Teams with overpowering defenses and efficient rushing attacks dominated the NFL throughout the 1980s. Granted, with Joe Montana under center, the San Francisco 49ers had an extremely potent aerial scheme and captured four Super Bowl championships that decade. Nevertheless, the Niners’ defense was criminally underrated and Roger Craig’s contributions in the backfield can’t be overlooked. When San Francisco’s executives and star players weren’t hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy, the Chicago Bears, Washington Redskins and New York Giants were all clinching titles with stout defenses and standout running games. The rugged brand of football minimized touchdowns in the red zone and led critics to mockingly refer to the sport as the “National Field Goal League.”
To increase scoring, former commissioner Paul Tagliabue and the NFL Competition Committee passed an array of new rules at the annual owners meeting in March 1994. The new rules penalize certain kinds of physical contact on wideouts and quarterbacks and make it virtually impossible for cornerbacks and safeties to disrupt offensive formations with extra receivers downfield. Essentially, Tagliabue established a passing league that produces video game-like scoring. In fact, according to Fox Sports, only one squad with a 1,000-yard rusher qualified for the playoffs during the 2015 season.
Despite such a staggering statistic, keen talent evaluators realize that the best winning formula remains a balanced passing and rushing configuration. As evidence, excluding the years 2013 and 2014, a running back has been chosen in the first round of every draft since 1990. Unsurprisingly, with so many runners selected early over the past quarter-century, plenty of players have had forgettable careers. With that noted, let’s review the 15 biggest running back busts since 1990 and locate where they are today.
15. BLAIR THOMAS
Penn State University running back Blair Thomas was sensational in Happy Valley. The 5-foot-10, 198-pound Thomas, a second-team All-American in 1989, was chosen by the New York Jets with the second pick in the 1990 NFL Draft. Maddeningly for Gang Green’s executives, Thomas reeked in the swamps of Jersey and he wasn’t re-signed following the 1993 season. Thomas became a journeyman and briefly secured gigs with the New England Patriots, Dallas Cowboys and Carolina Panthers. The Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Famer carried the ball 533 times for 2,236 yards and seven scores in 64 games as a professional. Despite averaging a superior 4.2 yards per carry, Thomas was out of the NFL by 1995 at the age of 28. Thomas is satisfied with how his career unfolded and he now owns a chain of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania-based sports bars called KoKoMos.
“As a kid, I dreamed about having the opportunity to play in the NFL,” said Thomas, 50. “It’s a one-in-a-million chance.”
14. CURTIS ENIS
Chicago took Penn State University running back Curtis Enis with the fifth pick in 1998. While a Nittany Lion in Happy Valley, the 6-foot, 240-pound Enis averaged 5.8 yards per rush for 3,256 yards and 36 scores. In addition to Enis’ output on the ground, the 1997 consensus All-American snagged 57 pigskins for 506 yards and two touchdowns. Upon turning pro, Enis immediately endured an assortment of serious afflictions. After three injury-plagued campaigns in the Windy City, Enis agreed to a one-year deal with the Cleveland Browns. Alas, a degenerative condition in Enis’ left knee forced him to retire in 2001 at the age of 24. Enis recorded 1,497 yards and four touchdowns in 36 contests running as a Bear. In August 2014, Enis was hired as an operations supervisor at Anheuser-Busch.
Although blessed with a solid job, the 41-year-old Enis was formally charged with two counts of misdemeanor simple assault and two counts of summary harassment after he randomly attacked multiple people in downtown State College last January.
13. KI-JANA CARTER
Ki-Jana Carter was a tremendous running back whose body failed him in the NFL. Following three mesmerizing seasons in Happy Valley, the Cincinnati Bengals chose the 5-foot-10, 225-pound Carter first overall in 1995. Regrettably, the 1995 Rose Bowl MVP suffered a slew of debilitating injuries and he was forced to leave the game after getting cut by the Green Bay Packers in July 2002 at the age of 29. Carter founded ByoGlobe, a Davie, Florida-based business that creates and designs promotional products for companies, in 2008.
“In this industry, like in football, you need to know your playbook in and out and have great teammates to be successful,” said Carter, 44. “For me, it never seems like work. I love what I do.”
12. CEDRIC BENSON
The Bears selected Texas Longhorns running back Cedric Benson with the fourth overall pick in 2005. The 5-foot-11, 227-pound Benson, the organization’s highest draft choice since it took defensive tackle Dan Hampton in 1979, signed a five-year deal worth $35 million to become a Bear. Benson competed with Thomas Jones to serve as the team’s featured runner. Unfortunately for the former Longhorn, Benson suffered a series of injuries and Thomas outshined him on the gridiron. A notorious agitator, Benson was released by the Bears after he was charged with a DUI in June 2008. Benson carried the ball 420 times for 10 touchdowns and 1,593 yards in 35 games with the Bears.
11. TRENT RICHARDSON
Trent Richardson is one of the most notorious busts in NFL history. The 5-foot-9, 230-pound Richardson was drafted by the Cleveland Browns third overall in 2012. In a relatively shocking move, Cleveland traded Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts in September 2013. Richardson was motionless as a Colt and he was supplanted by Donald Brown late in the season. The 2011 SEC Offensive Player of the Year and Doak Walker Award winner was waived by the Colts in March 2015. Richardson failed to secure a contract with the Oakland Raiders in 2015 and the Baltimore Ravens in 2016.
Richardson, who is still determined to return to the NFL, was arrested on third-degree domestic violence charges last February. He managed to turn things around, as he landed a roster spot with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL and actually ended the season on a positive note.
“A big thing for me going to Canada was to get back on the field with a fresh start,” Richardson told Bleacher Report. “Not a lot of people around me … just being not distracted and playing football like I usually play football.”
10. RON DAYNE
Ron Dayne left Wisconsin as the all-time leading rusher in NCAA history. The New York Giants were intrigued by the 5-foot-10, 250-pound Dayne and selected him with the 11th pick in 2000. Initially, alongside the quicker Tiki Barber, Dayne played reasonably well as a Giant. Eventually, former Giants coach Jim Fassel grew tired of Dayne’s obesity and dramatically reduced his number of carries. Big Blue allowed Dayne to walk following the 2004 season and he signed a contract to compete for the Denver Broncos. The 1999 Heisman Trophy winner experienced new lows in the Mile High City and he was released in September 2006.
Dayne retired in February 2008 after compiling a substandard 3,722 yards on 983 rushes in 96 games as a Giant, Bronco and Texan. Dayne, a College Football Hall of Fame inductee, returned to Madison, Wisconsin, in May 2013 to receive a degree in history.
9. TOMMY VARDELL
Tommy Vardell was a reliable and productive running back at Stanford from 1988 through 1991. Nicknamed “Touchdown Tommy,” Bill Belichick and the Cleveland Browns chose the 6-foot-2, 235-pound Vardell with the ninth choice in April 1992. A variety of serious injuries sidelined Vardell and he only played in 40 games over four seasons as a Brown. Vardell amassed 1,427 yards and 18 touchdowns in 87 games with the Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions before shelving his cleats in 1999 at the age of 29. “Touchdown Tommy” overcame a disappointing NFL career and took advantage of his degree from Stanford.
As detailed by Bloomberg.com, “(Vardell) served as a Co-Founder and Managing Director at Northgate Capital Group, L.L.C. since its inception. At Northgate, he is involved in the management of all aspects of the firm, including investment identification and selection, portfolio management, reporting and compliance, and client relations. He focuses on venture capital and oversees a series of Northgate’s direct investments.”
8. JARROD BUNCH
Jarrod Bunch is a better actor than he was a professional football player. The 6-foot-2, 250-pound Bunch was a stellar runner and blocker at the University of Michigan. Following four memorable years as a Wolverine, the New York Giants drafted Bunch with the 27th overall pick in 1991. An assortment of ailments prevented Bunch from shining in Gotham and he was cut by the team in 1994. Shortly thereafter, Bunch found employment with the Los Angeles Raiders. Bunch was a dim presence in Tinseltown and the Raiders waived him in October 1994. Bunch has flourished away from the gridiron and he’s become a recognized actor and producer.
“One of the best attributes of a good actor is when you look at him and assume one thing, then find yourself surprised,” says John Herzfeld, a veteran director who has worked with Bunch of several projects.
“Jarrod brings that complexity and mystery. There are a lot of things going on in his mind that you, the viewer, have to watch out for and pay attention to. That’s not something an actor can learn. It’s very natural.”
7. TIM BIAKABUTUKA
Tim Biakabutuka, the first Zairian to compete in the NFL, was constantly wounded as a Carolina Panther. The 6-foot, 215-pound Biakabutuka excelled as a Michigan Wolverine and he declared for the draft after his junior season in Ann Arbor. The Panthers chose Biakabutuka with the 8th pick in 1996. Regrettably, like many individuals on this list, Biakabutuka couldn’t outrun his battle with injuries. Biakabutuka, who compiled 2,530 yards and 14 scores in 50 games as a Panther, retired following the 2001 campaign at the age of 27. Nowadays, Biakabutuka is a resident of Fort Mill, South Carolina, who owns four Bojangles restaurants in Augusta, Georgia.
“The business itself is a good business,” said Biakabutuka, 43.
“It’s a good model. I bought an existing location that was underperforming and turned it around. Then I got the opportunity to buy another location that was underperforming. I bought that and turned it around – and then we built two more.”
6. WILLIAM GREEN
Substance abuse issues thwarted William Green’s productivity on the gridiron. The 6-foot, 215-pound Green was consensus All-American in 2001 for Boston College. The Cleveland Browns sensed greatness and selected Green with the 16th pick in 2002. Green was an unrepentant troublemaker as a Brown who caused his own demise on the gridiron. Cleveland cut Green in May 2006 following four ineffective seasons. Remarkably, Green defeated his demons and now serves as a motivational speaker. In retrospect, Green believes he never had a chance to succeed upon becoming a millionaire.
“To me, it was the strangest feeling,” Green said, a Christian who became an ordained minister in 2012.
“I don’t feel any different. What am I supposed to feel like? I was very green. What does this mean? Does this mean I am in the NFL now? What does the money mean? Does it mean I never have to work again in my life? Can I spend what I want and never run out? What is a million dollars? I’m a kid from the street. My wheels were just spinning.”
5. PAUL PALMER
Temple University was not exactly a hotbed for blue-chip football prospects in the 1980s. Still, the 5-foot-9, 190-pound Palmer was so exceptional as an Owl in Philadelphia that he was a major collegiate attraction. Palmer, a consensus All-American in 1986, finished only behind Vinny Testaverde for that year’s Heisman Trophy award. Approximately five months after losing to Testaverde, the Kansas City Chiefs took Palmer 19th overall in April 1987. Palmer was a combative loon whose negative attitude forced him out of the league before the 1990 season at the age of 26. Palmer is a bitter man who spends the bulk of his time begging to get inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
“There are guys in the hall that have won the Heisman that I had better numbers than,” said Palmer, 53.
“The year that Bo (Jackson) won (1985) he was third in the nation in rushing yards per game. Lorenzo White was one. I was two. I’d compare my last two years in college to almost anyone. But that was a long time ago. Maybe they just forget. At some point you accept it. But look at what I’d done, and who it was against.”
4. BUBBA BEAN
Bubba Bean was a gifted running back as a four-year starter for the Texas A&M Aggies football program. The Atlanta Falcons chose the 5-foot-11, 195-pound Bean with the ninth selection in 1976. After a dull rookie campaign, Bean sustained a torn anterior cruciate ligament and was shelved for the entire 1977 season. Bean was deemed expendable once Atlanta drafted William Andrews in April 1979. Without any suitors, Bean finally retired in 1982 at the age of 28. Undeterred by his unsuccessful professional career, the blazing Aggie established Bean Construction. Bean’s building company folded in 2008 and he’s since worked as a neighborhood and youth outreach coordinator in Bryan, Texas.
“I still do a lot of remodel work. I do one or two houses a year when I feel like it, but (working with kids is) my passion now,” said Bean, 63.
3. ALONZO HIGHSMITH
Alonzo Highsmith proved to be a far more formidable boxer than he was football player. The 6-foot-1, 235-pound Highsmith was a powerful Hurricane who gained induction into the University of Miami Sports Hall of Fame in 1997. A decade prior to receiving this honor, the Houston Oilers chose Highsmith third overall in 1987. Although a solid blocker in Space City, Highsmith was unsuited to perform in Jack Pardee’s run-and-shoot offense. Consequently, the Oilers sent Highsmith to the Dallas Cowboys for a couple of draft picks in September 1990. Chronic knee injuries prematurely ended Highsmith’s time on the gridiron. However, lately, Highsmith found his calling as a heavyweight pugilist inside the squared circle.
“When I retired I had nothing to do one day and I always thought boxers looked like they were in good shape,” Alonzo Highsmith said, 52. “I wanted to go to the gym. … I said you know what, I’m gonna go box.”
Highsmith was a powerhouse in the ring who went 27-1-2 over 30 bouts. The talented Miamian retired in December 1998 and, 14 years later, he accepted a senior personnel executive role with the Green Bay Packers. Highsmith remains employed by the storied franchise.
2. SAMMIE SMITH
Sammie Smith preferred to peddle narcotics rather than carry a pigskin. The Miami Dolphins drafted the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Smith out of Florida State University with the 9th pick in 1989. As a member of the Dolphins and Denver Broncos, Smith recorded only 1,881 yards and 15 scores in 44 games. Smith, whose criminal activities were a known secret, was altogether out of the league in 1992 at the age of 25. The star Seminole proceeded to become a relatively powerful figure in Florida’s drug trade. Smith was convicted in 1996 of two counts of possession and distribution of cocaine and subsequently imprisoned for seven years. A few bigwigs in Tallahassee helped Smith win the restoration of his civil rights in June 2010. Following his important legal victory, Smith was enshrined into the Florida State Hall of Fame in September 2013. The 50-year-old Smith now actively works with troubled adolescents.
“We’re all much prouder of Sammie now than at any time he was playing,” said former Seminoles coach Jim Gladden. “He wakes up every day thinking of how to help others.”
1. CARNELL ‘CADILLAC’ WILLIAMS
This Cadillac quickly became shopworn. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers took Cadillac Williams out of Auburn with the fifth pick in 2005. The 5-foot-11, 220-pound Williams was a talented runner who captured AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Unfortunately, following an outstanding rookie showing, Williams was beset by injuries and he only managed to play in 81 games from 2005 through 2011. Williams permanently shelved his cleats after the 2011 campaign at the age of 29. Undaunted, Williams returned to school in September 2014 to receive his degree in sociology.
“I had the thought a couple times during my playing career, but I always felt like once I was done with football I’d come back and finish my degree,” said Williams, 35. “I only had seven hours left, so it would’ve been a shame not to finish that.”
Williams earned his degree and now serves as the running backs coach at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
“It’s what I love to do and I feel like I could help younger people,” Williams said.
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