There are a few things which can make an offense legendary. One of the biggest things can help a team really take over on offense is a coaching style which gives teams the ability to out-scheme teams. Things like the West Coast offense for the Niners in the 1980s would give teams such an edge over the opponent that there would be no way to stop them. This has created some of the greatest teams on history through the X’s and O’s of the game.
Another route is just having more talent than other teams. There have been many great quarterback and wide receiver combos which have led to thousands of yards in the air but never succeeded in the long term. There were some great quarterback and running back combinations which led to balanced teams that could beat you through the air or on the ground. But most of the time when you have a superstar on each level, that leads to Super Bowl rings. Teams like the 49ers in the 1980s with Joe Montana, Roger Craig, and Jerry Rice were able to win multiple championships. The Steelers in the '70s with Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, and Lynn Swann were able to reach the same heights.
But there are times when somehow a team has those weapons in all three spots and still come up short in the end. Sometimes it’s planning that doesn’t work out because you acquire the wrong players. Other times the talent just never reaches the right level and they can never reach their potential. Either way, here is a list of trios of quarterbacks, running backs, and No. 1 receivers (mostly wide receivers, but also some tight ends) which were the biggest disappointments for their teams.
32 Arizona Cardinals: Carson Palmer, Adrian Peterson, Larry Fitzgerald
Leading up to 2017, the Cardinals were in a strange position. Quarterback Carson Palmer had flourished with head coach Bruce Arians and turned back time, passing for 4,600 yards in 2015 and 4,200 in 2016. Larry Fitzgerald also didn’t seem to age, getting over 1,000 yards in each one of those years as well. Still, in 2016, the team dropped to 7-8-1, but they were expected to bounce back in 2017.
After four failed games with the Saints, running back Adrian Peterson was joining the team to give them one last boost.
In the end, the team quickly fell apart in the 2017 season. Although everyone was excited about the 2009 Pro Bowl team getting together, it crashed and burned very quickly for the Cardinals.
31 Atlanta Falcons: Michael Vick, Warrick Dunn, Peerless Price
In 2002 the Falcons added a key part of their offense. Warrick Dunn came over from his stint in Tampa Bay to become the starting running back. With Michael Vick already on the team, the Falcons finally had a complete offense for the next five years. When Peerless Price joined the team in 2003, the Falcons thought they had their trio set.
Vick managed to throw for 2,000 yards each year and run for 600 or more in all those years, except 2003, when he was injured. Dunn had over 1,100 yards in three of the six seasons, including him and Vick both topping over 1,000 yards one year. Price posted some good numbers but wasn't quite a true no.1 WR.
The team never got further than the NFC championship before things came apart because of Vick's off-field issues.
30 Baltimore Ravens: Kyle Boller, Jamal Lewis, Todd Heap
This group had the perfect situation, with a defense that was consistently one of the best in the league. Kyle Boller was added to a starting lineup that already had running back Jamal Lewis and starting tight end Todd Heap. But Boller never excelled under the pressure of leading the Ravens. While Lewis had over 1,000 three times from 2003-2006, including rushing for 2,000 yards in 2003.
To show you how bad their receiving corps was, TE Todd Heap was their most consistent weapon on offense, with 6 TDs in two seasons. But the issue was Boller never threw for more than 2,600 yards and the Ravens never made the playoffs from 2003-2006.
29 Buffalo Bills: E.J. Manuel, LeSean McCoy, Sammy Watkins
The Bills wanted to move forward with the quarterback position and decided to draft E.J. Manuel with the 16th pick in 2013. Sammy Watkins was added in the 2014 draft as a wideout and LeSean McCoy was traded for in 2015 to make the offense a complete unit. Watkins ended up with 1,047 yards and 9 TDs in 2015 and McCoy ran for 895 yards in the same season.
The only issue was by this time Manuel proved to be a bust.
In 2013, he only threw for 1,900 yards and it got so bad that in 2015 he only started 2 games for the team and was soon to be out of a job. The Bills were trying to set up a team around Manuel but everything was torn apart before it got to that point.
28 Carolina Panthers: Jake Delhomme, DeShaun Foster, Steve Smith
Steve Smith at wide receiver became a game-breaking threat and really helped the Panthers remain competitive. Foster was a player who never eclipsed 900 yards and Delhomme was a very good player for the four years these three were together, but Smith was the engine. In 2003, when Smith had 1,100 yards and Delhomme threw for 3,200, and the Panthers went to the Super Bowl, losing late to the New England Patriots. Delhomme threw for 3,800 yards in 2004 when Smith was hurt, and when he returned Smith had 1,500 receiving yards in 2004, but they never quite reached the same heights again.
27 Chicago Bears: Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall
In 2009 when the Bears got quarterback Jay Cutler, they assumed that he would quickly take the team to the promised land. Of course, it took them three more years to realize that he would need someone to throw to. So the Bears went and got Brandon Marshall in 2012 and suddenly the Bears offense took off. In 2012, Marshall had 1,500 yards receiving and added in 1,200 the next year. Forte had 1,000-yard rushing seasons each year as well and proved to be a dangerous back in the passing game. But Cutler just never got it done in those three years. The team ultimately missed the playoffs in two of those seasons and Marshall was moved again in 2015.
26 Cincinnati Bengals: Carson Palmer, Rudi Johnson, Chad Johnson
Chad Johnson and Rudi Johnson had both been on the Bengals since 2001. So when the Bengals drafted Carson Palmer in 2003, everything seemed to finally be working out their way. Palmer came out throwing for 2,800 yards his rookie year and for the next three seasons had 3,800 yards or more. Rudi had 1,300-plus yards from 2004-06, but started to break down in 2007. Chad was amazing, getting 1,200 yards at least from 2004-07.
However, their best chance came in 2005 when the Bengals were 11-5 and looked like a real threat.
Then Palmer took one of the most devastating knee injuries in recent football memory and the Bengals' window closed as they never made the playoffs again with these three.
25 Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel, Josh Gordon, Terrance West
First, we have the story of Josh Gordon. The wideout came onto the scene with a huge 2013 campaign with 1,646 receiving yard and 14 TDs in only 14 games of action. The next year he was supposed to shine with the addition of star college quarterback Johnny Manziel. Instead, the two ran into a myriad of off-field issues. Manziel was only on the team and in the league for two seasons before the NFL decided they were done with the former first-round draft pick. Gordon is now with the New England Patriots after the Browns gave up on him.
24 Dallas Cowboys: Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray, Dez Bryant
Dallas Cowboys fans started to believe they were watching the same unit that led their team in the '90s when this trio really got going. Romo had been leading the team at quarterback since 2006, but in 2010 they added Dez Bryant, and in 2011 DeMarco Murray came into the fold. From 2011-2014, this trio became as scary as any in the NFL. Romo eclipsed 3,700 yards in each season through this stretch. Bryant had at least 1,200 yards and 12 TDs from 2012-14 and was one of the best wideouts in the league. But Murray made it all click when he rushed for 1,800 yards and 13 TDs in 2014. That team was the only one to make the playoffs but in the end, they lost to the Packers in the divisional round because… it wasn’t a catch.
23 Denver Broncos: Jake Plummer, Reuben Droughns, Rod Smith
In 2003 the Broncos decided to sign Jake Plummer from the Cardinals as the quarterback. In 2004 running back Reuben Droughns moved to the starting lineup. Rod Smith was the no.1 receiver for the team since the John Elway days in the '90s.
For the few years that Plummer and Smith played together, they never had a better rotation than they did with Droughns in 2003 and 2004.
Smith was still a very good threat even at the age of 34, getting 1,144 yards, and Plummer had 4,000 yards that same season. The trio was never able to get deep to the Super Bowl and it ended as quickly as it started for them.
22 Detroit Lions: Matthew Stafford, Jahvid Best, Calvin Johnson
After 2009, when the team drafted Matthew Stafford, it was clear they had their quarterback of the future to match up with their star receiver in Calvin Johnson. But the third piece of the puzzle was a revolving door. Jahvid Best was supposed to be the most explosive one of any of the backs and the one with the highest potential but he never reached that level. Meanwhile, before Megatron retired, he and Stafford were making magic.
Stafford had 4,200-plus yards each year, while Johnson had over 1,000 yards each year, including the historical 2012 season when he had 1,964 yards. Without the third wheel, though, the Lions could never get out of the first round in the playoffs.
21 Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers, Eddie Lacy, Randall Cobb
By 2013 it was already established that Aaron Rodgers was one of the best quarterbacks in the league and that Jordy Nelson had incredible ability and timing with him. But that year, it seemed like Eddie Lacy and Randall Cobb would leap up and make them one of the scariest teams in the league. Lacy came out of the gate with back-to-back 1,100-yard seasons in 2013 and '14, while Cobb had 1,200 receiving yards in 2014. But these two never reached this plateau again as Lacy was off the team after 2016 and Cobb has never had over 900 yards in a season again. Of course, Rodgers was Rodgers the entire time, but this unit couldn't reach a Super Bowl.
20 Houston Texans: Matt Schaub, Arian Foster, Andre Johnson
The Texans have only been around since 2002, but they still had a unit which should have accomplished more than it did.
In 2010, this trio all went off with Schaub throwing for 4,200 yards, Johnson receiving for 1,200 yards and Foster erupted with 1,600 yards rushing…and they won six games.
2012 was the last hurrah for these three as Schaub passed for 4,000 again, Foster ran for 1,400 yards, and Johnson added 1,598 yards receiving for the 12-4 Texans. But they ran into the Patriots in the divisional round and lost 41-28, and that was the end of their run.
19 Indianapolis Colts: Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison
It's crazy that this trio never won a Super Bowl together. When you consider how long they played together in their primes from 1999-2006, they should have accomplished more. Peyton Manning threw for under 4,000 yards or less than 25 TDs only once in those eight years. Edgerrin James ran for 1,200 yards five times in that eight-year period, including 1,700 yards in 2000. Marvin Harrison had 1,100-plus yards in each one of those seasons, and in three of those years, he got over 1,500 yards.
There was nothing stopping all three of them from being incredible except the playoffs. Unfortunately for James, the Colts would win it all the year after he left.
18 Jacksonville Jaguars: Mark Brunell, Fred Taylor, Jimmy Smith
The Jaguars franchise started in 1995, and right off the bat, they had two pieces of their long-term future in Mark Brunell and Jimmy Smith. The last piece to this trio was added in 1998 when Fred Taylor joined the team. The missing ingredient was actually Brunell not being good enough to get them over the hump. He did have over 3,000 yards three of those seasons but started to decline quickly and left the team in 2004. They maxed out in 1999 with a 14-2 record but never reached the playoffs again with these three on the same team.
17 Kansas City Chiefs: Trent Green, Priest Holmes, Tony Gonzalez
In 2001 the Chiefs decided to actually get an offense around stud tight end Tony Gonzalez. This year they ended quarterback Trent Green from the Rams and running back Priest Holmes from the Ravens. Both of them would be huge factors on the team until 2006. In those six years, Green threw for over 3,600 yards five times.
Holmes ran for over 1,400 yards and 20 TDs twice in the stretch which is incredible.
Gonzalez was the standard of consistent play getting more than 5 TDs in five seasons during the stretch. Still, the team made playoffs twice and never won a game at that stage.
16 Los Angeles Chargers: Philip Rivers, LaDainian Tomlinson, Antonio Gates
In 2006 Philip Rivers took over for Drew Brees at starting quarterback. LaDainian Tomlinson had already run for 1,200 and 10 TDs in each of the previous five seasons while young tight end Antonio Gates already had the 13-TD year in 2004 and reached 1,100 yards in 2005. Rivers was supposed to be plug-and-play, which he was in 2006 passing for 3,300 yards as LT went off. Tomlinson ran for 1,800 yards and a league record 28 TDs in 2006.
Even with all that talent, the Chargers never could get it done in the playoffs after taking a disappointing loss to the Patriots 24-21 in the divisional round. That was the best chance the Chargers had, and LT was off the team after 2009.
15 Los Angeles Rams: Marc Bulger, Steven Jackson, Torry Holt
In 2002 Kurt Warner went down with an injury and Marc Bulger stepped in the starting lineup and went 6-1. Steven Jackson took over the starting running back job in 2004, and that was the last key to their starting lineup. Torry Holt was a mainstay on the team and everything came together for this unit from 2004-2008. Bulger threw for over 3,000 yards twice in this stretch, while Jackson and Holt took off in this span.
Jackson ran for over 1,000 yards in four of the five seasons with the team. Holt got over 1,100 receiving yards in four of the five seasons as well. Still, because Bulger wasn’t consistent, this group never made the playoffs in their five seasons together.
14 Miami Dolphins: Dan Marino, Tony Nathan, Mark Clayton
If the first thing you thought about these three names was “Who is Tony Nathan?”, then that is exactly right. In 1983, the Dolphins drafted both Dan Marino and Mark Clayton. In 1984 this unit erupted as they went to a pure passing system. Nathan didn’t help much in the running game, gaining only 500 yards, but he also had over 500 yards receiving.
Marino was amazing that year with the first ever 5,000-yard season in NFL history, while Mark Clayton had 1,300 yards and 18 TDs.
Over the next nine seasons, Clayton had over 1,000 yards six times while Marino was spectacular with 3,000 yards and 24 or more TDs in each of those nine years. But the team never reached the height of 1984, when they made the Super Bowl and lost to the growing dynasty of the 49ers.
13 Minnesota Vikings: Daunte Culpepper, Michael Bennett, Randy Moss
This unit came together off the heels of the 1998 Vikings offense. The Culpepper/Smith/Moss version, doesn’t have that same legacy or prestige and had more years together but still ended up falling short. The team just never got it together and even missed the playoffs a few times, which is stunning considering that Bennett had 1,200 yards in 2002, Culpepper went wild in 2004 with 4,700 passing yards and 39 TDs and Randy Moss was Randy Moss. Moss had 1,200 yards in each season he was healthy, including 1,632 yards and 17 TDs in 2003. But they never won more than 9 games. What a shame.
12 New England Patriots: Tony Eason, Craig James, Stanley Morgan
It is hard to find a disappointing trio when it comes to the Patriots, but this one does stand out. Tony Eason was picked in the first round in 1983. When he got there, running back Craig James and wide receiver Stanley Morgan were already on the roster. James had over 1,000 yards in 1985. Likewise, Morgan got 1,400 yards in 1986. Eason got 3,000 yards in 1984 and 1986, but the team couldn’t accomplish as much as their talent suggested. They did reach the Super Bowl in 1985, only to get smoked by the Chicago Bears. They never reached the Super Bowl again and after 1988, the Patriots moved on from all three and decided to rebuild.
11 New Orleans Saints: Archie Manning, Jimmy Rodgers, Wes Chandler
This is one of the rare groups on this list that is up here simply for a terrible season, but considering the fact that it caused fans to wear bags on their head they're worth putting here. 1980 was the only season in which these three each led the team in passing, rushing and receiving respectively, and it’s no wonder the Saints decided to change that after their 1-15 record.
Manning actually had a good statistical year for 1980 throwing for 3,700 yards and 23 TDs.
Chandler was solid as well leading the team with 975 yards receiving. But Rodgers was awful this season leading the team with 366 rushing yards and an incredible 6 fumbles on 80 carries. Yikes. This team was soon broken up, as the memory of the "Aints" lives on.
10 New York Giants: Kerry Collins, Tiki Barber, Amani Toomer
This was probably the toughest franchise to find an era in which their trio was a disappointment. However, there was a brief era right before Eli Manning was drafted in which these three were together but never managed to get it done.
In 2000, Tiki Barber was added to the offense, which already had Kerry Collins and Amani Toomer. They immediately went to the Super Bowl but for the next three years together, they never reached that point again despite the impressive numbers they had. Collins threw for 3,000 yards in each of those four seasons, while Toomer had 1,000 receiving yards each year as well, and Barber added 1,000 yards in three of those four years. But this trio’s time ended when the Giants drafted Eli Manning in 2004.
9 New York Jets: Mark Sanchez, Shonn Greene, Dustin Keller
The Jets chose Mark Sanchez with the fifth pick of the draft in 2009. Sanchez was able to lead the team to the AFC Championship game in his first two years in the league. With Dustin Keller as his tights end, Sanchez seemed to be a capable QB at this point. When Shonn Greene was the starting running back in 2011, the team was expected to take the next step and make the Super Bowl. However, it wasn’t going to happen for this unit. Two seasons and one butt fumble later, this group is seen as a disappointment by Jets fans. Although that’s nothing new for them.
8 Oakland Raiders: JaMarcus Russell, Justin Fargas, Zach Miller
In 2007 the Raiders took the plunge on drafting a starting quarterback with the first overall pick in the draft. JaMarcus Russell was their selection and he was supposed to lead the future of the team with running back Justin Fargas and eventually Darrius Heyward-Bey, drafted in 2009. Of course, Russell turned out to be an all-out disaster for the team.
This is one of the few trios that is defined by one player, but it had to the be the case with these Raiders.
From the second Russell was drafted, it was all over for the Raiders.
7 Philadelphia Eagles: Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook, Terrell Owens
Leading up to 2003, the Eagles didn't have a number one receiver, nor a really prolific running back. Brian Westbrook had started to come on the scene in 2003, but in 2004 he started to break out, rushing for 800 yards and receiving another 703. McNabb went up a different level as well throwing for 3,800 yards, 31 TDs, and only 8 INTs, but the real key in opening the offense up was Terrell Owens.
TO exploded on the scene with 1,200 yards and 14 TDs. However, what makes this so disappointing is that they never got it done. After the loss in the Super Bowl to the Patriots, it all came apart for the Eagles and TO was moved in 2006.
6 Pittsburgh Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown
No, this trio isn’t quite over yet, even as Le'Veon Bell has yet to suit up in 2018, but they need to be mentioned on this list. As great as they are, no QB, RB and WR trio has underachieved as much as these guys. The only reason that can be said is the argument that none has been better in NFL history. On what team can you actually claim they had the best running back, best wideout, and a top-five quarterback at the same time?
If you immediately thought about the '90s Cowboys, that is fair, but remember they got three Super Bowls out of it. These guys have none. It's inexplicable and inexcusable.
5 San Francisco 49ers: Jeff Garcia, Garrison Hearst, Terrell Owens
When Garrison Hearst reentered the backfield for the 49ers in 2001 after missing two seasons, it added a completely different element to the offense. Jeff Garcia had already been under center for a few seasons and excelled in 2000 with impressive numbers. Meanwhile, Terrell Owens had quickly become one of the premier receivers in the league.
This group was only together for three years but in that time they were one of the most dangerous trios in the NFL.
This unit is the franchise's most disappointing because it was really the first high profile trio to never get it done in the playoffs. They had a tough standard to live by, but that’s life when you're playing for the 49ers.
4 Seattle Seahawks: Jim Zorn, Sherman Smith, Steve Largent
The Seahawks franchise started in 1976 and out of the gate they had two great players. Jim Zorn was the starting QB and Steve Largent lined up at wide receiver. Over the next 11 years, Zorn and Largent were among the most dominant QB/WR combinations in football. Neither one had the best height, speed, or other physical tools, but they always seemed to connect when needed. Sherman Smith was the best running back the combo ever had, but only put up average numbers at best.
From 1976-1982 Smith had over 700 yards three times. Meanwhile, Zorn had over 3,000 yards three years and Largent had 1,000 yards over four times in the stretch. The passing numbers were impressive but the running numbers left much to be desired.
3 Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jameis Winston, Doug Martin, Mike Evans
When the Buccaneers drafted Jameis Winston with the first overall pick in 2015, he was supposed to be the next great quarterback. He did not disappoint stats-wise, coming out of the gates passing for 4,000 yards and adding 22 TDs. Doug Martin had a resurgence as well, gaining 1,400 yards on the ground, stepping back up to being one of the best backs in the league. Second-year player Mike Evans formed an immediate chemistry with Winston.
They were set to take off the next year but Martin wasn't the same player, rushing for only 400 yards in each of the last two years. With Winston having regressed in 2017 and so far in 2018, this might be the fourth straight time this talented group misses the playoffs.
2 Tennessee Titans: Steve McNair, Eddie George, Kevin Dyson
This trio started in 1997 when the then Houston Oilers were preparing their move to Tennessee. The team had drafted Steve McNair two years prior with the third overall pick, then selected Eddie George with the 14th pick in the 1996 draft. While George shined in his rookie year, McNair didn’t start until 1997 when he passed for 2,600 yards through the air. Still, they wanted a receiving threat, so the Titans picked Kevin Dyson with the 16th overall pick in 1998.
While McNair and George were very good to great over the next six seasons, Dyson fell short of expectations.
He never eclipsed 900 yards, with the team failing to reach 500 yards in three of his five seasons with the team. Ultimately, they never got back to a Super Bowl after losing to the Rams in 1999, and their lack of a deep threat was a huge reason why.
1 Washington Redskins: Robert Griffin III, Alfred Morris, Pierre Garcon
There have been a lot of rookies who people have claimed would change the way the NFL looked. But when Robert Griffin III stepped onto the field in 2012, it looked like that would be the case. RGIII had over 3,200 passing yards with 20 TDs and 5 INTs while rushing for 800. Morris also looked perfect for the offense, rushing for 1,600 plus yards in his rookie season.
Pierre Garcon chipped in 600 yards that year but could be a weapon as he proved in 2013 with 1,300 yards in the air. But 2012 was the only shining moment this group because everything fell apart after RGIII re-injured his knee in a playoff loss to the Seahawks.