JaMarcus Russell. Ryan Leaf. Tim Couch.
These guys are some of the most notorious draft busts in NFL history. They came into the league with all the hype in the world, only to collapse under the weight of insurmountable expectations.
However, there are several NFL players whose struggles were no fault of their own. Many players show great promise for certain teams or coaches, only to have their production plummet after new coaches take over. Sometimes, a promising young rookie just can’t get on his coach’s good side. Other times, a coach simply won’t adjust his system to suit certain players.
It’s not just a coach’s poor handling of his personnel. A key responsibility of a coaching staff is to respect the players and foster a positive team environment. Failing to stick up for an embattled player, or worse, publicly humiliating him, could just as easily ruin a career as a season-long benching could.
These aren’t players whose vices got the best of them (like Greg Hardy) , nor are they guys who simply couldn’t cut it at the NFL level (like Tim Tebow).
These are 15 NFL players whose careers were ruined by poor coaching decisions.
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15 Hakeem Nicks
The Indianapolis Colts haven’t exactly made the soundest coaching decisions, especially in recent seasons. They still haven’t addressed their offensive line woes even though star QB Andrew Luck takes a beating behind the line of scrimmage on a weekly basis.
Another promising young player ruined by the Colts’ system was Hakeem Nicks. The former Giants wide receiver signed with the team in 2014 after five strong seasons in New York. He recorded two 1,000 yard seasons and had four touchdown receptions during the Giants’ run to a fourth Super Bowl title in 2012.
However, his production suffered in Indianapolis. He had 38 receptions for 405 yards in six games started, all career lows. Nicks later admitted to The Tennessean Newspaper in 2015 that the Colts’ system, “wasn’t really my style of play.”
Nicks returned to the Giants the following season, but he wasn’t the same player. After an injury-plagued 2015 season, Nicks signed a one-year deal with the Saints. The team waived Nicks before the 2016 season.
14 Jonathan Martin
One key job of any good coach is to make sure there is no discord amongst teammates in the locker room. So, in 2013, when Miami Dolphins starting right tackle Jonathan Martin took a leave of absence from the team due to “emotional reasons,” Miami Dolphins coach Joe Philbin should’ve made it a priority to handle the situation.
It turns out a number of Martin’s teammates, including Richie Incognito, harassed Martin with a spate of ethnic and homophobic slurs. Martin cited this abuse as a reason for his emotional distress and absence from the team. Incognito was suspended after his incendiary voicemail was discovered on Martin’s phone.
Worst of all, Miami coaches reportedly asked Incognito to help “toughen up” Martin and “get him into the fold.” Philbin never stuck up for Martin, which ultimately destroyed his confidence. Martin was traded to San Francisco the following season but was waived shortly thereafter.
13 Brady Quinn
The Browns have made many poor organizational decisions over the past 20 years. Quarterback Brady Quinn was a victim of an inept coaching staff who couldn’t decide whether to start him or bench him.
Quinn came into the NFL with a sterling resume. He set 36 records during his time behind center at Notre Dame and finished third in the 2007 Heisman vote.
Despite several injuries, he played alright during his time in Cleveland. It wasn’t until Eric Mangini joined the Browns’ staff in 2009 that Quinn’s confidence took an irreparable hit.
Quinn entered the 2009 season as the Browns’ starter but was benched at halftime of a Week 3 game against Baltimore in favor of Derek Anderson. From then on, Mangini remained non-committal on who would start at QB each week. Quinn threw for four TDs against Detroit in Week 11, but unfortunately, injured his foot in Week 12.
The Browns traded Quinn to the Broncos in 2010, where he lost the starting job to Kyle Orton. He last played for the Chiefs in 2012 before a concussion ended his season.
12 Chris Kluwe
Just as I said with Martin, a coach needs to make sure every player is valued and appreciated in the locker room. Say what you want about Vikings kicker Chris Kluwe’s political views, but the guy had potential. He set eight individual team records during his eight-year tenure in Minnesota, but his outspoken views on same-sex marriage and other social issues landed him in hot water with coaches and management.
Kluwe claims his social stances led to his release from the team in 2012. He was never able to catch on with another team after being released by the Raiders before the 2013 season.
Of course, the Vikings said Kluwe’s release was based solely on his on-field performance, but Kluwe believed otherwise.
Kluwe was highly critical of special teams coach Mike Priefer for alleged homophobic remarks, as well as then-head coach Leslie Frazier, who reportedly told him to stop speaking out on same-sex marriage.
A coach can disagree with a player’s social views, but to release him and effectively end his career because of it? That’s a bit harsh.
11 E.J. Manuel
Manuel was a tough one to include on this list, as you could argue that his inconsistent play at quarterback for the Bills is the main reason for his inability to secure a starting job. However, Manuel’s struggles stem from his mistreatment by first-year head coach Doug Marrone in 2013.
Manuel got off to a stellar start in his rookie season, posting the best passer rating in NFL history for a rookie in his first three games (59 percent).
A key to Manuel’s success was his ability to pass on the early downs. However, after Week 3, coach Marrone made the ill-advised decision to run the ball more. He decreased the percent of early down pass plays from 45 percent in Manuel’s first three starts to just 20 percent over his next two starts. Apparently, Marrone didn’t care that Manuel had a terrific 7.7 yards-per-attempt on first down passes.
Throughout the rest of Manuel’s rookie season, Marrone ran predominantly run plays on early downs. Manuel’s numbers suffered, and his game has never truly recovered in the years since.
He lost out on the starting quarterback jobs in 2014 and 2015 to Kyle Orton and Tyrod Taylor, respectively.
10 David Boston
Wide receiver David Boston seemed destined for stardom in the NFL after a blistering start to his career with the Arizona Cardinals in 1999.
The eighth overall pick totaled 209 receptions for 3,200 yards and 17 touchdowns in his first three years in the NFL and made the 2001 Pro Bowl.
In 2003, Boston signed a lucrative seven-year, $47 million contract with the San Diego Chargers. He had a solid season, with 880 yards and seven touchdowns, but clashed with strength coach Dave Redding.
Head coach Marty Schottenheimer suspended Boston one game after he cursed out Redding during an altercation.
I have no problem with this. Any player who disrespects a coach should be disciplined. However, Boston was then traded to Miami for what Chargers’ GM A.J. Smith called “moody personality” and "questionable practice habits.”
I may be a little naïve, but I can’t believe the Chargers would get rid of Boston that quickly given his level of production. I’m sure the Chargers could’ve mitigated Boston’s attitude issues in other ways.
Of course, Boston’s career collapsed in Miami. A litany of knee injuries and a positive test for steroids ended his tenure in Miami after one year. Boston was out of the NFL after a DUI arrest in 2007.
9 Johnny Manziel
Okay, don’t jump down my throat just yet. I admit that Manziel’s ill-advised off-field lifestyles choices ultimately sealed his fate. “Johnny Football” was a Heisman Trophy winner and left behind a great legacy as a college star at Texas A&M.
Unfortunately, he left his maturity in college as well. He showed up late to Browns’ practices, went out partying on off-days, even after pledging sobriety, and never seemed to realize his own potential.
The Browns coaching staff didn’t do enough to steer Manziel in the right direction, though. They failed to harness his talent properly and messed with his confidence by starting him some weeks, and benching him others. For a player with natural skill such as Manziel, the coaching staff should’ve gone with him over Josh McCown from Week 1.
Yes, the decision to stay clean and commit to the NFL is Manziel’s choice alone, but with the proper mentors around him, perhaps he could’ve been a serviceable quarterback in the league. The Browns’ coaching staff failed in that role.
8 Mike Mamula
Mike Mamula was drafted seventh overall in the 1995 draft out of Boston College. However, Mamula’s NFL career never equaled that of his successful college career. The Eagles had high hopes for the defensive lineman after his great performance at the NFL combine, which led to his high draft position. Mamula ran a 4.49, 40-yard dash, extremely fast for a lineman, and scored a remarkable 49 out of 50 on the Wonderlic Test.
Mamula started at right defensive end and collected 13.5 sacks during his first two seasons, as the Eagles went 10-6 in both years. He also recorded 75 tackles during that span. Yet, the team’s offense couldn’t get going under coach Ray Rhodes, and Mamula and the overplayed Philadelphia defense was driven to exhaustion. Mamula blew out his knee in 1998.
Mamula rebounded the following year to record 8.5 sacks, but wasn’t the same, and retired in 2000. Perhaps if he hadn’t been overworked early on in his career, he would’ve enjoyed a longer, more fruitful NFL career.
7 Matt Leinart
Leinart entered the 2006 draft as a highly-touted quarterback out of USC. He ended up going 10th overall to the Arizona Cardinals. Leinart hoped to be the franchise quarterback of the future, throwing for 2,547 yards in 12 games played as a rookie. However, Leinart’s shaky play during his second season led to his benching in favor of veteran Kurt Warner.
In 2010, coach Ken Whisenhunt gave all indications that Leinart would be the team’s starter that season, even with newly-signed backup Derek Anderson in tow.
Yet, three games into the preseason, it was apparent that Anderson played beyond expectations. Leinhart seemed content with a backup role, as he had been with Warner.
Whisenhunt opted to go with rookies Max Hall and John Skelton as back-ups instead. Leinart was released two days after the final preseason game. Leinart signed as a back-up with the Houston Texans for the 2010 season, but never got another shot as a franchise starter.
Whisenhunt destroyed any chance Leinhart had of getting a starting job. Not only did Leinart not get a long look as a starter, but his prospects for future employment were destroyed when Whisenhunt didn’t even name him a backup. What message does that send to other teams?
As a result, Leinart never caught on with another team and was out of the league by 2013.
6 David Carr
It’s safe to say David Carr is probably jealous of his younger brother, Derek, who is shining as the quarterback for the Oakland Raiders.
However, the elder Carr had once enjoyed immense success on the gridiron. It just wasn’t on the NFL gridiron. His senior season at Fresno State (4,800 passing yards, 46 TDs, 9 INTs) earned him serious consideration for the 2001 Heisman Trophy.
Carr’s ability never translated on the NFL stage, even as a number one draft pick. He is considered a bust, but it’s not entirely his fault. The Texans’ offensive line was a sieve. They couldn’t protect Carr in the pocket, as he was sacked 249 times in his five years in Houston.
The Texans’ coaching staff should’ve taken more steps to improve their offensive line, and realize how important it was to protect their quarterback. Carr still managed 60 TD passes in that span, but management released him in 2006.
Carr then signed with the Carolina Panthers, but all the wear and tear took a toll on his body. He suffered a back injury in Week 5 against the Saints and wasn’t the same for the rest of the 2007 season. After short stints with the Giants and 49ers, Carr retired in 2013.
5 Joe Pisarcik
Coaches don’t just make roster decisions that can affect a player’s career. They also call plays that can ruin a player’s reputation. New York Giants quarterback Joe Pisarcik was one such victim of poor play-calling during a November 1978 playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Giants were up 17-12 with 20 seconds remaining in the game, and the Eagles were out of timeouts. All Pisarcik had to do was fall on the ball, and the clock would run down.
However, Giants’ offensive coordinator Bob Gibson made the (now infamous) call to hand the ball off to Larry Csonka. Pisarcik later claimed he objected to Gibson’s call, but ran the play anyway.
Of course, you know what happened. Pisarcik fumbled the handoff, and Herm Edwards returned the fumble for a touchdown that sealed the win for the Eagles. The game became known as the “Miracle at The Meadowlands.”
Pisarcik’s reputation never recovered, and the Giants released him in 1980. Ironically, Pisarcik signed with the Eagles, where he played four more seasons before retiring in 1984.
Gibson’s botched play call is considered among the worst in NFL history.
4 Colin Kaepernick
I’ll say it right now: Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest is NOT what has destroyed his career in the NFL. His career as the 49ers starter effectively ended when Jim Harbaugh left for Michigan in 2015. The new systems implemented by coaches Jim Tomsula and later, Chip Kelly, don’t suit Kaepernick’s run-heavy game.
Kaepernick initially showed great promise when he guided the 49ers to the 2012 Super Bowl in his first season as a starter. He followed that up with a 21 TD and 9 INT season in 2013, leading San Francisco back to the NFC Championship game.
Unfortunately, Kaepernick’s career was never the same after Jim Tomsula took over as coach in 2015. By midseason, he was benched in favor of Blaine Gabbert. Kaepernick injured his shoulder in November and missed the rest of the season.
At the start of the 2016 season, coach Chip Kelly opted to go with Gabbert under center, even as the 49ers stumbled to a 1-4 start. Kaepernick was finally given a start in Week 6 against Buffalo and threw for 188 yards and a touchdown.
It’s not certain whether Kaepernick will ever have a consistent starting job in the NFL again. He certainly has the talent. He just needs the right system.
3 Vince Young
I admit, Vince Young was another bust at quarterback. However, the former Titans number three overall pick would’ve made something more of his career if not for frequent clashes with coach Jeff Fisher.
Young came into the NFL on the heels of Texas’ 2006 National Championship title. He was 30-2 as Longhorns’ starter and was expected to carry that dominance into the NFL. Young's time in Tennessee was controversial from the start, as Houston born owner Bud Adams wanted his fellow Texan Vince Young as his franchise QB. Fisher and the Titans coaching staff wanted Leinart in the 2006 draft.
Young’s career got off to a solid start, as he went 30-17 and was named to two Pro Bowls over five seasons in Tennessee.
Young did all this despite tensions with Fisher. Before the 2009 season, Fisher claimed Young would have to “earn his job back” from Kerry Collins. After a putrid 0-6 start to the 2009 season, Fisher only reinserted Young because of pressure from Titans’ owner Bud Adams.
In 2010, Young suffered a thumb injury during a Week 11 game. He wanted to re-enter the game, but Fisher wouldn’t allow it. After an altercation in the postgame locker room, Young stormed out of the stadium. He was released in July of 2011.
2 Barry Sanders
Hall-of-Fame running back Barry Sanders had an amazing career. He rushed for over 15,000 yards in just 10 seasons and is widely regarded as one of the greatest running backs of all time.
Sanders technically ruined his own career by retiring from the Lions at age 31. Why is he on this list? Well, many Lions fans believe that Sanders wouldn’t have retired if the team’s coaching staff implemented a better system around him.
The Lions’ entire offensive gameplan was centered on Sanders. Over the years, the incessant beating Sanders took on a weekly basis started to wear on him, and he saw the coaching staff wasn’t bringing in any players or changing the system to give him a rest.
In the documentary Barry Sanders: A Football Life, the running back admitted he had lost the drive, determination, and enjoyment of the game. He saw the team was rebuilding and got rid of some good players, including his close friend and Pro Bowl center, Kevin Glover.
Sanders later admitted if it looked like the Lions were committed to winning, he might’ve stayed longer. That tells you all you need to know.
1 Robert Griffin III
Robert Griffin III had one of the most electrifying rookie seasons in recent memory. The second overall pick out of Baylor set rookie records for passer rating (102.4) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (4:1) for the Redskins in 2012. He was named the 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year and led Washington to a division title.
Unfortunately, the Redskins' mismanagement of Griffin’s health led to his eventual decline. He suffered a sprained LCL in his right knee in Week 14 of his rookie season. Head coach Mike Shanahan went against doctors' orders and started Griffin in the Redskins’ wild-card game against Seattle. Griffin re-injured his knee in the loss. Shanahan rushed Griffin back into his starting role for the 2013 season opener, even though Griffin hadn’t played a preseason game.
Griffin suffered an ankle injury in 2014 and finished the season with a 2-5 record. He was sacked 101 times in 37 games, a likely reason for his plethora of injuries.
By 2014, it was clear that new coach Jay Gruden didn’t think Griffin fit in his West Coast offense. Griffin was released after missing the entire 2015 season with a concussion.
Griffin signed with the Browns in 2016 but was placed on injured reserve after a Week 1 shoulder injury.
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