Tuesday, May 16, 2017

NFL All-Loser Team: 2002-16

By Brad Oremland

At the end of each NFL regular season, I name an All-Loser Team. It's an all-star team comprised entirely of players whose teams missed the playoffs. I publish the list each year to give some recognition to great players on average-to-bad teams, to refute the notion that individual skill is best measured by team success, and — mostly — because it's fun.

I've been publishing the All-Loser Team for 15 years now, every season since the league expanded to 32 teams and realigned from six divisions to eight. Fifteen years is a career, even for very good players. So at a point on the NFL calendar when not much else is happening, let's look back over the past 15 seasons and see which players have been All-Loser most frequently. These are the best players on the worst teams, from 2002-16.

Quarterback: Drew Brees
Runner-up: Tony Romo

I think these are pretty obvious choices. That's good: it shows that this list makes sense. Brees has played 16 seasons now, and his team has made the playoffs six times. Brees has been my All-Loser QB a remarkable seven times: 2005 (with the Chargers), 2007-08, 2012, and 2014-16. Even excluding his San Diego years, Brees' Saints teams have made the playoffs only five times in 11 seasons, but I don't think anyone doubts that he's been a great QB. According to my All-Loser selections, he was the best non-playoff QB every time the Saints missed the playoffs. The only year that's close is 2012, the year of the bounty scandal, when Brees had good statistics but seemed like he was playing for stats more than wins.

Tony Romo was my All-Loser QB in 2011 and '13. He was sort of a perpetual runner-up, and apart from Brees, he and Trent Green are the only quarterbacks with more than one All-Loser selection.

Running Back: LaDainian Tomlinson
Runner-up: Arian Foster

It's easy to forget how bad the Chargers were early in Tomlinson's career. They traded out of the first overall draft pick the year he joined the team, and two years later did essentially the same thing, setting up other teams to get Michael Vick and Eli Manning. In 2003, Tomlinson rushed for 1,645 yards (with a 5.26 average), scored 17 touchdowns, and caught 100 passes — for a 4-12 team. It is my contention that without L.T., the Chargers would not have won a game that season. Tomlinson gained over 200 yards from scrimmage in each of the four wins, scoring multiple TDs in three of them.

Foster and Tomlinson are the only RBs to make more than one All-Loser Team, and certainly Foster had a couple of heroic seasons for the Texans before they got good. But I'd like to put in an emergency override for Frank Gore and Steven Jackson, very good RBs who spent most of their careers on truly awful teams. They didn't get a lot of All-Loser selections because it only goes to the very best RB outside the playoffs, while Gore and Jackson are distinguished more by their consistency, by always being in the top 10, than by being the very best. But careers like that, players like that, are why I make these lists. It wasn't Frank Gore's fault that the 49ers only had Jim Harbaugh for four of his 10 seasons.

Wide Receivers: Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, Brandon Marshall
Runners-up: Odell Beckham, Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Smith

Calvin Johnson, the leader with four All-Loser selections, is pretty obvious. Andre Johnson's best years came in the pre-J.J. Watt era, when the Texans routinely went 6-10. Brandon Marshall has moved around: he was All-Loser in 2007 with the Broncos, in 2012 with the Bears, and in 2015 with the Jets. I don't think anyone would accuse Marshall of being the reason those teams fell short of the postseason.

Fitzgerald and Smith are pretty easy choices, as well, stuck on the Cardinals and Panthers, respectively, when both teams were struggling. Beckham is new to such lists, of course, but the Giants have yet to win a playoff game since he joined the team.

Tight End: Jason Witten
Runner-up: Tony Gonzalez

Witten is the only player at any position to be All-Loser four years in a row (2010-13). He was the Cowboys' most consistent player during a period when they kept missing the playoffs by a game, or even just a tiebreaker. The Chiefs were a perennial playoff bubble team when Gonzalez was the best tight end in the NFL.

Center: Nick Mangold
Runner-up: Olin Kreutz

Mangold is all alone here, a four-time All-Loser center. The other great centers of this generation either reached their peak before 2002 (Kevin Mawae, Kreutz) or made the playoffs every year (Jeff Saturday). Mangold was one of the top three or so centers in the NFL for a decade, and apart from the 2009-10 seasons, the Jets didn't make a lot of noise in the postseason.

Kreutz is a blast from the past, my All-Loser center in 2002 and '03, and the offensive heart of the Bears when they lived or died with defense.

Guards: Alan Faneca, Brian Waters
Runners-up: Andy Levitre, Marshal Yanda

Faneca was a nine-time Pro Bowler, six-time Associated Press first-team all-pro. So even though he played on pretty good teams, mostly with the Steelers and later the Jets, he was also a three-time All-Loser. Faneca will make the Hall of Fame some day, and Waters probably won't. He was the Chiefs' left guard, mostly playing across from Hall of Fame right guard Will Shields; they were both great. Shields was better, but the attention paid to him has caused Waters to be underrated.

I like Andy Levitre better than just about anybody else does, but everyone acknowledges that he's been a good player — mostly with the Bills, who haven't made the playoffs since the '90s. Yanda is the best guard in the game today, but his peak coincides with the retirements of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, and the decline of Baltimore's great defense.

Offensive Tackles: Joe Thomas, Jason Peters
Runners-up: Willie Roaf, Michael Roos

Joe Thomas is the obvious one, a 10-time Pro Bowler who's never made the playoffs. He's made four All-Loser teams, tied with Mangold for the most of any offensive lineman. Peters, Roaf, and Roos have made three each. Roaf is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Peters will probably join him eventually, but seeing Roos in this group may surprise some people. He only had about four good seasons, but they were very good seasons, and the Titans missed the playoffs for the last three, struggling to replace Steve McNair after Vince Young flamed out and Kerry Collins got old. Roos was a fine pass protector and a key run blocker for Chris Johnson.

Defensive Tackles: Calais Campbell, Aaron Donald
Runners-up: Ndamukong Suh, Pat Williams

Calais Campbell is a 3-4 defensive end, who can play inside or outside. I've named him All-Loser three times, twice as a defensive tackle and once as a DE. He fits just as well at either position. Campbell just might be the most underrated great player of this era. He eats blocks to free up teammates, and he makes plays behind the line of scrimmage. Donald is a three-time All-Loser DT after only three seasons, with probably a lot more to come. The Rams aren't getting any better, and Donald still is.

Suh almost single-handedly turned the Lions from one of the worst defenses in history into a unit that was pretty close to average. Detroit ranked worst in the league in yards allowed and points allowed for three seasons in a row (2007-09), an unprecedented run of futility. In 2010, Suh's rookie season, he became the first DT with double-digit sacks since Warren Sapp, and the Lions ranked 21st in yards allowed and 19th in points allowed — almost average. Williams made three straight All-Loser teams after joining the Vikings in '05.

Defensive Ends: Jason Taylor, Jared Allen
Runners-up: Julius Peppers, J.J. Watt

This is basically a "Who's Who" of the best defensive ends in the last 15 years. They've made the playoffs, they've missed the playoffs, but they're always among the best DEs in the league.

Outside Linebackers: Lavonte David, Lance Briggs
Runners-up: Derrick Brooks, Keith Bulluck

There's a growing trend away from traditional position assignments, drawing a distinction between pass-rushing linebackers and space players. All four players listed at this position are space players, traditional linebackers who don't rush the passer except on blitzes.

Since 2011, the All-Loser roster has 11 spots on defense: a unit designed to take the field. By coincidence more than design, most of those teams used a 4-3 alignment, which favors space players at the expense of pass rushers. Having said that, I don't think anyone would argue against Briggs or Brooks, widely recognized among the greatest linebackers of this era. Bulluck was the next level down, a very good LB but not a Hall of Famer.

David sneaks under the radar in Tampa. Here are the top 10 tacklers in the NFL, 2012-16:

1. Paul Posluszny, 475
2. Lavonte David, 471
3. Luke Kuechly, 453
4. Bobby Wagner, 410
5. Jerrell Freeman, 408
6. Lawrence Timmons, 406
7. Karlos Dansby, 393
8. Thomas Davis, 380
9. D'Qwell Jackson, 375
10. Derrick Johnson, 374

Obviously that's a nice basis to build upon, but David also separates himself as a big-play linebacker. Among those 10, he ranks 2nd in sacks (½-sack behind Timmons), 1st in forced fumbles, 2nd in fumble recoveries, 2nd in interceptions, and 3rd in touchdowns. Statistically, he's been the best linebacker in the NFL over the last five seasons. He's made four All-Loser teams.

Inside Linebackers: Zach Thomas, London Fletcher
Runners-up: Brian Urlacher, Patrick Willis

I named Zach Thomas All-Loser in 2002, 2003, 2005, and 2006. Jason Taylor and Thomas were the heart and soul of the Dolphins in the post-Marino Jay Fiedler era. Over the last few years, there's been some revisionist history about just how good Zach Thomas really was. He was great. His lack of momentum in Hall of Fame balloting reflects more poorly on the voters than on Thomas.

Fletcher, Thomas, and Urlacher were, along with Ray Lewis, the greatest inside linebackers of the '00s. Willis was potentially on a similar track before suffering a toe injury and retiring early.

Cornerbacks: Ronde Barber, Darrelle Revis
Runners-up: Nnamdi Asomugha, Joe Haden

Barber was the best cornerback of the '00s. Revis was the best cornerback of 2005-14. They made two All-Loser teams apiece, and it would have been more except that their teams often made the playoffs. Asomugha and Haden represent the other end of the spectrum, very good players — at least for a few years — on consistently bad teams.

Safeties: Brock Marion, Eric Weddle
Runners-up: Jairus Byrd, Adrian Wilson

Marion was the third-best free safety in the NFL in the early 2000s, behind Brian Dawkins and Darren Sharper. The Eagles and Packers both made the playoffs in '02 and '03, and Miami didn't, giving Marion a pair of All-Loser spots. Weddle is a better player than Marion, closing in on a potential Hall of Fame résumé, but he's here for similar reason. Weddle and Wilson were the next-best safeties in the league when Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu were in their primes, but those two made enough postseason appearances that Weddle and Wilson surpass them on the All-Loser honor roll.

Byrd intercepted 9 passes in 2009. In 2012, he had 5 interceptions, 4 forced fumbles, and 2 fumble recoveries. He might not be a truly great player, but he's had a couple of very strong seasons.

Kicker: Sebastian Janikowski
Runner-up: Phil Dawson

Janikowski, a lifelong Raider, and Dawson, playing mostly for the Browns, were excellent kickers whose recognition was limited by their lack of postseason appearances. Adam Vinatieri is a legend for what he's done in January and February, but Janikowski and Dawson never got an opportunity to match his feats. It's for players like this that the All-Loser team exists.

Punter: Dustin Colquitt
Runner-up: Johnny Hekker

Unconscionably underrated, Colquitt belongs in any conversation about the greatest punters of all time. He is always among the best punters in the league, and when the Chiefs miss the playoffs, he has a good chance to be the best punter out of work in January. Hekker, a terrific talent stuck on the Rams, is poised to surpass Colquitt's All-Loser count in the near future.

Return Specialist: Cordarrelle Patterson
Runner-up: Joshua Cribbs

Devin Hester, Dante Hall, Cribbs, and Leon Washington all have more distinguished returning résumés than Patterson, who is still very early in his career. But apart from Cribbs, they mostly made the playoffs in their best seasons.

Patterson was first-team all-pro in 2013. He led the NFL in kickoff return average (32.4) and touchdowns (2), ranking 2nd in yardage. In 2016, he ranked 2nd in yardage, 1st in average (31.7), tied for 1st in touchdowns, and he had the longest kickoff return of the season, a 104-yard TD against the Cardinals.

Most All-Loser Selections

QB: Drew Brees, 7
RB: LaDainian Tomlinson, 2
FB: Tony Richardson, 3
WR: Calvin Johnson, 4
TE: Jason Witten, 4
C: Nick Mangold, 4
G: four-way tie, 3
OT: Joe Thomas, 4

DT: four-way tie, 3
DE: Jason Taylor, 4
OLB: Lavonte David, 4
ILB: Zach Thomas, 4
CB: six-way tie, 2
S: three-way tie, 2

K: four-way tie, 2
P: three-way tie, 2
KR: Cordarrelle Patterson, 2

Brees is worlds ahead of any other Loser. Megatron, Witten, Mangold, Joe Thomas, Zach Thomas, Jason Taylor, and Lavonte David round out the top eight, the only other players with at least four All-Loser selections.

It's fun to imagine a team comprised of these players. Consider if, from 2002-16, you had a roster including Brees, Romo, Tomlinson, Arian Foster, and so on, filling in the gaps with average-to-replacement-level players when someone's unavailable due to injury, retirement, or not being in the league yet.

During the heart of the 15-year period, roughly 2007-11, you'd have an incredible team: Brees, protected by a brilliant line, passing to Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, Brandon Marshall, and Jason Witten, with Tomlinson or Foster in the backfield (you'd switch over in 2010). Defensively, you've got Jared Allen and Julius Peppers — you can't double-team them both, especially with Pat Williams in the middle — with London Fletcher and Patrick Willis behind them to clean up. The opponent's top receiver is stranded on Revis Island, Eric Weddle's running around making plays, and the special teams really are special.

If it could actually be assembled, this team of Losers would win a lot of championships.

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