We're starting a new "TopX" series here at FP, and I have the honor of submitting the first list. The standard protocol is to rank everything in a "top 10" style format, but we won't be limiting ourselves to 10. In the future, you can expect to see articles involving many different topics, featuring both current topics and a little nod to history as well.
Below is a listing of the players I believe to be the 10 (+1) greatest “what if” players of all time. For the sake of this exercise, I’m using the term “what if” to represent promising careers that were cut short for various reasons. So below, you will not see guys that started their careers with a different team than the one with which they cemented their legacy, like Johnny Unitas or Brett Favre on this list. Despite both achieving great success with teams that were not their first, their individual legacies will stand the test of time. You will also not see players like Gale Sayers, Earl Campbell, and Derrick Thomas. Each of those players have been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and I’ve decided arbitrarily to feature only players who have not made the HOF. While each would have likely achieved even greater heights if not for their unfortunate or tragic circumstances, they already have a valued legacy, as signified by each of their busts being displayed in Canton.
This "What If" list is meant to honor those players whose legacies have not earned them a trip to Canton. I’m including players who we likely remember fondly, players who have had their careers tragically cut short, and players who through unfortunate circumstances may have been forgotten over time.
QB- Daunte Culpepper
RB- Alan Ameche, Billy Sims, Ickey Woods, Marcus Dupree, Joe Delaney, Robert Edwards, Christian Okoye, Brian Piccolo, Lydell Mitchell, Ki-Jana Carter
WR- Al Toon
DL- Steve Emtman
LB- Dan Morgan, David Pollack
DB- Pat Tillman
It became clear to me very early on that I could fill this list merely with RBs. I expected many of these to make the cut prior to putting together the research, and all deserve to be mentioned.
Now onto the list…
Ernie Davis- RB Cleveland Browns
While I originally wanted to hold this list to only 10 selections, I decided that I'd allow myself to cheat a little bit and create a bonus pick for Ernie Davis. "The Elmira Express" is the only player on this list to never actually play a down in the NFL. An exerpt from biography.com explains Ernie Davis, the football player, best.
A three-time All-American halfback and 1961 Heisman Trophy winner, Davis set yardage and scoring records at Syracuse University. He would go on to win MVP title in both the 1960 Cotton Bowl and the 1961 Liberty Bowl, and would be inducted into the College Football Hall Of Fame in 1979. His honors and accomplishments on the gridiron were matched only by his adversity off the field; As a black athlete playing many games in the south, he was the victim of racism on several occasions. The most publicized incident occurred when he was selected as the Cotton Bowl MVP in 1960. Davis was told by organizers that he would be allowed to accept his award at the post game banquet, and would immediately have to leave the segregated facility. Ernie refused to receive the award, and his entire team agreed to boycott the banquet. A man of firsts, Ernie Davis was the first African American man to win the Heisman Trophy, the first to join the prestigious Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity (a nationally recognized Jewish fraternity) and, in 1962, became the first African American player to be picked 1st overall in the NFL draft.
Davis is known as the greatest pro football player to never play a down. Most believe that if he had been able to pair up with Jim Brown in the Browns backfield, the Browns would have continued their dynasty into the Super Bowl era, and Davis would have gone down as one of the greats who ever lived.
10. Korey Stringer- T Minnesota Vikings
Many of us remember the tragic circumstances around Korey Stringer’s death during training camp in 2001. Only 11 years ago, this was still a time in the NFL when many pre-historic virtues held true. Asking out of practice for heat, dizziness, dehydration, etc, were considered signs of weakness. So eventually, with camps everywhere opening at the end of July, during the prime heat of summer, something was going to have to give. On August 1, 2001, it did. As temperatures rose to 110 degrees during the Vikings training camp, Stringer, a 6’4” 335 lb behemoth, suffered from heat stroke and tragically lost his life at the age of 27.
Stringer was drafted in the first round in 1995 out of Ohio State, and started 91 of the 93 regular season games in which he played. Ultimately, he developed into a cornerstone at RT for the Vikings, earning his first pro bowl trip following the 2000 season. As it turns out, that pro bowl was his final game.
Had Korey Stringer not tragically passed away, his career arc was trending in a way that would have made him a perennial pro bowler, and could have ultimately led him to becoming a borderline Hall of Fame candidate.
9. Keith Millard- DT Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles
Millard was drafted in the first round of the 1984 draft out of Washington State by the Minnesota Vikings. Following one year in the USFL with the Jacksonville Bulls, he joined the Vikings and instantly became a force on the defensive line, totaling 21.5 sacks in his first two seasons. Paired with Chris Doleman, who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this coming August, the two formed one of the NFL’s most fearsome pass rushing duos. In 1988, Millard was named first team all pro, and his Adjusted Value of 20 on Pro-Football-Reference rated him as the number 1 player in all of the NFL that season. In 1989, Millard totaled 18 sacks as a Defensive Tackle, and was named 1st team all pro for the second consecutive season.
In 1990, Millard suffered a major knee injury during the Vikings 4th game. This injury would cost him the rest of that season, and all of the following season. He played 4 games total in 1992, 2 each with the Seahawks and Packers, and then 14 games with the Eagles in 1993, but he was never close to the same player. Millard retired after the 93 season at the age of 31 with 58 career sacks. Had he remained healthy, it is not a stretch to believe that Millard would have ultimately joined his teammate Doleman as an enshrinee in Canton.
8. Sean Taylor- S Washington Redskins
Sean Taylor was the Redskins top pick in 2004 out of the University of Miami. Taylor was a hard hitting safety who became an immediate star in Washington, ultimately earning a trip to the pro bowl in 2006.
Taylor had off the field issues. He was arrested twice following joining the Redskins, once for drunk driving in 2004, and the other for armed assault in 2005. But following the 2005 incident, all accounts say that Taylor was trying to change his life. In November of 2007, a random intruder into his home shot Taylor in the leg, piercing an artery. Just 9 games into his 4th, and most successful season, Taylor died the next day at the age of 24. Later that season, the NFL honored Taylor posthumously with a pro bowl nomination.
7. Mike Reid- DT Cincinnati Bengals
Mike Reid is a player who has been forgotten over time. Reid was the Bengals first round selection in 1970, following a career at Penn State that earned him All America status, the Outland Trophy (best interior lineman), and the Maxwell Award (best player in college football, while finishing 5th in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
Following a decent rookie season, Reid took off in his 2nd season with the Bengals. Sacks were still an unofficial stat at the time, but Reid established himself as one of the premier pass rushers (no small feat from the Defensive Tackle position), finishing with 12 sacks in both 1971 and 1972, and 13 sacks in 1973. He also tallied 7 sacks during an injury-plagued 1974 season.
During this time, Reid was named to 2 pro bowls, was named 1st team all NFL in 1972, 2nd team all NFL in 1973, and earned 4 straight selections to the all-AFC 1st team from 1971-1974. Following the 1974 season, due in part to chronic knee and hand injuries, as well as other interests, Reid retired from the Bengals at the age of 27 as their all-time (unofficial) sack leader with 49.
Mike Reid’s other interests mostly involved music. He was a music major while at PSU, and during his playing days with the Bengals, performed as a pianist with the Utah, Dallas, and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestras. Upon his retirement, Reid began writing songs for many country music singers, ultimately winning a Grammy Award in 1984 for “Stranger In My House”, which was performed by Ronnie Milsap. In 1990, Reid went solo, recording a number 1 country hit, “Walk On Faith”.
Mike Reid currently lives in Nashville, but is originally from Altoona, PA, which is my original home town. He has frequently come back home to perform music with the Altoona Symphony, and his family, including his mother, still reside in the area. While Reid is said to have been a little disappointed he wasn't selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers (Terry Bradshaw was their top pick that year), he will readily admit that Cincinnati has always felt like his 2nd home.
Mike Reid is a mostly forgotten great player with a great post career story. Had he been able, or chosen to continue in the NFL, he’s another player that had Canton-type talent.
6. Tony Boselli- LT Jacksonville Jaguars
Tony Boselli is arguably the most athletic offensive lineman to ever play in the NFL. Coming out of USC, Boselli became the first ever draft selection by the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars. Boselli quickly became a mainstay at LT, earning 5 pro bowl berths and 3 1st team all pro selections in his first 6 seasons.
Boselli suffered a shoulder injury in 2001. This injury should not have cost Boselli his career, but doctors botched the surgery, and Boselli, who became the first pick in the expansion draft by the Houston Texans in 2002, was never able to play another down in the NFL. Boselli was well on his way to a hall of fame career prior to the surgery, and was destined to go down as one of the top offensive linemen who ever played the game.
5. Jerome Brown- DT Philadelphia Eagles
As a young lad, I did not look favorably upon Jerome Brown. Brown was the vocal team leader of the 1986 Miami Hurricanes. Perhaps the most brash team of all time, Miami, of course, locked up in an epic duel with Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl on January 2, 1987 that ultimately resulted in Penn State winning the national championship. There is a now famous moment where the two teams were gathered at a banquet prior to the game. Penn State wore their traditional Blue Blazers while Miami walked in as the “bad guys” in Army fatigues. When Penn State punter John Bruno spoke, openly mocking Miami head coach Jimmy Johnson, it was Brown who led a Hurricane walkout, announcing to the gathered crowd, “Did the Japanese go sit down and have dinner with Pearl Harbor before they bombed them?”
Brown was drafted by the Eagles 9th overall in the 1987 draft. He quickly developed into one of the best interior defensive linemen in pro football, and a key cog on a defensive unit that became one of the best in the game. In 1991, Brown joined defensive line-mates Reggie White and Clyde Simmons as 1st team all pro. This was his 2nd selection to the 1st team.
During the summer of 1992, Brown was killed when he lost control of his corvette at a high speed and crashed into a utility pole. His nephew was also in the car with him, and also perished in the crash. Brown was just 27.
The Eagles retired his number 99 on opening day of the 1992 season. Players and fans adopted a motto, “Bring it home for Jerome.” That motto continues in Philadelphia to this day.
4. Terrell Davis- RB Denver Broncos
The most unheralded player on this list coming out of college, Terrell Davis was a 6th round pick out of the University of Georgia by the Denver Broncos in 1995. He fell to the 6th round mainly due to injury concerns. However, Davis quickly established himself as a draft day steal by rushing for over 1100 yards in just 14 games in his rookie season. The following season, Davis proved his production was not a fluke as he gained 1538 yards rushing and 13 TDs, earning his selection as 1st team all pro. Davis was also a 1st team all pro in 1997 (1750/15) and in 1998 became only the 4th player (at the time) to rush for more than 2000 yards in a season, and remains the only one to do so while also scoring 20+ TDs in the same season. Also, in 97 and 98, Davis helped lead the Broncos to back to back Super Bowl titles.
In 1999, Davis got off to a bit of a slow start. Then, in the 4th game of the season vs. the Jets, Davis blew out his knee. In 2000, Davis only played in 5 games due to an injury in his lower leg, and in 2001, he only managed 8 games due to arthroscopic surgery on both knees. Davis retired during the preseason of 2002.
Among Hall of Fame members, only Eric Dickerson and Earl Campbell had more yards through their first 4 seasons than Terrell Davis. And Davis’s 56 TDs in his first 4 seasons were more than any RB enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Often, we hear about how John Elway needed Terrell Davis to win a ring, and how Terrell Davis was a product of the Denver offensive line. The Denver offensive line is certainly part of the narrative, but Terrell Davis’ performance, in my opinion, makes him a worthy candidate to someday be enshrined in Canton.
3. Greg Cook- QB Cincinnati Bengals
In 1969, the Bengals took Greg Cook with the 5th overall pick in the draft out of the University of Cincinnati. Cook had the prototype size at 6’4” 220 lbs, and the prototype arm to run any offense. With the Bengals, Cook got to work with offensive gurus Paul Brown and Bill Walsh.
Cook did not disappoint in his first season, putting together one of the best rookie seasons by a QB in the history of pro football. Cook led the AFL in Completion %, Yards per attempt, Yards per completion, and Quarterback Rating.
Cook did all of that despite feeling a pop during the team’s 3rd game against KC. It was later found that he had torn his rotator cuff, but it went undiagnosed, and he finished out the year as the Bengals QB. After the season, his rotator cuff began deteriorating, and during surgery, it was also found that his biceps muscle was partially detached. Cook retired, briefly attempted a comeback in 1973, and then retired permanently. Bill Walsh has called Cook the most talented QB he had ever seen, and believed that he could have gone on to become one of the greatest QBs of all time. And in an ultimate what if, it was the limitations of Cook’s replacement, Virgil Carter, that forced Bill Walsh to try a new offensive scheme that would later become legendarily known as the “West Coast Offense”.
2. Sterling Sharpe- WR Green Bay Packers
Sterling Sharpe was drafted in the 1st round of the 1988 draft out of the University of South Carolina at number 7 overall by the Green Bay Packers. Following a decent rookie season, Sharpe took off in year 2, leading the NFL in receptions, and earning the 1st of 5 pro bowl nods and 3 All Pro selections. Following 2 more solid seasons, the Packers added a new QB to the mix named Brett Favre. Along with Favre, Sharpe’s career took off. In 1992, Sharpe led the NFL in receptions, yards, yards per game, and TDs. His 108 receptions were the most in NFL history at the time. The following year, Sharpe broke his own record with 112 receptions, and in 1994, along with 94 receptions, Sharpe had 18 receiving TDs, which tied him for 2nd on the all-time single-season list.
Following the 1994 season, Sharpe was forced to retire from the NFL at 29 years old with a neck injury, costing him the opportunity to be on the Packers championship team in 1996.
Shannon Sharpe, Sterling’s younger brother, put it best during his own Hall of Fame induction speech when he said, “I'm the only player, of 267 men that [have] walked through this building to my left, that can honestly say this: I'm the only pro football player that's in the Hall of Fame, and I'm the second best player in my own family.”
Sterling Sharpe belongs in the Hall of Fame. Yet, he has never even been placed on the semi-finalists list for enshrinement. In my opinion, this fact is the greatest oversight in the history of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
1. Bo Jackson- RB Los Angeles Raiders
The official king of any list involving the greatest “what if “ athletes, Bo Jackson’s legend continues to grow. In fact, Bo Jackson could top a “what if” list for baseball as well, but that’s a topic for another day.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers owned the rights to the top pick in the 1986 draft. The consensus top player available that year was Auburn's standout RB, and Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson. Prior to the draft, the Bucs sent a private jet to have Jackson come to Tampa for a workout. However, this act caused Jackson to lose the remainder of his baseball eligibility with Auburn. Jackson was furious. Then, Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse, who had evidently promised Jackson that he’d make him the highest paid rookie in league history, low-balled Jackson. Jackson then complained about the Bucs O-Line and threatened to never play for them. Despite the threats, the Bucs drafted Jackson #1 overall.
That year, Jackson was also selected in the 4th round by the KC Royals. Jackson ordered his agent to not even speak with the Bucs, and signed a contract with the Royals worth far less than what the Bucs were going to offer him to play for them. When it became clear that the Bucs weren’t going to sign him, teams started to make offers to TB for the rights to Jackson. Reportedly, San Francisco offered TB Ronnie Lott, Wendell Tyler, and a 1st and 2nd round pick for the rights to Jackson. But Hugh Culverhouse refused all trade requests, and on March 28, 1987, the Bucs announced that they had allowed Jackson’s rights to expire with no compensation.
Upon his reentry into the draft, Jackson, who was a full time baseball player at this point, was selected in the 7th round of the 1987 draft by the Los Angeles Raiders. Jackson, already 25, then decided to join the Raiders upon the completion of the Royals season.
For the next 4 seasons, Jackson split his time between KC and LA never playing in more than 10 games for the Raiders. Despite his part time status, Jackson displayed a legendary combination of power and speed. He averaged 6.8 YPC as a fullback during his rookie year, and upon being moved to tailback two years later, averaged 5.5 and 5.6 yards per carry. He had 4 TD runs of more than 60 yards, including a 91 and a 92 yarder, and also had a separate carry that went for 88 yards. Jackson’s power/speed combo was on full display during a Monday night telecast against Seattle in 1987. Following a receiving TD in the 2nd quarter, Jackson took a carry 91 yards to the house. Then, in the 3rd quarter, Jackson famously ran directly over Seahawks LB Brian Bosworth. That play became a perfect metaphor for the future career path of each player. For the game, Jackson tallied 221 yards and 2 TDs. While Bosworth’s legend quickly faded, Jackson’s continued to grow. In 1988, the football game “Tecmo Bowl” was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System. It was in this game that “beast mode” was officially unleashed as Jackson became the greatest video game athlete of all time.
In 1990, Jackson earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl. However, during a playoff game against Cincinnati, Jackson injured his hip and never played another down in the NFL. In that game prior to his injury, Jackson tallied 6 carries for 77 yards, for an average of a mere 12.83 yards per carry.
Bo Jackson’s career mark of 5.4 YPC ranks him behind only Jamaal Charles and HOFer Marion Motley on the all-time list for RBs.
So what if Jackson had signed with Tampa? What if he had been traded to SF? What if he chose football full time over baseball? What if he was never injured?
It's all of these unanswered questions that make Bo Jackson the single greatest “What If” player in NFL history.