The list of the all-time great National Football League players to have appeared in at least a single Super Bowl game is long. It includes the likes of Joe Montana, Tom Brady, Jerry Rice, Terry Bradshaw, Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith, Lawrence Taylor, Bart Starr and so many others. Heroes become legends on Super Bowl Sundays, events that turn a wide receiver such as David Tyree from a third down player to a living legend and icon who will be remembered for as long as the NFL and the Super Bowl exist because of his famous catch that helped the New York Giants defeat the New England Patriots.
It does not need to be pointed out to anybody who pays attention to the sport that pro football is a physically taxing game. Players are but one hit, wrong step or unfortunate collision away from their seasons and even their careers being in jeopardy. Injury woes, the fact that football is a team game and that the NFL playoff format gives underdogs a chance each and every January all make it easy to understand why some of the best athletes to ever play pro football never won the final contest of a campaign that is now known as the Super Bowl.
The man who will likely sit atop this list forever never had an opportunity to appear in a Super Bowl because of when he was born, and because of when he decided to walk away from the game of football. An NFL Rookie of the Year, three-time Most Valuable Player, nine-time Pro Bowl selection and NFL Champion likely would have had a Super Bowl championship on his football resume had he and several other teammates only been born a few years later than they were. Instead, the Cleveland Browns have never, since the invention of a game, appeared in a Super Bowl.
20. Joe Thomas
Don’t snicker at this one just because Thomas is an offensive lineman who has played for the Cleveland Browns his entire career. Thomas has been a Pro Bowl selection since his first season in the NFL, and he is regarded as the best left tackle of his time. He is also a rare breed in that Thomas was a smart draft pick made by one of the most dysfunctional franchises in North American professional sports. The Browns being a laughingstock is a yearly tradition, and a great left tackle alone isn’t going to turn the team around. Maybe Thomas will one day win a title, but it likely won’t be with Cleveland.
19. Tony Romo
Romo‘s reputation for being a quarterback who doesn’t come through when playing in big games has been earned. He is also, at worst, statistically speaking the second-best quarterback in the history of the Dallas Cowboys. Romo holds numerous franchise records, including most fourth quarter comebacks, and Romo has the NFL record for the most consecutive road games with at least one passing touchdown (41 as of the posting of this piece). Romo is a punchline for those who aren’t fans of the Cowboys because of his lack of postseason success, but his stats cannot be ignored as it pertains to his contributions to the Cowboys.
18. Jim Kelly
Kelly would probably be higher on the list of all-time great NFL quarterbacks had the Buffalo Bills won in even one of those four-straight Super Bowl appearances. That never happened, however, and the Bills were really only the better side in one of those games; against the New York Giants. Kelly’s number, 12, is the only one that has been retired by the Bills, and he is a member of the Hall of Fame. The Buffalo legend has since become a positive story in that he won a battle versus cancer. Here is hoping that Kelly will never again have to face off with that foe.
17. Warren Moon
The master of the “Run-and-Shoot” offense, Moon won multiple titles up north in Canada. He never, however, achieved that goal while in the NFL, and Moon did not ever make a trip to a Super Bowl with any of the four teams he played for during his career. Moon does, however, possess a Super Bowl ring, although that was given to him after his playing days were over. He “won” his first Super Bowl ring as a broadcaster for the Seattle Seahawks after the Seahawks defeated the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. Some stories do have a happy ending.
16. Bruce Matthews
One of the greatest offensive lineman in NFL history, Matthews was but a yard away from potentially winning a Super Bowl at the end of Super Bowl XXXIV as a member of the Tennessee Titans. Tennessee wide receiver Kevin Dyson was brought down just short of the goal line by Mike Jones of the St. Louis Rams, and time expired as the ball was marked at the one-yard line. That was as close as Matthews would ever come to being on a team that won a Super Bowl. The 14-time Pro Bowl selection is a member of the Hall of Fame.
15. Cris Carter
“All he does is catch touchdowns” is the phrase often associated with Carter, a man who never caught a TD in a Super Bowl due to having never played in one. The Minnesota Vikings teams that Carter played for were good, but they were never great enough to win the final game of the season. Perhaps had Carter landed elsewhere after he had defeated some personal demons and signed with the Vikings, he wouldn’t be on this list. History will nevertheless remember Carter for being one of the top wide receivers in history, one who was never part of a championship side.
14. Eric Dickerson
Dickerson still holds the record for the most rushing yards in a single season (2,105), and he was second in NFL career rushing yards when he retired. He also played on a lot of lousy football teams. Dickerson never even appeared in a Super Bowl, but that doesn’t erase what was one of the best running back careers in pro football history. He won the Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year awards for the 1983 regular season. The Indianapolis Colts have Dickerson in their Ring of Honor, and he is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
13. Junior Seau
The face of the franchise when in his prime, Seau was a Pro Bowl mainstay. He was a 12-time Pro Bowl selection, and Seau was named to the 1990’s All-Decade team. His number has been retired by the San Diego Chargers, an honor that Seau deserved. Seau’s day at the Hall of Fame will sadly not include the player, who took his own life in May 2012. A tremendous athlete who could have excelled in another sport, Seau will sadly become another statistic as a former football player who suffered brain damage and then committed suicide after his playing days were over.
12. Anthony Munoz
Munoz was a Pro Bowl selection every year from 1981 through 1991, earning All-Pro honors nine times during that stretch of time. He was thrice named the Offensive Lineman of the Year during his NFL career. Munoz was part of those two Cincinnati Bengals teams that were downed by the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl contests, two of the better championship games pro football has ever seen. While he never won a title, Munoz is widely regarded as the best offensive lineman in the history of the league. Munoz was a dominating presence up top, an easy selection for the Hall of Fame.
11. Bruce Smith
Smith remains one of the best defensive ends to ever play in the NFL. He still holds the record for registered NFL quarterback sacks, and Smith was deservedly elected in the Hall of Fame the first year that he was eligible. The 11-time Pro Bowl pick was also part of those Buffalo Bills sides that lost four straight Super Bowl games. That Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants is the one that still has to sting two decades after the fact. All Scott Norwood had to do was bury that 47-yard field goal with only seconds left on the clock. Oh, what could have been.
10. Alan Page
Page made history in 1971 when he became the first defensive player in NFL history to win the Most Valuable Player award. He was also named the Defensive Player of the Year in ’71, the first player to ever earn that honor. While Page was part of the Minnesota Vikings team that won the final NFL Championship before the merger, he never earned a Super Bowl ring during his storied career. Page was a member of all four of the Vikings teams that lost in all four of the club’s Super Bowl appearances, one of only 11 men who can make such a claim.
9. Dan Fouts
Fouts is one of the more underrated players in the history of the NFL. Upon retiring, Fouts was one of only three players to have accumulated over 40,000 passing yards. That list has obviously grown as the NFL has become more of a quarterback-driven league over the years, a statement to how ahead of his time Fouts was during his playing days. Fouts and the Chargers had a couple of chances to make runs that could have included at least one Super Bowl victory, but it was never meant to be for those teams. The Chargers still have not yet won a Super Bowl.
8. Fran Tarkenton
Before the days of Russell Wilson, Michael Vick and Johnny Manziel (assuming Manziel becomes even a serviceable NFL quarterback), Tarkenton was a scrambling quarterback who was able to make plays with his legs and his arm. A nine-time Pro Bowl pick and the NFL Most Valuable Player for 1975, Tarkenton helped guide the Minnesota Vikings to three Super Bowl appearances. Minnesota lost each of those games, and he did not play great in any of those contests. Tarkenton had a tremendous career, and he is deservedly in the Hall of Fame. He also failed to win the big one despite having several chances to do so.
7. O.J. Simpson
It is rare that Simpson is mentioned as a football player because of all that he has been accused of over the years, but it would be silly to not include him in this piece. Simpson was second to only the top player on this list in rushing yards when he retired from playing, but he unfortunately played on some lackluster teams. The Buffalo Bills appeared in a single playoff game when the club had Simpson in the backfield. Simpson does not deserve to be remembered for what he achieved on football fields, however, and he alone is to blame for that.
6. Dick Butkus
Butkus never appeared in a Super Bowl let alone win one of those games. The Chicago Bears failed to qualify for the playoffs when Butkus was a member of the organization. He was the most feared player in the game during his time, an eight-time Pro Bowl selection and member of the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team. Multiple outlets list Butkus as being in the top-ten greatest pro football players to ever live. Butkus was J.J. Watt decades before Watt would be acquired by the Houston Texans, a throwback to a time when defenses weren’t penalized for playing football.
5. Ozzie Newsome
Newsome (and also the Cleveland Browns) changed the NFL forever in that he is credited with being the first tight end to expand an offense’s vertical passing game. Those Browns teams of the 1980s that featured Newsome came close to advancing to the Super Bowl multiple times, but they just could not get past John Elway nor could they avoid tripping over their own feet. Newsome went on to become a successful NFL executive, and he has two Super Bowl rings as a member of the Baltimore Ravens – the old Browns. He was, of course, not an active player when those games occurred, and thus he makes this list.
4. Tony Gonzalez
As great as Ozzie Newsome was – and Newsome truly was great – Gonzalez may have been even better. He played for the Kansas City Chiefs for 12 seasons, and Gonzalez then surprised those who believed he was in the twilight of his career when he had a revival as a member of the Atlanta Falcons. The best receiving tight end to ever play the position, Gonzalez is the holder of numerous records that may never be broken because of his durability. He played in all but two games during his 17-year career, a remarkable stat considering the amount of touches he had and hits he took throughout the years.
3. Dan Marino
What do you call the greatest quarterback who never won a Super Bowl? A quarterback who never won a Super Bowl. Marino was as pure a passer the position has ever seen, an all-time great quarterback who would have excelled with any franchise. Unlike Joe Montana, Steve Young and so many others, Marino never had the privilege of playing on the best team in the NFL. He still holds multiple records that were not broken by Brett Favre or Peyton Manning (yet, at least), and Marino’s spot in the Hall of Fame was guaranteed even before he tossed his final pass in an NFL contest.
2. Barry Sanders
Sanders, like the man ahead of him on this list, walked away from playing in the NFL when he still had many miles left in his legs. It is very likely that he alone prevented himself from possessing the league’s career rushing record by retiring when he did. That Sanders never won a championship says more about the lack of quality of those Detroit Lions teams than it does about what he contributed on the field. Those of you not old enough to have watched Sanders in his prime missed something special, a man who could humiliate would-be tacklers every time he was given the ball in the backfield.
1. Jim Brown
Brown, the greatest professional football player in history, helped the Cleveland Browns win the NFL Championship for the 1964 season. The game was not known as the Super Bowl at that time, however, and neither Brown nor Cleveland would win the Big Game again following the ’64 campaign. Brown retired after nine seasons in the league to pursue an acting career, while the Browns have managed to break hearts, depart for Baltimore, return and then break hearts time and time again. The city of Cleveland, meanwhile, is still waiting to celebrating another pro sports title. Help northeast Ohio out, LeBron James.