Over the years you get used to associating one player with a team, especially if they’ve spent most of their decorated career there. The memories of championships, broken records, and even the hardships that came with it. Their legacies became cemented because of their dedication to that one team. Father time, however, catches up to everyone, and NFL legends aren’t exempt. Some icons end on a high note and stay with their one team, a la Ray Lewis, but many aren’t afforded that luxury. Be it their team decides to rebuild around a new generational talent, budget cuts, or sad, sharp decline, many legends have made some awkward, weird, and outright forgettable pitstops before their final destination in Canton. The kind of moves that are only remembered by booting up a retro Madden on the PS2 and saying “huh, that’s weird.” Here are the Bizarro World NFL legends.
Both Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas had eerily similar unceremonious ends to their glittering careers. Both were subjected to trade talks after their final year for their respective teams. Broadway Joe threw for just 1,090 yards, 4 TDs, and 16 interceptions for the Jets while The Golden Arm threw for 1,111 yards, 4 TDs, and 6 interceptions for the Colts. Unitas encountered Namath for the final time in his last season with Baltimore in 1972 and their fabled last showdown was as advertised. Unitas threw 376 yards and three touchdowns while the younger Namath, who idolized Johnny, sat him down with 496 yards and six touchdowns.
Unitas would be benched later on in the year but gave the fans one last show in a blowout win vs the Bills, where he came off the bench to haul a long TD pass to Eddie Hinton. Unitas would get his trade to the Chargers in 1973 while Namath would be waived and claimed by the Rams in 1977. Both were shells of their former glorious selves and would find themselves benched after 4–5 games after struggling with injuries and interceptions. Unitas’s benching would give rise to a new Hall of Fame career. Dan Fouts.
One of the few Bizzaro World legends that seemed inevitable given the circumstances. Joe Montana had the world at his fingertips. He was Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year in 1990. He won four Super Bowls and had a concrete legacy. He quelled any QB controversy between him and Steve Young, who shined in 1987. Everything changed when he took a devastating sack from Giants defensive end Leonard Marshall in the 1990 NFC Championship game. From then on, it was Steve Young’s show. Montana would miss the next two seasons due to injury (he would make one relief appearance in the final game in 1992). The QB controversy was back and this time, Montana wouldn’t win.
He was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs. Montana’s mere presence in KC influenced many to ply their trade for the Chiefs, one of whom was future Hall of Famer RB Marcus Allen. The West Coast offense was retooled for the Chiefs thanks to GM Carl Peterson, and with that, they were ready for a playoff run. Montana would assume his “Comeback Kid” persona and led the Chiefs to two come from behind playoff wins. However, they were stumped by the Bills in the AFC Championship game, in which Montana got hurt.
1993 would be similar to 92. Montana would miss two games but would lead the Chiefs to a 9–7 record and a Wild Card date with Dan Marino and the Dolphins. During that regular season, he returned to San Francisco and dueled it out with his former back up Steve Young. The master would come out on top and would outgun John Elway in a classic matchup vs the Broncos. However, there was to be no playoff success as they were halted by Dan Marino and company. Montana retired soon after, but I bet he felt pretty good knowing he beat Steve Young once and for all.
Some stars get to end their career with a bang, others end with a whimper. Some are forced to retire, others are given the freedom of choice. Jerry Rice’s retirement was both the latter. Both the Joe Montana and Steve Young era was over. Steve Young suffered a career-ending concussion in 1999 after leading the team to a 3–1 record to start the year. The 9'ers would roll over to a 4–12 record without Young and would miss the playoffs for the first time since 91. The team was set to rebuild around an emerging Terrell Owens and Jeff Garcia. That meant letting the veteran Rice leave San Francisco in 2000, the last of the old guard. He would go on to form one of the oldest wide receiver tandems with Raiders legend and future Hall of Famer Tim Brown. Rice was 38 years old and Brown was 35. But like a fine wine, Rice showed how valuable he was in his supposed ancient age.
He would go to post two 1000 yard seasons in 2001 and 2002 (where they lost to the Jon Gruden led Buccaneers in Super Bown XXXVII) and but things tapered off in 2003, which would lead to his trade to the Seahawks halfway through the 2004 season. Tampering off for a split second, Tim Brown would go on to spend an awkward year in Tampa Bay with Gruden before retiring. Fun fact: because Rice was traded before Oakland’s bye week and after Seattle’s, he ended up playing 17 games in a 16 game season. At 41 years old. Insanity. After a meh year in Seattle, things were slowing down. The Broncos expressed interest in a one year deal but after learning that Mike Shanahan had Rice near the bottom of the depth chart during the preseason, he decided enough was enough. He would rather retire than be a bit-part player. Powermove. Additional fun fact: Rice is the oldest player in Madden 06 at 42 years old.
All legends deserve a final farewell, especially if they’re going back to face their former team. Emmitt Smith never got that. After the Cowboys hired Bill Parcells at the conclusion of the 2002 season, Smith was given the boot and hit the open market. Parcells would go on to “replace” Smith with second-rounder Julius Jones in 2004. Famously, Parcells passed up on Rams legend Steven Jackson in the first round because of a knee injury he suffered at Oregon State so they traded their pick with the Bills. Back on topic, Smith signed a two-year contract with the Cardinals. 34-year-old running backs usually aren’t given a workhorse payload but exemptions are made for Canton bound running backs (and even that isn’t guaranteed).
The Cardinals had high hopes for Smith both as a rusher and as a marketing figure. Smith would have a date with his former team but the happy reunion took a sour turn. He would suffer a broken left shoulder blade after being mauled by Pro Bowl safety Roy Williams. His stat line for that game was 6 carries for -1 yards, the only time he finished with negative yards. Smith was distraught and broke down in tears during the postgame press conference, his farewell tarnished. He would have a healthy final year in 2004 but posted an average stat line (for his standards of course) of 937 rushing yards and 9 touchdowns.
As a Packers fan, it hurts to type this. Brett Favre is the quintessential Bizarro World legend. The man that just couldn’t stay away. 2008 was a strange year. Brett Favre formally announced his retirement and officially handed the car keys to a young Aaron Rodgers. But he wasn’t finished yet, and the world knew that. The Packers, however, moved on. Essentially forced into early retirement, Favre gave a heartfelt speech that included this statement:
“I know I can play, but I don’t think I want to. And that’s really what it comes down to.”
These were the words of an emotional man who still had something to prove. Just a few months later, he would file for his reinstatement and ask for his release but the Packers were not having it. Rodgers was the guy now. Favre was fine with the Packers moving on, but he wanted the same thing. After weeks of back and forth bickering between Favre, GM Ted Thompson, and head coach Mike McCarthy, Brett finally got his wish in the form of a trade to the New York Jets.
The Jets were far from the Super Bowl contenders Farve had hoped to join. They had gone 4–12 in 2007 thanks to inconsistent play from both QB’s Chad Pennington and Kellen Clemens. However, the Jets had some interesting building blocks. RB Thomas Jones proved to be a stellar successor to Curtis Martin, WR Jerricho Cotchery was coming off a 1000 yard season, the offensive line looked solid with Nick Mangold and D’Brickashaw Ferguson (all-time football name), and the defense had a young and emerging Darrelle Revis. Farve wouldn’t be the only high profile acquisition. Future Hall of Famer CB Ty Law would partner with Revis. The Jets started hot, with Farve torching the Cardinals for 6 TDs in Week 4, but they utterly collapsed at the end, winning only one game out of the last five. This includes the Chad Pennington led Dolphins in Week 17. An overall regrettable comeback. Favre called it quits, again. Or so we thought.
What happened next was a hellish nightmare that Packer fans did not want to experience. Brett Favre was a Minnesota Viking. The Vikings were the contender Brett wanted from the beginning. They won the North that year with Gus Frerotte as their QB, that showed how strong their core was. Having a prime Adrian Peterson helps. Favre would go on to have one of the best single seasons in Vikings history while also claiming multiple records. Consecutive starts at one position, Dan Marino’s record for four-touchdown games, being named to his 11th Pro Bowl, and beating all 32 NFL teams. This includes a victorious date with his old Packers at Lambeau, one that was showered with boos. The Vikings would improve from their 2008 record of 9–7 to 12–4 and advance to the 2009 NFC Championship game vs the Saints. Sadly, we all know how this one ended in the game infamously known as “The Bountygate Game.”
His second year as a Viking would be anti-climatic. He threw for his 500th touchdown and 70,000th yard against his former Jets but suffered a sprained AC joint vs the Bills later on. A couple of weeks later, he would suffer a concussion vs the Bears that would end his career. The concussion made Farve forget he was playing the Bears. He even asked the Vikings trainer, Eric Sugarman, “Suge, what are the Bears doing here?”. Favre didn’t want to let his NFL career go but his body reminded him that he’s done. The impact he left on the Vikings will stay with him forever, whether he or Packer fans like it or not.
Quick lightning round for some lowkey Bizarro World legends.
Reggie White would come out of retirement after the 1999 season to join the Carolina Panthers. He would play the entire year and rack up five sacks and a forced fumble. He came in with no drama and got a job done. Legend.
LaDanian Tomlinson had an uneven final year with the Chargers in 2009 thanks to injuries, poor offensive line play, and age. He was released and hit the open market, looking to join a competitor. He would end up signing a two year deal with the Jets, mentioning that their philosophy was a key factor in joining. It helped that he had a familiar coach in Brian Schottenheimer as the OC. He would spend two years in a committee with Shonn Greene, making the AFC Championship in the first. L.T rushed for 1194 yards and 7 TDs for the Jets.
Steelers legend Franco Harris was hellbent on chasing Jim Brown’s rushing record. Walter Payton was in on it too, which was why Harris begged the Rooney family for a pay raise to stay. They spat at the thought, citing his age and claiming he was on the decline. Harris held out in training camp and was eventually released. He would sign with the Seattle Seahawks but the marriage was unfruitful. He only played eight games and rushed for 170 yards, leaving him 192 yards short of the legendary Brown’s record.
And that brings us to modern times. A new NFL legend has taken the Bizarro route. And it happens to be the best QB of all time, the one player we thought would never go down this route. Inseparable from Bill Belichick and the Patriots, TB12 has decided to partner with Bruce Arians and the franchise that has the lowest win rate in NFL history. Like when Favre joined the Vikings, he has plenty of weapons to choose from. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are among the best WR duos in the league and O.J Howard is a supremely talented TE. Brady began to show his age last year, posting career lows in most avenues but it didn’t help that his support cast left him out to dry. This move catapulted Tampa Bay’s odds to win the Super Bowl but there is a chance things flat line much like Joe Namath’s time in LA. The only thing that’s certain, Brady will look weird in a Tampa uniform. Unless they bring back the creamsicles.