Football is the ultimate team game; one that demands the perfect coordination of 11 separate men simply to move the ball five yards downfield. This fact doesn’t remove the asterisk from a star NFL player’s record when they retire without winning a Super Bowl — just ask a Dan Marino. At the highest level, winning always elevates the Joe Namaths and Terry Bradshaws far above the relatively run-of-the-mill Vinny Testaverdes and Drew Bledsoes in history.
To critics, a star player who lacks championship hardware simply “failed to make his teammates better.” This tired cliche, however, should not apply to the following players, who have carried their respective franchises on their backs for several years without the postseason success to show for their efforts. For supportive fans, it is always tragic to watch a dedicated athlete waste away his prime years, with little to no real help out on the field. These star NFL players all apply — and they need new teammates.
5. Matt Forte
Matt Forte is the only NFL player in history to put up more than 900 yards rushing and 400 yards receiving through his first four years in the NFL. During his best year, 2013, he racked up 1,339 yards on the ground to go with 95 catches for 594 yards through the air. In 2014, Forte set the record for receptions by a running back, with 102. As the total package, he will remain notable for his smooth acceleration, willingness to block, and mastery of the screen game.
Still, Forte only made the playoffs once, with Jay Cutler as his quarterback in Chicago. Cutler, despite his natural talent and rocket arm, is often described as inconsistent at best. He actually led the NFL in interceptions on two separate occasions (2009 and 2014). At the same time, the once vaunted Bear defense slipped dramatically, with team executives riding with Cutler and betting the farm to surround him with weapons and offensive-minded coaches.
Chicago refused to renew Forte’s contract this offseason. Now 30 years old, he will go down as the second leading rusher in Bears history behind only Walter Payton. Forte signed a three-year, $12 million deal with the New York Jets and reunited with former teammate Brandon Marshall. These two traded in Cutler for Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. Unfortunately, this means Forte is on a flawed team (currently 2-5 on the season) that last made the playoffs in 2010. To add insult to injury, Forte moved into the same division as a Patriot Dynasty that has taken retreads like Antowain Smith, Corey Dillon, and LeGarrette Blount to Super Bowl glory.
4. J.J. Watt and DeAndre Hopkins (tie)
In recent years, the quarterback carousel in Houston has spun between the likes of Matt Schaub, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and even T.J. Yates. Last season, four separate quarterbacks started games for the Texans, with Brian Hoyer closing out the year by throwing four picks in a blowout loss to Kansas City at home in the wild-card round. In response, Houston signed Brock Osweiler to a staggering four-year, $72 million contract this offseason.
Last year, Osweiler kept the seat warm for Peyton Manning, winning five games in seven starts down the stretch. As a game manager in Denver, Osweiler was tasked with limiting his turnovers, controlling the clock, and playing for field position, while a historically dominant defense shut down the opposition. Still, the ghosts of Scott Mitchell and Matt Flynn will forever haunt NFL front offices, as career backups who won some games before signing big paydays elsewhere, getting in over their heads, and ending up parked back at the end of the bench.
DeAndre Hopkins, for his part, has quickly and quietly emerged as one of the best possession receivers in the NFL, despite not knowing who would throw him the passes from week to week. Last year, he racked up 111 receptions for 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns. No other Texans receiver went over 50 catches for 700 yards. At the same time, Alfred Blue and Chris Polk, the top two running backs in the Texan stable, went for less than four yards per carry last season.
On the other side of the football, J.J. Watt is a one-man wrecking crew in the mold of Lawrence Taylor. Last season, he sacked the quarterback 17.5 times to up his career total to 74.5. Outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus also got into the act and came up with 12 sacks of his own, with opposing blocking schemes keying in on Watt. The Texans defense did finish third in yards given up last season and they’ll be a force again this year, especially if this unit can get anything out of the oft-injured first overall pick Jadeveon Clowney.
3. NaVorro Bowman
As recently as 2013, the San Francisco 49ers were in Super Bowl XLVII and on the move against the Baltimore Ravens. After the lights went out in New Orleans, the team was as close as one two-point conversion attempt from tying up the Big Game in the Big Easy. This Super Bowl run came during a time when the 49ers made three straight trips to the NFC Conference Championship Game, and Seattle versus San Francisco was the nastiest rivalry in football. At that time, Colin Kaepernick, not Russell Wilson, was clearly the quarterback of the future, especially after shredding the Green Bay Packers for 263 yards through the air and 181 yards on the ground in the playoffs.
These 49ers were in the image of Jim Harbaugh, a balls-to-the-wall coach, who always wore his perfectly creased khaki pants and even slept at the office to get the jump on the competition. In 2013, the hard-hitting San Francisco defense sent six players to the Pro Bowl. For his part, NaVorro Bowman led the team in tackles with 120. For the final act at Candlestick, Bowman picked off a deflection and rumbled for 89 yards before diving into the end zone in front of a delirious home crowd. The 49ers beat the Falcons 34-29 on the Pick at the Stick and moved down the 101 to Santa Clara and Levi’s Stadium the very next season. Unfortunately, the wheels fell off shortly after that.
First, Bowman blew out his knee in the 2013–14 Conference Championship Game as his team lost in Seattle and was ruled out for the entirety of the following season. Next, Harbaugh packed his bags for Michigan after butting heads with team executives and going 8-8 through 2014–15. The front office drama triggered a mass exodus out of San Francisco. Four starters, including Patrick Willis, suddenly retired that offseason, and Frank Fore and Michael Crabtree signed elsewhere. The 2015 49ers were two years removed from the NFC Championship Game and 5-11.
For this season, Bowman and Kaepernick will be two of the lone remaining holdovers from the latest Golden Era in San Francisco. Opposing defenses quickly wised up to the option-read gimmick, and Kaepernick is now second on the depth chart behind the noted draft bust Blaine Gabbert. Sadly, Bowman will simply play for pride as a relic for one of the worst teams in the NFL.
2. Philip Rivers
In 1997, John Elway dutifully handed the ball off to Terrell Davis, who racked up 1,750 yards on the ground that season for a 12-4 Broncos team that went on to Super Bowl XXXII. To claim his first Lombardi Trophy, Elway took off on third-and-six and went helicopter to pick up a late first down deep in the end zone. The Broncos were even more dominant the following season, with Davis rumbling for more than 2,000 yards. Elway rode off into the sunset with back-to-back titles after lighting up the Falcons, 34-19, in Super Bowl XXXIII.
Last year, as General Manager, Elway returned the favor to the Broncos franchise and supported Peyton Manning with a historically dominant defense. In Super Bowl 50, Peyton Manning managed the game for 141 yards and walked away with his second title, right before heading off to the Hall of Fame.
Philip Rivers is now very much deserving of the Denver Broncos retirement package. The 34-year-old has now thrown for a total of 41,447 yards and 281 touchdowns in 12 seasons in the NFL (the first two of which he backed up Drew Brees in San Diego). As a starter, Rivers has not missed one game in 10 years, and even played through a torn ACL in the 2007 AFC Championship Game. Last season, he led the league in both completions (437) and attempts (661). These numbers, however, were not cause for celebration, because an anemic running game and mediocre defense often forced Rivers to air out the football simply to stay in the game.
Melvin Gordon, as a rookie and 15th overall pick, sputtered to 3.5 yards per carry, while Danny Woodhead — like the little engine that could — emerged as Rivers’ top target on the team. For 2016–17, both Rivers and his long-time running mate Antonio Gates will be one year older. At the same time, Gordon may continue to struggle adjusting to the speed of the pro game like several Badger backs before him. Expect Rivers to be forced into obvious passing situations all season and left alone to take shots repeatedly behind a porous offensive line.
1. Adrian Peterson
Fact: An over-the-hill Brett Favre was the best quarterback who Adrian Peterson has ever played with. In 2009, Favre signed on with the supposedly hated Minnesota Vikings after 16 seasons in Green Bay. At 40 years old, he completed 68% of his passes for 4,202 yards and 33 touchdowns, against only seven interceptions. Peterson, for once in his life, was part of a balanced attack and chipped in 1,383 yards and a league-leading 18 touchdowns that season. These Vikings made it all the way to the NFC Championship Game before self-destructing in overtime to the Saints. Peterson has not won one playoff game ever since. Instead, AP has been left to carry the load for the likes of Joe Webb, Matt Cassel, Christian Ponder, and a broken down Donovan McNabb at quarterback.
In 2012, 30-year-old Peterson went off for 2,097 yards on the ground, despite opposing defenses stacking the box and daring Christian Ponder to throw the football. For Week 16, the Vikings milked Peterson for 34 carries and 199 yards against Green Bay to wrap up a wild-card berth with the season on the line. The Pack made adjustments and limited Peterson to 99 yards the following week to boot the Vikings out of the playoffs. For years, the Minnesota game plan was simple: Run Peterson left. Run Peterson right. Run Peterson middle.
In 2014, the Vikings drafted Teddy Bridgewater as the 32nd overall pick out of Louisville. For his sophomore season, Bridgewater completed 65% of his passes for a solid 3,232 yards and 14 touchdowns. The 2015 Vikings went 11-5, behind the old formula of a strong defense, tough running, and a game-managing quarterback. Bridgewater, however, blew out his knee in a routine practice drill immediately prior to the 2016–17 season. In a panic, the Vikings offered a first- and fourth-round pick to Philadelphia for Sam Bradford, who comes with injury concerns. Career backup Shaun Hill got the Week 1 start, while Bradford learns the playbook. Peterson is now at an age when running back production suddenly collapses. He will not be able to carry the load for much longer in Minnesota.