(Edit: This post can also be found on my football-themed blog.)
Fun fact before I start the list: this was originally written for Listverse.com, but they rejected it, stating it was “not something they think readers would be interested in.” Who the hell needs the NFL when you could read about… 10 Normal Things Accused of Causing Moral Panics? The fuck? My frustration aside, let’s venture on.
The NFL is full of impact players on every level. Superstars are typically honored with awards and accolades, but what of the players that may have been overlooked throughout their career? This is a list focusing on the players that made the most of their careers, but were never given the same recognition as their counterparts, for whatever reason.
10. Jim Plunkett
New England Patriots, 1971-1975
San Francisco 49ers, 1976-1977
Oakland/L.A. Raiders, 1978-1986
The quarterback leading the charge for the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders’ two Super Bowl victories in the 80’s, Jim Plunkett was selected first overall in the 1971 NFL Draft by the New England Patriots. After a semi-successful rookie season, his career spiraled downwards, getting the boot from both New England and the San Francisco 49ers after failing to record a winning record with either of them. He signed with the Oakland Raiders in 1978 as a back-up and rode the bench for the next two years. It wasn’t until 1980 after starter Dan Pastorini was injured that Jim Plunkett, at the age of thirty-three, would lead his team to the Promised Land.
While his regular season performances are nothing to brag about, with only three seasons of more touchdowns than interceptions, it was his postseason heroics that put him on this list. With an 8-2 postseason record, two Super Bowl victories, and a Super Bowl MVP award, Plunkett did enough to win, without having to do too much.
9. Kelly Gregg
Philadelphia Eagles, 1999
Baltimore Ravens, 2000-2010
Kansas City Chiefs, 2011
Much like Jim Plunkett, Kelly Gregg’s chance at NFL stardom came through replacing a starter due to injury. Once he assumed that position, he never gave it back. A sixth round pick in the 1999 NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals, Gregg never made it off the practice squad, and was released soon after being drafted. After being signed by the Philadelphia Eagles to finish out his rookie year, he would be released from that team as well. Fast forward to 2002, Gregg is the Baltimore Ravens’ starting nose tackle after former starter Tony Siragusa retired from the NFL.
Known for his brute strength, Gregg became one of the more effective run-stopping defensive players in the NFL. When starting for a majority of the season, Baltimore’s rush defense was ranked within the top ten in the league for seven straight years. To top it off, he accumulated nearly 550 total tackles and 20.5 sacks in ten years with the Baltimore Ravens and a year with the Kansas City Chiefs. Not bad for a guy over 300 pounds.
8. Keith Hamilton
New York Giants, 1992-2003
Speaking of guys hovering around 300 pounds, Keith Hamilton made an impact for the New York Giants as a defensive end and defensive tackle throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s. Affectionately referred to as “The Hammer,” Hamilton had the benefit of playing around hall of famers such as Lawrence Taylor and Michael Strahan, which may have attributed to his lack of recognition on the line. Nevertheless, his impact on the field was anything but lacking.
During a twelve year career with New York, The Hammer recorded five years with six or more sacks and forty tackles, including two double-digit sack seasons. He is also one who has surpassed 500 career total tackles. Hamilton even made Second Team All-Pro in 2000. Hamilton’s contributions in the postseason also deserve recognition, recording four sacks in six career postseason starts. If not for the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, he may have a Super Bowl ring to show for his effort. Despite the loss, it does little for his impact upon the traditional strength of New York Giants defensive linemen.
7. Johnnie Morton
Detroit Lions, 1994-2001
Kansas City Chiefs, 2002-2004
San Francisco 49ers, 2005
Before there was Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate, there was Herman Moore and Johnnie Morton.
A first round draft pick in 1994, Morton spent most of his twelve-year career with the Detroit Lions. While he doesn’t have many touchdowns to his name, his route running and skills after the catch have net him 624 receptions and 8,719 total receiving yards in his career. He’s third in Detroit Lions history in receptions (469), receiving yards (6,499), and tied for third in touchdown catches (35). He’s even responsible for a kick return touchdown during his rookie year.
What’s more impressive about his performance on the field is when taking into consideration the selection of quarterbacks throwing the ball to him. The two quarterbacks that threw the ball his way the most during his career in Detroit were Scott Mitchell, who was recently on The Biggest Loser, and Charlie Batch, Pittsburgh’s favorite back-up quarterback. To give Mitchell credit, he played moderately well during the regular season, but had a tendency to melt down during the postseason. This, in turn, affected Morton’s play, who’s only responsible for ten catches, 105 receiving yards, and a single touchdown in three postseason games with Detroit.
Even after Detroit, Morton played a valuable role with the Kansas City Chiefs during the 2003 season. His play would decrease soon after, ending his career with a forgettable season with San Francisco. With four seasons of over 1,000 receiving yards under his belt, it’s hard to imagine why this Lions receiver’s roar was never heard outside of Detroit. Touchdown receptions, maybe?
6. Reggie Williams
Cincinnati Bengals, 1976-1989
Ever the model of consistency and toughness, Reggie Williams was one of the key defensive figures to the Cincinnati Bengals’ rise during the 80’s. A full fledged starter right out of the gate, Williams played well in every way, whether it be rushing the passer or stopping the run. His 206 games played is second in Bengals’ history behind only Ken Riley (207).
Officially listed with 41 career sacks, unofficial team records state he had 62.5 over his career, which would put him second in Bengals’ history behind Eddie Edwards (87.5). His durability, while not perfect, also showed in the later portion of his career, playing in 118 of 119 possible games to close out his playing days. And if you care for safeties, he has not one, but two recorded in his career. If not for the Joe Montana led San Francisco 49ers, he could have also added two Super Bowl rings to his resumé.
In the present, Reggie is fighting to save his leg from amputation with the same spirit and optimism that he had during his playing days. Like Toucan Sam, he followed his nose to the ball and striked whenever necessary, and did so for fourteen seasons. Hopefully his drive pays off for him with his health deteriorating, much in the way his play spoke for him on the field.
5. Plaxico Burress
Pittsburgh Steelers, 2000-2004; 2012-2013
New York Giants, 2005-2008
New York Jets, 2011
Say what you may about his legal struggles and off the field attitude, Plaxico Burress was something else when his feet hit the turf. A first round talent out of Michigan State in 2000, his career began with a purr, providing little for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ passing game. Combining his second and third season numbers, he had 144 receptions, 2,333 receiving yards, and 13 touchdowns. His quarterbacks during that time were Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox.
Eventually fizzled out of Pittsburgh, Burress joined the New York Giants in 2005 and revitalized a dwindling career. If not for 988 receiving yards in 2006, Burress would’ve posted three consecutive 1,000 yard receiving seasons, along with double-digit touchdown receptions in 2006 and 2007. His final touchdown reception of the 2007 season proved to be the dagger in what is commonly considered the greatest upset in Super Bowl history, when the Giants defeated the then undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
It wasn’t smooth sailing soon afterwards, when legal troubles and controversy chased Burress off the Giants’ roster and away from the NFL for two years after the 2008 season. It wasn’t until 2011 when the New York Jets gave him another shot that he was able to play again, but his ability was all but failing at the age of 34. He still managed to produce eight touchdown receptions, however. After two forgettable seasons back with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Burress would call it quits.
With all the numbers in place, it’s hard to imagine why Plaxico Burress never received a Pro Bowl nod. He was one of Eli Manning’s key targets in his early career and played well enough to be considered among the top group of wide receivers in his hey day. Some might say that his off-the-field issues and personality “triggered” his absence from the All-Star game. I’m sorry.
4. Dave Edwards
Dallas Cowboys, 1963-1975
I don’t need to tell any brazened Dallas fan how great the Cowboys were from the mid-60’s to the early 80’s. History shows they’ll do it for me. But for those wondering how great they really were, we can start with Dave Edwards.
Edwards doesn’t get a lot of credit for his work, but I’m sure in the big scheme of things, he gets a pat on the back from most people. His work as one of the original strongside linebackers in Tom Landry’s revolutionary system has warranted him respect from many players and Dallas fans, but perhaps not from anyone on the outside. He doesn’t have flashy numbers or a very “Cowboy” name, but his consistency is staggering.
Outside of his first two seasons, Dave Edwards started all but one game in the following eleven seasons. And when he began starting every game on the season, the Cowboys’ defense got much, much better. A rugged and consistent cog in Landry’s “Doomsday Defense,” Edwards has played in some of the biggest games in NFL history, such as the Ice Bowl and Super Bowls V, VI, and X. Flashy or not, he still had 13 interceptions and 17 fumble recoveries throughout his career.
It might be a little easier to understand why Edwards never made a Pro Bowl. He was one of many great defensive players on the early Cowboys squad. With names like Bob Lilly, Lee Roy Jordan, Chuck Howley, George Andrie, and Cornell Green playing around you, it’s hard to get lost in the shuffle. Despite the packed selection, Edwards was a consistent and mighty force on a squad full of consistent and mighty forces.
3. Don Shinnick
Baltimore Colts, 1957-1969
Curiously enough, you won’t find a lot about Don Shinnick online. Not even his Wikipedia page has a lot on him. One thing’s for sure though: he had quite the impact on the field.
The one shining statistic that Shinnick has in his favor is interceptions. Shinnick has 37 career interceptions. Doesn’t sound all that great, right? See that position header up there? Suddenly, 37 becomes a whole lot more impressive. In fact, that’s the record number of career interceptions by a linebacker, a mark cemented in 1968 that has yet to be broken to this day. One other statistic that he shares with most players on this list is longevity. He played in 159 of 174 possible games throughout his thirteen year career.
One thing individual numbers won’t say is the impact he had on the team. Before Shinnick arrived in Baltimore, their defense floated around the bottom two in the league. Once drafted, Baltimore’s defense was consistently within the middle or upper portions. Not to mention, with the help of Johnny Unitas on offense, brought Baltimore from a struggling franchise to a two-time NFL champion by 1960. His handiwork was televised to everyone in what is considered by many as The Greatest Game Ever Played.
2. Jethro Pugh
Dallas Cowboys, 1965-1978
Remember Dave Edwards? You read about him two numbers before now. Meet Jethro Pugh, another teammate of his that was lost in the Doomsday chaos. An eleventh-round draft pick in 1965, Pugh played defensive tackle beside Bob Lilly and Randy White later on. What separates Pugh from, say, Dave Edwards, is his ability to produce numbers in addition to his longevity. According to unofficial team data, he produced 96.5 sacks, as well as two safeties, over his fourteen year career. As a defensive tackle.
He was a part of two championship teams in Dallas, with an additional two more championship appearances. While never achieving a Pro Bowl nod, Pugh did receive Second Team All-Pro in 1968. He’s missed more games than most on this list, but 183 games out of 194 is still impressive in of itself. And as disruptive as Bob Lilly was, Pugh is cited as leading the team in sacks for five straight seasons between 1968-1972. Only DeMarcus Ware did the same.
Like with Edwards, Pugh likely got lost in the shuffle of great Dallas defensive players during the 60’s and 70’s. His oversight may hurt some, but his results on the field were all that mattered in the long run. Two championships shine brighter than a Pro Bowl vacation.
1. Ken Riley
Cincinnati Bengals, 1969-1983
Ken Riley is so beloved that some people aren’t just steamed he never made a Pro Bowl, but that he hasn’t been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame! His body of work is similar to those already in, but one crucial stat definitely stands out: interceptions.
Ken Riley is responsible for 65 career interceptions throughout his fifteen year career. That’s tied for fifth all time in NFL history. He has seven seasons with five or more interceptions and two seasons with eight or more. He’s played 207 out of 222 possible games and has five defensive touchdowns. Like with Pugh before him, he has never reached a Pro Bowl, but has attained not just two Second Team All-Pros in 1975 and 1976, but a First Team All-Pro selection in the final year of his career.
He played in one Super Bowl and lost against San Francisco. He would see many one-and-done playoff trips for his team, but was never rewarded the championship he most likely deserved. So why was he never elected to a Pro Bowl, despite earning the respect of his peers and The Associated Press? Some might say he wasn’t popular enough. Perhaps the NFL had a vendetta for Cincinnati Bengals defensive players? Who’s to say? Whatever the case, he is, in my opinion, the best player to never be elected to a Pro Bowl.
Honorable Mentions: Tom Rafferty, Rubin Carter, Matt Lepsis.