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.
Sure, he had a few years with all-time great Ladainian Tomlinson and threw plenty of passes to Antonio Gates, but stingy management has kept the Chargers from consistently giving Rivers the surrounding cast he deserves. He still has some gas in the tank, but things look bleak for a Chargers team likely moving to Los Angeles in 2017.
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.
He had one more quality season before being marred with injuries and relegated to a backup, but for that year, Vick was more dominant than ever and was paid handsomely for it. All he needed was that one opportunity.
18 Wasted: Maurice Jones-Drew
Maurice Jones-Drew wasn't always associated with losing franchises. In fact, his high school team was undefeated all four years he played there. After a stellar stint at UCLA, he was unfortunately drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Jones-Drew was an elite running back throughout his prime and arguably the most diverse of all the star running backs with his ability to catch passes, fight for tough yards, and break out for monster gains. Despite their laughing stock status, the Jaguars actually had a few decent seasons during MJD's career, and much of that can be accredited to him. Jones-Drew accounted for a whopping 47.7% of Jacksonville's yards in 2011. That's almost half! MJD doesn't seem too fazed by his teams' lack of success as he finally had the chance to pick his team and 2013 and opted to finish his career with his hometown Oakland Raiders.
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.
Moss embraced the 'Patriot Way' and immediately returned to form and helping them to become one of the greatest teams of all time, infamously going 18-1 before the Giants pulled off their giant upset. Without this glorious second act of his career, Moss would've been viewed as a wasted talent.
16 Wasted: Calvin Johnson
Calvin Johnson was (and probably still is) truly a freak of nature, possessing a 4.33 40-time, 11-foot broad jump, and 43-inch vertical leap... at 6'5 and 235 pounds! To top it off, Calvin was a class act and consummate teammate unlike many of his diva peers at wide receiver. Johnson started his career on the infamous 0-16 Detroit Lions catching passes from Jon Kitna and Dan Orlovsky. He got Matt Stafford the next year, but it wasn't enough to make the Lions a real contender. He owns records for most receiving yards in a season (by over 100 yards) and in a game. Johnson was a model of consistency and could be argued to be more valuable than the likes of Randy Moss and Terrell Owens. The perennially losing Lions frustrated Calvin so much that he retired early at the age of 30 in 2016, much like another Detroit legend.
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.
He went on to have one solid season in 2010, but was more of a back-up from that point on. I'm not sure which front office Matt Cassel has to thank more for buying him a few mansions: the Patriots for their savviness or the Chiefs for injuring Brady and having the incompetency to trade a 1st round pick and spend $63 million on a back-up level quarterback.
14 Wasted: Barry Sanders
Much like Calvin Johnson, Barry Sanders was widely considered the elite player at his position, but unfortunately just so happened to play for the Detroit Lions. Sanders had big-play ability that has never since been quite replicated. He rushed for 1,500 yards in four consecutive years, over a period when no other player did it even, including a 2,053 yard 1997 season. The parallels to Calvin Johnson continue as Barry was renowned for his on-field humility and also retired with plenty of gas left at the age of 31, well within range to break Walter Payton's all-time receiving record. Sure, Sanders is well-regarded as one of the all-time great running backs, but he was robbed of the chance to perennially contend and achieve more big-game moments and may not have left the game so quickly had he played somewhere else.
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.
To top it off, he also had the benefit of the Cowboys unparalleled marketing machine turning him into a household name overnight. That’s not to say he’s overrated, as he is hardly brought up in all-time great discussion. But it did help him land his gig as FOX’s number one color commentator immediately after retirement.
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.
In fact, the NFL actually made passing harder during his career because he was that good. Miami never was able to give Marino much of a defense or running game, and his heroics weren't enough. If you look at the Dolphins' success since, you'll see why he didn't win. They haven't even had one franchise quarterback since he retired 18 years ago.
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.
In Minnesota, he led a dreadful offense that blew a 5-0 start to miss the playoffs at 8-8. He's not terrible, but by next season he will have earned $117 million without making a playoff appearance or leading a capable offense.
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.
He demanded out, but owner Mike Brown demanded he stay. The Bengals eventually caved but shipped him to... the Oakland Raiders. After a few rough years in Oakland, he finally got some redemption in Arizona, but appears to finally be over the hill at age 37.
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.
Since then, Pacman has played six strong seasons in Cincinnati, but recently was involved in another assault case and also ruined their chance at a playoff win by shoving Steelers coach Joey Porter. He definitely has to be thankful to the Bengals for giving him another chance.
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.
He made a last ditch effort coming out of retirement to join the Patriots in 2015 and rushing for a TD in his first ever playoff game. Hopefully the Los Angeles fan base embraces him as their own, because he sure had a career worth celebrating.
7 Saved: Lynn Swann
The Steelers of the 1970s were simply a powerhouse. Opposite the legendary 'Steel Curtain' defense, Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris led the monstrous offense to four Super Bowl titles. Hall of Fame wide receiver Lynn Swann was MVP of one of those victories. He is justifiably a heroic figure in Pittsburgh, but had he played anywhere else, it is unlikely his name would carry any weight in 2017. Swann was a great player, but didn't even scratch the surface of a top-5 receiver in his day. The Steelers had enough talent to not need a true number-one threat on the outside, so he was sufficient to fill the role. There are many better wide receivers of his era that are long-forgotten by all who were too young to watch them play. I'm sure having such a cool sounding name like "Lynn Swann' didn't hurt either.
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".
Archie finished his career throwing many more interceptions than touchdowns and his 26.3% winning percentage is the lowest of any quarterback with over 100 starts. Nevertheless, he had the respect of his peers and despite that record, he was voted to the Hall of Fame in 2001.
5 Saved: Matt Flynn
No one expected much out of Matt Flynn when Green Bay drafted him in the 7th round. He made his NFL debut in replacement of an injured Aaron Rodgers and nearly beat the Patriots in 2010. Still, he wasn’t more than a blip on any team’s radar. But after breaking Packers records with a 480-yard, six-touchdown performance in a meaningless Week 17 game, Flynn was suddenly a hot commodity. New Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll rewarded him with a $20 million contract to make him their starting quarterback. Flynn immediately lost his job to rookie 3rd round pick Russell Wilson and has bounced around as a journeyman backup ever since. If guys like Matt Flynn and Matt Cassel can teach us anything, it’s that it pays to play for a first class organization, as much as tens of millions of dollars.
4 Wasted: Joe Thomas
It's hard enough to get recognition as an offensive lineman, but it's practically impossible if you're an offensive lineman for the modern-day Cleveland Browns. Joe Thomas has somehow overcome this to become one of the only offensive tackles with any name recognition. He truly earned this stature making the Pro Bowl every season of his career, and is one of only four players to make 10 straight. Needless to say, the other four guys are football gods. Thomas is hands-down the best blocker of his generation, yet has never played in one playoff game, and he likely won't get a chance unless he's traded soon. He went out fishing when he got the call that the Browns drafted him 3rd overall, probably hoping he would slip. Perhaps he should've taken a page out of the Laremy Tunsil playbook and taken a few bong rips before he was drafted.
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.
He then had a second revival stealing the starting job from Cardinals hopeful quarterback of the future Matt Leinhart, where he took another high-powered offense within one drive of a Super Bowl.
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.
After a few underwhelming years, O.J. made the most of it, with arguably the greatest running back season in the NFL, rushing for over 2,000 yards in 14 games! To this day, he is the only player to do so. Just imagine how much bigger the ‘Trial of the Century’ could have been had O.J. played in more than one career playoff game.
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.