A team roster in the NFL is comprised of 53 players. Football more than any other sport, really demands the contribution of the entire unit for a team to succeed. There are so many facets of a game and so much that can go wrong that everybody has to put in their part. One sentence you'll often hear from Bill Belichick when he's mic'd up on the sidelines is a very simple phrase; "just do your job!" That's because it's when all 11 guys on the field for a team, be it their offensive, defensive or special teams unit are all doing their jobs is when a play will be successful.
Throughout history though, franchises have stumbled upon one to a handful of great players on their roster at the same time, but failed to surround them with the supporting cast needed to succeed. One player can't do it all by himself. If you're a quarterback, you need a solid receiving corps, a tough offensive line and a running game to support you when you get in trouble. If you're a defensive back, no matter how good your coverage skills are, you need a pass rush up front, because you can't cover a 6-foot-5 wide receiver forever. Eventually, he'll get away from you. If you're a running back, you need your offensive line to open up lanes for you and you need somewhat of a threat with the passing game so defenses won't just load the box to stop you. Heck, if you're a great kicker, to really be noticed, you have to get an opportunity to win games with a clutch field goal so people will notice you. Nobody cares if you kicked five field goals in a 38-15 loss.
This list of 15 players who were too good for their teams is comprised of guys who were elite talents in their time, but never had the proper support around them to contend for championships. Sometimes these players left their underachieving teams to find success elsewhere, while others stuck it out, for better or for worse. This list isn't just guys who never won a Super Bowl. Some great players are in fact on teams suitbale for their talent, but the team just came up short in big games. These guys were often on teams that they had to carry and the organization just never gave them the proper supporting cast.
15 Zach Thomas
Zach Thomas was a tackling machine for the Miami Dolphins from the mid 90s through to the early 2000s. He beat out veteran Jack Del Rio for the starting middle linebacker job as a rookie and he never looked back. Thomas finished his career with 1,720 combined tackles, 16 forced fumbles and 17 interceptions. The Dolphins made it to the playoffs in five of Thomas' first six seasons, but struggled heavily following Dan Marino's retirement. The ongoing issues at quarterback and head coach would prevent Thomas from being on contending teams, even though he was one of the best players of his time.
14 Bruce Matthews
Hey, the offensive line has to get some love too, right? Bruce Matthews was named in one of top 100 NFL players of all time from the NFL Network. Unfortunately, a lot of his best years came as a part of a subpar Houston Oilers team. Matthews made the Pro Bowl a whopping 14 times and was a 10-time All-Pro, showing incredible longevity for an offensive lineman. While the Oilers/ Titans did make the playoffs nine times in Matthews' career, many of them constantly underachieved, including a 32-point comeback loss to Buffalo.
His best chance came in 1999, when the Titans went to the Super Bowl, before falling one yard short to St. Louis.
13 Charles Woodson
Charles Woodson's first stint in Oakland was a mixed bag. While he wasn't alone some years, including a Super Bowl appearance and being robbed in the tuck game, Woodson's final years in Oakland were wasted on a terribly coached team by Bill Callahan. The roster was aging while Woodson was still in his prime. Woodson eventually found a new team in Green Bay and in the 2010 season, the future Hall of Famer got his first Super Bowl. Woodson is now back in Oakland and is still a fantastic leader for the Raiders.
12 Junior Seau
Don't worry, Junior Seau is not on this list for his time in New England. Those teams certainly were on Seau's level, but the Hall of Famer had some rough years in San Diego. Seau had five playoff appearances in 13 years with the Chargers, despite posting numbers of 47 sacks, 15 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles as a Charger. Seau then went to a Dolphins team that failed to make the playoffs in Seau's four years with the team. Seau got to a second Super Bowl game of his career on New England's 18-0 team in 2007, but lost a heartbreaker. Seau likely would've been regarded even higher had he been on a better team in his prime.
11 Warren Moon
Warren Moon had to wait longer than he should have to get his shot as an NFL quarterback, but ongoing prejudice against black quarterbacks was still prevalent, so Moon went to Canada to play for the CFL's Edmonton Eskimos. After five Grey Cups, Moon got his chance with the Houston Oilers, where he start an amazing career that included nine Pro Bowls. In addition to Houston, Moon also played for Minnesota, Seattle and Kansas City, but never got to the big game.
10 Cris Carter
Cris Carter had over 1,100 career receptions and 131 touchdowns, while totaling 13,899 yards. Buddy Ryan once said, "all he does is catch touchdown passes" as if it was a bad thing. Drug and alcohol problems soon saw Carter out of Philly, and onto Minnesota. Carter's time in Minnesota ranged from great to mediocre Vikings teams, with his best chance at a Super Bowl coming in the Vikings' 1998 season, where they went 15-1. For some reason, Carter kept getting snubbed in HOF voting, but did finally get inducted in 2013.
9 Gale Sayers
Now we get to the crimes against talent. What would you say if I were to tell you a guy who set a rookie rushing record with 22 touchdowns, was a two-time rushing champion, once scored six touchdowns in one game and averaged 5.0 yards a carry in his career... never got to play in a single playoff game! That would be Gale Sayers who was on some terrible Chicago Bears teams in the 60s and 70s. Knee problems forced Sayers to retire prematurely, but his career may have lasted longer if he had a better o-line and he sure as hell deserved to play in the postseason.
8 Tony Gonzalez
Tony Gonzalez is arguably the greatest to play the position of tight end, but he barely got to play in any meaningful games throughout his run in Kansas City. Gonzalez finished his career with 1,325 catches for 15,127 yards and 111 touchdowns, shattering all tight end records. Gonzalez played in a grand total of two playoff games for the Chiefs, once in his rookie year of 1997 and in 2006, both resulting in a loss. The Chiefs traded him to the emerging Falcons prior to the 2009 season, where he would continue lighting up defenses. His best chance came in 2012, where the Falcons rode home field advantage to the NFC Championship, but lost to San Francisco.
7 Earl Campbell
A bruising, punishing runner like Earl Campbell deserved far better than the Oilers teams he was stuck on. Campbell rushed for an incredible 1,934 yards in 1981 and the Oilers couldn't even ride that to a playoff berth. In Campbell's eight years, he played in four playoff games, with the Oilers making it to the AFC Championship in his rookie campaign, where they lost to the Steelers. He definitely deserved more than that.
6 Derrick Thomas
Derrick Thomas was loyal soldier, staying in Kansas City throughout his career. While his Chiefs made the playoffs seven times, they were often a one-and-done team, with their only serious push for a title coming in the 1993 season, where they lost to the Bills in the AFC Championship game. Thomas finished his career with 126.5 sacks and an incredible 41 forced fumbles. His story is a tragic one, as he was left paralyzed in a car accident and eventually died in hospital of a blood clot that developed from his paralysis. Thomas died at the age of 33, while still an elite player in the NFL.
5 Deacon Jones
While sacks are now the juiciest stat for not just defensive linemen, but perhaps of all defensive stats, they weren't always recorded. If they were, Deacon Jones of the L.A. Rams would have an insane amount. He was an eight-time Pro Bowl selection and a five-time All-Pro. He coined the phrase for 'sacking a quarterback' and his vicious head slap move forced the NFL to ban the move. Unfortunately for Jones, the Rams were never serious contenders and on the few occasions they did make the playoffs, they were a minor speed bump for the NFL powerhouses of the 60s like Green Bay and Minnesota.
4 Eric Dickerson
Eric Dickerson's 2,105 rushing yards in a single season still stands as a NFL record, but his Rams teams often just squeaked into the playoffs to be dismantled by the higher ups of the NFC. The closest Dickerson came to playing in a Super Bowl was in 1985, but of course, the Rams just had to meet the 15-1 Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship game, an easy 24-0 victory for Da Bears. Dickerson would eventually move on to the Colts, where his 1,659 yards in 1988 would spark a playoff berth, but again his team was one-and-done.
3 Dan Marino
Dan Marino set passing records that were seen as unbreakable, until of course the NFL changed rules in the passing game to benefit quarterbacks. Under today's NFL rules, Marino likely would have won at least one Super Bowl. What could have helped him back in his career would be a consistent running game and a defense capable of shutting the door once Marino got them a lead. Marino held a 8-10 playoff record with one Super Bowl appearance. His career totals included 61,351 yards with 420 touchdowns.
It was a tremendous failure of the Dolphins organization to not build a Super Bowl caliber team around one of the greatest quarterbacks in history.
2 Dick Butkus
Arguably the greatest linebacker in the history of the game not only never got a chance to play in the Super Bowl, but never in a playoff game. Sharing the same problem as Gale Sayers, Dick Butkus played in the worst era of Bears football. Sacks weren't recorded in his time, but this monster in the middle of the Midway struck fear into all offensive players. He was all opponents had to worry about though and because of that, he would have benefitted greatly from a move to a good team, whom he would have made instant Super Bowl contenders.
1 Barry Sanders
Had Barry Sanders played longer (and on a better team) he likely would have taken a chunk of Emmitt Smith's rushing records away from him. Sanders finished his career with 15,269 yards, 99 rushing touchdowns and averaged five yards a carry. The Lions reached the playoffs five times in Sanders' career, only winning one of those games and losing in the 1991 NFC Championship to Washington. Sanders retired abruptly after the 1998 season, citing problems with Detroit's losing culture and problems with management. Sanders was only 1,500 yards from Walter Payton's rushing record when he retired.