Careers in the NFL can be defined on a plethora of occasions. Some players show up on our TV screens every Sunday and dazzle us like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Other athletes pop into our minds because of their regularly lackluster play that makes us cringe whenever they do manage to be in the center of the action. Bottom line is, there are lots of players and boatload more plays in the NFL on a seasonal basis, and all provide a chance for an athlete to make a name--whether positive or negative--for themselves.
However, there does exist one class of player who isn’t defined by a comprehensive list of their on-field performances. Instead a single moment, off-field occurrence, or even, one physical attribute or consistent characteristic that reminds us time and again who this player actually is. It’s an escapable identifier that is quintessentially that player, and is what comes to shape how they are remembered in league lore as well as the public eye.
For better or worse, these players have become boxed in by one thing during their time in the NFL. Some might smile at their career-defining traits, while others would rather we focus on another part of their game (looking at you Mark Sanchez). Anyways, it’s not up to them... it’s up to us! On that note, let’s jump into the countdown.
16 David Tyree - Helmet Catch in Super Bowl XLII
You couldn’t script how this play went down any better than it did. The New York Giants had a 3rd and 5 in their own territory with under two minutes to play. Eli Manning received the snap and pulled a magic trick to escape the pressure, leading to a hail mary of a heave down the middle of the field in triple coverage. Low and behold, the lone Giant receiver in the area not only caught the ball, but did so against his own helmet and against a dangerous defensive back, Rodney Harrison.
That receiver was David Tyree, who had a career of anonymity prior to and even after that catch. However, his reception goes down as one of the greatest moments in Super Bowl, if not NFL history, because of what is signified. After the catch, New York would take a 17-14 lead they wouldn’t lose and rained on the parade of New England’s perfect season.
Tyree is honored in highlight reels in the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl every year for being a part of one the most memorable plays in NFL history. Outside of that catch, Tyree was mediocre at best. But he provided one of the most Canton-worthy moments the league had ever seen.
15 Johnny Manziel - Being the Party Boy We All Love to Hate
Throughout his time at Texas A&M, Johnny Football was an electric player who beat Alabama on the road and brought A&M into the national spotlight. His persona embodied the work-hard, play-hard mentality we all strive for, helping us create this endearing perception about his authenticity and ethic on and off the gridiron. Though, this perception was mainly fabricated and actually was a giant warning sign of the trouble to come in the NFL.
Once he entered the league, Johnny’s habits caught up to him. He became a liability in games and out of the practice facility, postponing the Cleveland Browns hopes of a better tomorrow inevitably. Repeated stints in rehab landed him in more trouble than he was worth, eventually segueing to his exit from the league.
Maybe it’s for the best. Manziel’s own father thought Johnny was headed toward his death if he didn’t get his act together. Now that’s he out of the league and out of spotlight, he might actually be able to get his life together.
13 Antwaan Randle El - Touchdown Pass to Hines Ward in Super Bowl XL
Randle El was a college quarterback who, like a lot of college quarterbacks who enter the NFL, realize they’re not made of “the stuff” NFL signal callers are. Still, Randle El had a hell of an arm and could sling the ball on occasion, just like he did in the biggest game of his career in Super Bowl XL.
The play couldn’t have come at a better time. The Seattle Seahawks and Pittsburgh Steelers were locked in an ugly one-possession contest with just under nine minutes remaining. The Steelers held a 14-10 lead and weren’t fond of coming away with just a field goal, so head coach Bill Cowher reached into his bag of tricks and pulled out his golden ticket.
After giving the ball to Jerome Bettis, the defense sold out to stop the run. But a reverse to Randle El gave him time to throw and allowed Hines Ward to gain two steps on his defender, ensuring the magic was about to happen and eventually sealed the game’s final score of 21-10 in the Steelers favor. Randle El threw the Steelers’ only touchdown pass that game, and easily the biggest one of his life, making this the defining moment of his career.
12 Colin Kaepernick - National Anthem Protests
Kaepernick used to be one of the fast-rising running quarterbacks of the new read-option offensive era that Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III helped usher in. Though when former head coach Jim Harbaugh left San Francisco after the 2014 season, Kaepernick’s football career went into a tailspin. So, he turned his efforts to social activism and began protesting the playing of the National Anthem by taking a knee at the beginning of every football game starting in 2016.
What was first a preseason demonstration gained steam among other players and extended into a regular occurrence throughout the league in 2016. Kaepernick’s protests caught on so much that it landed him on the cover of Time Magazine and has spurred national discourse about the subject of police brutality in minority, particularly African-American, communities.
The protests have been peaceful and respectful while also clear in what point they’re attempting to get across. But even as Kaepernick has been given the starting job of the 49ers, he continues to focus more so on his social activism than anything related to the football field. The awareness he’s raised is admirable, but many football fans wonder what happened to the athletically imposing player from three years ago.
11 Jay Cutler - Pouty Face On Sideline Of 2010 NFC Championship
2010’s NFC Championship had all the hype you could ask for. It was a storied rivalry between the Bears and Packers, at Soldier Field in Chicago and on a bitter, January day. Better yet, it was between two up-and-coming quarterbacks at the time in Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers, who were both enjoying career years. However, an early exit for Cutler that was followed by an all-too-disinterested appearance on the sideline left a sour taste in the mouth of Bears fans everywhere during the team’s last known playoff game.
It was that “too cool for school” expression Cutler donned that’s damned his perception by NFL fans and opponents alike ever since. Visibly healthy and comfortable standing by the bench while his Bears team was suffocated by the Packers, Cutler’s lack of urgency to find his way on the field in such a meaningful game spurred one of the league’s most controversial topics of conversation. Teammates lined up in Cutler’s defense, but by that point the damage was done. Everyone had already seen what they needed to.
This is one of the times perception was true to reality. Cutler hasn’t appeared interested in a game since then, and despite a surprise win from time-to-time, Juicy Jay has never fully recovered from that pouty face during the biggest game of his career. It makes you wonder how he’s been able to keep a job since then, doesn’t it?
10 Plaxico Burress - Shoots Himself in Foot, Goes to Jail and Misses Season
Burress was a cool cat for the New York Giants who, like a lot of people in the early 2000’s, would wear baggy pants to make a fashion statement. However, one night at the club in those same baggy pants, Burress was carrying a concealed firearm that popped off and shot himself in the foot--literally.
The gun wasn’t registered, so Plaxico ended up serving roughly a year and a half in the clink for his crime. As a result, the felony charge also would put him on a hiatus with the NFL. Sadly, Burress was an above average wide receiver who was built like a bigger Randy Moss without the blazing speed. He had a made a name for himself catching the go-ahead touchdown pass to the beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII and had a lot left in his NFL tank.
Though after the firearm incident, Plaxico never regained his form. He hopped around from team to team and couldn’t rekindle the magic he once had on those New York Giants rosters. It even opened him up for on-field taunting, like then-Buffalo wide receiver Stevie Johnson, who pretended to shoot himself in the foot when playing one of Burress’ late-career teams. Oh well, sometimes you win and sometimes you don’t. At least Burress has a ring to reflect on the good times with.
9 Trent Dilfer - Terrible Super Bowl-winning Quarterback for 2000 Baltimore Ravens
The 2000 Baltimore Ravens were one of the most elite--if not the most elite--defensive unit the NFL has ever seen. Those 11 defenders were not only scoring more touchdowns than their opponents, but also more than their own offense. That offense was “led” by the infamous Trent Dilfer, who’s now an NFL analyst for ESPN, and is often the butt of many jokes in regards to lackluster quarterback play found in the league.
Seriously, how many times have you heard either on the radio, TV or even in a conversation with a friend about how “Defense does win championships. Just look at the 2000 Ravens... they had Trent Dilfer at quarterback!” The argument is repeatedly used to justify why quarterback play is overblown, even in the modern era, and why a defensive based team isn’t at the supreme disadvantage we all believe they are in football.
Dilfer himself is completely at ease with this assessment of his career. He knows he got lucky and was able to ride the coattails of an all-time defense. He even mocks his play regularly on ESPN, citing the occasional “Dilfer Duck” from an NFL game when a player throws a wobbly, spiral-less ball from the pocket. Though Dilfer’s only comfortable jabbing himself because he won the big one, even if it wasn’t necessarily his win, so to speak.
8 Sean Taylor - Gunned Down in his Prime
Taylor was well on his way to becoming one of the best safeties of all-time in the NFL. In just three and half years in the league he already accrued an impressive amount of tackles, interceptions and even forced fumbles to compliment his stellar pass coverage and bone-rattling hits. He’s served as inspiration for players like Seattle’s Kam Chancellor and Atlanta’s Keanu Neal.
Sadly, his time on the field and on Earth was cut short when he was shot and killed during a robbery in his Miami home back in 2007. His murder sent ripples throughout the league and especially in Washington D.C., creating a void in the Redskins’ secondary that hasn’t been filled since then. It was a shame for a player who, despite his rough upbringing, was beginning to make changes in his life to support a new wife and daughter.
Taylor will be forever remembered for what he did on the field, though it’s who he was becoming off the field that will be most missed.
7 Eli Manning - Being Peyton Manning’s Little Brother
Eli Manning won two Super Bowls, made a name for himself as the anti-christ to Tom Brady and even has a meme of his face to perpetuate his “classic” good looks. Despite all that success though, Eli will forever be confined to shadow of his older and more memorable brother Peyton, who’s career dwarfs Eli’s in every way.
It’s not necessarily fair. Eli has beaten his older brother’s arch rival in two humongous games (like Super Bowl big) and has made a career out covering up for his stupid plays with inexplicably awesome ones. Still, Peyton’s Mr. Nationwide, Papa John’s and Budweiser. Essentially, he's the Mr. Rogers of the NFL. With ringing endorsements such as that, it’s hard to challenge Peyton’s legacy, especially now that Peyton ended his career by riding off into the sunset with his second Super Bowl ring.
Oh well. Eli knows he’s had a strong showing throughout his time in the NFL. But at the end of the day, he’s just Peyton’s little brother.
6 Ricky Williams - Leaving Football to Smoke Weed
For our younger readers, this may come as a surprise, but it’s definitely true: Ricky Williams announced his retirement five years into his playing career in order to smoke weed without restriction. Williams loves the ganja so much he’s pivoted his recreational habit into a campaign against the NFL’s disciplinary system surrounding players who smoke marijuana.
It’s a weird stance for sure, especially for a player with such strong credentials on the field. In college Williams was a two-time All-American and was even awarded the lauded Heisman trophy. Williams also made the Pro Bowl, was a first team All-Pro and even led the NFL in rushing all in the 2002 season alone. Yet, his one true passion in life centered on Mary Jane and how often he could get some.
Though it runs deeper than just “wanting to get high.” Williams was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder and borderline personality disorder, so he relied on marijuana to help cope with the effects of his condition. It’s made the oft-perceived comical infatuation Williams has with weed to be less of a joking matter and more of a medical one. Still, it’s a career-defining habit and one you won’t likely see again in the NFL.
5 Troy Polamalu - His Hair
Polamalu was always a rarity in the NFL being of American Samoan decent and not playing offensive line like so many of his countrymen had before him. And while Troy was known for his instinctive plays and ferocious presence despite his underwhelming size, everyone could spot him on the field thanks to a thick, curly black mane that stuck out of his helmet.
Polamalu made his hair into icon. He talked about how he wouldn’t cut it for upwards of seven or eight years at a time. Polamalu even became the pitchman for Head and Shoulders was repeatedly seen in advertisements with his long, flowing locks. Procter & Gamble, the parent company of Head and Shoulders, went as far as to take out an insurance policy on Polamalu’s hair in case anything ever damaged his Samson-like head covering.
Though don’t forget, the hair wouldn’t be any big deal if Polamalu didn’t perform. Troy was known to fly around the field and rack up play after play. He ended his career with 32 interceptions, 12 sacks and 576 solo tackles--solid numbers for a strong safety. Then again, no matter how well he played, it was always his perfectly conditioned hair that stole the show.
4 Sam Hurd - Chicago’s Drug Kingpin
Little known Sam Hurd was at one time a rising star among the league’s receiving ranks. He played respectably for the Dallas Cowboys and then later on for the Chicago Bears. However, all the promise of his football career came crashing down when the U.S. government announced the arrest and pending imprisonment of Hurd on drug trafficking charges.
As expected, the news was a total shock. Hurd was a solid receiver with good upside, but like many other receivers, he was just a face in the crowd. He had yet to truly define himself on the field as a threat or central component to any offense, making him seem disposable as well. To find out that one of the NFL’s plethora of no-name receivers was apparently a key orchestrator in the trafficking and distribution of illegal narcotics in one of the U.S.’ biggest cities came as a complete surprise.
Hurd received a 15 year sentence for his involvement in distributing cocaine throughout the city of Chicago. Currently, he’s on year three of that sentencing and looks to push for parole once he’s about 12-13 years through. All one can hope is Hurd has a chance to live a normal life once outside of those prison walls because he came across as a decent human being despite the felonious behavior.
3 Michael Strahan - His Gapped Teeth
Strahan was a feared defensive lineman who attacked an offensive line’s strongest player and often came out on top. He set the league’s single season record for sacks with 22.5 back in 2007 and was always had to be given extra attention by coaches in their weekly game-planning. Yet, even with such heroics on the field, it was Strahan’s cavernous gap in between his two front teeth that defined his persona.
The fun-loving, wide-smiling Strahan could’ve been as mean as he wanted in games. All he had to do was flash that endearing gap and immediately, he became that neighborhood kid your mom wished you were more like. It was the child-like spirit which his gap represented that made him the perfect fit for daytime television like the Live with Kelly & Michael as well as a great addition to the rowdy FOX Sports football pregame show.
Remember: Strahan was and always will be a football player first. But he learned to roll with the punches and use something that nagged him throughout his childhood to his advantage later in life. That’s pretty impressive for the brace-less wonder that is Michael Strahan.
2 Tim Tebow - For being... Tim Tebow
2011 was a year unlike the NFL had ever seen before because it was, well, Tebowmania. The former Florida Gator brought his rootin-tootin attitude and devout faith to the gridiron and was met with thunderous approval, spawning a nationwide pursuit holiness the likes of Jesus Christ himself.
From “Tebowing” to his postgame thank yous to God on the podium, Tim was able to ensnare even the most cynical and non-religious of fans to hop on his bandwagon. Thanks to a wholesomeness always appreciated but rarely seen in the NFL, Tebow created a counterculture movement that went against the callous nature NFL players were often perceived as. He opened himself up the public, and they responded roaring support.
That doesn’t negate how shitty of an actual player he was. After Tebowmania ended in Denver, Tebow bounced around the league looking for a new home. The New England Patriots inability to find a place for him on the field served as the death knell of Timmy’s NFL career. Nevertheless, the surreal way he won games and the passion he wore on his sleeve week in and week out landed well with fans, making his season-long stretch one to remember for ages.
1 Mark Sanchez - The Butt Fumble
Was there really ever a doubt who would top this list? The Butt Fumble, so important to league history and to Sanchez’s career that it’s capitalized, will serve as the threshold for the lowest of lows a player can achieve in the sport. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.
The play itself is seared into the minds of fans everywhere. Sanchez takes the snap, botches a fake handoff to a running back, then in a panicked moment, tucks the ball to run only to be blasted in the head by his own teammates ass. Sanchez was rocked so hard that he fumbled, leading to a New England Patriots defender scooping the loose ball and returning it for a touchdown. Everything horrible that could happen in one play did, and outside of the Jets faithful in New York, it was easily the most glorious instance to watch happen in real time.
Sanchez never seemed to shake that play. He lost his starting job to Geno Smith soon after and has became an NFL journeyman not long after that. Forever shamed by the Butt Fumble, Sanchez now buries himself on NFL benches. But we shall never forget the great joy that play brought us, as well as the great pain it bestowed onto Sanchez, as it was easily one of the most costly fumbles in NFL history to date.