(Edit: This post can also be found on my football-themed blog.)
The NFL is very quick to highlight the spectacular talent produced within the league. J.J. Watt, Todd Gurley, Cam Newton, and more have been showing up in commercials and headlines more and more due to their recent (or sustained) success. It’s easy to get carried away by a single great season, but it gives the impression that a player is taking the first step into sports stardom. This is a list I devised focusing on the players that took that first step into achieving the productivity typically only seen by hall of famers, but couldn’t manage to match it throughout the rest of their careers. And to clarify, this isn’t technically a “One-hit Wonder” list, but rather a list focusing on the limits of a player and those magical seasons where they played well beyond their expectations.
I also tried to limit the impact of injuries had on a player’s production. This is a list that tries not to hide behind the “injury bug” loophole that damages many players’ careers. These are players that simply had okay careers, with one fantastic season attached to it.
10. Lionel James – 1985
They called him “Little Train.” Standing at a measly 5’6″, Lionel James came into the league in 1984 as a fifth-round pick by the San Diego Chargers, near the end of the Don Coryell era. Needless to say, the offense James had stumbled upon was known for being high-powered, especially with Dan Fouts in the backfield. As a rookie, James made an immediate impact as a return-man, but didn’t contribute much to the offense. That would come the year after, in 1985.
516 rushing yards. 1,027 receiving yards. 213 punt return yards. 779 kick return yards. Tack on two rushing touchdowns and six receiving touchdowns, and you have a season accumulating 2,535 total yards and eight touchdowns. His total yardage count was an NFL record at that time, as well as his receiving total for his position at running back. James was able to obtain success on almost every front, whether it be rushing, receiving, or returning. Most of all, he didn’t even start half the season.
His career soon dwindled out afterwards. He only posted 2,596 yards total yards in the next three seasons, only 61 more yards than he had in all of 1985. Not to mention, only seven more touchdowns throughout that three-year span. He was released after the 1988 season and never caught on anywhere else. But for what it’s worth, he’ll always have his 1985 season.
9. Renaldo Turnbull – 1993
Unlike Lionel James, Renaldo Turnbull was no “little train.” Drafted by the New Orleans Saints in the first round of the 1990 NFL Draft, Turnbull had high expectations from day one. He managed to quell those expectations in his rookie season when he posted nine sacks and 31 tackles in six starts and ten more games in rotation. However, as years followed, he was buried on the depth chart and didn’t see a lot of action on the field, posting only two and a half sacks in the next two years. In 1993, he was able to start in fourteen games, and showed the world why he was picked in the first round.
Garnering Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro honors, Renaldo Turnbull finished the ’93 season with 63 tackles, thirteen sacks, five forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and even an interception. His teammate, Rickey Jackson, also made the Pro Bowl that year, which may have aided Turnbull in his productivity. Whatever the case, Turnbull would be one of a tandem of outside linebacker forces offenses would have to prepare for for years to come. At least, that’s what was initially expected.
Turnbull still had some pass-rushing ability to him, but never to the same extent as in 1993. He finished the ’94 season with six and a half sacks, the ’95 season with seven sacks, and the ’96 season with six and a half sacks. However, by 1996, they had him more of a situational pass-rusher than an all time starter. He was released after the ’96 season and spent one final season with the Carolina Panthers, where he only managed one sack in sixteen games played, before calling it quits.
8. Scott Mitchell – 1995
It’s almost become a running joke that Scott Mitchell wasn’t very good as a quarterback. However, based on his statistical performances, that’s somewhat hard to back up, especially with his play in 1995. He’s better than most people give him credit for, but that’s easy considering most people credit him with being atrocious.
Mitchell started his career as a backup to Dan Marino in Miami. After Marino went down during the ’93 season, Mitchell came in to replace him, and did a good enough job to have the Detroit Lions interested in signing him to a lucrative contract. However, it wasn’t easygoing for Mitchell when things started out. In 1994, Mitchell threw more interceptions than touchdowns while leading the Lions to a 4-5 record before getting injured. Back-up Dave Krieg led the team to a 5-2 record in his absence, and played far better in Mitchell’s stead. This wouldn’t mean anything as Mitchell was the starting quarterback the moment the 1995 season rolled around. The Lions are likely glad they stuck with him that year.
Mitchell enjoyed the best season of his career by far, posting 32 touchdowns against 12 interceptions and 4,338 passing yards. With the help of Barry Sanders, Herman Moore, and Brett Perriman, Mitchell was able to orchestrate an offense capable of scoring at any time. This helped to lead the team to a 10-6 record… before being blown out in the first round of the playoffs, where Mitchell had a putrid performance.
Mitchell would probably place higher on this list had he not posted two decent seasons after 1995. However, past 1997, he was regarded as a journeyman back-up, bouncing from team to team before retiring after the 2001 season. He’s certainly not the worst quarterback Detroit has had in the last fifty years, but he gave them enough hope for greener pastures during 1995. It’s only a shame he couldn’t win at least once for Barry.
7. Audray McMillian – 1992
McMillian is an interesting story. Drafted by the New England Patriots in the third round of the 1985 NFL Draft, McMillian didn’t even make the final cut. He was picked up by the Houston Oilers and provided serviceable back-up at cornerback over the course of three years, appearing in 44 games from 1985 to 1987, starting two. He was released after the ’87 season and was out of football for a year. In 1989, the Minnesota Vikings gave him a call.
He spent the next two seasons with the Vikings the same way he did with the Oilers: as a serviceable back-up. He played in 31 games in two years, starting four. He even managed to snag three interceptions in 1990. In 1991, McMillian was given a bigger role in the defense, starting seven games and intercepted four passes while appearing in every game that season. He was eventually named as a permanent starter, and he proved he belonged in 1992.
Helping new coach Dennis Green’s debut season reach an 11-5 record, Audray McMillian started all sixteen games and picked off eight passes, returning two of them for touchdowns. He established himself as the league’s premier shutdown corner, seven years after he was drafted. He was rewarded with a Pro Bowl birth and a First-Team All-Pro selection to cap off a remarkable late-career resurgence.
In 1993, his production slipped quite a bit. He started every game and intercepted four passes, but wasn’t the same player he was the year prior. He was passed over for the Pro Bowl and never sniffed All-Pro honors as his team went from 11-5 to 9-7. In the prime of his career, McMillian retired after the ’93 season.
6. Jerry Azumah – 2003
A running back in college, Jerry Azumah was drafted in 1999 with the intention of converting him into a cornerback. This transition proved to be somewhat successful, as he began to start on defense as soon as 2000. As the years went on, Azumah started more and more games, until he became the permanent starter in 2002. It wasn’t until 2003 where his versatility would become his biggest asset.
Along with starting cornerback, Azumah’s resume included starting kick returner during his 2003 season. In that season, aside from providing solid coverage on defense, he also led the league in kick return average and kick return touchdowns. Consider him a Devin Hester before Devin Hester. Whenever he had the ball in his hands, he was dangerous. He finished the season with 82 tackles, four interceptions, a sack, 1,191 return yards, and two kick return touchdowns. He was named Pro Bowler and Second-Team All-Pro as a kick returner to cap off the year.
In 2004, the Bears decided to use Azumah more as a kick returner than a cornerback, cutting his playing time on defense down to just starting eight games. His returning skills were still there, but not nearly as effective as the year prior, only gaining 924 return yards without a single score. At least he managed to nab another four interceptions on defense.
2005 would prove to be the breaking point. Azumah started only a single game on defense, while posting even fewer return yards as a returner. He retired the next year, knowing full well that his production was starting to wane on the eve of his 29th birthday.
5. Ladell Betts – 2006
An interesting case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Ladell Betts is a prime example of what could’ve been, had the Redskins not had Clinton Portis as the perennial starter.
Drafted in the second round in 2002, Betts was constantly buried within the Redskins’ depth chart behind other backs, like the aforementioned Clinton Portis. Throughout the years, he was used in situational plays for the most part, but never surpassed the expectations of being a three-down back. He showed what he was capable of, however, in 2006.
The season started the same. Portis was the starter with Betts being used as a change of pace. However, in week seven, Portis went down with a season-ending injury, forcing Betts into the starting role. He took the role and gave the team a reason he was drafted so high all those years ago. In nine starts, Betts rushed for 869 yards and three touchdowns, while catching thirty passes for 252 yards and a touchdown. Combined with his production before Portis’s injury, Betts’s totals come to 1,154 rushing yards, 53 catches for 445 yards, and two kick returns for 27 yards, bringing his season total to 1,626 yards and five touchdowns. While those stats don’t seem like much, it’s important to note that he was third on the team in receptions and receiving yards.
Betts was a shining spot on an otherwise dim offensive year for the 2006 team. He filled in tremendously and did all he could and more for an already pessimistic team. Unfortunately for Betts, when the season ended, Portis was awarded his starting spot back with the team, and Betts never got a chance to start on a regular basis again in his career. He finished his career with 3,326 rushing yards and 1,646 receiving yards. Perhaps he could’ve been better had he been given a chance to start, but as it stands, he’s an average player who could never fight his way to the number one spot.
4. Nathan Vasher – 2005
Oh, look. Another Bears corner from the mid-2000’s. Odd.
A fourth round pick in 2004, Vasher was thrust quickly into action on account of injuries to established starting corners. Starting in seven games, Vasher picked off five interceptions to end the season. The next year, Vasher was the permanent starter and had the greatest season of his career. He intercepted eight passes and was part of a stout Chicago defense that made up for its offense’s varying quality. He came up in big in big moments, which helped make him an easy selection for the Pro Bowl and Second-Team All-Pro honors. The success would only last for so long.
I will admit that this choice was a little influenced by the quick rise and drop of his production due to injuries, but I felt he played enough to qualify for a spot this high. He started most of the 2006 season, only intercepting three passes and providing adequate coverage throughout. It wasn’t until 2007 when his injuries began to plague his availability. He played in only twelve games, starting nine, in the next two seasons. He snagged two interceptions in that time, along with a sack and thirty tackles. By 2009, his injuries affected his status on the team, as he was buried on the depth chart and released after the season. In five starts and fourteen games with the Detroit Lions, he had one interception. He was out of football soon after.
It was a promising start for Vasher, but his injuries led him into a downward spiral. After sixteen interceptions in 35 starts, he would only get four more in the next four seasons. There’s a part of me that wonders if he may have excelled due to the system he was in. Whatever the case, 2005 is a season worth remembering as Vasher’s crowning achievement.
3. Charley Frazier – 1966
Ah, the ’60s. The rise of Pro Football as a national empire. The introduction of the Super Bowl and the AFL-NFL merger. It was a great time to be a fan. If only I was alive back then.
Meet Charley Frazier, an undrafted wide receiver for the Houston Oilers in the early days of the AFL. He spent varying amounts of time on the field without much importance thrown to him. As the years went by, his production became more and more apparent, and was eventually a familiar face for the offense. In 1965, his hard work paid off for him with a decent season: 38 catches for 717 yards and six touchdowns. In the mid-60’s, that’s like a 1,000 yard season today. Frazier would top that, though. In 1966.
If 717 yards is like a 1,000 yard season today, then a 1,129 yard season then is like a 1,600 yard season today. Frazier managed to rack up the yards along with 57 catches and twelve touchdowns. That’s an impressive feat for a league that was so keen on running the ball twenty-five times a game. The season earned him a Pro Bowl nod. Unfortunately, his offensive performance couldn’t help the team past a 3-11 overall record after starting quarterback George Blanda went down with an injury.
Unfortunately, Frazier’s days as an elite receiver were over by that point. After the ’66 season, he never eclipsed 23 catches, 306 receiving yards, or seven touchdowns. In 1969, he was signed by the Boston Patriots and had a semi-successful first season with the team before floundering his final season before retirement.
2. Derek Anderson – 2007
This is a popular pick for “One-Hit Wonders.” It’s easy to see why.
Derek Anderson came into the league as sixth round pick for the Baltimore Ravens, only to be released quickly after. He managed to sneak into the Browns’ roster and stuck out just enough for the team to give him a shot. In 2007, he led them to their first winning season since 2002… and in the last fourteen years.
With the help of a receiver by the name of Braylon Edwards (who almost made this list), Anderson managed up a Pro Bowl season with 29 touchdown passes with 19 interceptions and nearly 3,800 passing yards. This type of season had the fans in Cleveland running amok with fury. Their team was finally a winner again. Those poor souls.
Anderson quickly came back to Earth in 2008, going 3-6 in nine starts while throwing nine touchdowns and eight interceptions. As the seasons went on, his play only worsened. In 2009, he completed only 44% of his passes in seven starts, throwing three touchdowns to ten interceptions. He was signed by the Cardinals in 2010 and his poor play continued. He was released after a year.
However, his career didn’t end there. To this day, Anderson is now a back-up to Cam Newton in Carolina. In relief games, Anderson has played well enough in his stead to provide a comfortable quarterback situation should Newton ever go down with an injury… short-term, of course. Anderson has embraced his role as a back-up, doing nothing to try and challenge that role. And for that, I feel he’s redeemed himself for all the negativity that’s surrounded him prior to his Carolina venture. He’s certainly average, but he’s okay with that. After all, he can proudly brag that he’s the last person to lead Cleveland to a winning season.
1. Erik Kramer – 1995
In the same year that Scott Mitchell was taking the league by storm, Erik Kramer was doing the same thing in the same division.
Erik Kramer was an undrafted player in 1987 who spent his rookie year with the Atlanta Falcons. He was released only a year later. What was Kramer to do with his life? Here’s an idea: Canadian Football! He spent three seasons with the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL before returning to the NFL as a back-up option with the Detroit Lions. He went 10-5 as a starter for the Lions in relief effort, which gave the Chicago Bears enough reason to sign him to a long-term deal. Much like Mitchell, Kramer’s first year with his new team provided little to think he’d make it big. Then, in 1995, it all changed.
Kramer threw for 3,838 yards, 29 touchdowns, and ten interceptions while leading the Bears to a 9-7 record, narrowly missing the playoffs. It would prove to be Kramer’s finest moment as a player and as a Bear, with his paw print still atop the Bears’ record books. No other player in Bears’ history has thrown for more yards and more touchdowns in a single season than Erik Kramer did in 1995. I’m not sure if that’s more an impressive feat for Kramer or embarrassing for the people to follow him. Step it up, Jay Cutler.
As the old story goes, the ’95 season came and went, with expectations high for the Bears’ new leading man. He was unable to match his record season in subsequent years. In the next 25 starts over a three year span, Kramer threw for 26 touchdowns and 27 interceptions, with a starting record of 8-17. He was released after the ’98 season. After one last year with the San Diego Chargers—where he threw zero touchdowns to nine interceptions in four starts—he called his NFL career quits.
His life after football hasn’t been great, but he’ll always be a part of Bears’ history with his terrific performance in 1995. So long as Chicago’s traditionally lackluster offenses continue to surge, he’ll hold onto that record he’s had for more than twenty years now. And for me, Erik Kramer is the most average player with the greatest outlier season in NFL history.
Honorable Mentions: Braylon Edwards – 2007, Josh Freeman – 2010, Todd Bell – 1984, Cortland Finnegan – 2008