The 1990’s saw a huge growth in the popularity of the NFL, led by some dynamic players who were some of the finest ever to grace the sport. After their time on the gridiron ended, most have gone on and excelled outside the game. But a few have had some issues in life.
In compiling a list of the top 15 players of the decade and where they are in 2016, their accomplishments on the field were obviously heavily weighed. However, this ranking is primarily based on their heights achieved since they left the sport.
Of the 15, 11 won Super Bowls with five capturing more than one. Three others lost in their only Super Bowl appearance while one participated in just one playoff game in his entire career.
There are seven quarterbacks, two wide receivers, a running back, and five defensive players on the list. Nine either work or previously had a job as an NFL TV analyst. Four remain in the game, two as executives, and two as coaches. Three have been arrested, one serving prison time, and two are cancer survivors.
Here’s the list:
15. Barry Sanders
The exhilarating running back became more famous for what he could have done than what he accomplished when he shockingly walked away from the game in his prime in 1999 after 10 phenomenal seasons. The only sports retirement more perplexing was Bjorn Borg ending his tennis career at 26.
Sanders averaged 1,500 yards over those 10 years with the Detroit Lions, totals that are beyond comprehension for almost everyone in the pass-happy NFL of today. His high-water mark was 2,053 yards when he won the MVP in 1997. When he abruptly retired, he was only 1,457 yards short of the all-time career rushing record at that time. Or about one season for him.
14. Warren Sapp
Known as much for controversy on the field and off as his immense talent, the big defensive tackle was recently in the news for getting bitten on the arm by a shark while on a lobster trip in Florida. Sapp was let go as an analyst by the NFL Network last year after being arrested and copping a plea for soliciting a prostitute and assault in Arizona.
Arguably the greatest player in Tampa Bay history, Sapp was a dominant force on the defensive line, being named first-team All-Pro four times and second team twice. He finished his career with the Raiders in 2007.
13. Rod Woodson
One of the game’s true good guys, the safety could literally do everything there was to do on the gridiron and is now giving some of it back to future players by serving as the assistant defensive back coach for the Oakland Raiders.
Woodson was a true ball hawk, snaring 71 interceptions in his 17-year career, with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, and Raiders, earning six All-Pro honors. He also returned kicks and punts, scored 12 TDs, and could rush the quarterback with 13.5 sacks, an incredible number for a defensive back. After all, he was athletic enough to qualify for the Olympic Trials in the 110 meter hurdles in 1984.
12. Brett Favre
Kind of the anti-Barry Sanders in that he retired and un-retired so many times. Brett Favre mocks himself in a shaving cream ad about it. Favre was inducted into the Hall of Fame this past July.
Not the biggest or strongest quarterback ever to play, Favre relied on his durability (NFL record 298 starts), his guile, and his love of the game, mostly with the Green Bay Packers. He certainly has to rank among the top-five signal-callers in history, becoming the first to throw for 500 touchdowns, for more than 70,000 yards, more than 6,300 completions (another NFL record), and more than 10,000 attempts. He won three MVP awards and was first-team All Pro three teams during his 20 seasons.
11. Michael Irvin
Dubbed “The Playmaker,” the electric wide receiver has been an outspoken analyst at the NFL Network since 2009 while also dabbling in acting, taking on roles in such movies as Adam Sandler’s remake of “The Longest Yard,” and TV. He also maintains several business interests such as serving as a spokesman for a nutritional supplement.
As Troy Aikman’s favorite target with the Dallas Cowboys, Irvin’s best season was 1995 when he caught 111 passes for 1,603 yards and 10 touchdowns. He went on to amass 750 receptions and nearly 12,000 yards while hauling in 65 for scores. In a strange quirk, he played for coach Jimmy Johnson, both at the University of Miami and with the Cowboys.
10. Irving Fryar
Irving Fryar released from prison in June after he served just eight months of a five-year sentence for mortgage fraud working with his 74-year-old mother. He was convicted in 2014 for defrauding seven banks of $1.2 million by applying for fake home-equity loans. Part of the scam was claiming his mother worked for him in his role as a pastor of a church. He has returned to being a pastor in in his home state of New Jersey.
The first overall pick by the New England Patriots in 1984, Fryar totalled 851 catches for 12,785 yards and 84 touchdowns in his 17 seasons. While with the Philadelphia Eagles, he put together his two best back-to-back years of 88 and 86 receptions, respectively, in 1996-97. He finished his career with Washington in 2000.
9. Ray Lewis
One of the most feared defensive players of his era, Ray Lewis was the heart and soul of the vaunted Baltimore Ravens’ defense that won two Super Bowls. He had a controversial three-year stint as a studio analyst for ESPN before being let go in May.
Lewis got in trouble off the field after a Super Bowl party in 2000 when he was indicted on double murder charges. He pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, did 12 months of probation and paid a $250,000 fine levied by the NFL. In a twist of irony, he called for an end to violence this week after the latest shooting of an unarmed black man by a police officer in Oklahoma.
8. Deion Sanders
Nicknamed “Prime Time,” Deion Sanders was one of the most gifted athletes of his time, starring as a cornerback, kick returner, and receiver. He also had a part-time baseball career, playing the outfield with the New York Yankees, Atlanta Braves, and Cincinnati Reds. He is the only player to appear in a Super Bowl and a World Series. And he wasn’t just a token participant as in the ’92 Series, he hit .533.
On the football field, he was feared whenever he had the ball in his hands, earning Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1994 with the San Francisco 49ers. The following season he was part of the third Super Bowl in four years for the Dallas Cowboys.
7. Dan Marino
Arguably the most talented quarterback never to win a Super Bowl, Dan Marino is fourth on the all-time passing yards list behind three (Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, and Drew Brees) who have won the big game. He had perhaps the best year any QB ever had when he threw for 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns in 1984, leading the Miami Dolphins to a 14-2 record and the Super Bowl. They were beaten by the 49ers.
Marino, who played all 17 of his years with Miami, finished with 61,361 yards and 420 TDs. He was a studio analyst for CBS from 2002 to 2014 but now has returned home as a special advisor to the Dolphins. In 2013, Marino confirmed that he had fathered a child with a CBS production assistant while married.
6. Steve Young
Filling the shoes of a legend is almost impossible to do but Steve Young pulled it off with flying colors in succeeding Joe Montana with the 49ers, winning two MVP awards and retiring in 1999 as the highest-rated QB in history. He completed 64.3 percent of his passes in his career and an amazing 70.3 percent in 1994.
More than any other player on this list, Young’s accomplishments stand out because the lefty didn’t really start until he was 30 and then won two MVP awards. Young was also a marvelous runner, rushing for 4,239 yards and 43 TDs.
Young has been an analyst for ESPN in studio and occasionally doing games since 2000. An Academic All-American in college, he also is the managing director of Huntsman Gay Global Capital, a private equity buyout fund.
5. Phil Simms
The former Giant turned in the most accurate performance in Super Bowl history, completing 22 of 25 passes for 268 yards, leading New York to its first Super Bowl victory over Denver in 1987. He was denied a chance to win another one when he was injured during the 1990 season when the Giants captured No. 2.
Simms finished his 14-year career with 33,462 yards passing and 199 touchdowns, Giant records, before a guy named Eli Manning came on the scene.
Now 60, he tries to provide accurate game breakdowns as the No. 1 analyst working for CBS. What’s surprising about Simms is he generally shied away from media attention as a player and didn’t have a lot to say. And now he talks for three-and-a-half hours non-stop as a broadcaster. Go figure.
4. Jim Harbaugh
An outspoken player and controversial coach, Jim Harbaugh returned to his roots in an attempt to revive his alma mater Michigan’s fortunes in 2015. His track record in turnarounds has been excellent as he resurrected a moribund Stanford program before a highly successful four-year tenure leading the San Francisco 49ers back to the Super Bowl in 2013.
Harbaugh was credited with turning Alex Smith into a top-flight QB before, in a daring move, switching to backup Colin Kaepernick in mid-season which proved to be a stroke of genius. He departed after the 2014 campaign reportedly after clashes with management.
His 14-year playing career with the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts was highlighted by a magnificent season in 1995 when he had the top passer rating in the league and came close to advancing the Colts to the Super Bowl.
3. Troy Aikman
The leader of the dominant Dallas Cowboys teams OF the ‘90s that won three Super Bowls in four years, Troy Aikman now is the lead analyst working for Fox. He is also part owner of the San Diego Padres and a former joint owner in Nascar.
Like Phil Simms, Aikman is a melanoma cancer survivor and is active in promoting awareness of the condition.
Aikman, who played all 12 of his seasons with the Cowboys, also was similar to Steve Young in being one of the most accurate quarterbacks in history completing 61.5 percent of his throws for 32,942 yards and 165 touchdowns. Although never a first-team All-Pro in the era of Favre and Young, Aikman played in six straight Pro Bowls. Not bad for a guy who was 0-11 in his rookie year after being the first overall draft pick out of UCLA in 1989.
2. John Elway
After winning Super Bowls in his last two seasons as a player, John Elway doubled down on that achievement by leading the Denver Broncos, whom he spent his entire 16-year career with, to their first Super Bowl win in his role as an executive in February. Elway is the Executive Vice President of football operations and General Manager.
The consummate winner, Elway endured just two losing seasons as a player. Like Young, he was also a dangerous threat to run, amassing 3,407 yards and 33 TDs on the ground. In the air, he passed for 51,475 yards and 300 touchdowns in making nine Pro Bowls. In all, he appeared in five Super Bowls after being the first overall draft pick out of Stanford in 1983.
1. Michael Strahan
The former face (or more appropriate gap tooth) of the Giants’ fearsome defense tops the list because he is not only a top studio analyst for Fox, but has transcended sports by starring on the “Live With Kelly and Michael Show” and now as a contributor to “Good Morning America” on ABC.
He was involved in some controversy this summer when he apparently left the “Live” show without first informing Kelly Ripa, causing a protest from the co-host. Known for his affable personality and thoughtful commentary, Strahan has quickly become a morning fan favorite among men and women.
Strahan, a defensive end, recorded 141.5 sacks, fifth on the all-time list, in helping the Giants win the 2007 Super Bowl before retiring. The four-time first-team All-Pro had his best season in 2001, recording 22.5 sacks.
Strahan also hosts “The $100,000 Pyramid” game show on ABC.
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