"A Bridge Too Far" was a book and movie about Operation Market Garden during World War II. The title has become an idiom for overreaching; not knowing when to say when. For many NFL careers, it’s apt. So many greats don’t leave the game on top. There are exceptions, of course. Jim Brown usually tops the list, leaving after winning his eighth rushing title. Barry Sanders retired with 10 1,000-yard seasons over a 10-year career. Fran Tarkenton left after setting career highs for touchdown passes and yards. It should be noted that was the same year the league expanded to 16 games, but still, he led the league in those categories. Phil Simms came back from losing most of two seasons to injuries to throw for over 3,000 yards in his final season. But the money is great and many don’t see the subtle and not-so-subtle signs that it's time to go.
When the money wasn’t great players weren’t so prone to hang on. Hall of Fame Ernie Never played only five seasons. Red Grange played eight. Let's not forget they played on both sides of the ball in their day. These days many lesser players go a decade or more.
Of course, in recent years players are wary of the long-term effects of head trauma and have left the game early. Calvin Johnson called it quits after nine seasons, Patrick Willis after eight years and Jake Locker after four. But most people hang on as long as someone will pay them. Perhaps it’s time to think about term limits on playing the game. Too many ignore the signs that came a year earlier and go out in a way that’s only memorable for the wrong reasons. Some were underwhelming, some found themselves in the neutral zone of infamous notoriety. Of course, unless you see it coming, you don’t know it’s time to go until you truly fail.
For this list, we’re talking about people who came back to play one last season or part of a season. It’s not about the people who came back and were released in the preseason and could no longer make a team. In most cases, it's about those who could have gone out on top but failed to see the opportunity.
Here’s 15 former players who might have done well have planned their final season to come one year earlier.
15 Terry Hanratty
It’s funny how a team will have a capable backup for years, but when they need him he’s gone. Hanratty was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the second round of 1969. The next year they took another quarterback, Hall-of-Famer Terry Bradshaw, No. 1 overall. Too bad for Hanratty, who made the cover of Time and Sports Illustrated during his years at Notre Dame. In seven seasons with the Steelers he started 18 games but they could have used him in 1976, his final season, which he spent with expansion Tampa Bay.
With Bradshaw limited to eight starts that year, the team had to go to undrafted rookie Mike Kruczek, who, while going 6-0, was buoyed by a defense that recorded three shutouts in those games, and failed to throw a single touchdown pass on the season. Meanwhile Hanratty mostly sat for an infamous team that went 0-14. His only start came against, guess who, the Steelers, in Week 13, a 42-0 shutout when Hanratty went 1-for-4 with an interception before being spelled by Steve Spurrier.
14 Tommy Hart
Hart was a nice find by San Francisco, who drafted the defensive end in the 10th round of 1968. He cracked the starting lineup in 1970, the year the team won it’s first division title. Hart spent 10 seasons with the 49ers before moving on to the Chicago Bears. After playing for Chicago, he went on to New Orleans in 1980 and played for the most infamous of Saints teams, known as the Aints for their 1-15 record, prompting the fans to show up with bags on their heads. New Orleans lost their first 14 that year, culminating with a defeat to San Francisco in which the Saints blew a 35-7 halftime lead. Hart can hardly be blamed for choosing New Orleans. Though the team, a 1967 expansion, had never had a winning season, things looked promising. They were coming off an 8-8 season in 1979. They seemed primed for a playoff push. The Saints were officially off the tracks with the midseason trade of Chuck Muncie to San Diego. Trading star players to the Chargers seemed like a yearly thing when they sent wide receiver Wes Chandler to San Diego during the 1981 season.
New Orleans would not record its first winning season until 1987. Hart played in a time before sacks were an official statistic, but, unofficially he has been credited with 16 in his Pro Bowl season of 1976, and in 1972 when he earned honorable mention All-Pro.
13 Jim Kelly
In Jim Kelly’s final season of 1996, he threw 14 touchdown passes against 19 interceptions and was sacked a career-high 37 times. His career ended in a playoff loss against Jacksonville Jaguars, a team that was playing in their first postseason game in franchise history. In the loss to the Jaguars he threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown. With 2,810 yards in 13 regular season games, Kelly saw his string of five straight 3,000-yard seasons come to an end. His 3.7 touchdown-pass percentage represented a career low, and his 5.0 interception percentage, a career high.
He began his professional career with the United States Football League’s Houston Gamblers and was the USFL MVP his rookie year in 1984. Kelly joined the Bills in 1986 when he suffered through a 4-12 season. Two years later they had just the opposite record at 12-4 while Kelly led the team to the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons. Buffalo went to, and lost, four straight Super Bowls beginning with the 1990 season. After missing the playoffs at the end of 1994, Buffalo bounced back and made it in 1995.
12 Don Cockroft
It’s disappointing to close out your career by not being given an opportunity. But that must be even worse for a specialist. Cockroft’s final game was the Cleveland Browns playoff loss to the Oakland Raiders in the 1980 season. He was a straight-toe kicker who played 13 years of his NFL career with Cleveland. In 1980, the team made the playoffs for the first time in eight years, and won their first division title in nine years. Unfortunately, they lost their only playoff game, 14-12, to the Oakland Raiders. And, in what was the final game of his career, the team neglected using Cockroft for a potential game winning kick. Instead, they opted for an end-zone pass that was intercepted.
What you ought to know about that game is that it was played in two-degree weather, with 21-mile-per-hour winds and minus-20 wind-chill. All of the scoring, except for a defensive touchdown, that day came at the opposite end of the field. Cockroft was one-for-two on extra points, and two-for-four on field goals. Though he’d once made a 57-yard field goal, his long for the 1980 season was 45 yards and he was 0-for-3 from 50 yards or more. He has said he probably should have spent the 1980 season on the injured list due to two herniated discs.
11 Craig Morton
The last Denver Bronco to wear no. 7 before John Elway, Morton closed out his career in strike-shortened 1982 when he played only three games for a 2-7 team. One year earlier, he had the Broncos on the doorstep of the playoffs, guiding the team to a 10-6 record while leading the league in yards per pass attempt. But with destiny in their hands, they blew the playoffs in a season finale loss to Chicago when Morton completed only 8-of-23 passes with three interceptions. Another reason not to come back — he was the most sacked QB in the league in 1981. And another was the impending labor dispute. But he came back for what would be the Broncos' first losing season since before he joined the team.
Morton came to the Broncos in a 1977 trade from the New York Giants and, that season, led Denver to the playoffs for the first time, advancing to the Super Bowl. He was a first-round draft choice of the Dallas Cowboys in 1965 and, after succeeding Don Meredith as the starting quarterback, found himself in a quarterback controversy with Roger Staubach.
10 Jerry Kramer
The Green Bay lineman was the author of "Instant Replay," his diary of the 1967 season when the team won Super Bowl II, their fifth championship of the 1960s. The book was published in 1968, his 11th and final season, which also happened to be their first losing year since his rookie season of 1958 when the team went 1-11. The 1968 team was 6-7-1. Two of the Packers wins in ’68 came against two young doormat franchises, the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints, who began play in 1966 and ’67, respectively. The 1967 season, however, included the famous NFL Championship game known as the Ice Bowl, a victory over the Dallas Cowboys in minus-13-degree weather. Bart Starr followed Kramer’s block on a quarterback sneak for the game-winning touchdown in a 21-17 decision.
Kramer should have gone out on top while he had a chance.
9 Norm Snead
Snead played quarterback at a time when playing for five teams was a lot. He was a first round pick of the Washington Redskins and was traded to Philadelphia in a questionable swap of quarterbacks that gave the Redskins Hall-of-Famer Sonny Jurgensen. Snead only played for a playoff team once, with the Minnesota Vikings in 1971, his only season with the team. He never played in a postseason game, however. That season with the Vikings he threw one touchdown pass against six interceptions.
Snead made the Pro Bowl four times, the first two occasions coming during his years with Washington. He also made the Pro Bowl while playing for Philadelphia and the New York Giants. He led the league in interceptions four times, culminating with the 1973 seasons when he had 22 INTs and only seven touchdown passes.
In his final season in 1976, he returned to New York for his second tour of duty with the Giants and started two games for a 3-11 team. He threw no touchdown passes and had four interceptions. Ironically, he closed out his career in a loss to the Redskins. It was the Giants' first season at Giants Stadium.
8 Brian Kelly
After 10 seasons in the Tampa Bay secondary, Kelly exercised his option in 2008 and signed with Detroit, reuniting with former Buccaneers assistant Rod Marinelli, who had been the Lions head coach since 2006. Not much of a visionary, Kelly joined what would be the first 0-16 team in the 16-game era. He started 10 of the 11 games he played for the Lions before being mercifully released by the team. Kelly once co-led the NFL with eight interceptions in 2002, the year the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl.
In 2002 he had two interceptions in a victory against Green Bay, as he helped the Bucs hand the Packers one of only four losses on the season.
The 2008 Detroit team scored more points than five other teams, but the defense surrendered 517 points, over 50 points more than any other team. While they were last in defense, they were 27th in pass defense. He had no interceptions with the Lions. It was only the third time in his career he didn’t record an interception, including 2006 when he played in only two games. Tampa Bay and Detroit were division rivals prior to realignment in 2002. The signs for disaster weren’t there. The Lions were 7-9 in 2007 including a 23-16 win over Tampa Bay.
7 Dan Marino
Marino’s career ended in a 62-7 blowout loss at Jacksonville in the Divisional Playoffs at the end of 1999. This came after a regular season in which he recorded a career-low 67.4 passer rating. This was the 17th season in a Hall-of-Fame career. He once led the NFL with a 108.9 rating, which came in his second year, 1984. The low point of his final season was undoubtedly his five-interception game in 20-0 Thanksgiving Day loss at Dallas. In the playoff loss to the Jaguars, he completed only 11 passes in 25 attempts but supplied his team’s only scoring on a 20-yard touchdown pass to Oronde Gadsden.
How strange that his career would end in a road-game in Florida against a team that didn’t exist during the first 10-plus years of his career. One week earlier he led Miami to a 20-17 win at Seattle in the Seahawks final game at the Kingdome.
6 Ed "Too Tall" Jones
Jones closed out his career in the 1989 season for a 1-15 Dallas team. He started 10 games, played in all 16, and one only one sack. He had seven the year before. He was a 6’9” defensive end, though when you saw him tower over the rest of the line, wearing no. 72, you might have thought he really was 7’2”. The year before his final season, Dallas had endured its first losing year since 1964, a decade before Jones’ rookie season of 1974. Jones had missed the 1979 season when he retired for one year to pursue a boxing career. He was 6-0 with five knockouts and, while boxing may have made him a better football player, he said he was no better or no worse when he returned to the Cowboys in 1980.
But, in 1979 the Cowboys were a lot better than 1989. With Jones they had gone to back-to-back Super Bowls in 1977 and ’78. Without him, in 1979, they went 11-5, but failed to win a single playoff game. In his first year back, Dallas made it to the NFC Championship game. They would never return to the Super Bowl during his career. His finest year might have been 1985 when he recorded 13 sacks and helped lead the Cowboys back to the playoffs after missing the postseason in 1984. Jones had 13.0 sacks in '85. It was his personal best since the league began recording sacks in 1982. He had a combined 3.5 sacks in the sweep against the New York Giants, an important effort as the Cowboys won the NFC East despite a three-way deadlock with the Giants and Washington, all with 10-6 records.
5 Brett Favre
Favre closed out his career in two seasons with Minnesota in 2009 and ’10, representing the best and worst of times. The end of the Vikings era at the Metrodome pretty much summed up the 2010 season. The roof collapsed under the weight of heavy snow with three home games remaining on the schedule. After playing a neutral-site game in Detroit against the New York Giants, Favre’s career ended unceremoniously at TCF Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus when he suffered a concussion against the Chicago Bears on a Monday-night game in freezing conditions. His final statistical line: five of seven for 63 yards, a touchdown and an interception. On the year he threw more interceptions than touchdowns (11-to-19).
There was plenty of reason for Favre to come back after leading Minnesota to overtime in the NFC Championship loss at New Orleans the previous year. For the 2009 regular season he threw for over 4,000 yards and delivered 33 touchdown passes. He had 12-4 record as a starter in 2009 but went 5-8 in ’10. Before his career ended, so did his NFL-record string of 297 regular-season starts when he missed the New York Giants game, one week before the game against Chicago, due to a shoulder injury.
4 Jackie Smith
After 15 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, the tight end closed out his Hall-of-Fame career with division-rival Dallas (the Cardinals played in the NFC East before 2002 realignment). To be specific, he closed out his career with a dropped pass in the end zone in the Super Bowl at the end of the 1978 season. It would would have been a game tying touchdown late in the third quarter of what was, ultimately, a 35-31 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. In all his years with the Cardinals, the team played in only two playoff games and lost them both. He only caught one pass in each of those games, neither of them going for more than seven yards, let alone a touchdown.
Smith did score a TD earlier in the 1978 postseason, a game-tying reception in the third quarter of a 27-20 win over Atlanta in the Divisional Playoffs. After Smith’s drop, Dallas settled for a field goal, pulling within four points going into the fourth quarter. But they later trailed by 18 before rallying with two touchdowns. His body coiled in disappointment and the Cowboys then radio announcer Verne Lundquist said, “Bless his heart, he’s got to be the sickest man in America." After the game Smith said, “I hope it won’t haunt me, but it probably will.”
3 Franco Harris
It’s probably not wise to hold out when you’re on the verge of becoming the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. Jim Brown’s career record was in Harris’s sights after the 1983 season, his 12th with Pittsburgh. He ended up signing with Seattle during the 1984 season. The Seahawks had major backfield issues after losing the 1983 AFC Rookie of the Year (Seattle played in the AFC before 2002 realignment) Curt Warner to a season-ending knee injury in the 1984 season opener. Harris never performed at top form for Seattle and never held the all-time rushing crown. He played only eight games for the Seahawks and did not finish the season with the team. As Seattle struggled to find a go-to back, seven different ball carriers on the Seahawks were game rushing leaders and not one of them was named Harris. With Seattle he wore the number 34 he wore at Penn State where he was mostly a blocking back for Lydell Mitchell.
Harris finished 192 yards short of Brown’s then rushing record, which has now been eclipsed by nine players.
2 Joe Theismann
Theismann’s horrific career-ending, multiple-fracture injury would have been reason enough to rethink showing up for his 12th NFL season in 1985 — if you’re not familiar with the play, stream the first few minutes of the movie the "The Blind Side." But things weren’t going terrific before the injury. In 11 games, including his final game, he threw eight touchdown passes against 16 interceptions. His 2.7 touchdown percentage was the worst of his career, and his 5.9 yards per attempt was his worst since 1975. After he was carted off for good, Jay Schroeder came in and completed 13 of 20 to lead the Redskins to a 23-21 victory over the New York Giants. It was probably time for Schroeder to take over anyway.
Theismann joined the Redskins in 1974 and was third string behind Billy Kilmer and Sonny Jurgensen. He managed to get on the field, however, returning 15 punts in 1974. He rushed for no less than 17 touchdowns during his career in Washington. Theismann was an All-Pro in 1983 when he led the NFL in yards per pass attempt.
1 Y.A. Tittle
After leading New York to the 1963 Championship game, Tittle closed out his career the following season when he threw only 10 touchdown passes against 22 interceptions. He had led the league in TD passes in 1962 and ’63 with 33 and 36, respectively. Whereas he led the NFL in yards-per-attempt with an 8.6-yard average in ’63, the average dropped to 6.4, his personal low since 1950 when his passes gained 6.0 per attempt for a 1-11 Baltimore Colts team. One of the 1964 low points was captured in maybe the most-famous football photograph ever. After being knocked down against the Pittsburgh Steelers, on a play when he threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown, Tittle was shown on his knees, helmet off, his bald head bleeding. He later said, “That was the end of my dance. A whole lifetime was over.”