As football fans we tend to turn our heads more towards the offensive side of the ball. Defensive power struggles are all well and good, but what we look for are the fireworks. The big plays that light up the scoreboard, a one on one duel between two gunslingers – that sort of thing. Today’s NFL has become heavily reliant on the usage of multiple wide receiver sets. You can’t just have one or two good receivers; you need three – at least. While the running game has taken a sort of backseat, having a halfback who can consistently contribute is a big plus, especially if he can do it on multiple phases.
While most likely every football fan knows who The Triplets were, others teams’ iterations of a QB/RB/WR trio sometimes go unnoticed or underappreciated. Every NFL team has at least one combination like this and some often get little to no attention. Whether they won championships or not, the guys on this list came together and helped their teams win. They might not have all been superstars, but together they were great. Here are every NFL Franchise’s QB/RB/WR trio of all-time.
32 Arizona Cardinals – Kurt Warner / Edgerrin James / Larry Fitzgerald
The Cardinals organization has passed by its fair share of cities and, in that time, gone through quite a few name changes and seen a good deal of players come and go. While we tend to focus on their failures, there’s a good deal to be said about what the franchise has done over the last decade. For a short while the Cards had one of the better trios in the NFL with a revitalized Kurt Warner leading the way. While not the same as he was in his prime, Warner was a top 10 quarterback in Arizona. He had one of the league’s best receivers in Larry Fitzgerald who could stretch the field or make things happen after the catch. Tying it all together was veteran runner Edgerrin James, who served as a bruiser – grinding out the tough yards. The trio brought the Cardinals to the cusp of a Super Bowl victory, though it was during James’ worst statistical career in Arizona.
31 Atlanta Falcons – Michael Vick / Warrick Dunn / Roddy White
While this trio was only together for a short time, it featured a venerable group of playmakers. During his career as a Falcon, Michael Vick established himself as one of the most exciting players in the NFL. Be it on the ground or through the air, Vick had a nose for the endzone and kept defenses guessing with his skillful theatrics week in and week out. Warrick Dunn served as a prefect compliment to the dual threat passer, as he played a vital role on both running and passing downs. On the other end was Roddy White. While he and Vick were only on the same team for a couple of seasons, White’s presence was felt in the passing game and gave the Falcons yet another young playmaker teams had to account for on all downs.
30 Baltimore Ravens – Joe Flacco / Ray Rice / Torrey Smith
The Ravens are another young franchise that find themselves on this list. While that doesn’t give us too much to work with, there are options. Joe Flacco has established himself as one of the best quarterbacks in Ravens history. Like him or hate him, he’s performed well throughout his tenure as the Ravens’ starter. He’s a gunslinger. Meaning he’s not afraid to throw it deep or force a pass or two into traffic every now and then. When he was with the Ravens, Torrey Smith proved to be the perfect complement to Flacco’s arm. Smith could stretch the field and made his fair share of big plays. On the other side of the spectrum we have Ray Rice. Next to Jamal Lewis, Rice is probably the best runner the Ravens have had. He was small but could get in between the tackles and gouge teams for big gains, or grind out the tough yards.
29 Buffalo Bills – Jim Kelly / Thurman Thomas / Andre Reed
Most people will remember the Bills teams of the 90s with just two words; “wide right.” While it might be unfair to summarize years of effort with one of the NFL’s most iconic follies, the Bills didn’t really do much to change people’s perspectives of them. They lost four consecutive Super Bowls and widely failed to capitalize on their opportunities in crucial moments. But when you look at the weapons they had during that time, you’ve got to wonder why. Had he won a ring, Jim Kelly would be seen as the best quarterbacks of the 90s – not Troy Aikman. Thurman Thomas was consistently playing like a top five running back and gave the offense a unique physicality, while Andre Reid put up big numbers and was able to stretch the field – proving to be one of Kelly’s more consistent targets. A championship or two and these guys would’ve been mentioned with the best trios in NFL history.
28 Carolina Panthers – Jake Delhomme / DeShaun Foster / Steve Smith Sr.
While the Carolina Panthers might be all about Cam Newton right now, there was a time when Jake Delhomme was the man in Carolina. Delhomme – along with his rocket arm – led the Panthers to a Super Bowl appearance with the help of a sturdy defense and a speedy Steve Smith. While Delhomme and Smith provided the highlight reel plays, DeShaun Foster dished it out on the ground. He wasn’t a spectacular player by any means, but his power running style perfectly complimented Delhomme and Smith’s finesse play style. Though they failed to bring home a championship, the Panthers were dangerous with these three on the field. The addition of DeAngelo Williams as a change of pace back made them all the more dangerous as an all around offense.
27 Chicago Bears – Jim McMahon / Walter Payton / Willie Gault
The name that stands out on this list is obviously Walter Payton. Payton was one of the best running backs in NFL history and will be remembered as such by fans both new and old. But this list isn’t about stand out players – it’s about trios. Bears fans will remember Jim McMahon as the man that helped them win their only Super Bowl title. If he’s not remembered for his play on the field then he’s most certainly remembered for his entertaining off the field attitude. Willie Gault is the wild card in the group. He might not have the name recognition the other two have, but he was once considered one of the fastest men in the NFL. The group gets overshadowed by that incredible defense, but deserve respect nonetheless.
26 Cincinnati Bengals – Boomer Esiason / James Brooks / Eddie Brown
The Bengals teams of the 80s are outshined by the San Francisco 49ers teams that ruled that decade with multiple championship wins. You could say that they were much like the Bills of the 90s, always playing second fiddle to the bigger dog. But those Bengal teams were incredibly talented, especially on offense. While you might not like his commenting, Boomer Esiason was a fine quarterback in his day. He made the throws he needed to and proved to be a steady presence at QB. Brooks joined the Bengals in 1984 after three years in San Diego. He had some inconsistent years but ultimately proved to be a nice pick up, earning four Pro Bowls with the Bengals. Much like Brooks, Eddie Brown too took some time to come into his own. But when he did, he set a couple Bengals records that were eventually broken years later when Chad Johnson came into the fold.
25 Cleveland Browns - Bernie Kosar / Earnest Byner / Reggie Langhorne
Historically, the Cleveland Browns have not been a very good football organization. Yes, there is some good to be found there, but you’ve got to siphon through a lot of miserable nonsense to get it. If you talk to any Browns fan who was alive during the 80s, they’ll probably have some good things to say about Bernie Kosar. Kosar was an above average passer who played for a franchise hurting for a saviour. He had some memorable moments and provided fans with a glimmer of hope, but ultimately fell short of colossal expectations. The Browns aren’t exactly known for their star players – excluding Jim Brown – and while Byner and Langhorne weren’t exactly superstars, they complimented Kosar well enough to allow him to play to his strengths and actually held together some decent teams.
24 Dallas Cowboys – Troy Aikman / Emmitt Smith / Michael Irvin
The triplets. They’re probably the best trio of all-time. Each a Hall of Fame member who led incredible careers. The Cowboys team of the 90s would’ve been nothing without them. You had the quiet but always reliable Troy Aikman under center, the best back in the NFL, Emmitt Smith and “The Playmaker” Michael Irvin on the outside. The three of them fuelled one of the most dangerous offenses the NFL has ever seen. The Aikman to Irvin connection was scary good. Though Aikman also excelled at spreading the ball around the field when need be, Irvin never gave him much opportunity to practice throwing to other receivers. If he wasn’t open, then he was getting open. In the backfield, Smith’s numbers speak volumes, as he retired as the NFL’s leading rusher. He could take a defense apart running or catching the ball. There was no stopping these guys once they were on the field together.
23 Denver Broncos – John Elway / Terrell Davis / Rod Smith
John Elway had a nice long career in the NFL. It was full of ups and downs, but it was a Hall of Fame career nonetheless. Throughout that time frame, Elway was surrounded by a good deal of talent at the receiver and running back positions. However, no two players seemed to make the same impact that Terrell Davis and Rod Smith had at the receiver and running back positions, respectively. Elway on his own was a spectacular talent, but it took the added skills of a big bodied runner and sure-fire receiver like Davis and Smith to get the Broncos over the hump – which resulted in two Super Bowl victories in the late 90s, before Elway rode off into the sunset as one of the best quarterbacks of all-time.
22 Detroit Lions – Matthew Stafford / Reggie Bush / Calvin Johnson
Matthew Stafford has been a godsend to the Lions organization. While he hasn’t developed into an elite passer, he definitely belongs among the top 15 best passers in the game. Calvin Johnson on the other hand is one of the best receivers in NFL history, yet his decision to retire earlier this offseason will go down as one of the most shocking moves in NFL history. The combination of Stafford to Megatron was tough to defend. Johnson was a big athletic receiver who could win with his skill and raw athletic ability, while Stafford has a cannon arm and was never afraid to lob the pigskin up high. They formed a dangerous passing attack. Enter Reggie Bush, who added speed and an extra dynamic of super rare athleticism to the mix. Though they were only all together for a short while, these guys were dangerous on the field.
21 Green Bay Packers – Brett Favre / Ahman Green / Donald Driver
The question going into this wasn’t whether or not Brett Favre would occupy the Packers slot, but which teammates would occupy it with him. Favre was a risk taker on the field but could also come up with some magical plays on the fly. The Packers offense with him under center was part west coast – part improv. Ahman Green made a name for himself in Green Bay after spending two years on the bench in Seattle. Green was a punishing runner who could run over defenders in the trenches while also contributing to the passing game through the usage of carefully timed screens and check downs. On the outside, Donald Driver proved to be Favre’s most reliable target. He wasn’t as flashy as some other receivers in the league at the time, but he had great hands and was a possession guy. You could count on him to get the ball and do something with it. When you’ve got a gambler like Favre under center, guys like that make all the difference in the world.
20 Houston Texans – Matt Schaub / Arian Foster / Andre Johnson
The Texans haven’t been around for too long. They’re an expansion franchise and thus don’t have that much history. You don’t have to look too far in the past to find their best trio of QB/RB/WR. At one point in time, Matt Schaub was a solid NFL quarterback. He wasn’t very spectacular, but he provided stability to a young franchise. Arian Foster was one of the best running backs in the league – mostly because this was back when he was able to stay on the field. Andre Johnson was a machine and caught pretty much anything that was thrown his way. Together they formed a formidable offense. Of course, none of these guys are with the team anymore, while Johnson and Schaub are both second stringers now. But for a time, the three of them made up one pretty formidable offensive trio.
19 Indianapolis Colts – Peyton Manning / Edgerrin James / Marvin Harrison
While the team might be in flux right now, the Colts were perennial contenders just a decade ago. While those playoff runs had a lot to do with their explosive defenses, who caused many turnovers, no one can overlook the fact that they had a loaded offense led by Peyton Manning at the time. Edgerrin James – who makes his second appearance on this list – was with for the team for the better part of the early and mid 2000s. It’s in Indy that James made his name as a formidable runner and receiver. Then there’s Marvin Harrison. The Manning to Harrison connection was magical. It set records, enthralled fans and frustrated the hell out of defenses. The two connected for 112 TDs during their time together – a record Manning believes won’t be broken any time soon.
18 Jacksonville Jaguars – Mark Brunell / Fred Taylor / Jimmy Smith
The Jags are another young team on this list. While fans today are hopeful for the success of Blake Bortles and company – there was a point in time when the franchise was actually competing for a playoff spot on a quasi-consistent basis. None of you might remember Mark Brunell very well, but this guy was a starting quarterback in the NFL once upon a time. Fred Taylor isn’t a name you’ll hear very often when discussing NFL history either, but he rushed for over 10,000 yards in his career and is vastly underappreciated by NFL fans. The name that really stands out here is Jimmy Smith. Smith’s career was on the rocks by the time he got to Jacksonville. But he took the NFL by storm as a Jag and set multiple Jags and NFL records by the time he retired. He tied together a group of talented – albeit underappreciated – offensive talent in Jacksonville.
17 Kansas City Chiefs – Len Dawson / Mike Garrett / Otis Taylor
We’re going back a little for this one. The Chiefs of the 60s might’ve been overshadowed by the Packers at the time, but they were – in part – responsible for the eventual NFL-AFL merger that gave us the NFL we know today. While most AFL teams were seen as sort of semi-pro squads, the Chiefs put together a strong group of talents on both the offensive and defensive sides. Leading the way was quarterback Len Dawson. While not quite Joe Namath, Dawson was one of the elite passers in football at the time. He finally got some help in the mid 60s with running back Mike Garrett and receiver Otis Taylor. Once the three of them found a rhythm, they were tough to beat.
16 Los Angeles Rams – Kurt Warner / Marshall Faulk / Torry Holt
The Rams might be back in LA, but that doesn’t change the fact that the best offensive trio in team history came from their days in St. Louis. For a brief period in time, between 1999 and 2001, the Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf” was one of the most deadly offenses in the NFL. Kurt Warner came out of nowhere and quickly rose to become one of the best QBs in the league. Marshall Faulk found new life with the Rams and showed the league that he was still a prolific runner and receiver out of the backfield. Torry Holt’s young NFL career had just started at this point, but he’d already established himself as one of the best young receivers in the game. These guys won a Super Bowl together and could have won more had injuries not derailed Warner’s play.
15 Miami Dolphins – Dan Marino / Mark Higgs / Mark Clayton
Dan Marino is probably the best quarterback in NFL history to have not won a Super Bowl championship. The Dolphins were dangerous with him leading the offense and they couldn’t be beat through the air. Marino had a massive arm, but unlike a typical gunslinger, he could fit passes into his receiver’s hands with pin point accuracy. For the better part of his career that receiver was Mark Clayton. Clayton was a monster at receiver and he was also Marino’s favourite target. Together they formed one of the better duos in the league. Mark Higgs’ career in Miami wasn’t nearly as long as Marino’s or Clayton’s, but he did manage to establish some continuity at the position while complementing the passing game every now and then.
14 Minnesota Vikings – Daunte Culpepper / Michael Bennett / Randy Moss
In his prime, Randy Moss was one of the most dangerous receivers n the game. Most fans will remember he and Cris Carter lighting up scoreboards with Randall Cunningham at the helm. But the Vikings were most dangerous when Moss had Daunte Culpepper throwing his way. Culpepper was – for a time – one of the better passers in the league. He had great mobility but didn’t let that affect his ability as a drop back passer, while Randy Moss was a physical freak who's one of the top five to ever play the position. At running back, we went with Michael Bennett who was electric in 2002, but who dealt with injuries that never allowed him to reach those numbers again. However, when he was on the field, he was a difference maker. They never won a championship together, but these three were electric on the field. Had they gone all the way, we would’ve been mentioning them alongside the triplets as the best trio of all-time.
13 New England Patriots – Tom Brady / Corey Dillon / Deion Branch
Well, you had to know that the Patriots’ entry on this list would’ve included Tom Brady. Brady has been in the NFL for a long time and has played with his fair share of players. It’s often suggested that it isn’t so much the supporting cast in New England, but Tom Brady himself who makes the offense gel so well. With so much history, it’s hard to choose one great trio of Patriots players. One could make the case for the '07 team that nearly made it to perfection, but that offense got held down by a scrappy Giants defense when it mattered most. No, we have to go with Corey Dillon and Deion Branch here. This trio actually brought home a Lombardi. They were a perfect balance. Where Dillon would grind out tough yards and wear out the front seven with a steady rushing attack, Branch would give Brady a target who could stretch the field – always a danger for the big play.
12 New Orleans Saints – Drew Brees / Deuce McAllister / Marques Colston
Manny people don’t remember the Saints of the past, those old Saints teams that put up more blooper reel than highlight reel plays. That’s in good part due to this next trio on our list. When Drew Brees first came to New Orleans from San Diego, he was seen as a franchise saviour. The team – and the city – needed a lift and Brees provided it. Alongside players like Deuce McAllister and Marques Colston, the Saints offense became one of the most explosive in the league. Brees – however undersized – proved to be one of the most accurate passers in the NFL. For the three years these guys managed together, McAllister – aided in part by Reggie Bush – put together a strong ground game that would get the offense into a rhythm and Colston provided Brees with a big, athletic target who could snatch anything thrown his way. These guys put the Saints back on the map, and they’ve been there ever since.
11 New York Giants – Eli Manning / Ahmad Bradshaw / Hakeem Nicks
New York is Odell Beckham Jr’s territory now, but if you look just a few years back, the landscape at receiver looked very different. Of course, old reliable Eli is still there. But the runner and receiver positions have gone through a bit of rebuilding. While the current Giants offense is loaded at receiver, the running back position is kind of lacking in comparison. Back when the Giants won their second championship in the Tom Coughlin era, they struck a perfect balance at all three positions. In that small chunk of time, Ahmad Bradshaw established himself as one of the most underappreciated three down backs in the NFL. He could run with finesse and power, catch the ball in space and pass block. Hakeem Nicks became a quick favourite of Eli’s and played with a rare physicality at the receiver position. Victor Cruz came into the fold sometime during this span as well, but Nicks was more of a consistent contributor in this line-up, at least before his injury.
10 New York Jets – Joe Namath / Emerson Boozer / Don Maynard
One of the most polarizing figures both on and off the field, Joe Namath will always be remembered for two things, the glamorous life he lived off the field and the guarantee that prefaced the Jets’ only Super Bowl win. But within all of that, people seem to forget about Namath as a player. By no means was he elite. At least his numbers weren’t, but he could put together a drive just when you needed him to,and was hard to stop once he got going. The same could be said for running back Emerson Boozer, who barrelled through defenders – as was usual for your typical old school runner. Don Maynard was Namath’s favourite target. He caught everything thrown his way. While his name gets lost in the scuffle nowadays, Maynard was one of the NFL’s first true great elite receivers. Jets fans would be happy to have another bunch like these guys. Maybe they’d win every now and then.
9 Oakland Raiders – Ken Stabler / Mark vam Eeghen / Fred Biletnikoff
The old school Raiders of the 70s were known for two things; homicidal physicality and winning. If Joe Namath was the golden boy of the AFL then Ken Stabler was his shaggy bearded, sly smiling doppelganger. Stabler was the iconic quarterback of the 70s. Forget Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach, Stabler was part of more moments in NFL lore than the two of them combined. “The Snake” always pulled off some sort of parlor trick or two on the field. More often than not, it involved receiver Fred Biletnikoff. Biletnikoff might be most well known for his usage of stick’em, but don’t let that fool you. He was a hell of a receiver without the stuff. Mark van Eeghen kind of gets lost in all this, but he had a solid career in Oakland and is the team's second leading rusher of all-time. While he was never a big name guy in the league, he contributed to the offense, notching three consecutive 1,000 yard seasons in the late 70s.
8 Philadelphia Eagles – Donovan McNabb / Brian Westbrook / Terrell Owens
Between 2000 - 2010, the Philadelphia Eagles made nine playoff runs. Historically the Eagles aren’t known as contenders, as they’re the only team in the NFC East who hasn’t won a Super Bowl title. But in 2004 that looked to change. Led by Donovan McNabb, the Eagles had one of the most explosive offenses in football. McNabb – like Michael Vick – could get things done running and passing the ball. He was a dual threat with a canon arm. Brian Westbrook was one of the most elusive backs in the league, but also proved to be a formidable receiver. Terrell Owens, fresh off his stint with the 49ers, had established himself as a dominating presence at the receiver position. The team looked to be set, but failed to clinch the Lombardi. Eventually, McNabb and Owens had a falling out and T.O. made his way to Dallas. It was short lived, but spectacular to watch nonetheless.
7 Pittsburgh Steelers – Terry Bradshaw / Franco Harris / Lynn Swann
For those of you who aren’t history buffs, here’s a Hall of Fame studded trio for you to admire. We talked about the Raiders of the 70s a little while ago, but the Pittsburgh Steelers are the team of the 70s. Multiple championships, a diehard fan base and a dominant defense made them one of the most iconic sports teams in the world at that point rivaling only “America’s Team,” the Dallas Cowboys. The combination of Bradshaw, Harris and Swann was a dangerous one. Defending these three through the air was tough enough as it was and should a team have managed to actually stymie Bradshaw or Swann, they’d get Harris gouging them on the ground. It’s not hard to see why they were so successful with these three at the helm.
6 San Diego Chargers – Dan Fouts / Rickey Young / Charlie Joiner
Air Coryell. It might sound like a cheesy private jetliner, but for a time it made the San Diego Chargers one of the most feared teams in football. The vertical offense gave defenses nightmares. It was the first passing attack that focused on beating teams by consistently stretching the field. Between 1978 and 1983, the Chargers led the NFL in passing yards, an NFL record. Led by Dan Fouts, San Diego stood at the helm of a passing revolution. This offense forever changed the game. It was flawlessly executed by players who perfectly fit the mold. None more prevalent than Dan Fouts, Rickey Young, Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow Sr. The Fouts to Joiner connection took the NFL by storm and made any defensive back opposing them look silly. Young contributed as both a runner and receiver and surpassed 1,000 total yards in one of his seasons as a Charger. Ultimately, the fact that they never won a championship takes away a lot of the amazing things they accomplished together.
5 San Francisco 49ers – Joe Montana / Roger Craig / Jerry Rice
The 49er teams of the 80s were legendary. Lots of people compare them with the Patriots of the 2000s in terms of sheer dominance. If Air Coryell started the movement to make the NFL into a passing down, then Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense solidified it. Legendary players like Montana, Craig and Rice put the 49ers on the map with their exquisite play. Montana had a knack for big plays while being mobile enough move around in the pocket and give himself more time to make a play. Craig was an enigma at the running back position, contributing as a receiver out of the backfield with as much success as he had running the ball between the tackles. Rice is still considered to be the best receiver in league history. He could stretch the field while making contested catches all over the place. Quite simply, no one could keep up with him. It’s not hard to see how these guys won so many games together.
4 Seattle Seahawks – Dave Krieg / Curt Warner / Steve Largent
Before Russell Wilson and company helped make the Seahawks into big play contenders, the team actually had some decent years in the 80s. Though they didn’t find the same levels of success as these Seahawks have today, they still featured some fantastic talents. Dave Krieg succeeded Jim Zorn as the guy in Seattle and played about as well as your typical 8’s pro quarterback would, with flashes of greatness here and there – and plenty of turnovers everywhere else. Curt Warner had one of the most explosive rookie years in team history and was a staple of the offense for several years. Out wide, Steve Largent established himself as one of the greatest to ever play the game, behind only Jerry Rice at the time. No championships for these guys, but a lot of promise and a decent level of success nonetheless.
3 Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Brad Johnson / Mike Alstott / Keyshawn Johnson
The early 2000s were all about defense. Defense won championships. For the Patriots, Ravens and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as well, this all held true. While this group might not have been the most statistically prolific, they did have good chemistry and played their roles perfectly. Alternatively, you could sub in Michael Pittman here instead of Mike Alstott, but let’s give the big guy some love. Johnson was never the most statistically impressive passer, but he managed games well and got the job done. Alstott ran with ferocious power and contributed as both a run and pass blocker. Keyshawn Johnson was the typical Diva receiver, but a playmaker on an offense seriously lacking those. The Bucs got by on their defense, but don’t let that completely overshadow the offense. They had their job and the defense had theirs.
2 Tennessee Titans – Steve McNair / Eddie George / Derrick Mason
The Titans of the late 90s and early 2000s were perennial playoff teams who – led by Head Coach Jeff Fisher – managed to have a great deal of success despite never winning a Super Bowl. Steve “Air” McNair led the way on offense. Like McNabb and Vick, McNair could get it done with both his legs and arm. Eddie George was one of the best running backs in the NFL for several years and beat opposing defenses with his mixture of power running and sheer athletic ability. Derrick Mason slowly came into his own in Tennessee, but managed to become the team’s top receiving threat once he did. The Titans failed to bring home a championship with these guys, but were dangerous to play nonetheless.
1 Washington Redskins – Joe Theismann / John Riggins / Art Monk
We end our list with a particularly talented trio of offensive superstars. Back when the Redskins were still a respectable football organization, they housed some incredible talent. Among the most prominent QBs in Redskin lore is Joe Theismann. Theismann gave stability to a franchise that had long since needed it. In the backfield was John Riggins, “The Diesel.” Riggins was a power runner whose crazy off the field persona matched up with his run through walls running style. On the outside was Art Monk. Monk currently owns several Redskins records and finished his career as one of the most dominant receiving threats of the 80s. Together they won a few Super Bowl championships and might have won some more had Theismann not had his career cut short due to injuries.