NFL

Never Give Up: NFL Stars Who Were Written Off and Stormed Back

Darren - January 17, 2023
NFL

Never Give Up: NFL Stars Who Were Written Off and Stormed Back

Darren - January 17, 2023

CBS Sports

Geno Smith

Everybody said that the Seahawks’ season was over before it began in 2022. That’s because they traded star quarterback Russell Wilson to the Broncos. Suddenly, they had one of the weakest QB rooms in the NFL, at least on paper. Most people thought that they’d tank with Drew Lock or Smith under center.

Marca

Nobody counted on Smith enjoying an incredible renaissance. The former Jets first-round pick was a model of consistency throughout the year. He threw more touchdown passes than either Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. Smith also had the highest completion rate of the regular season. Meanwhile, Wilson flopped in Denver as they had a terrible season and fired their coach (via The Guardian).

Cards Wire

Tom Tupa

Tupa had a wacky career compared to many other players on this list. He started life as a quarterback but failed to convince teams that he was good enough for the NFL. The Ohio State product was a starter for the Cardinals before he became a Colts backup (via NESN).

New York Jets

But then he made the transition to the punter and that’s when his career took off. He made a Super Bowl appearance with the Patriots but they lost this clash. However, he finally won a ring with the Buccaneers and played a key role on the road to victory. It’s amazing how he stormed back from initial setbacks and carved out a niche.

Fox News

Teddy Bridgewater

It’s fair to say that Bridgewater hasn’t had the elite career that many people expected. But the quarterback deserves credit for maintaining his place in the NFL after he overcame a ton of adversity. He had a decent first two seasons with the Vikings, including a Pro Bowl appearance (via Clutchpoints).

Yardbreaker

But then he tore his ACL during a no-contact play and missed the entire 2016 season. Many people doubted that he’d ever play again as the severity of his injury came to light. He sustained a lot of damage. But Bridgewater stormed back and continues to feature on NFL rosters.

AP

Brett Favre

Favre flirted with retirement multiple times during his time in Green Bay. In the end, he forced the Packers’ hand as they opted to go with Aaron Rodgers as their starter. This infuriated Favre who demanded an exit and they traded him to the Jets. He stormed back into the NFL in a state of rage and even informed on the Packers’ playbook.

CBS Sports

Nobody will say his time in New York was a success. He did throw six touchdowns in one game but there were more lowlights. These included a notorious sexual harassment case but he escaped without charges. Later, he played for the Vikings, the second franchise after his comeback (via The Daily Beast).

New York Times

J.J. Watt

Watt is one of the best defensive players in history and a dedicated competitor. However, his willingness to put his body on the line means that he has a very long injury list. In 2018, he suffered one of the worst of his career. He tore his meniscus and fractured his leg while facing potential retirement (via Fox News).

Arizona Sports

The former Defensive Player of the Year refused to bow down and put in the rehab work. He spent another four seasons in the NFL with the Texans and the Cardinals with Pro Bowl appearances. Finally, he retired in 2022 after his body began to fail him. But he lasted longer than anybody expected after he stormed back to health.

Bleacher Report

Jamal Lewis

Most NFL franchises cut ties with players after they receive a serious criminal conviction and jail time. But the Ravens made the unusual choice to keep Lewis on their roster after his drug-dealing scandal. But that’s because he was one of the most exciting players of his generation and they didn’t want anybody to have him.

MSE

Remember, he had a ridiculous 2,000-yard season including a record-breaking 295-yard game. The running back won the 2003 Offensive Player of the Year award for his stunning production. He went to jail for four months in 2005 but returned to play four more seasons in the NFL (via Pro Football History).

Forbes

Tom Brady (2020)

Brady moved to Tampa Bay after spending 20 years with the Patriots. It was an emotional decision for the veteran quarterback but the right one. However, it didn’t seem like he made a good call after a rough start to the season. Brady struggled to adapt to a new playbook and a new system (via CBS Sports).

Detroit Free Press

But he stormed back and reestablished his close relationship with Rob Gronkowski. Tampa Bay marched its way to the Super Bowl against the Chiefs. Many people thought Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City would be too strong for the Bucs. In the end, Tampa destroyed them and became the first team to win the Lombardi in their home stadium.

ESPN

Rocky Bleier

Nobody on this list has a story like Bleier’s. The Steelers drafted the halfback in 1968 but then he found himself in Vietnam the following year. But the talented sports star didn’t enjoy a cushy posting. His platoon came under heavy fire from the Viet Cong. They shot him and a grenade exploded beside his foot.

The Post-Crescent

Few people win a Purple Heart and four Super Bowls, but Bleier achieved that. Surgeons extracted over 100 pieces of shrapnel from his foot. There were doubts over his ability to walk again. But he stormed back to health and had an amazing career with the Steelers (via Bleacher Report).

Yardbreaker

Steve Young

Young’s career began in strange circumstances as he played for the L.A. Express of the USFL. After he left them he joined the NFL’s Tampa Bay but failed to impress. He had a single season as a regular starter but nobody predicted that he was a future Hall of Famer. Eventually, he wound up in San Francisco as Joe Montana’s backup (via UPI).

San Francisco Chronicle

One quarterback’s injury is another’s opportunity and this proved to be the case for Young. Montana had a brutal elbow injury and didn’t play in 1991. Suddenly, Young exploded into life and proved his incredible talent. In the end, San Francisco allowed Montana to leave because Young was too good to sit on the bench.

ESPN

Alex Smith

Fans and experts wrote Smith off a couple of times in his career. We’ll talk about his terrible leg break later but let’s start with his rough time in San Francisco. The Niners made him the first overall pick in 2005 and he arrived with big expectations. But four offensive coordinators in as many years didn’t help him settle into any one gameplan.

Bleacher Report

Many people labeled him as a bust and said the 49ers should move on. In the end, he settled and stuck around for eight seasons but left with a complicated legacy. Overall, Smith proved himself as a decent NFL QB with the Chiefs. He led them into the playoffs four times as their starter and proved the Niners wrong (via Fansided).

Chicago Tribune

Tank Johnson

Many NFL stars come from tough environments and difficult backgrounds. Their athletic prowess helps them to win college scholarships and attract the attention of NFL scouts. But this doesn’t mean that they’re mentally prepared for the pressures of professional football. Some of them also struggle to shake off negative influences from their past.

Chronograph

Johnson is a classic example of a talented player who fell in with the wrong crowd. The highly-rated nose tackle lost his place in Chicago after a series of criminal misdemeanors. Many people wrote him off but the Cowboys gave him a second chance. Then he played a couple of seasons with the Bengals after stabilizing his life (via The Denver Post).

AP

Drew Brees

It seems insane now but there were a lot of doubts about Brees before he moved from the Chargers to New Orleans. Many people even forget that he began his NFL career in San Diego. His numbers with the Chargers were unexceptional. They were happy to swap him for Philip Rivers in one of the weirdest moments in NFL history (via L.A. Times).

L.A. Times

Perhaps it was the coaching or the change of scenery but it worked. Brees blossomed into one of the most productive NFL quarterbacks in history. He held many passing records until his retirement and won a Super Bowl ring. Meanwhile, Rivers had a decent career with the Chargers but fell short of greatness.

AP

Joe Montana

Many older NFL fans maintain that Montana was the greatest quarterback ever. That’s tougher to do now that Tom Brady has almost double the amount of Lombardi trophies, but Montana remains one of the best quarterbacks to ever play in the NFL. He led the Niners to an unprecedented era in their history as they won four Super Bowls. But his career came to a sudden halt when he damaged his elbow. This meant that he missed an entire season and lost his place as a starter to another legend, Steve Young.

Sports Illustrated

It left San Francisco in a tough position because Young was very talented with fewer miles on the clock. They traded Montana to the Chiefs and many people wrote him off. But he represented them well with a playoff win and even made the Pro Bowl one more time (via USA Today Sports).

AP

Cris Carter

Carter has one of the most inspiring stories on this list. The NFL isn’t kind to drug addicts but that’s what Carter went through. The Hall of Fame receiver lost his spot with the Eagles after his well-documented problems came to a head. But he re-established himself and stormed back to relevance.

AP

Nobody predicted that he’d have a Hall of Fame career. But he exploded into life in Minnesota and became one of the franchise’s greatest-ever players. It’s incredible when a player can turn everything around and become a positive force. Many people respect him because he overcame amazing adversity (via Yardbreaker).

People

Rob Gronkowski

Gronk retired in 2018 after years of legendary success with the New England Patriots. Everybody thought that was the end of the legendary tight end’s time on the field. The acclaimed party animal had nothing left to prove. But then Tom Brady moved to Florida and changed everything. The iconic quarterback lured Gronkowski off his sun lounger and onto the field of play.

Sky Sports

The pair reunited in Tampa Bay and went on one of the greatest journeys ever. After a rough start, the Buccaneers settled and made it to the Super Bowl. They overwhelmed the Chiefs in a dominant performance. This was the icing on the cake that was their outstanding careers (via Fox News).

ESPN

Chad Pennington

Pennington holds the record for the most Comeback Player of the Year awards with two. People wrote him off on multiple occasions, but he stormed back against all odds. The quarterback had a rough 2005 after he tore his rotator cuff. This was a terrible injury for his position but he responded well to treatment.

San Diego Union-Tribune

His final season in New York saw him lose his roster spot to Brett Favre. This came after a series of minor injuries and a decline in form. Then he moved to the Dolphins and reignited his career. He was a serious MVP contender but in the end, he won his second Comeback Player of the Year (via Bleacher Report).

Florida Times-Union

Derrick Henry

Henry is the Titans’ most influential player of the last decade. The franchise was overdependent on the ferocious running back and there’s little doubt that he made Ryan Tannehill look better than he was. But Henry started life in the NFL as a potential bust.

CBS Sports

It took him two years to become a starter in the NFL as he sat behind veteran back DeMarco Murray. But then his career took off and he showed his marauding qualities. In 2020, Henry won the NFL Offensive Player of the Year award for his amazing contribution to the Titans’ year (via Sportskeeda).

ESPN

Plaxico Burress

Burress has one of the most bizarre stories on this list. Many athletes proverbially shot themselves in the foot through their behavior off the field. But Burress took this to the next level by accidentally discharging his unlicensed pistol into his leg. This injury put him out of action but there was even more drama to come (via Sportscasting).

New York Post

The weapon went off at a New York nightclub. Unfortunately for Buress, the Empire State has some of the strictest gun laws in the U.S. He went to jail for 20 months after a court convicted him. Nobody expected Burress to return to the NFL after his release. He didn’t play to the same level but did sign with the Jets and Steelers.

L.A. Times

Jared Goff

Most people probably wouldn’t expect to find Goff on this list. But it’s amazing how he turned his career around after he moved to Detroit. Two Pro Bowl selections and a Super Bowl appearance reflected his talent. But he failed to convince Sean McVay that he was the answer to the Rams’ prayers (via FOX Sports).

NFL.com

They traded him to the Lions in exchange for Matthew Stafford and several picks. He had an average first season in Motor City but performed well the following season in 2022. Dan Campbell and his coaching staff deserve immense credit because they were behind his revival. Goff stormed back and became one of the league’s most consistent quarterbacks.

Green Bay Packers

Jordy Nelson

Nelson is another player who went through the trauma of an ACL tear. The former Packers wideout was one of the best in his position in the league. His 2014 form earned him a Pro Bowl pick. But then he had a nightmare the following off-season because he suffered the injury (via Green Bay Packers).

MassLive

This cost him a year of his career but fortunately, he stormed back in style. Nelson won the Comeback Player of the Year Award after his return from injury. It also marked his third 1,000-yard season as he tore up the league. Nelson spent two more years in the NFL including a season with the Raiders.

Sports Illustrated

John Matuszak

Matuszak is a Raiders franchise legend and an iconic defensive lineman. But many people wrote him off before he blossomed into an elite NFL star. He had a great college career in Tampa and this made him the first overall draft selection in 1973. The Houston Oilers selected him but things didn’t work out.

Raiders.com

Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much talent a player has if they find themselves in the wrong situation. That was Matuszak’s experience because he had a terrible relationship with the front office and coaches. Then after failing in Kansas City, he moved to the Raiders, and the rest is history (via Pro Football History).

SF Gate

Tom Brady (2022)

2022 was a rough year for Brady after a difficult offseason. He returned to Tampa Bay with a shadow over his personal life after a public divorce. Then he endured the worst start to a season of his entire career. They went 3-5 before they finally began to establish some consistency. Some people wrote Brady off and said that the 45-year-old should retire.

CBS Sports

Nonetheless, it’s impossible to count Brady out. He refused to back down and led his team to the playoffs. It came down to the wire in their Week 17 game against the Panthers. They stormed back from two big deficits and Brady found Mike Evans for three passing touchdowns (via Audacy).

Sky Sports

Marshawn Lynch

Now it’s laughable to think of Lynch as anything but a success in the NFL. The marauding running back was a brilliant player for the Seahawks. Fans loved when he entered ‘Beast Mode’ and rampaged downfield. But it’s easy to forget that he had a difficult start to life in the NFL (via Bleacher Report).

Marca

Lynch played for the Buffalo Bills after they drafted him in the first round of 2008. But he failed to live up to his potential in upstate New York and most people wrote him off as a bust. Nonetheless, a change of scene greatly improved his fortunes. He became a Super Bowl winner with his new franchise.

Fox News

Saquon Barkley

Nobody can question Barkley’s talent or commitment. However, he endured horrible bad luck with injuries and wasted three of his prime years. This frustrated Giants fans because they knew that he was an elite player. But he never stayed on the field consistently enough for them to see it.

ESPN

However, in 2022, Barkley entered the Comeback Player of the Year conversation. He stormed back and became one of the most effective running backs in the NFL. Barkley’s return to fitness coincided with a dramatic improvement in the Giants’ fortunes. Now he’s making up for the lost time (via Giants.com).

People

Josh Allen

Nobody may have had a career turnaround quite like Allen. He threw 18 interceptions in his first 16 games as a starter compared to only 13 touchdowns. People were writing him off as a bust already but Allen shifted gears. His next 16 games saw him throw 29 touchdown passes with only four interceptions.

L.A. Times

The Bills quarterback is one of the best in the league and his franchise adores him. But many fans didn’t want to give him a chance. Luckily, Allen had the mental fortitude to overcome the haters. He stormed back and showed that he is capable of orchestrating an elite offense (via Audacy).

Washington Post

Alex Smith

Smith developed into a decent quarterback after his nightmare in San Francisco. Kansas City saw him as a safe pair of hands before they drafted and started young gunslinger Patrick Mahomes. Then Smith moved to Washington but suffered a life-changing injury. He brutally broke his leg in a game against the Texans (via ESPN).

Detroit Free Press

Then infection seeped into his bone and threatened to kill him. Doctors considered amputation because the situation was so severe. It took him almost two years to return to full health but nobody expected him to play again. He stormed back and claimed the Comeback Player of the Year award before retiring gracefully in 2020.

CBS Sports

Aaron Rodgers (2022)

Fans wrote Rodgers off again in 2022 after the Packers had a bad start to the year. But some things are inevitable in football and Rodgers winning games is one of them. He spent a lot of the early year complaining about his young receiver corp. Unsurprisingly, he missed his former favorite target, Davante Adams.

Fox News

The Packers assembled a winning streak as they gained momentum for the first time that season. Many people thought that it was time for the franchise to hand the keys to Jordan Love. But Rodgers must have a grudge against the young man because isn’t going anywhere (via NFL.com).

New York Times

Adrian Peterson

In hindsight, it seems laughable that people wrote Peterson off in 2012. The wide receiver came off a career season before he tore his ACL and MCL. Many armchair critics shook their heads and said that was the end of the Vikings’ running back. But he proved them wrong as he stormed back from his recovery.

Sky Sports

Peterson won the NFL MVP award for his efforts in 2012. He also ludicrously played through a sports hernia for a chunk of the year as he showed his toughness. Some people think that he deserved the Comeback Player award instead of Peyton Manning too. But both men delivered in a unique year for the sport (via The Athletic).

Sporting News

Peyton Manning

Everybody thought that Manning’s career was over after he left the Colts. He returned from neck surgery but Indianapolis thought that it wasn’t worth the gamble. It helped that they tanked the season that he sat out and they replaced him with Andrew Luck. But Manning still had suitors and went to the Mile High City.

MassLive

They became a contender in his second season and went to the Super Bowl. But he had a bad game and they suffered a shocking loss. People wrote him off again but Manning stormed back the following year. He captured an elusive second ring with Denver as well, even if he didn’t play very well (via Colts.com).

New York Post

Tom Brady (2016)

Brady always had doubters but they were especially loud in 2016. Max Kellerman infamously wrote the quarterback off and claimed that he was entering the twilight of his career. The Patriots icon mocked his statement because his number improved as he reached his forties.

AP

Kellerman predicted that Brady would fall off a cliff but that’s not what happened. He won his sixth Super Bowl and he also claimed the game’s MVP award. Meanwhile, we all know what happened when he moved to Tampa Bay. Brady maintained a high level later than anyone expected (via Boston.com).

Pro Football History

Garrison Hearst

Hearst was lucky to keep his leg, never mind playing again in the NFL. The running back infamously broke it in a game against the Falcons. He fell awkwardly and caught his foot on the ground. But the worst part was the necrosis that caused the bone to degenerate. In short, his leg was dying (via Sports Illustrated).

Bleacher Report

It took Hearst 34 months of treatment and rehab before he returned for the 49ers. He wasn’t there to make up the numbers because he put up great numbers. It’s not a shock that he won the Comeback Player of the Year award after he stormed back from injury. His heart and indomitable spirit deserve a lot of credit because it was so inspiring.

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