There have been many one-hit wonders in NFL history, but some are simply more noteworthy than the others. An NFL roster has 53 players. Multiply that by 32 teams and you get 1,696 players in the league. With that many players, some are sure not to be able to sustain any form of early-career success.
Think about what the NFL would have been had the likes of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Emmitt Smith and Jerry Rice been a bust after having just a good season or two. The league’s history books would have been written all over.
On the other hand, knowing who these one-hit wonders are ought to serve notice to today’s young players that they can’t coast and expect to end up becoming Hall of Famers once they hang up their cleats. The NFL, as in any other major professional sports league, is as tough as they come. It is survival of the fittest.
Take it from Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas, who marveled at Manning’s insane work ethic leading up to Super Bowl XLVIII against the Seattle Seahawks, per NFL.com’s Chris Wesseling:
“When Peyton joined our team, we had those little iPads with all our film on it and he never sets it down. He’s got it in the training room, he’s got it in the lunch room. He never stops preparing. You hear Peyton all the time talking about enjoying the preparation part. He really does. He’s in there taking notes like any rookie. He’s in there taking notes, watching film, correcting things and that’s what makes him special.”
The end result of Manning’s hard work has been five MVP awards, two Super Bowl appearances, one Super Bowl title, 13 Pro Bowl stints, a Pro Bowl MVP award and the NFL’s all-time leader in career touchdown passes, plus a slew of other accolades which will take up a lot more space.
Manning has also earned a record $230 million in his 17-year NFL career, which is “$75 million more than any other player,” per BusinessInsider.com.
So, in a nutshell, prospective NFL football players who wish to succeed should emulate Manning’s shining example. But then again, the zany world of the NFL wouldn’t be as exciting without these all-time one-hit wonders.
For the purposes of this article, we will rate them based on the expectations they carried into the NFL and how far they were in meeting them.
15 Dalton Hilliard
Nowadays, Dalton Hilliard’s name doesn’t resonate much with NFL fans.
For a short while, it did with New Orleans Saints fans. The Saints selected Hilliard, a Louisiana native who attended LSU, 31st overall in the 1986 NFL draft. He had glowing football credentials coming into the pros, as his 44 touchdowns are the fifth-most in SEC history. This is a record that stands to this very day.
His NFL career started off decently, with his rushing yardage increasing during his first four seasons. His best year to date was in 1989, when he tallied 1,262 yards and 13 touchdowns (the Saints missed the postseason in spite of their 9-7 record). At that point, he had amassed 37 touchdowns in his career.
In the four seasons that ensued, he had only 16 touchdowns in all, never topping 445 yards in a season the rest of the way. He retired in 1993.
14 Tommy Maddox
Before there was Ben Roethlisberger, there was Tommy Maddox.
It took Maddox 10 seasons before he made a profound impact on the NFL. His first decade as a pro football player was nothing to crow about. After the Denver Broncos chose him 25th overall in the 1992 NFL draft, he produced five touchdown passes and nine picks during his rookie year.
It all went downhill from there. Among his most dubious stat lines were his 6-of-23 completions for 49 yards and three interceptions for a 0.0 passer rating in his lone season with the New York Giants in 1995. Things got so bad he was out of the league after that season and became an insurance salesman in 1997.
However, he managed to work himself back into the NFL. He took over starting quarterback duties for the Steelers in 2002 after Kordell Stewart struggled mightily. Maddox made the most of his second chance, leading Pittsburgh to an AFC Wild Card win over the Cleveland Browns before falling to the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round after trailing 14-0.
Maddox clinched NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors in 2002 before losing the starting role to first-round draft pick Ben Roethlisberger two years later.
13 Michael Lewis
Michael Lewis is another disappointing New Orleans Saint.
Lewis, who didn’t go to college, was one of those feel-good stories because he bounced among several semi-pro football leagues, pro indoor leagues and the Arena Football League before he was finally called up to try out for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2000.
Lewis didn’t make the Eagles’ 53-man roster before returning to his native state of Louisiana to be a beer truck driver, thus earning him the moniker “The Beer Man.” It didn’t take long for the Saints to dangle a contract and assign him to the NFL Europe’s Rhein Fire in 2001.
Lewis turned plenty of heads when he made the Saints’ regular-season roster in 2002. As a Pro Bowler that season, he had three returns for a touchdown. He led the NFL with 625 punt return yards, 1,807 kick return yards and 2,647 all-purpose yards. The latter mark is still the third-most in league history.
Lewis managed just one more return for a touchdown in his next five NFL seasons. His last NFL season was in 2007.
12 Steve Slaton
Steve Slaton’s story has a glaring similarity with Tommy Maddox’s: Both of them lost out to younger, up-and-coming players with more potential.
Slaton re-wrote the record books at West Virgnia University when he played for the West Virginia Mountaineers from 2005-2007. His six touchdowns against the Louisville Cardinals on Oct. 15, 2005 are the most in Mountaineers football history. In his sophomore year in 2006, Slaton ran for 1,744 yards to set a new school record.
Slaton carried the momentum of his success in college to his NFL rookie year in 2008 with the Houston Texans. He had 1,282 rushing yards and ten touchdowns for Gary Kubiak’s team.
Slaton managed a combined eight touchdowns in his ensuing three seasons which were split between the Texans—who chose to go with Tennessee Volunteers sensation Arian Foster at running back—and the Miami Dolphins.
Slaton is now with the Canadian Football League’s (CFL) Toronto Argonauts.
11 Steve Beuerlein
1999 may go down as the year of the unheralded quarterback.
That’s because two play callers came out of nowhere to take the NFL by storm: The St. Louis Rams’ Kurt Warner and the Carolina Panthers’ Steve Beuerlein.
Warner led the league with 41 touchdowns. Beuerlein was second with 36 while Indianapolis Colts second-year quarterback Peyton Manning had 26. Beuerlein enjoyed decent success with the then-Los Angeles Raiders and the then-Phoenix Cardinals, but nowhere near his 1999 season with the Panthers, where he also recorded a career best 4,436 passing yards.
Mind you, this was when Beuerlein was already a ripe 34 years of age.
What’s even more remarkable is he was sacked 50 times during that memorable 1999 season. This tells you something about his resolve in spite of a leaky offensive line.
It’s too bad Beuerlein never came close to duplicating his feats that year. In 2000, he did pass for 3,370 yards but had far les fewer touchdowns with 19.
10 Olandis Gary
It wasn’t just Steve Beuerlein who made heads turn during the 1999 NFL season. Another unheralded performer rose from the ranks that year—Denver Broncos running back Olandis Gary.
The Denver Broncos chose Gary in the fourth round of the 1999 NFL draft. His best season came during his rookie year, when he was tapped to replace a hobbling Terrell Davis. Gary responded by racking up 1,159 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on 276 carries.
Gary even had two consecutive games where he gashed the opposition for 183 and 185 yards. Once the 1999 campaign was over, his career took on a turn for the worse.
Gary injured his knee and was never the same again. He didn’t top 100 yards ever again in his next 36 games. He played in three more seasons before retiring in 2002.
9 Steve Owens
Former Houston Texan Steve Slaton was a big-name running back out of college who floundered in the NFL. It turns out another Steve, who played three decades earlier, was Slaton’s predecessor in that regard. That distinction belongs to former Detroit Lions running back Steve Owens.
Owens won the Heisman Trophy in 1969. During his collegiate career with the Oklahoma Sooners, he has 4,069 yards from scrimmage and scored 57 touchdowns.
The Detroit Lions drafted him in 1970. He didn’t make a solid impact until his second pro season, when he rushed for 1,035 yards and eight touchdowns. In the process, he became the first Lions player to top 1,000 rushing yards in a season.
Unfortunately, several knee injuries during his ensuing seasons in Detroit got in the way. He was never the same again. Owens retired in 1975 and eventually became Oklahoma’s athletics director during the 1990s.
8 Drew Bennett
Drew Bennett was an undrafted wide receiver out of UCLA in 2001.
He obviously was a smart student during his college days, as Princeton offered him a position on their football team but eventually he chose to remain in his home state of California to play for the UCLA Bruins. He played both quarterback and wide receiver with the team.
The Tennessee Titans’ scouts took notice of his catching skills in 2001 and signed him after the draft. Bennett’s 2004 season in Tennessee was one to remember.
Starting Titans quarterback Steve “Air” McNair was injured for several games in the 2004 campaign, so Billy Volek took over, teaming up with Bennett to form a potent 1-2 combination. Bennett caught for 1,247 yards and 11 touchdowns. It all went for naught as Tennessee finished just 5-11.
Bennett’s career slowly faded from there until his last season with the St. Louis Rams in 2008.
7 Mike Jones
The St. Louis Rams’ Mike Jones is one of the biggest busts as an NFL defensive player. His only claim to fame was a key defensive stop in Super Bowl XXXIV.
But more on that later.
Jones is a native of Missouri who started his collegiate stint with the Missouri Tigers as a running back. He made the switch to defense as a pass rusher as an undrafted rookie free agent in 1991 with the then-Los Angeles Raiders.
His 12-year NFL stint went largely under the radar except for that 1999 NFL campaign with the Rams. During the regular season, he recorded a sack and four interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns.
Jones helped seal the Rams’ first Super Bowl title since their days in Cleveland when he tackled Tennessee Titans wide receiver Kevin Dyson at the one-yard line as time expired. It went down in NFL annals as “The Tackle.”
Jones didn’t make much noise in the NFL world again. He retired as a member of the Steelers in 2002.
6 David Boston
David Boston is the classic example of a once-promising player whose on-the-field and off-the-field issues got the better of him.
Boston was a three-year starter for the Ohio State Buckeyes from 1996-98. Among his school football records are his 191 pass receptions, 5.2 receptions per-game average and 910 career punt return yards. Boston’s 2,855 receiving yards are second most among Buckeye wide receivers.
The Arizona Cardinals made Boston the eighth overall pick of the 1999 NFL draft. He improved each year, eventually becoming a Pro Bowler in 2001 after he caught for 1,598 yards and eight touchdowns on 98 receptions.
The San Diego Chargers signed him as a tight end in 2003. Even though Boston had seven touchdowns, he caught for only 880 yards that season. His downward spiral began when he cursed out Chargers strength coach Dave Redding. San Diego traded him to the Miami Dolphins due to his mood swings and lazy practice habits.
In the next two years, his fallout was complete. During that span, he tested positive for steroids and was arrested for DUI. He last played for Miami in 2005.
5 Timmy Smith
Timmy Smith and Mike Jones have one thing in common: They made an impact in a Super Bowl game. That’s pretty much it.
Smith was the Washington Redskins’ fifth-rounder out of Texas Tech in 1987. He had a below-average regular season, churning out 126 yards with zero touchdowns in seven games.
And then, somebody flipped the switch.
Smith ran for a Super Bowl rushing record 204 yards and two touchdowns in the Redskins’ 42-10 rout of the Denver Broncos that season.
In Smith’s subsequent playing years, he was hounded by injuries and suspicions of drug use. Smith was set to play for the San Diego Chargers on a $250,000 contract in 1989 before he broke his foot and sat out the entire season. He last played for the Dallas Cowboys in 1990.
4 Ickey Woods
One can only wonder how Ickey Woods’ career could have flourished had he not been injured just two years into his young NFL career.
But first, a little history lesson: His full name is Elbert L. Woods. His nickname came about when his brother mispronounced his given first name. Little would anybody know that this would lead to a fad in the NFL many years later.
The Cincinnati Bengals drafted him 31st overall out of UNLV in 1988. He was a rookie sensation that season, rushing for 1,066 yards and 15 touchdowns for Cincinnati’s high-octane offense.
However, the Bengals lost, 20-16, to the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIII. Woods ran for a game-high 79 yards.
He tore his ACL during the 1989 season and was never the same player again. Woods would amass fewer than 500 yards and just 12 touchdowns in his three next seasons before retiring in 1991.
He would forever be remembered for his famous touchdown celebration known as the “Ickey Shuffle.”
3 Derek Anderson
Cleveland Browns fans thought Derek Anderson would be their savior.
Instead, he would be just one among countless Browns quarterbacks who failed to make the team relevant again.
However, Anderson’s 2007 NFL season was one of the best a Cleveland play caller has had in recent memory. That year, then-Browns head coach Romeo Crennel had a tough time deciding between him and Charlie Frye. Crennel called on Anderson after Frye wasn’t effective during the season opener.
Anderson threw for 3,787 yards and 29 touchdowns on an 82.5 passer rating in 2007, leading upstart Cleveland to a 10-6 record. It was the first time the Browns would win 10 games since 1994. In spite of this achievement, they failed to qualify for the postseason.
Several concussions led to Anderson’s decline in the ensuing seasons. He hasn’t made much of an impact since 2007, and is now Cam Newton’s backup with the Carolina Panthers.
2 Rex Grossman
Grossman showed some flashes of his potential during his NFL career, but he never fully lived up to it.
Before Tim Tebow made waves with the Florida Gators, it was Grossman who garnered national attention. He earned several honors in college such as the 2000 SEC Championship Game MVP, 2001 Consensus All-American and 2001 Associated Press National Player of the Year.
The Chicago Bears drafted him 22nd overall in 2003. His suffered through several injuries during his first three NFL seasons. His best season came in 2006, when he threw for 3,193 yards and 23 touchdowns. He led the Bears to Super Bowl XLI, only to lose to Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts, 29-17.
Injuries and inconsistent play led to Grossman being benched in favor of Kyle Orton a season later. Grossman played as a backup with the Houston Texans and Washington Redskins in ensuing years.
1 David Tyree
Former New York Giants wide receiver David Tyree joins the ranks of Timmy Smith and Mike Jones as players who shone brightly during the Super Bowl but fizzled out.
Tyree played mostly under the radar for the Giants, who selected him 211th overall in the 2003 NFL draft. Although he played mostly as a backup wide receiver, he did have an excellent reputation as a special teams player.
Super Bowl XLII was the game that made David Tyree a household name.
Tyree’s five-yard reception from quarterback Eli Manning gave the Giants the lead, 10-7, over the undefeated New England Patriots.
With the Giants trailing 14-10 with 1:15 left in the game, Tyree hauled in a 32-yard pass from Manning while wedging the ball between his hand and helmet. “The Catch,” as it was later known, would keep New York’s drive alive. Manning later connected with Plaxico Burress for the game-winning touchdown.
Tyree, who is currently the Giants director of player development, didn’t produce any eye-popping stats throughout his NFL career. However, “The Catch” would live on in NFL fans hearts forever.
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