The sports world is filled with many stories of “one-hit wonders,” individuals who either had one good season or one monumental moment on a big stage before eventually fading into oblivion over time. Somewhat ironically, because of when this piece is being produced, not every individual who experiences only a single good season before losing momentum and the favor of fans disappears forever. Nick Foles enjoyed success with the Philadelphia Eagles, ultimately lost his gig with that team, became a backup with the Eagles during a second stint with the club and then helped Philly win a first Super Bowl in franchise history. He earned MVP honors for his play on that evening.
For every tale such as that attached to Foles’ name, there have been numerous NFL players who had one good season and then became “whatever happened to those guys?” stories. The list begins with an individual who is still in the NFL as of the middle of August 2018, a person who unquestionably possessed Hall of Fame talent in his prime but who has battled demons and personal issues for many years. Nobody, maybe not even the player himself, knows what he will be able to achieve if he can make a return from football oblivion and become a mainstay in a lineup. It’s possible that playing the sport at such a high level is not what is best for him.
20 Gary Barnidge
You could have picked either Jordan Cameron or Gary Barnidge among Cleveland tight ends who had one good season before fading into oblivion. We went with Barnidge if only because he is a more recent example. Barnidge floated quietly in the league for years, particularly among fans who play fantasy football, until the 2015 season, when he became a revelation and caught 79 passes en route to earning a trip to the Pro Bowl. He started 16 games the following season, but he was a shell of his 2015 self, statistically speaking. That was the last time he was seen on an NFL roster for a regular season game.
19 Matt Flynn
Save your money. That is probably the biggest lesson to take from the career of Matt Flynn. Flynn was serving as a backup for Aaron Rodgers in January 2012 when he was given an opportunity to play. He threw for 480 yards and six touchdowns in a winning effort, and that performance resulted in the Seattle Seahawks giving him a contract worth $9 million in guaranteed money. Later in 2012, the Seahawks drafted a QB named Russell Wilson. Wilson was not interested in waiting for opportunities to play, and he won the starting gig his rookie season. Flynn never receiving a chance to serve as starter for a different team, and he didn’t play in the regular season again after 2014.
18 Steve Smith
Jokes and comments about “no, not THAT Steve Smith” were common during the career of the Steve Smith who helped the New York Giants defeat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Smith became more of a vital part of New York’s offense playing alongside quarterback Eli Manning during the 2009 campaign, and he ended the season with 107 receptions and a Pro Bowl nod. Unfortunately, Smith experienced a down year the subsequent season, and he then suffered a torn ACL in December 2010. That was the beginning of the end of his career. He retired following the end of the 2012 regular season.
17 Ickey Woods
It is sometimes humorous how and why we remember certain NFL players. Some may believe that Ickey Woods was an all-time great because of his famous “Shuffle” celebration that is still fondly recalled by fans to this day or because of how well his characters performed in certain video games. In reality, Woods rushed for over 1,000 yards in his rookie year, and he earned All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors for his play that campaign. However, Woods tore his ACL in the second game of his sophomore season. That ended Woods’ run as a stellar back with the Cincinnati Bengals and in the league, in general. He was out of the league after the conclusion of the 1991 regular season.
16 Peyton Hillis
Casual fans of the Cleveland Browns probably never heard of running back Peyton Hillis when the franchise acquired him ahead of the 2010 season. Hillis became the No. 1 rusher in the Cleveland backfield, and he embraced that role en route to gaining 1,177 yards on the ground. The next year, fans voted for Hillis to be featured on the cover of the Madden 12 video game. As many reading this piece know, Hillis became just another victim of the supposed “Madden Curse.” He flopped with the Browns both on and off the field during his final season with the club, and he didn’t rush for over 310 yards in any of his last three seasons as an active pro.
15 Rex Grossman
For a (very) brief moment of time, there were pockets of Chicago Bears fans who wondered if Rex Grossman could do enough to beat Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts at Super Bowl XLI. This occurred after Grossman’s roller-coaster 2006 regular season, in which he matched 23 touchdown passes with 20 interceptions. Rexy was more the 20-interception guy than the QB who threw 23 touchdowns following the ’06 campaign. The Bears moved on from him as a starter in 2008, and he did little of note as a starter with the Washington Redskins in 2011. He was out of the league following the 2012 season.
14 Don Majkowski
The Green Bay Packers had a Pro Bowl quarterback leading the offense in 1989 in Don Majkowski. Majkowski finished the season with 4,318 passing yards, 353 completions and 27 touchdowns, and he earned a new contract with the franchise ahead of the 1990 campaign. His time as a mainstay in the Green Bay lineup didn’t last, though, as he suffered a torn rotator cuff in the second half of the 1990 season. A youngster the Packers traded for named Brett Favre entered that game in place of the injured Majkowski. The rest, as the saying goes, is history, as Favre was anything but a one-season wonder during his Hall of Fame career.
13 Michael Clayton
Even those working for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who thought it wise to use a first-round pick on wide receiver Michael Clayton during the 2004 NFL Draft may have been surprised with how well he performed during his rookie season. Clayton ended that year with 80 catches, nearly 1,200 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. That would prove to be his best season with the Bucs and in the league. The Buccaneers gave up on Clayton after the 2009 season, and he did little of note with the New York Giants during a couple of years. At least, as he infamously once pointed out, the check was in the bank.
12 Josh Gordon
For a period of time during the 2013 NFL regular season, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon was the best in the business and someone who seemed well on his way to earning a spot in Canton. Unfortunately, Gordon earned one of many league suspensions because of the use of certain substances, and he has never since come close to looking as great as he did roughly five years ago. As of the typing of this sentence, Gordon is staying away from Cleveland training camp and preseason contests for personal reasons. Even if he returns ahead of the campaign, there is currently no guarantee he will ever play a down of regular season football with the Browns again.
11 Michael Lewis
Wide receiver Michael Lewis didn’t play college football after graduating high school in the 1990s, but he found a home with the New Orleans Saints following the 2000 regular season. Out of nowhere, Lewis set the record for combined kick-punt return yardage during the 2002 campaign, and he was an All-Pro named to the Pro Bowl that year. Lewis never developed into much of a receiver, however, and he couldn’t relocate the spark that he had in 2002. Despite the fact that he really had only one good season, the Saints nevertheless honored him in the club’s Hall of Fame. He became an ambassador with the franchise after he retired.
10 David Tyree
Much like with Timmy Smith, David Tyree is more remembered for his performance during a Super Bowl than for enjoying one good or great season. Some forget that Tyree caught a touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLII to put the New York Giants ahead of the New England Patriots. Nobody who watched that contest will ever forget his famous “Helmet Catch” that helped the Giants come from behind to defeat the then-undefeated Patriots and notch one of the biggest upsets in NFL history. Tyree's playing days faded into oblivion following a knee injury. That famous grab was the final catch of his career.
9 Robert Griffin III
It’s difficult to believe anybody who clicked upon this piece doesn’t know at least the short version of the story of Robert Griffin III as of the summer of 2018. The Washington Redskins traded years of their future away to move up in the 2012 NFL Draft to acquire RG3, and Griffin looked well worth the investment during his debut season. He won Rookie of the Year, but he also suffered a knee injury that sent his career in the wrong direction. Poor on-the-field play and reported behind-the-scenes issues led to Griffin being benched in favor of Kirk Cousins ahead of the 2015 campaign. Griffin is still in the NFL as a backup, but that may not last for long.
8 Barry Foster
The Pittsburgh Steelers have a long history of featuring talented running backs with Hall of Fame talent. In 1992, Barry Foster went from being an afterthought on the Pittsburgh roster to a back worthy of receiving 390 touches, and one that gained 1,690 rushing yards and 11 scores. Injuries played a part in Foster never matching the achievements from that stellar campaign. The Steelers moved on from him after the 1994 season, and a couple of attempts to remain active in the league did not prove fruitful. We’ll never fully know what Foster could have been for those Steelers teams had he remained as healthy as possible during his physical prime.
7 Steve Beuerlein
Neither Kurt Warner nor Peyton Manning nor Brett Favre led the NFL in completed passes, passing yards and passing yards per game in 1999. That was Steve Beuerlein, who shockingly earned a trip to the Pro Bowl following his best season, to date. It was also his last, and only, good season as a starting quarterback. Beuerlein only remained with the Panthers for one more season before he moved on to the Denver Broncos, where he started only a handful of games until the end of the 2003 campaign. In the summer of 2004, Beuerlein returned to the Panthers so he could retire as a member of that club.
6 Odell Thurman
Those running the Cincinnati Bengals in 2005 may have believed that the franchise had found a gem in second-round selection Odell Thurman. The linebacker ended his rookie year with five interceptions, a pick taken to the house for a score and 1.5 sacks. Thurman was named to the NFL All-Rookie Team, and he was a candidate to win NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. He then earned a suspension in 2006 for violating the league's substance abuse policy, and he experienced run-ins with the law and other setbacks following that ban. Despite eventually winning his reinstatement, he never again played for the Bengals or for any other NFL franchise.
5 Jim O’Brien
Kickers are people and players, too, teaches the well-known joke, and that means one can be added to a list of NFL players who had one good season and then faded into oblivion. O’Brien was drafted by the Baltimore Colts in 1970, but he had a lackluster rookie campaign until he was called into duty late in the Super Bowl V showdown against the Dallas Cowboys. He drained what became a game-winning field goal in the final seconds of the contest, but inconsistency — specifically the fact that he nearly missed as many attempts as he made — cost him his career after the 1973 campaign. For at least one night, he was a hero.
4 Olandis Gary
Throughout the late 1990s and 2000s, the Denver Broncos have been known for being a revolving door of running backs who became starters with the club and then moved on from the team. Olandis Gary is one of the more well-known cases. Gary, a fourth-round pick, replaced an injured Terrell Davis during the 1999 season, and he rushed for 1,159 yards and seven touchdowns. It seemed, at the time, that the Broncos had yet another stellar player in the backfield. Instead, Gary suffered a knee injury, and he was never the same player after he returned. His last carry in the league occurred during the 2003 campaign.
3 Rob Johnson
The Buffalo Bills were so convinced Rob Johnson was going to be a franchise quarterback after one impressive outing against the Baltimore Ravens that the Bills traded with the Jacksonville Jaguars for his services ahead of the 1998 campaign. That, technically, is not one good season, but it was good enough for the Bills to push the figurative chips toward the center of the table. Instead of becoming a superstar capable of guiding the Bills to a Super Bowl title, he was known as “Robo-sack” for taking so many QB takedowns. The Bills moved on from Johnson after the 2001 season, and he remains a not-so-popular figure among Buffalo supporters.
2 Greg Cook
Some out there consider Greg Cook to be one of the biggest “what could have been” cases in NFL history. The Cincinnati Bengals selected Cook in the first round of the 1969 NFL Draft, and he started spectacularly in a trio of victories before a torn rotator cuff slowed him down. Even worse was that the injury was not originally properly diagnosed, meaning he continued playing. He averaged 9.41 yards per pass attempt, and he finished the year with 15 touchdowns. His arm was never the same, though, and he was forced to retire after the 1973 campaign. The fates of multiple people, including Bill Walsh, who was an assistant with the Bengals at the time, could have gone differently had Cook remained healthy.
1 Timmy Smith
Even though this is more a case of somebody enjoying 15 minutes of fame rather than an entire good season, one could not produce such a piece without mentioning former Washington Redskins running back Timmy Smith. Smith was largely quiet during his rookie season, but head coach Joe Gibbs gave him chances to thrive during the playoffs. Smith embraced that challenged, and he went on to set a Super Bowl record of 204 rushing yards in the team’s Super Bowl XXII victory. He was far from stellar the following year, and Washington released him. Smith was given six carries during his one regular season with the Dallas Cowboys, and those were his final rushes as a pro.