Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Best Final Year For NFL Players

By Brad Oremland

Several likely Hall of Famers have retired in the last two months. Peyton Manning retired following a victory in Super Bowl 50. Calvin Johnson became the first player to retire after a season in which he gained 1,200 receiving yards. Meanwhile, Charles Woodson had already announced his retirement, following a Pro Bowl 2015 in which he intercepted five passes. Usually, athletics are cruel to aging participants, and few are able to go out on top. This article is about the exceptions, the players with the greatest final seasons in the history of major league professional football.

Quarterback

Greatest Final Season: Norm Van Brocklin, 1960

The Philadelphia Eagles went 4-7-1 in 1955. They were even worse in 1956, 3-8-1. They finished 4-8 in 1957. Van Brocklin joined the team in 1958, and they dropped to 2-9-1. But in 1959, the Eagles went 7-5. In 1960, they finished 10-2, won the NFL's Eastern Conference, and won the NFL Championship.

Van Brocklin ranked 1st or 2nd in the NFL in completions, passing yards, TDs, TD/INT differential, passer rating, and net yards per attempt. He was named NFL MVP by the Associated Press, Sporting News, and Newspaper Enterprise Association. He tied linebacker Joe Schmidt for the United Press MVP Award. And then he retired, as NFL MVP and NFL Champion.

Runners-Up

Otto Graham, 1955 — Won his second consecutive NFL championship, and was named MVP by two of the three major news organizations.

John Elway, 1998 — Passed for 22 TDs, 10 INTs, and a career-high 93.0 passer rating. He made the Pro Bowl and was named MVP of Super Bowl XXXIII.

Roger Staubach, 1979 — Set career-highs for yardage and TDs, easily leading the NFL in TD/INT differential (+16, with no one else over +8) and passer rating (92.3, with no one else over 84), but retired due to repeated concussions.

Johnny Lujack, Neil Lomax, Don Meredith, and Phil Simms also had very fine last seasons.

Running Back

Greatest Final Season: Jim Brown, 1965

Unlike Van Brocklin, Graham, and Elway, Jim Brown retired following a loss in the NFL Championship Game. On January 1st, 1966, four inches of snow fell in Green Bay. On January 2nd, it was freezing rain. That was the day of the NFL Championship Game, and Lambeau Field was a mess. It is unthinkable that an NFL game would be played on a field like that in 2016. The sidelines were covered with snow, most of the field was mud, and the reported temperature was 26° F, with snow and rain continuing to fall during the game. Brown had a quiet game, and the Packers won 23-12.

Brown didn't intend to retire. But that offseason, while Brown was in England shooting The Dirty Dozen, Cleveland owner Art Modell announced that he would fine Brown for reporting to camp late. Insulted, Brown retired. "I would have played one more [year] if Modell had been a little more careful in his statements to the newspaper," he said later. He was 29 years old.

He was also coming off one of the best seasons of his legendary career. Brown in '65 rushed for 80% more yards (1,544) than second-best Gale Sayers (867). He scored 21 TDs, in a 14-game season. And he won NFL MVP. No other running back has gone out like that, and none has come close.

Runners-Up

Barry Sanders, 1998 — His 1,491 rushing yards ranked 4th in the NFL, and his 4.35 average was nearly the lowest of his career. But it was an extraordinary career, and he was still one of the best RBs in football. His retirement shocked the league.

Robert Smith, 2000 — Like Sanders, he unexpectedly retired following an excellent season, with career-highs in rushing yards (1,521), receiving yards (348), and touchdowns (10), plus a 5.2 average.

Tiki Barber, 2006 — Unlike Sanders and Smith, Barber announced his retirement during the season, but it was equally shocking, because Tiki was in the midst of a three-year run as perhaps the best RB in football. In '06, he rushed for 1,662 yards, with a 5.1 average and 2,127 yards from scrimmage. In his final game, a wild card playoff, Barber rushed for 137 yards.

Hewritt Dixon, Billy Hillenbrand, Don Perkins, and James Stewart also retired after very good seasons.

Wide Receiver and Tight End

Greatest Final Season: Pete Pihos, 1955

One of the lesser-known players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Pete Pihos led the NFL in receiving in 1953, 1954, and 1955. Pihos mainly played offense, but he may have been even better as a defensive player. In 1952, the Eagles needed him to focus on defense. He only caught 12 passes that season, but on October 26, 1952, Paul Zimmerman counted six sacks by Pihos against the Giants. Pihos was named first-team all-pro as a defensive end. He switched back to offense the following season and made three straight all-pro teams at that position, then retired.

In 1955, Pihos led the NFL with 62 receptions, 17% ahead of second-place Billy Wilson (53). Pihos also led the league in receiving yards, 864. That may not sound like much to modern fans, but in a 12-game season with 1950s rules — about pass blocking, chucking receivers, and protecting (or not protecting) the passer — it was an impressive total. He retired after the season, at age 32, but it might not have been soon enough. Pihos died in 2002 of conditions related to Alzheimer's disease. That's a few years before it became common to examine athletes' brains for CTE, but it wouldn't surprise anyone if Pihos' football career contributed to his illness.

Runners-Up

Don Hutson, 1945 — Led the NFL in receptions for the fifth consecutive year. He also rushed for a touchdown and intercepted four passes.

Sterling Sharpe, 1994 — 94 receptions for 1,119 yards and a league-leading 18 TD receptions. A serious neck injury ended his career at age 29.

Tony Gonzalez, 2013 — Caught 83 passes for 56 first downs, both totals the most of any tight end that year (except Jimmy Graham, who is not really a tight end).

Calvin Johnson, Jimmy Smith, Hugh Taylor, and Kellen Winslow all played very well in their final seasons. Johnson's 1,214 yards and 65 first downs were the most ever by a player in his final season, but Sharpe scored twice as many TDs, and the game favors passing now. Hutson was all-pro, in a different era, and Gonzalez was a tight end.

Offensive Line

This isn't entirely fair, but I'm going to pass on evaluating these positions. I'm not qualified to evaluate the older players: I didn't see them, highlights don't focus on them, and the literature about blocking specialists is pretty sparse. That means I would just be listing the guys who made Pro Bowls and all-pro teams. It wouldn't be very interesting, and I couldn't have confidence in my reports.

Defensive positions are a little better. We don't have official sack or tackle data for early players, but there's a lot more to work with than for offensive line.

Defensive Line

Greatest Final Season: Jerome Brown, 1991

Jerome Brown died in a car crash on June 25, 1992. He was 27.

Brown made the Pro Bowl in both 1990 and '91, and he was an Associated Press first-team all-pro both seasons. In 1991, he was a consensus all-pro: every major organization picked him first-team. Brown had 9 sacks, and he was an anchor, along with Reggie White, for the Eagles' exceptional defense, which allowed the fewest yards (3,549) of any team in the 16-game schedule. The '91 Eagles led the NFL in lowest rush average allowed (3.0) and lowest passer rating allowed (52.1), plus sacks and takeaways. Brown was one of three all-pros on the team, joining Clyde Simmons and Reggie White.

Runners-Up

Reggie White, 1998 — This is cheating. Reggie White unretired in 2000 and played a year with the Carolina Panthers. That was a bad idea. But in 1998, White had 16 sacks, only ½-sack off the league lead. He did retire after the season, even if it didn't stick.

Arnie Weinmeister, 1953 — Only played six seasons, but made the Hall of Fame on quality, not quantity. He was a consensus all-pro in each of his last four seasons.

Marion Campbell, 1960 — Made the Pro Bowl in 1959 and '60, but retired after the Eagles' victory in the 1960 NFL Championship Game. He went out an all-star and a champion.

Rosey Grier, Bob Lilly, Big Daddy Lipscomb, and Michael Strahan also played at a high level in their final seasons. Lipscomb, like Brown, died following a Pro Bowl season. He overdosed on heroin in May 1963.

Linebacker

Greatest Final Season: Ted Hendricks, 1983

Ted Hendricks was an unusual guy. He was tall and skinny (6'7", 220 lbs), nicknamed "The Mad Stork," and his personality was equally weird. He was a brilliant player, first-team All-Decade in both the '70s and the '80s. He was first-team all-pro with the Baltimore Colts, Green Bay Packers, Oakland Raiders, and Los Angeles Raiders.

In 1983, Hendricks had modest stats — 2 sacks, no interceptions — but he made the Pro Bowl, he was 2nd-team All-AFC, and he started every game for the team that won Super Bowl XVIII. Hendricks ended his career on a streak of 215 consecutive games.

Runners-Up

Randy Gradishar, 1983 — Three of the AFC's five Pro Bowl linebackers in 1983 were over 30: Randy Gradishar (31) and Ted Hendricks (36), both of whom retired after the season, and Jack Lambert (31), who retired the following year.

Kevin Greene, 1999 — Finally elected to the Hall of Fame last month, Greene in his final season started every game, got 12 sacks, recovered 3 fumbles, and retired as the all-time sack leader among linebackers.

Chris Borland, 2014 — His first and last season in the NFL. Borland led the 49ers in tackles, intercepted two passes, and sacked Peyton Manning — even though he began the season on the bench and only started eight games. He retired following the season due to concerns about long-term injuries.

Jack Pardee, Andy Russell, and Al Wilson also retired following good seasons.

Defensive Back

Greatest Final Season: Ken Riley, 1983

Ken Riley turned 36 about a month before the 1983 season began. It was his 15th NFL season, all with the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals lost their first three games, scoring 10 points or fewer in all three. The defense was playing well, holding all three opponents to 20 points or below, and Riley had an interception in Week 3.

In the first quarter of the fourth game, Riley intercepted Jack Thompson and ran 34 yards for a touchdown. The Bengals won by the margin of Riley's TD, 23-17. Then they lost three more in a row, dropping to 1-6.

Riley got his second INT TD of the season the following week, and Cincinnati won, 28-21. He got another interception the following week, and the Bengals won. Another INT the week after that, his third week in a row, and the Bengals' third victory in a row. Cincinnati finished the season 7-9, and Riley had 8 INTs and 2 TDs. He was named first-team all-pro by the Associated Press, Sporting News, and Pro Football Writers of America. He may have been even better the year before, when in a strike-shortened 9-game season, he intercepted 5 passes, returned for 88 yards and a touchdown.

Runners-Up

Spec Sanders, 1950 — A record-setting single-wing tailback for the AAFC's New York Yankees, Sanders only played one season in the NFL. He intercepted 13 passes (in a 12-game season), was named all-pro, and then retired because of knee problems.

Kenny Easley, 1987 — Severe kidney disease forced his retirement after the season, and he only played 12 games, but he intercepted 4 passes and made the Pro Bowl.

Billy Thompson, 1981 — Unlike Sanders and Easley, he retired due to age, not injury. Thompson was 35, a 13-year veteran, but he was still a force for the Broncos' Orange Crush defense. He played every game, intercepted 4 passes, and made the Pro Bowl.

Jim David, Cliff Harris, Jake Scott, and Charles Woodson also left the game when they were still very good players.

Special Teams

Very few players excel on special teams at the end of their careers. Rather than list mediocre performances, we'll skip this category.

Best Final Seasons

QB: Norm Van Brocklin, 1960
RB: Jim Brown, 1965
WR: Pete Pihos, 1955
DL: Jerome Brown, 1991
LB: Ted Hendricks, 1983
DB: Ken Riley, 1983

Peyton Manning, Calvin Johnson, and Charles Woodson all missed the cut, though Johnson and Woodson do merit mention. It's extremely rare for players to leave the game at or near their peaks, which makes players like Woodson even more special.

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