Every athlete has a lifespan. That’s why elite players come with a curse attached because they’re almost impossible to replace. After their departure, they leave a gaping hole in the team. Many teams struggle in the following seasons because their influence was so important.
Let’s take a look at 30 sports stars whose teams found it impossible to replace. Some of them left smaller franchises for bigger markets because they wanted to win. Others retired after years of success at the top of the game. But they were all brilliant and a massive loss for their teams. Check out the list below via Clutchpoints.
30. Drew Brees
Brees led the Saints’ offense for 15 seasons with great effect. The Super Bowl winner was also a two-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year. Meanwhile, he was a part of a core group of top quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Russell Wilson, who became the faces of their franchise. Finally, he retired in 2021.
It was almost impossible to imagine another starter on the Saints after so long. But the Saints found themselves with a choice between Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill. Winston was a turnover machine when he started for Tampa Ba, and Hill’s reputation was as a gadget player, not a starter. Life after Brees wasn’t going to be a breeze.
The St. Louis Cardinals mugged the Colorado Rockies and rubbed their nose in the dirt for good measure when they traded for Arenado. The deal went down before the 2021 season and left MLB fans shaking their heads in disbelief. As well as gaining one of the best players in the league, the Cardinals also made money from the trade somehow.
That’s right, the Rockies paid the Cardinals $50 million for the privilege of losing their best player. It’s impossible to overstate how dumb this trade was. In return, Colorado received a number of no-namers. But they lost a five-time All-Star and set their franchise back for a decade. All in all, it was a very Rockies move.
2007 was a bad season for the Atlanta Falcons because everything went wrong. The main story was about Vick’s dogfighting scandal. It was impossible for him to play because he went to jail after charges of animal cruelty. This was a massive blow on the field because of Vick’s unique abilities. He was the best rushing quarterback in the business.
Joey Harrington, Byron Leftwich, and Chris Redman all took snaps as the Falcons faltered. Meanwhile, Bobby Petrino ditched the ailing franchise for Arkansas. Atlanta missed out on the playoffs after Vick left. However, they returned the following season following Matt Ryan’s arrival as their new starter.
Abdul-Jabbar is one of the two most important players in Milwaukee franchise history. The Bucks icon helped his team to their first-ever NBA Championship in 1971. He repeated the feat five more times with the L.A. Lakers. But it was the Bucks who found it impossible to replace him. Abdul Jabbar was a three-time league MVP before he departed for the West Coast.
44 years later, Giannis Antetokounmpo repeated the same feat. It took almost half a century for another player to produce such a magnificent effect for the franchise. Abdul-Jabbar was the greatest player of his generation but he wanted to move to a bigger market. Ultimately, he went to the Lakers because he wanted more money and more rings so that’s understandable.
The Houston Texans were a shambles of an NFL franchise but at least they boasted two of the most exciting talents in the NFL. It looked like Hopkins and DeShaun Watson were a match made in heaven. But then the franchise ripped them apart and traded their receiver to the Cardinals. It was one of the most bizarre trades in recent history because they received running back David Johnson and a second-round pick in return.
But it was impossible for Johnson to replicate Hopkins’ influence. Hopkins led the league in receiving touchdowns in 2017. Meanwhile, he was also a five-time Pro Bowler. The former Clemson star was a monster step above the player the Texans traded for. They also limited the ability of their franchise quarterback Watson because they removed his best weapon.
Joe Montana may be the Niner’s greatest ever quarterback but they found an elite replacement in Young. However, since the latter’s departure, it’s been much tougher to identify a franchise quarterback. In fact, it’s proven impossible for them to find another top signal-caller. Jeff Garcia had a couple of decent seasons before he fell out with Terrell Owens.
Meanwhile, Colin Kaepernick had a couple of decent seasons but he failed to sustain it. Alex Smith didn’t blossom until he moved to Kansas City. The Niners signed and drafted a whole host of garbage quarterbacks without ever finding the right one. Young was magnificent in San Francisco and his shadow still hangs over the city.
Nobody said Bosh was the Miami Heat’s best player when he was part of the Big Three. That accolade obviously went to LeBron James. However, it could be argued Bosh was the most irreplaceable because the team found it impossible to play the same way without him. When he sprained his ankle in 2011, the Heat immediately went on a losing streak.
Bosh gave Miami an inside presence no other player on their roster could replicate. He was integral to their Finals wins in 2012 and 2013 because of this. An 11-time All-Star, Bosh was arguably the Heat’s most important player of the decade. James attracted all of the attention but Bosh was also very elite and very necessary for the Floridian franchise.
Marino retired in 2000 after 17 seasons in Miami. The legendary Dolphins quarterback was one of the best at his position in the league but this made life difficult for the front office. Over the years, they tried to find another franchise QB1 but failed miserably. Chad Henne and Ryan Tannehill were the two longest-serving starters after Marino left.
However, neither of these quarterbacks produced even near to the same quality as Marino did for the Dolphins. In 1984, Marino won the NFL MVP and Offensive Player of the Year awards. He also led the league in passing yards on five occasions and was a nine-time Pro Bowler. At the end of the day, he was an elite signal-caller and there aren’t many of them out there.
Many fight fans question Rousey’s talent. They’ll point out that the level of ability in the UFC women’s bantamweight division’s early days was limited. That’s true but Rousey was a force of nature compared to her rivals. She also emerged as the company’s first true superstar, even before Conor McGregor. This was impossible to replace even after McGregor came along.
Rousey’s fighting career fizzled as she appeared in movie franchises like ‘Mission Impossible’ and ‘The Fast and the Furious.’ However, her star grew and she brought many eyes to UFC events in the progress. No female fighter has produced the same cultural effect as Rousey. Finally, she left for the WWE in a major blow for mixed martial arts.
Newton was sublime for the Carolina Panthers during his prime. The 2015 NFL MVP showed what he was all about as one of the league’s top rushing quarterbacks. However, it all went downhill for Newton after this season. This was because injuries wracked his progress and ability to make an impact on the playing field. But there’s no doubting his excellence in his prime.
The Panthers went 15-1 on their way to Super Bowl 50 before the Broncos beat them. It was almost impossible for Carolina to find an immediate replacement because of Newton’s skills. They tried Teddy Bridgewater for a season but that didn’t work out. Newton’s backups and so far, replacements, simply weren’t in the same category as him.
The Oklahoma City Thunder still talk about Durant. He helped them to the best period of their history since leaving Seattle. Durant’s role for the team was crucial as they went deep into the playoffs on multiple seasons. They even made the Finals in 2012 but lost to the Miami Heat. Finally, Durant decided that it was time for a change.
He joined the Golden State Warriors and won two rings with his new franchise. Then, he joined another superteam in 2019 when the Brooklyn Nets picked him up. However, the Thunder still look back wistfully at what could have been. It’s nearly impossible for a franchise like Oklahoma to pick up stars with the quality of Durant.
Johnson spent nine seasons in the NFL before retiring. The wide receiver only played for the Detroit Lions but wanted to go to another franchise. However, the Lions refused to sanction a trade because he was so important to their team. They thought it was impossible to find a replacement so they kept him.
In the end, it was probably the wrong move because Johnson cut ties with the franchise. If they made a trade they could have brought in a veteran or at least earned some draft picks. But the two-time NFL receiving leader was just too good. A six-time Pro Bowler, Johnson entered the Hall of Fame in 2021. The Lions still miss him.
Iniesta was one of Barcelona’s great stalwarts alongside Xavi and Lionel Messi. The diminutive attacking midfielder cut an unassuming figure on the field. He was an extremely talented individual and won everything possible in the sport. This made it extremely difficult for his club to replace him after he left for Japan.
In fact, it was impossible. Barcelona signed Coutinho from Liverpool for almost $150 million but he flopped. The Brazilian midfielder struggled to make an impact before he went out on loan. Meanwhile, Barcelona brought in more players but none of them could fill Iniesta’s shoes. Few players have been so important to a club like the Spaniard.
Luck had the unenviable task of replacing Peyton Manning. But he rose to the occasion and became one of the most talented quarterbacks in the NFL. Unfortunately, he retired in his prime after injuries took their toll on his body. He departed because he felt like it was impossible to continue. Indianapolis fans felt devastated because he was such a great player but wanted to keep his remaining brain cells.
The Colts lucked out by securing Luck after Manning left. But they have struggled to find a long-term successor since his retirement. The likes of Jacoby Brisset and Philip Rivers started for a short while before they brought in Carson Wentz. Great quarterbacks are few and far between, but Luck was definitely one of them.
The Houston Rockets molded their team around Harden. That’s why it was such a massive blow when he forced an exit to join the Brooklyn Nets. It wasn’t the first time that he bullied his way out of a franchise as he did the same with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Harden was brilliant for the Rockets and won the NBA MVP award in 2018.
However, the Nets changed everything when they started building a super team. Harden became disillusioned because he wanted to win and make a bucket of cash at the same time. The Rockets realized that it was impossible to keep him without upsetting their roster and finally made the trade. Their loss was Brooklyn’s gain.
‘Beast Mode’ was a marauding presence at his best. The former Seahawks running back wasn’t amazing for the Bills. But when he left Buffalo and moved to Seattle, NFL fans saw his true talent. He was a colossus when he set off with the ball. Lynch’s ‘Beast Quake’ against the New Orleans Saints was one of the greatest touchdowns in NFL playoff history.
Lynch retired in 2015 but returned in 2017. This was because he felt like he had more to give and the Seahawks missed him. It’s impossible to easily find a replacement for an athlete as ferocious as Lynch. He led the league in touchdowns for two seasons and was also a Super Bowl champion. What a player Lynch was in his prime and the Seahawks just haven’t been as good without him.
Davis joined the L.A. Lakers in 2018 after he gave the Pelicans seven years of service. He joined Lebron James and Co. off the back of an NBA MVP season. That should say everything about how difficult it was for the Pelicans to adequately fill the Davis-sized hole in their roster. They traded for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Josh Hart but none of these stars was as good as Davis.
AD wanted to win championships and didn’t think that he could do that in New Orleans. The ends justified the means because he finally earned a championship ring in 2020. Meanwhile, the Pelicans became one of the league’s most interesting young teams after drafting Zion Williamson. But they were still a long way from being contenders.
It can’t be overstated just how good Kelly was for the Bills. They made an unprecedented four successive Super Bowl appearances in the nineties with Kelly as their starting QB. However, they failed to win any of them. Despite this, Kelly is one of the franchise’s greatest ever players and they struggled to find a quarterback with the same quality over the next three decades.
In fact, it seemed impossible. The Bills went through a stream of 20 signal-callers before Josh Allen finally broke out in 2020. Drew Bledsoe deserves a mention because he played some decent football in Buffalo but they went a long time without a franchise talent. Even a number one draft pick doesn’t guarantee long-term success.
How do you replace the irreplaceable? The Cleveland Cavaliers discovered it was impossible. After James made ‘the Decision’ and departed for Miami, Cleveland was in despair. He came back after winning a pair of rings and guided his hometown to their first championship. However, he left again, after two more Finals appearances.
Since James’s second departure, Cleveland fell off the tracks. They failed to even make the postseason while LeBron won another ring with the Lakers. His impact on the franchise was immense because he is one of the greatest players of all time. When a player of that influence departs, it’s always going to take time for a team to rebound.
It’s very difficult to replace a great quarterback as Washington discovered after Theismann’s early retirement. He didn’t become the team’s starter until he was almost 30 but it took a broken leg to make him relinquish the starting shirt. Theismann played above his numbers and there’s no overstating his impact on his teammates.
However, Washington found it impossible to find a suitable replacement. They have a terrible history of drafting quarterbacks with a pile of failed picks like Dwayne Haskins. Even their veterans haven’t blossomed with Donavon McNabb and Tim Hasselbeck. Alex Smith and Robert Griffin showed promise but suffered career-changing injuries.
Carragher spent 17 seasons with Liverpool. A tough, no-nonsense defender, he captained his side on multiple occasions and was a hometown hero. Finally, he retired in 2013 after a great career. However, it was impossible for Liverpool to find an exact replacement. Carragher hailed from the city and had outstanding leadership qualities.
The Merseysiders were defensively fragile over the next few seasons because they lacked a strong figure to organize them. Finally, in 2018, five years after Carragher’s retirement, they brought in Virgil Van Dijk. It took half a decade for the club to adequately replace its icon. But they had to spend a world-record fee to do so. Carragher came through their academy for free.
The Dallas Cowboys had delusional high hopes before the 2020 season. They knew that their hopes depended on their star quarterback delivering the goods. However, Prescott suffered a dislocated ankle after just five games. This ended his season and everything went downhill for the Cowboys. They tried to replace him but it was impossible.
Veteran QB Andy Dalton came in as a starter but was shaky. Then, to make matters worse, he went down with an injury too. His concussion meant that third-stringer Ben DiNucci came in. It was a disaster of a season because of Prescott’s absence. Dallas showed how much he meant to them by placing the franchise tag on him when he returned for 2021.
The New Orleans Hornets knew that it was impossible to replace Chris Paul. They were also aware of the risk of him walking away for nothing. That’s why they tried to trade him to the Lakers but the NBA quashed that attempt. Paul found himself in Los Angeles but with the Clippers. The Hornets suffered a miserable malaise after his departure.
Paul went to the playoffs six times with the Hornets but they missed out after he left. Then, they rebranded as the Pelicans while Paul became one of the NBA’s most ruthless players. He was an 11-time All-Star and made the NBA Finals with the Phoenix Suns. On the other hand, the Pelicans wallowed in mediocrity.
Bale was magnificent in 2012-13 for Tottenham Hotspurs. He developed into one of the most exciting forwards in Europe and inspired them on an exciting Champion’s League run. Then, Real Madrid swooped and made him the most expensive player on the planet. The Spurs banked over $100 million but wasted most of it.
The team signed seven players that summer because Spurs realized that it was impossible to buy one replacement. However, only Christian Eriksen was an unequivocal success. The likes of Roberto Soldado and Paulinho disappointed the fans because they arrived with big reputations. Meanwhile, Bale won four Champion’s League titles in Madrid.
‘The Worm’ was magnificent for the Detroit Pistons. While he was an extremely eccentric personality and volatile with his other franchises, he was indispensable in Detroit. Rodman built a reputation as one of the best defensive players in the NBA. The five-time champion was also a two-time Defensive Player of the Year.
Meanwhile, he led the league in rebounds for a stunning seven successive years. When he left Detroit for the San Antonio Spurs in 1993, he made it impossible for them to replace him. Rodman became a parody of himself after he retired. But there is no questioning his brilliance as an NBA athlete. In the end, that’s what counts.
Manning was better for the Colts than he was for the Broncos. But the Denver Broncos arguably missed him more when he finally departed. They have found it impossible to replace him properly and brought in some terrible quarterbacks in the process. The likes of Paxton Lynch and Trevor Sieman were never even in the same hemisphere of quality.
Joe Flacco and Case Keenum were starters in Denver but found themselves on the bench with other franchises. In 2019, they settled on Drew Lock but time will tell how that works out. A franchise quarterback is the most coveted prize in the draft but very difficult to secure. Maybe one day they’ll find a replacement for Manning.
It’s fair to say that Garnett was the most indispensable athlete in the history of Minnesota sports. Yes, even above the likes of Randy Moss. Garnett left on bad terms but it was impossible for the Timberwolves to replace him. He was their only truly elite talent and that’s why they retired his jersey number despite everything.
The Wolves went to eight straight playoffs with Garnett on their roster but suffered a decline without him. Yes, the team struggled during his last couple of seasons but they couldn’t replace him when he went to the Nets. The Hall of Famer forged his qualities in Minnesota and left them in a state of misery when he blossomed in New Jersey.
It’s impossible to replace the greatest soccer player on the planet. After Messi left Barcelona in 2021, the club found itself facing this eventuality. The Argentine superstar was a six-time World Player of the Year and won four Champion’s League titles with the club. However, they finally parted ways after the club fell into financial turmoil.
Barcelona was unable to register all of its players because they couldn’t meet the Spanish League’s spending regulations. This left them facing the inevitability of losing a star. Then, Paris Saint-Germain offered to take him to France and they reluctantly allowed him to leave. It was a shame because he spent his entire career at the Nou Camp up to that point.
After 20 seasons, Brady finally departed Foxborough in 2020. The legendary quarterback joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but left a gaping hole in the Pats’ offense. Bill Belichick decided to bring in Cam Newton as a short-term fix. However, the former NFL MVP had a mixed season and the Patriots missed the playoffs.
Meanwhile, Brady won an unprecedented seventh Super Bowl with Tampa. Incredibly, they also became the first franchise to win the coveted prize in their own stadium. New England found it impossible to play the same way without their icon. They drafted Mac Jones at the end of the season but he’s not Brady.
Jordan was the face of the Chicago Bulls for a decade. It’s no accident that they fell apart after he left for Washington. The legendary NBA icon won six championships during his time in the Windy City. He had an amazing career and changed what it means to be a sports superstar. But when he left, the Bulls went into a severe decline.
They were never going to replace Jordan because he was a generational talent. However, their front office mismanaged the franchise for almost two decades. The team became a ghost of itself and never looked like a contender. They could have prepared for life without Jordan and Scottie Pippen but they didn’t plan for the future.