49ers in Super Bowl XIX. Marino set career records in yards, touchdowns, and completions before they were broken by Peyton Manning. But let's not forget, Marino was doing this in an era where passing was much more difficult.
11 Saved: Sam Bradford
Sam Bradford is unique on this list because it wasn't his teams' superior organizational skills that helped him, but rather their lack of it. He was drafted first overall by the Rams and given the largest contract in rookie history at $86 million. Bradford played well as a rookie, but regressed the next two years before tearing his ACL twice in each of the following two years. The Rams traded him to the Eagles where he went 7-7 in Chip Kelly's final season in Philadelphia. Despite never showing potential to be a consistent starter, the Eagles dealt him a two-year, $36 million extension before dealing him to the Vikings.
10 Wasted: Carson Palmer
Carson Palmer has had a pretty successful career, but people often forget just how talented he was. Drafted 1st overall by the Bengals, he gave a glimmer of hope to a hopeless franchise. He unfortunately wasted eight of his prime developmental seasons in Cincinnati, leading them to their first playoff game in 15 years. A few major injuries led to him having a bit of a dip in production, but both he and the Bengals knew he still had skills. Palmer finally had enough after a dreadful 4-12 season where his teammates Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco hosted an awful low-budget television show.
9 Saved: Adam ‘Pacman’ Jones
Jeff Fisher’s Tennessee Titans took a risk and drafted the troubled Adam ‘Pacman’ Jones 6th overall in 2005. Jones made an immediate impact as a cornerback and punt returner with a knack for finding the endzone. Pacman also had a knack for criminal behavior being arrested five times for a series of incidents, primarily at strip clubs, including a connection to a 2007 shooting. He was suspended an entire season and his career seemed hopeless. Jones briefly joined the Cowboys until suffering a serious knee injury. He almost joined the CFL, but was ultimately turned down for disparaging comments he made about the league. More than a full season removed from football, Marvin Jones’ Bengals redeemed their wasting of Carson Palmer, giving ‘Adam’ another shot.
8 Wasted: Steven Jackson
Who is the Rams all-time leading rusher? Eric Dickerson? Marshall Faulk? Nope, it's Steven Jackson. Because of managerial ineptitude, Mike Martz and Jeff Fisher's Rams never gave their star running back a platform to shine on. Jackson's consistency was remarkable as he rushed for over 1,000 yards for nine straight seasons! He also holds the record for most touches without a fumble. Now that the team has left St. Louis, Jackson's legacy has no home, as his long reign as the Rams' workhorse came post-"Greatest Show on Turf", as the team struggled to achieve anything more than mediocrity.
7 Saved: Lynn Swann
6 Wasted: Archie Manning
To truly appreciate the career of Archie Manning, you've got to realize that there was no salary cap in the NFL until 1994. So if your team was bad, there was a good chance they'd be bad for a very, very long time. Archie's sons are known for their ability to stay healthy and avoid taking big hits, but Papa Manning was the complete opposite. The New Orleans Saints were truly pathetic during the 1970s and Archie took hit after hit after hit. But he was tough and his opponents admired him, with Rams-star defensive end Jack Youngblood admitting he didn't hit him as hard because he "felt bad".
5 Saved: Matt Flynn
4 Wasted: Joe Thomas
3 Saved: Kurt Warner
Kurt Warner joined the Packers as an undrafted free agent, but was released before the season started. He then stocked shelves at a supermarket before finding Jesus and joining the Arena Football League. Warner impressed enough heads that the Rams gave him a contract. After an injury to Trent Green, Kurt took over what would become 'The Greatest Show on Turf'. Alongside studs like Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, and Torry Holt, they were one of the most prolific units in history. They won a Super Bowl and nearly won a second, suffering defeat to the upstart Patriots dynasty. Warner fizzled out of St. Louis soon after and was briefly a stop-gap starter for the Giants as Eli Manning learned the offense.
2 Wasted: O.J. Simpson
Before he was the most famous murder suspect of all-time, O.J. Simpson was quite possibly the most famous football player of all-time. ‘The Juice’ was so good at USC that he threatened to quit football and become an actor if he was not made the highest paid athlete in sports history with a whopping $650K contract over five years (less than Andrew Luck makes per game), before he even suited up in an NFL uniform. Unfortunately for Simpson, he was drafted to the destitute small market Buffalo Bills coming off a 1-12-1 season.
1 Saved: Tom Brady
Yes, Brady's on the list. Drafted with the 199th pick, Tom was far from a sure thing coming out of Michigan. The Patriots themselves drafted another player (Antwan Harris who?) before him in the 6th round! Sure, he was more talented than scouts gave him credit for, and in retrospect he should've been a top prospect. But had New England passed on Brady, the possibilities are endless. Imagine he slipped to the Redskins or Chargers, who drafted quarterbacks later in the draft? At the very least, he probably would've spent a few years on the bench climbing up the depth chart.
Had he gotten a starting job, it's unlikely he'd get that ever-important first ring in his first year as a starter without Belichick and the meticulously militant Patriots organization. With a new shake of the dice, coaches and coordinators may have gotten fired, he may have suffered more injuries, and it's doubtful he'd have anywhere near the reputation he has today.
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