Published May 03, 2010
"I lived part of the dream, I'm just short the other part. That's why I coach. I do it to finish it." - Bengals legend Tim Krumrie on never having won the Super Bowl
"It's hard. It's agonizing. It eats at you. When you see a Super Bowl, when you go to one, you think, 'We had four chances to win one of these and we didn't win one.' " - Former Buffalo Bills linebacker Darryl Talley
"'Fight on, my men,' Sir Andrew said, 'a little I'm hurt, but not yet slain. I'll just lie down and bleed a while and tomorrow I'll rise to fight again.'" -- Ex-Bills head coach Marv Levy
In this lonely post-draft/pre-training camp period known as the NFL's dark season, you hang on to the few football-related bites you're served. Twitter dispatches from rookie minicamps are treated like breaking news, undrafted free-agent signings are tracked with astute diligence and any Terrell Owens updates at all are followed as if it were summer 2003. We're football starved, and when you're famished, you eat the crumbs.
The NFL Network began rolling out NFL Films' America's Game: The Missing Rings series last weekend at the perfect time. To be certain, it's anything but crumbs. Narrated by the likes of Tom Selleck, Alec Baldwin and James Gandolfini, the geniuses at NFL Films put together hour-long documentaries on five teams that didn't win the big one.
They're heartbreaking. They're agonizing. They're brilliant.
True to the America's Game style, three individuals from each of the five teams -- the '88 Bengals, '90 Bills, '69 Vikings, '98 Vikings and '81 Chargers -- share memories and insights interspersed with highlights (or lowlights) and rare NFL Films footage from the years that they came up just short. You ache with Kellen Winslow as he lies writhing on the field in Miami; you shudder with Cris Carter as Gary Anderson misses his first (and only) field-goal attempt of the season in the '98 NFC championship game; you empathize with Joe Kapp and Bud Grant as the '69 Chiefs "matriculate the ball" up field for an entire game on the Purple People Eaters Vikings defense.
And through it all, you realize not everyone wins a Super Bowl ring. Many of the all-time greats -- Bruce Smith, Jim Kelly, Boomer Esiason, Carl Eller -- are ringless.
When the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV, it was natural to celebrate the accomplishments of Drew Brees and Reggie Bush. But it was Darren Sharper and Mark Brunell -- two longtime veterans on the New Orleans roster who'd come so close to winning rings in the past -- who were the real sentimental favorites.
"To be on a championship team this late in my career ...you get 17 years [in the NFL], and you just wonder if you're ever going to be a part of something like this," the 39-year-old Brunell told reporters in the Saints locker room after the victory.
Brunell voiced the sentiments of hundreds of NFL greats who've had careers that span decades, only to end without a championship.
Who are the ringless veterans to watch in 2010? The guys doing everything they can in the twilights of their careers to avoid being interviewed in black and white in future versions of America's Game: The Missing Rings ?
Here are 10 veterans still chasing the dream. They've come close to Nirvana, but have consistently fallen short.
1. Donovan McNabb, QB, Washington Redskins
NFL Tenure: 1999-Present
Current Legacy: McNabb has played in five NFC championship games and one Super Bowl, but has yet to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
The Closest He's Come: Super Bowl XXXIX -- Down 24-14 with six minutes left, McNabb is slow to the line and bleeds 3:52 off the clock on a painstaking 13-play, 79-yard touchdown drive. The Eagles don't get the ball back until the final seconds of the game, and it ends with an intercepted pass. McNabb has yet to return to the Super Bowl.
2010 Outlook: A new team, a new coach, and a new source of motivation should make McNabb a sentimental favorite around the league. A young receiving corps, a shaky offensive line and a loaded NFC East should keep the perennial Pro Bowler out of the Super Bowl -- yet again -- in 2011.
2. LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, New York Jets
NFL Tenure: 2001-Present
Current Legacy: The all-time record for rushing touchdowns and points scored in a season, Tomlinson is perhaps best known for his playoff failures and shortcomings.
Despite a 14-2 record and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs in 2006, the Chargers lost to the Patriots in the AFC divisional round under Marty Schottenheimer. In '07, Tomlinson injured his knee against the Colts in the divisional round, carrying the ball just twice for five yards in an AFC title game loss in New England. After re-injuring his groin in a wild-card win over the Colts in '08, Tomlinson missed the Chargers' AFC divisional loss to Pittsburgh. Last season, Tomlinson split carries in a backfield for a team that finished the regular season with 11 straight wins. The Chargers lost to the Jets at home.
The Closest He's Come: 2008 AFC championship game -- Tomlinson carries the rock twice before taking a seat on the bench against the undefeated Patriots. The lasting image is Tomlinson, with his visored helmet, standing stoically on the sidelines.
2010 Outlook: After AFC West titles in four consecutive years, Tomlinson still has no Super Bowl appearances on his resume. He joins a veteran Jets team in "Win Now" mode with the chance to take that leap. With several big-name veterans -- and big personalities -- in the same locker room, chemistry may be the only thing keeping New York from a return trip to the AFC championship game.
3. Brian Dawkins, Safety, Denver Broncos
NFL Tenure: 1996- Present
Current Legacy: One of the most punishing and respected safeties ever, B-Dawk is a five-time All-Pro with five NFC championship games on his resume. He remains ringless, out in Denver, at age 36.
The Closest He's Come: Like Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens, Dawkins' sole trip to the Super Bowl came in the 2004 season. At the age of 35, Dawkins was a Pro Bowl performer for the Broncos in 2009. Despite starting the season 6-0, Denver missed the playoffs.
2010 Outlook: Year 2 of the Josh McDaniels Era in Denver will come with plenty of media attention and national interest, and not because of Dawkins. Rather, it will be because of a backup rookie quarterback named Tebow. Can a team that finished the '09 season on a 2-8 skid make a Super Bowl run without go-to wide-out Brandon Marshall on its roster? Two rookies -- Eric Decker and Demayrius Thomas -- will do their best to replace the perennial 100-catch machine. In short, Denver will be Super Bowl long shots.
4. Randy Moss, Wide Receiver, New England Patriots
NFL Tenure: 1998-Present
Current Legacy: Considered a problem child coming out of Marshall, Moss rebounded from being the No. 21 overall pick in the '98 draft to produce a career worthy of the Hall of Fame. That career has been dotted with both highs and lows. A three-time conference championship game participant, Moss has been the go-to weapon on the two highest-scoring offenses of all time ('98 Vikings, '08 Patriots). And yet he has zero Super Bowl rings to show for any of it.
The Closest He's Come: 18-0 turned into 18-1 when the red-hot Giants shut the Patriots down in Super Bowl XLII. Moss caught five balls for 62 yards and a touchdown in the game, but New England fell short in the 17-14 defeat.
2010 Outlook: With both the Jets and Dolphins loading up with veteran acquisitions this offseason, the Patriots have been something of a sleeping giant in the AFC East. Wes Welker is still recovering from multiple surgeries, and the Pats failed to pick up a rookie or veteran receiver to fill in for him. The Patriots are always the favorites in the AFC East, but this could be the last year for a Super Bowl run. The core isn't getting any younger.
5. Jason Taylor, DE/LB, New York Jets
NFL Tenure: 1997-Present
Current Legacy: One of the few NFL stars who transcends sporting and cultural platforms, Taylor is known by many non football-watching Americans as a "Dancing With the Stars" contestant. In NFL circles, he's known as one of the great defensive players in league history.
The Closest He's Come: In 2000, Taylor and the Jay Fiedler-led Dolphins reached the Divisional Round of the playoffs after an overtime Wildcard victory over the Colts. Miami was shut out the next week in Oakland. That's as far as Taylor has gone.
2010 Outlook: Despite years of publicly trashing Jets' fans in the papers, Taylor joins the longtime enemy in pursuit of a Super Bowl ring. Like running back and fellow longtime rival LaDainian Tomlinson, this could be Taylor's last chance at a ring.
6. Tony Gonzalez, TE, Atlanta Falcons
NFL Tenure: 1997-Present
Current Legacy: A 10-time Pro Bowl performer with an NFL tight end record of 999 receptions, Gonzalez has never played in a conference championship game, let alone a Super Bowl.
The Closest He's Come: In 1997, Gonzalez's rookie year, the Chiefs went 13-3 and won the AFC West. Despite home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, Kansas City was upset by Mike Shanahan's Broncos. That was the second time in three years the Chiefs had been seeded first and lost in the divisional round. Despite three more playoff appearances -- two with Kansas City, one with Atlanta -- Gonzalez has yet to win a single postseason game.
2010 Outlook: There's reason for optimism in Atlanta. A young, maturing defense, one of the league's best signal callers in Matt Ryan, a healthy Michael Turner -- but it'll take a major upset for the Falcons to usurp the Saints as NFC South division champs.
7. Ed Reed, Safety, Baltimore Ravens
NFL Tenure: 2002-Present
Current Legacy: Considered a sure-fire NFL Hall of Famer by most, Reed is a six-time NFL All-Pro, 2004 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, with an AFC championship game start. Gaudy as that resume is, it began two years after the Ravens' Super Bowl win.
The Closest He's Come: The 2008 Ravens, led by rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, lost in the AFC championship game to the Steelers in Pittsburgh. In the AFC wild-card round, Reed intercepted Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington twice, returning one for a touchdown. In the 2009 postseason, Reed had interceptions in both of Baltimore's playoff games.
2010 Outlook: If Reed's back -- lingering neck and hip injuries make this an "if" -- he'll be the safety on a team that a lot of folks have pegged to make a Super Bowl run. Coming off promising 2008 and 2009 postseason runs, the Ravens added veteran wideouts Anquan Boldin and Donte Stallworth and two prized rookie draft picks on defense in Terrence Cody and Sergio Kindle. Baltimore's a sexy pick out of the AFC in 2010. That is, of course, if Reed is on the field.
8. Charles Woodson, Cornerback, Green Bay Packers
NFL Tenure: 1998-Present
Current Legacy: One of the greatest corners to ever play the game, Woodson is coming off of an NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in his 11th NFL season. At 34, Woodson has played in one Super Bowl and three conference championship games. He's a tuck rule call away from making that four.
The Closest He's Come: In 2002, the Raiders entered Super Bowl XXXVII -- their first trip to the big one in 19 years -- as the Vegas favorites over the Jon Gruden-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After a first quarter that ended with the teams tied at 3, Tampa Bay exploded in the third for 17 unanswered points and eventually blew Woodson and the Raiders out of Qualcomm Stadium, 48-21. The 1997 Heisman Trophy winner hasn't been back to the Super Bowl since.
2010 Outlook: Green Bay's defense, believe it or not, was its Achilles' heel in the 2009 playoffs. In the divisional round at Arizona, Dom Capers' vaunted 3-4 defense surrendered 51 points to Kurt Warner and the Cardinals. Green Bay has added some pieces to both the offense and the defense and should be in the hunt for a Super Bowl berth in 2010. Woodson and teammate Al Harris combine to form one of the league's best -- and oldest -- starting cornerback duos. Neither has any rings.
9. Brian Urlacher, Linebacker, Chicago Bears
NFL Tenure: 2000-Present
Current Legacy: A four-time All-Pro selection and the 2005 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Urlacher has long been considered one of the game's top linebackers. In recent seasons, he has battled injuries and been in and out of the lineup. Without a healthy Urlacher, the Bears have missed the playoffs in every season since their Super Bowl run in 2006.
The Closest He's Come: In '06, the Bears overcame shaky quarterback play and a Week 12 Tommie Harris injury to defend their home field in the NFC and represent the conference in Super Bowl XLI. The Colts beat Chicago, 29-17, and the Bears haven't been back to the playoffs since.
2010 Outlook: Like the Jets, the Bears are suddenly in "Win Now" mode. Urlacher's wrist is healing, and the defense added Julius Peppers and rookie safety Major Wright. Additions on offense like Chester Taylor and offensive coordinator Mike Martz should pay immediate dividends. Widely considered the third-best of the four NFC North teams, look for Chicago to be a sexy sleeper pick by pundits out of the NFC in 2010.
10. Terrell Owens, Wide Receiver, Free Agent
NFL Tenure: 1996-Present
Current Legacy: "Selfish," "distracting" and "locker room cancer" are the descriptions most commonly attached to Terrell Owens. He's also a five-time All-Pro, third on the all-time list in receiving touchdowns and the only player in NFL history to score a touchdown against all 32 NFL teams.
The Closest He's Come: After the Eagles jumped out to a 13-1 start to the 2004 season, Owens severely fractured his ankle in a late December game against the Cowboys. He'd miss the rest of the regular season and all of the NFC playoffs. Returning for the Super Bowl, Owens played heroically in a 24-21 loss -- catching nine balls for 144 yards and a touchdown. He hasn't won a playoff game since.
2010 Outlook: Not good. Though you'd like to think a team would be willing to take a shot on Owens, it has been three months since the start of the 2010 free agency period, and he remains a man without an army. He was as well-behaved and as productive as anyone could have hoped in his one year in Buffalo. It'd be a shame if that campaign was his last.