We all have our favorite NFL stars who produce year in and year out and become the face of their franchise, but not all players can be so lucky. The NFL is unpredictable, and every now and then a player breaks out for one huge season before slipping right back into mediocrity. Here are some of the NFL’s greatest one-season wonders who just couldn’t find a way to sustain their success.
Heisman-winning quarterback Robert Griffin was drafted second overall by the Washington Redskins in 2012, and throughout his rookie season he was the most electrifying player in the NFL. In 15 games Griffin racked up twenty passing touchdowns against only five interceptions, also adding over 800 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. Unfortunately, knee injuries beginning late in his first season severely limited him from there, and though he remains in the league as Lamar Jackson’s backup in Baltimore, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see another season like his first.
After a 2009 season with the Broncos where he totaled only 73 yards, Peyton Hillis was traded to the Browns in 2010 and became their starting running back, using his fullback frame to bowl over defenders on his way to over 1,600 total yards and 13 touchdowns. His performance led fans to vote him as the cover athlete for “Madden NFL 12,” but he became one of the biggest victims of the Madden Curse, leaving Cleveland after a disappointing 2011 season and never catching on anywhere else as a starter.
Wide receiver Brandon Lloyd was the definition of a journeyman for his first seven seasons in the NFL, playing for four different teams and never amassing more than 750 yards. That all seemed to change with the Broncos in 2010, when he developed a connection with quarterback Kyle Orton and finished with 11 touchdowns and 1,448 receiving yards, good for first in the league. Things fell apart, though, in the 2011 season, which saw Tim Tebow take over for Orton and Lloyd traded to the Rams, returning him to journeyman status until his 2014 retirement.
Speaking of Tebow, the former Florida Gators quarterback was another one-season wonder himself. Skeptics questioned whether Tebow’s unorthodox throwing mechanics and play style in college would translate to the NFL, but Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels took a chance, drafting him in the first round in 2010. He got his opportunity to start in 2011, and for a short time he silenced his haters by taking Denver from a 1-4 start to an 8-8 finish and a Wild Card Playoff berth, where he orchestrated a blockbuster win against the Steelers. Peyton Manning arrived in 2012, though, and Tebow couldn’t make it work in stints with the Jets, Patriots, and Eagles.
Running back Jerome Harrison had a slow start to his career in Cleveland, but he turned it on in the last three games of the 2009 season filling in for injured starter Jamal Lewis. During this span he amassed an incredible 561 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns, including a 286-yard, 3-touchdown game that saw him break a Cleveland record previously held by the legendary Jim Brown. Unfortunately, we never got to see what Harrison could do over a full season, as complications from a brain tumor forced him to retire early in 2011.
Quarterback Nick Foles has had one of the strangest careers in the NFL, and you could argue that two of his seasons qualify for one-season wonder status in completely different ways. First was his sophomore season in 2013, when he became the Eagles’ starter and compiled an amazing 27-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. His next two years as a starter were terrible, including one with more interceptions than touchdowns, but he got another chance with the Eagles due to Carson Wentz’s injury right before the playoffs in 2018. Foles put together an incredible run culminating in a Super Bowl victory where he had three passing TDs and one receiving TD, good for game MVP honors.
C.J. Spiller, the talented running back out of Clemson, spent his early time with the Bills as a return specialist and backup to veterans Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson, but in his third season in 2012 he took advantage of his time to shine. That year, Spiller totaled 1,244 rushing yards while averaging over 6 yards per carry, and also added over 450 receiving yards. Family trauma and injuries severely hampered his success over the next two seasons in Buffalo, and despite a promising second chance with the Saints in 2015, Spiller couldn’t find a way to stay on the roster.
Over the last decade, Bill Belichick has become infamous for (among other things) his unpredictable use of running backs, and Stevan Ridley is one of the prime examples. The second-year running back was the Patriots’ leading rusher in 2012 with over 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns, but the following year was a totally different story. Several early-season fumbles put Ridley in Belichick’s doghouse, costing him significant playing time, and 2014 added injury to insult when Ridley tore his ACL. He’s now out of the NFL after a few years of sparing use as a backup.
Another crazy New England running back story, Jonas Gray is really more of a one-game wonder than a one-season wonder. On November 16, 2014, only Gray’s fourth game on the Patriots’ active roster, he filled in for LeGarrette Blount and ran all over the Colts for 201 yards and four touchdowns. He had a whopping 37 carries in the game, a feat since surpassed only once by Le’Veon Bell. Despite his performance, Belichick gave Gray just 20 carries throughout the rest of the season and released him at the start of 2015. Gray was never able to find a long-term fit with another team.
Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe gave the Chiefs several decent seasons in the late 2000s and early 2010s, but his 2010 campaign was a clear outlier. He finished that year with 1,162 yards and a league-leading 15 receiving touchdowns, including 7 in a three-game stretch. For the season, Bowe actually scored on over 20 percent of his receptions, a pace which obviously was not sustainable. The following year he nearly matched his 2010 yardage total but only managed 5 touchdowns, and it was all downhill from there.
Tight end Gary Barnidge only had 600 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns for the entire first seven years of his NFL career, but at age 30 in 2015 he broke out in a big way, recording over 1,000 yards and 9 touchdowns, both Browns team highs and in the top five in the league among tight ends. The next year, with struggling rookie quarterback Cody Kessler starting most of the Browns’ games, Barnidge saw huge drops in both yardage and TDs, and he was cut in the 2017 offseason. He hasn’t played in the NFL since.
Yet another Cleveland Browns story, running back Trent Richardson entered his 2012 rookie season with high expectations as the third-overall pick in the NFL Draft after a 2,000-yard final year at Alabama. With Cleveland he wasn’t a world-beater by any means, but he did compile over 1300 total yards and 12 total touchdowns, a performance impressive enough to convince the Colts to trade a first-round pick for him in 2013. Richardson just couldn’t put it together in Indianapolis and spent two abysmal seasons with the team before they cut their losses and let him go.
Why is it that so many of these guys played for the Browns? Quarterback Derek Anderson has to be near the top of Cleveland’s list of disappointments, as his one-season wonder is one of the franchise’s only two winning seasons in the last 25 years. In 2007, his third NFL season, Anderson started strong with 5 touchdowns in his first game, and he finished the year with 29 passing TDs and 3 rushing TDs. He led the team to a 10-6 record, but it still wasn’t quite enough to make the playoffs. Starting the following year, concussions and the arrival of Brady Quinn brought Anderson down several levels, and he spent the rest of his time in the NFL as a career backup before retiring in 2019.
It’s arguable whether Rex Grossman was ever really any good, but he did somehow make it to the Super Bowl in 2007 after his only season as the Bears’ full-time starting quarterback. Always erratic, Grossman threw almost as many interceptions as touchdowns that year, and Chicago’s dominant defense constantly had to bail him out. The next year, Grossman was eventually benched in favor of the mostly washed-up Brian Griese, and he barely made any noise in the NFL again until another inconsistent season with Washington in 2011 which would prove to be his last.
Marcus Robinson’s 1999 campaign was a bright spot for the Chicago Bears during a stretch when the team was struggling to find a reliable wide receiver. In his first full NFL season, Robinson scored 9 touchdowns and amassed 1,400 receiving yards, a Bears record at the time. The highlight came with a 170-yard, 3-touchdown performance in a win against the rival Detroit Lions. Unfortunately, Robinson missed 15 games due to injury over the next two seasons, and his career never returned to the heights that 1999 had promised.
Another receiver who peaked too soon, Michael Clayton made his name in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. As a rookie that year, Clayton led the Bucs with 1,193 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns, but for whatever reason he never came close to those marks again. In his next five seasons in Tampa he never accrued more than 500 yards or one touchdown in a season, and the team finally released him in 2010.
Vince Young is one of the most renowned college football players in recent history for his heroic performance leading Texas to victory over USC in the 2006 National Championship game, but success in college doesn’t always translate to success in the NFL. As a rookie for the Tennessee Titans, Young struggled as a passer with 13 interceptions against just 12 touchdowns, but he also set a new record for rushing yards as a rookie quarterback and added 7 rushing touchdowns, resulting in Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Over the next few years, though, Young declined as a rusher and never improved as a passer, and he last played in the NFL in 2011.
Giants wide receiver David Tyree is another one-game wonder candidate, but what a memorable game it was. From 2003 to 2007, Tyree was mostly just a special teams player who averaged fewer than 200 receiving yards per season, but he had the performance of a lifetime in the Giants’ shocking 2008 Super Bowl victory over the undefeated Patriots. In the game, Tyree scored his only touchdown of the season and later kept the Giants’ hopes alive with his unforgettable “Helmet Catch.” He never made another catch in the NFL, but did he really need to?
Drew Bennett entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent and spent his first few seasons as the Titans’ third or fourth receiving option, but in 2004 he exploded for 1,247 yards and 11 touchdowns (eight of them in just three games!), surpassing the team’s established number-one receiver Derrick Mason and tallying as a top-10 receiver in the league. He came back down to earth in 2005 as a secondary contributor and retired after just a couple more full seasons.
Drafted by the Jets in 2001, running back Lamont Jordan was stuck behind star Curtis Martin for four years before signing with the Raiders in 2005 and finally getting a chance to start. He made the most of it with almost 1,600 total yards, 11 total touchdowns, and 70 receptions, the latter a season high among running backs. Over the next two years in Oakland, knee and back injuries and the emergence of Justin Fargas cut his production in less than half, and short stints with the Patriots and Broncos were even less successful.
Receiver Sidney Rice’s one-season wonder coincided with Brett Favre’s magical age 41 campaign with the Minnesota Vikings in 2009. After two uneventful seasons to start his career, Rice finished 2009 with 8 touchdowns and 1,312 receiving yards, fourth most in the NFL. He capped off this regular season performance with a three-touchdown game against the Cowboys in the playoffs. However, a hip surgery late in the next offseason caused Rice to miss the first nine games of the 2010 season, and he soon left the Vikings for a less successful stay in Seattle.
Cincinnati Bengals running back Ickey Woods did almost all of his damage as a rookie in 1988 with 1,066 rushing yards and a whopping 15 touchdowns, each one followed by his famous “Ickey Shuffle” celebration. Ickey went all the way to the Super Bowl with the Bengals that year, but he tore his ACL very early in the next season and was never able to regain his starting job. He retired after just four years in the NFL.
Rashaan Salaam, the Heisman-winning running back who sadly took his own life in 2016 at the young age of 42, also had an NFL career that ended far too soon. In 1995, his first NFL season, Salaam had over 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Chicago Bears, but the next year struggles both on and off the field hindered his playing time and production, and by 1997 his time in Chicago (and for all intents and purposes his time in the NFL) had already come to an end.
Arizona Cardinals receiver David Boston made significant strides in each of his first two seasons before busting out in 2001 to lead the NFL in receiving yards with 1,598. The next year, after a drug related arrest, Boston only played eight games for the Cardinals, and that was just the beginning of his troubles. The following two years saw Boston go through two team changes, as well as a PED suspension, a knee injury, and feuds with team management. His career was over after 2005.
Between Bart Starr, Brett Favre, and Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers have been blessed with great quarterbacks for much of their history. One lesser known Packers hero was Don Majkowski, although his heroics only lasted for one season. Majkowski, a.k.a. “The Majik Man,” became the starter in 1989, and that year led the NFL with 4,318 passing yards to go along with his 27 passing TDs and 5 rushing TDs. Sadly, fate was not on his side, as he tore his rotator cuff in the middle of the 1990 season, and though he worked his way back in 1992 he soon lost his job to Favre himself.