Out of all the professional sports, one can make the argument that football is the most grueling. NFL players put their bodies on the line every Sunday, much to the delight of football fanatics, all in the hopes of obtaining one single goal: the Lombardi Trophy. Fans see the brutal nature of the game every time their favorite team takes the gridiron. Whether it be a receiver getting crunched by a safety across the middle, a running back pounding his way through the line of scrimmage, or a quarterback getting trounced by an incoming defensive end, this game is not for the faint of heart.
Due to the physical torment and punishment that NFL players endure over the course of their careers, the shelf life of a football player is not very long. Depending on the position, players on average only last in the league for a handful of years and are only at their prime for a very short duration. The smart players call it quits while they’re ahead, leaving the game on their own jurisdiction and not being forced out by injury or evaporation of talent.
Unfortunately, this cannot be said for every player that has come through the NFL. There are a number of players who simply cannot give up the game they love and aren’t able to hang up their cleats. It’s rather unfortunate. There have been many players who put together a Hall of Fame career during their peak playing days, only to have the tail end of their career tarnished by poor play or a banged up body. Here are the Top 15 NFL players who overstayed their welcome, ones that should’ve thrown in the towel a lot earlier than they did.
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15 Isaac Bruce
Isaac Bruce was one of the key players for the “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams teams of the late 90s. Paired with Torry Holt, Bruce was a nightmare for cornerbacks, and his career numbers show it. A five-time pro bowler, Bruce has over 1,000 career receptions, 91 touchdowns, as well as a Super Bowl ring. Unfortunately, Bruce stuck around for a bit too long. After a 13-year stint in St. Louis, he was released by the Rams in 2008 after refusing to take a pay cut and took his talents to San Francisco. However, his time as a 49er was a forgettable two seasons in which he only caught 82 passes combined.
14 Deion Sanders
Nicknamed “Primetime,” Deion Sanders was one of the best athletes of our generation. A multi-sport star, Neon Deon was exciting to watch on both the football field as well as the baseball diamond. In the NFL, he was a fearless cornerback, garnering eight All-Pro honors, a defensive player of the year award in 1994, as well as two Super Bowl championships in the mid-90s. After a brief stint with Washington in 2001, the Florida State product retired after a lackluster season.
However, in 2004, Sanders opted out of retirement to join the Baltimore Ravens for two more seasons, but he was far from the player he used to be. At 37 years of age, Sanders was simply an average nickelback for a bad team.
13 Rodney Harrison
You would be hard pressed to come by a more infamous player than Rodney Harrison. The safety out of Western Illinois was known for his bone-crushing hits and often dirty play. After a successful nine-year stint in San Diego, Harrison joined the New England in 2003 to bolster an already great defense. Harrison helped the Patriots win two Super Bowls, back to back. But following the 2004 season, he was never the same. In his final four seasons in New England, he only played in 31 games combined due to a myriad of injuries. Though he has made quite the career for himself on Sunday Night Football as an analyst, he probably should have left the league a couple years sooner.
12 Fred Taylor
Fred Taylor became the face of the Jaguars franchise after being drafted by the team in 1998, just for years after their inaugural season. He was one of the better running backs in his hey day, a perennial 1,000-yard rusher. After 11 seasons in Jacksonville, Taylor headed to New England with the hopes of winning a championship. However, injuries sidelined the Florida product in both campaigns, in which he only played 13 games combined and 424 rushing yards. He should’ve just retired in Jacksonville.
11 Simeon Rice
Simeon Rice was one of the most feared pass rushers in the early 2000s. After a respectable stint in Arizona, Rice made a name for himself in Tampa Bay earning multiple Pro Bowl honors and a Super Bowl championship in 2002. After being released by the Bucs in 2006, Rice stayed in the game for another disappointing season. In 2007, he played eight games with the Broncos and two with the Colts, with a combined five tackles and one sack. After sitting out all of 2008, he signed to play in the lowly UFL for the New York Sentinels. A sad end to a career for a once great player.
10 Joe Namath
“Broadway” Joe Namath is a legend in New York sports, and for good reason. He is the Jets' franchise’s all-time greatest quarterback, leading them to their only championship in 1969. At the beginning of his career, Namath was durable, not missing a single game over the course of five seasons. However, this trend quickly reversed as his laundry list of injuries, coupled with his hardcore off the field lifestyle, caused the Alabama product to play in only 28 of a possible 58 games from 1970-1973. In a last-ditch effort to keep his career alive, Namath signed on with the Los Angeles Rams in 1977, only to see a continuation of nagging injuries and poor play. He finally called it quits after the disappointing season in L.A.
9 O.J. Simpson
Simpson was one of the most popular athletes in all of sports in the 1970s. A Heisman-winning running back out of USC, he spent nine successful seasons as a Buffalo Bill, including a 2,000-yard season in 1973. During his time as a Bill, he was selected to five Pro Bowls and led the league in rushing four times. As injuries plagued Simpson later in his career, he was shopped to San Francisco. His time as a 49er was less than stellar, only rushing for a combined 1,053 yards and four touchdowns over the course of two seasons. I haven’t heard much from “The Juice” lately, anyone know what he’s up to?
8 Torry Holt
Holt was Kurt Warner’s favorite target during the St. Louis Rams' long run of success in the late 90s and early 2000s. A perennial 1,000-yard receiver and feared deep threat, Holt amassed seven Pro Bowl selections during his 10-year run in St. Louis. After the Rams elected not to sign Holt after 10 seasons, he headed to Jacksonville as a free agent signing a three-year deal. However, Holt would only play one season as Jaguar, which despite playing in 15 of 16 games, hauled in no touchdown passes for the first time in his career. After being released, he gave a last ditch effort in New England, only to be released during training camp following a knee injury.
7 Ed Reed
Reed was an integral part of the vaunted Baltimore Ravens defense, and his career accolades back it up. Nine-time Pro Bowler, five-time All Pro, three-time league interceptions leader, defensive player of the year and Super Bowl champion. After an 11-year stint in Baltimore, the Miami product headed to Houston as a free agent following the Ravens' Super Bowl season. However, his time as a Texan was not a good one. After logging average playing team and eventually losing his starting spot, Houston released him halfway through the season. He then headed for New York to reunite with is former defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. New team, same story. After an underwhelming 2013 campaign, and sitting out all of 2014, Reed finally decided to officially retire in May of 2015.
6 Jerry Rice
Rice is widely considered the greatest wide receiver of all time, and for good reason. During his 16-year stint in San Francisco, Rice put together quite the resume. He currently is the record holder for the three major receiving statistics: catches, yards and touchdown catches. He’s also a three-time Super Bowl champion, two-time offensive player of the year and 13-time Pro Bowler. Even after 16 years in the league, Rice still believed he had some left in the tank. He played three average seasons in Oakland and was traded to Seattle mid way through his fourth.
In his last three seasons in the NFL, Rice only caught 12 touchdown passes combined. Even after his 20th season, Rice still couldn’t leave the game, signing on with the Denver Broncos. However prior to the start of the season, Rice opted to retire after being placed on the bottom of the receiver depth chart.
5 Johnny Unitas
Johnny Unitas career body of work will make your head spin. Ten-time pro bowler, five-time all pro, four-time MVP, three-time NFL champion and Super Bowl champion. However, after a long run of success, Unitas slid into severe mediocrity and didn’t leave the game on top. In 1972, after losing four of the first five games and throwing a hefty amount of interceptions, the legendary quarterback was benched. Way past his prime, he gave it one final shot in San Diego, which turned out to be a pure disaster. In his season opener in 1973, he threw for a mere 55 yards, tossed three interceptions and was sacked eight times. After being replaced by rookie quarterback and future Hall of Famer Dan Fouts, Unitas finally opted to retire in 1974.
4 Eric Dickerson
Eric Dickerson is one of the best running backs to ever play the game, and his career accolades and records held back that up. He’s a six-time Pro Bowler, four-time season rushing yards leader, league MVP and his 2,105 rushing yards in 1984 is still the record for most in a season. However, the legendary back just couldn’t call it quits at the right time. After successful five-year stints with both the Rams and Colts, Dickerson joined the Raiders for a mediocre two-touchdown season in 1992.
The following year, he was traded to Atlanta but only served a backup role appearing in just four games. After his awful tenure as a Falcon, he was traded again to Green Bay only to fail a physical, which finally prompted him to retire.
3 Randy Moss
Moss was one of the more polarizing figures in the league during his time, but his play on the field was unquestioned. One of the most feared deep threats in the history of the game, the receiver out of Marshall wowed fans game in and game out with his jaw-dropping touchdown receptions. After a very respectable tenure in Minnesota, Moss was traded to Oakland, which turned out to be a failed experiment. However in 2007, the Patriots stole Moss from the Raiders for just a 4th round draft pick. He revitalized his career in New England and put up some of his best numbers, including the record-breaking 23-touchdown reception season in 2007. Due to differences with the front office, Moss was shopped to his original team in Minnesota, only to be released under a month after being traded. He signed with the Titans following his release, only to continue his end of career mediocrity, only catching six passes over the course of eight games. After a brief retirement in 2011, he came back for the 2012 season with the 49ers, but fans saw much of the same, a receiver way, way past his prime.
2 Brett Favre
I’m not sure anyone loved the game more than more than Brett Favre. His record streak of 297 consecutive starts (321 including playoffs) is unprecedented in the NFL. His honors speak for themselves: 11 Pro Bowls, three-time MVP, four-time season passing yards leader and Super Bowl champion. He also holds the record for most completions and is tied with Peyton Manning for most wins as a quarterback. However, it was Favre’s undying love for the game that plagued the tail end of his career. In early March of 2008, Favre gave a tear-filled retirement speech as Green Bay Packer. This was all for not as he decided to play again, though the Packers were not interested.
He was traded to the Jets where he played one mediocre season. After being released by the Jets, Favre opted to retire and enjoy working in his farm in Mississippi. This was undone again as he signed on with the Minnesota Vikings. Though he nearly marched the Vikings to the Super Bowl in 2009, Favre was clearly worn down and beaten up. After being unable to play the final game of the 2010 season with a concussion, Favre announced his intentions to retire immediately after the game, this time for good.
1 Terrell Owens
Not many receivers in the game could push Jerry Rice out of town, but T.O. did just that. Owens became a star in San Francisco, becoming a four-time Pro Bowler. Owens continued his great play in both Philadelphia and Dallas, still dependable for seasons over 1,000 yards and 10-plus touchdown receptions. Though Owens skills began to decline, his love for the game did not. He stuck around for two decent seasons in Buffalo and Cincinnati. After a torn ACL sidelined him in the 2011 offseason, Owens held a televised workout free agent work out the following, which no NFL teams attended.
With no suitors, he opted for the Indoor Football League’s Allen Wranglers, whom eventually released him due to lack of effort. The Seahawks gave him a low risk shot in 2012, only to release him weeks later. Despite not having played since 2010 and garnering no interest league wide, Owens still believes he can play and has yet to officially retire.
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