Time is, for lack of a better term, an unrelenting gear that will eventually grind us all into dust. It doesn’t matter who we are or how amazing the things we’ve done are, eventually time will take its toll and that will be that. When that time comes, we hope athletes can honestly look in the mirror and say that it’s done. This column examines 15 players that have accepted they need to retire or are at the age and level of play where they probably should.
Football has a particularly nasty aging curve. Whether it be a mix of the physical toll the game takes on your body or the constant influx of younger, faster players being introduced, getting old in the NFL isn’t often graceful. One day, Peyton Manning is rewriting offensive record books and the next day he is throwing ducks into the hands of defenders and having people wonder if Brock Osweiler should start (he shouldn’t). Players rarely get to walk away from the game on their own terms. It’s a shame but it’s one of the harsh realities of the game of football. If you can’t do your job at a high level anymore, there is someone younger that can.
Retirement can be prompted by a mix of things. Sometimes it comes from a declining level of play. Other times it comes from too many injuries or baggage. This column will cover a variety of different reasons that players are retiring or should retire. Some players on the list have already announced that they’ll be retiring this offseason and others have said they are mulling the idea. Each of them had a productive NFL career and the game is better for having had them.
15 Michael Vick
Despite not playing last season, Michael Vick did not formally retire until this offseason. He worked out for a few times during the season and seemed to have a chance to serve as a backup. Sadly, that never came to pass and Vick spent the season like the rest of us, simply sitting at home and watching. In his statement to ESPN regarding his retirement, Vick said: “I'm officially ready, I'm ready to move on to different things in my life and different facets of my life."
Many remember watching the 36-year old Vick fondly. During his six seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, Vick revolutionized what people thought was capable of a scrambling quarterback. Obviously, many will remember Vick for his dog fighting legacy and the loss seasons in prison. It’s fair to think about that, but people should also remember that Vick was a special talent that took the NFL by storm.
14 Kory Lichtensteiger
After seven NFL seasons, Lichtensteiger announced that this past season would be his last. Lichtensteiger struggled with injuries the last two seasons which is probably one of the major reasons that the 31-year old decided to hang up his cleats. He missed 24 regular-season games in his final two seasons.
Often pegged as too small, Lichtensteiger carved out a long and productive career as a powerful interior lineman. Before retiring, Lichtensteiger played for Washington and manned the center of their line. Despite weighing less than 300 pounds, Washington valued his mindset and intelligence. In his statement about his retirement, he spoke fondly of Washington and thanked the team for being so amiable to his decision. He called Washington “a great business,” and said that he was “thankful to be treated as family in the final hour of my playing career.”
13 Pat McAfee
After a memorable eight seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, Pat McAfee has decided to retire. The 29-year old punter is one of the most popular players in the NFL due to his outstanding social media presence. McAfee cited the chance to have his own radio show with Barstool Sports and physical issues as the reason he wanted to leave. He was staring down his third knee surgery in four years.
He is referred to as “the people’s punter” and is walking away after his best season. He averaged 49.3 yards per gross punt. This number led the league and was the highest in Colt’s franchise history. He was named to his second Pro Bowl but opted to skip because of his knee issues. He leaves as the greatest punter in Colts history. He holds the record for kickoffs (645), kickoff touchbacks (350), and punting net average (39.8).
12 Robert Mathis
Following an infuriating season, Robert Mathis said that he will be retiring. Despite having Andrew Luck to help lead the team, the Indianapolis Colts have stalled and seem to be regressing. Those signs were too much for the 35-year old Mathis to ignore. In an Instagram video, Mathis declared himself “a Colt for life,” to make his retirement official.
Mathis had a tremendous career after being selected by the Colts in 2003. He is the team’s all-time sack leader with 128. He also has the most strip sacks in NBA history, with 46. He is one of four players to have suited up for the Colts for 14 years or more. Those numbers are even more impressive when you think that he came back from a major injury a few years ago. Despite a suspension for performance enhancing drugs, Mathis is still a beloved player in Indiana.
11 Steve Smith Sr.
After an amazing 16-year career, Steve Smith Sr. announced that he would not be returning to the NFL for another season. The announcement came after a drubbing to the Cincinnati Bengals when he responded to questions about if this was his final game with a simple “ Yeah, that’s it”. In the post game interview, Smith said that he knew it was his time. He would release a letter thanking his fans and teammates in the most quintessential Steve Smith Sr way possible.
While we will all miss “Agent 89,” it’s important to reflect on how amazing his career was. Smith was pegged as too small to succeed in the NFL but he proved his critics wrong in a big way. He would be named to five Pro Bowls and the All-Pro team twice. He finished his career with 1,031 catches, 14,731 yards, and 81 touchdowns. Smith is also the final player on this list that has formally announced that this season will be his last.
10 Josh McCown
The definitive journeyman quarterback, Josh McCown has bounced around the league for more than a decade. After being released by the Cleveland Browns, McCown still remains unsigned. It’s not surprising because, despite McCown’s great attitude and willingness to suffer for the team, he remains wildly mediocre. He sports a career 78.2 passer rating and has played for seven different teams.
Last season was a painful one for McCown. After being benched for Robert Griffin, McCown waited until he was called upon. That came quickly, with Griffin injuring himself nearly instantly. Playing behind a porous offensive line, McCown was pounded for a few games until he also was seriously injured. Considering the beating McCown took last year and the lack of interest from teams, it’s easy to see him simply walking away from football this offseason.
9 Reggie Bush
Be honest, you didn’t know Reggie Bush was still in the NFL, let alone on the Buffalo Bills. The 31-year old running back finished the season with negative rushing yards and lost his job as a kick returner to the immortal Brandon Tate. People in the Buffalo media are expecting to see Bush cut before the start of next season. Running back is a young man’s position and there is simply no reason for the Bills to hold onto Bush.
Building off that point, there probably isn’t much reason for Bush to continue with football. An array of injuries has sapped Bush of the speed that his game was built around. He isn’t worth the veteran minimum, especially when teams can get a young running back late in the draft. Bush will walk away this season after seeing the lack of interest from teams after he is cut.
8 Terence Newman
The second oldest defender in the NFL, Terence Newman should be expected to finally walk away from the NFL. The 38-year old defensive back has had a productive NFL career, playing for three teams across 15 seasons. His last season was with the Minnesota Vikings, where he played admirably but was simply step to slow. Newman began to play less and less as the season went on and the young corners began to learn the system.
Newman will be a free agent this offseason, which only makes it more likely that he could easily walk away from the NFL. To put his age into perspective, Newman’s rookie season saw Terrence Brooks win defensive player of the year. Fans will remember Newman fondly but it does seem like the curtain will close on his career this offseason.
7 Derrick Johnson
Often referred to the as heart and soul of the Kansas City Chiefs defense, Derrick Johnson suffered a torn Achilles heel mid-season and had to miss the rest season. It’s a shame whenever any player gets hurt, but it’s especially sad when you think that Johnson had already torn the Achilles once before. You could see the frustration on his face when it happened, throwing his helmet in disgust after hurting himself.
The Achilles injury is a tricky one, especially when a player is older. Johnson is 34-years old and has already had to come back from the same injury. While it’s possible that Johnson decides to dig deep and try to make another comeback, he will likely be a hobbled and struggle to play at a high level. While it’s sad for a player to have their career derailed by injuries, it’s not exactly uncommon.
6 Vince Wilfork
Following his team’s playoff drubbing at the hand of the New England Patriots, Wilfork stated that he is considering retirement. The 35-year old nose tackle has spent 13 years in the NFL and it’s clear that he is no longer the player he once was. Wilfork was a defensive stalwart for the Patriots and Texans and has been a mentor for many younger players.
At a speaking event, Wilfork said admitted he is still considering retirement and leaning towards it. "I've been away from the game about two weeks and the more and more I'm away from the game the more and more I'm starting to like life after football. It's not official yet, but I'm definitely leaning towards being retired.” Don’t be surprised when Wilfork decides to hang up his cleats later this offseason.
5 James Harrison
James Harrison is old. It doesn’t matter how many late night workout Instagram videos he posts or how scary he is. Harrison is currently the oldest defensive player in the NFL and is apparently trying to get another contract. Harrison has seen his role reduced to a situational pass rusher. He has a larger than life persona and Pittsburgh Steelers fans revere him. Still, he is simply not the same player he was earlier in his career.
The Steelers have a young and developing pass rush. It only makes sense for Harrison to hang up the cleats and allow them to grow out his shadow. It is best for the Steelers and Harrison to walk away while it’s still a choice. You don’t want to wait until you are a total shell of your former self to retire.
4 Anquan Boldin
During a panel that Anquan Boldin was a part of, he openly mused with the idea of retiring. While he didn’t say he is planning to walk away, it’s clear that he has been thinking about it. Boldin is one of the toughest players to ever grace the NFL. This is a man that broke his face and played in the game the following week. If there was ever a player that is going to fight father time to the bitter end, it’s Boldin.
Still, he is 36 years old. He has played for four different teams across 200 games. If the 14-year veteran decided to finally hang up the cleats, no one would be upset. It also might not be a bad decision, seeing as his last two seasons have been some of the lowest reception totals in his career.
3 Julius Peppers
One of the more memorable combatants with Father Time, it seems as if the end of the Julius Peppers’ era is here. He is currently still a free agent, so if he decided to not sign anywhere, retirement seems like a likely option. After the season concluded, Peppers admitted he is torn. “I’m not saying that I don’t want to play next year,” Peppers said. “I’m not saying that I do. I’m just saying that right now, I don’t know. And I’ll figure it out at some point.”
It just makes sense that Peppers would finally call it a career. He will breeze into the Hall of Fame with his 143.5 career sacks. He played in the NFL for 15 years for four different teams. He has been named to the Pro Bowl nine times and the All-Pro team three times.
2 Dwight Freeney
Dwight Freeney has to still be shell shocked after the Super Bowl. As one of the oldest players on the Atlanta Falcons, you have to wonder how much blame he assigns to himself for the defense falling apart during the fourth quarter. The 37-year-old admitted that he is still numb after he watching his team cough up the championship to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. It has to hurt to be that close and it’s likely that Freeney decides that it’s time to walk away.
Freeney has had an amazing NFL career. He has amassed 122.5 sacks across 15 seasons and his spin move is one of the most iconic techniques in NFL history. He has played in 231 games and three Super Bowls. He will be a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame after he walks this season. He is also unsigned at the moment, making the decision to walk away easy as well.
1 Jamaal Charles
It’s a shame that Jamaal Charles could never really stay healthy, but that is where we are now. He currently is signed to a giant contract and many are expecting the Kansas City Chiefs to walk away from him. When you rattle through his injury history, it’s easy to see why. In the last four years, Charles has torn his ACL twice and suffered a variety of ankle injuries. Charles was unable to play meaningful football for the team last season, despite having more than a year to rehab himself.
While Charles isn’t extremely old, it’s obvious that his skills are diminishing. When Charles is healthy, he is an elite running back. Still, it’s hard to not notice that he isn’t healthy very often anymore. Maybe some team will take a flier on him but it’s more likely that he simply walks away to preserve what is left of his body.