10 biggest “what could have beens” in NFL history

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Highlights Severe injuries can derail promising careers and leave players wondering what could have been.
Players like Ickey Woods and Bob Sanders had their careers cut short by injuries, preventing them from reaching their full potential.
Despite their talent and contributions to the game, players like Michael Vick and Ricky Williams will always be associated with off-field controversies.
The perpetual “what if” question looms, especially for players with severe injuries; it’s a big question that sparks debates. What if some of these players had never been sidelined—how much bigger would their legacies have been? There are also those players that have their careers interrupted in a big way by off-the-field controversies, which hold them back from reaching their full potential and keeps NFL fans wondering for decades about what could have been.
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10 Ickey Woods (1988-1991)
The Cincinnati Bengals drafted Ickey Woods in 1988, and he made a memorable impact right away, leading the league as a rookie with a 5.3 yards-per-carry average while also scoring 15 touchdowns and earning Second-Team All-Pro honors. Woods celebrated each touchdown with his infamous Ickey Shuffle, holding the ball in his right hand, shuffling to the right, then switching to his left hand and mixing to the left before spiking it. The Shuffle became one of the defining traits of his team’s run to the Super Bowl that season, as Cincinnati went into a frenzy over Woods and the Bengals in 1988.
The dance became so popular that the NFL introduced a penalty for excessive celebration, prompting Woods to showcase his moves on the sidelines after scoring. Unfortunately, Woods’ career faced a huge setback in the second game of the 1989 season when he tore the ACL in his left knee. The injury kept him out for 13 months, disrupting his momentum.
In 1991, another blow struck as he suffered a right knee injury during the preseason, limiting his playing time. Despite that stellar rookie season with 1,066 rushing yards, Woods struggled with injuries for the rest of his career, managing only 459 yards from 1989-1991. By the age of 26, his promising pro football journey came to an unfortunate end.
Ickey Woods Seasons Games Attempts YPC Yards TD 1988 16 203 5.3 1,066 15 1989-1991 21 129 3.6 459 12
In 2002, the Miami Dolphins invested heavily in running back Ricky Williams, trading two first-round picks and more to the Saints, envisioning him as their centerpiece. This move echoed a previous gamble by the Saints and coach Mike Ditka in 1999, when they traded away their entire draft for Williams. Regarded as one of the worst trades in NFL history, it marked a critical moment in the downfall of Ditka’s career.
After a First-Team All-Pro season in 2002 in which he led the NFL with 1,853 rushing yards, Williams had another impressive 1,000-yard season in 2003. However, Williams then stunned everyone by announcing his retirement just days before the 2004 training camp. Failed drug tests for marijuana were cited as reasons, making it a significant story.
Williams faced public scrutiny, and the Dolphins struggled with a 4-12 record, leading to head coach Dave Wannstedt’s mid-season resignation. He would return in 2005, but was then suspended for the entire 2006 season, during which he played in the CFL. He missed most of the 2007 campaign as well, but returned in 2008 to help the Dolphins take the league by storm with their groundbreaking Wildcat formation.
8 Bob Sanders (2004-2011)
Bob Sanders’ best year with the Indianapolis Colts was either his 2005 or 2007 campaign. In 2005, he played in 14 games and earned First-Team All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors. In 2006, Sanders was instrumental in helping the Colts win Super Bowl XLI, playing in all four of their playoff games after sitting out all but four regular season games with a litany of injuries. Sanders had a forced fumble and two interceptions during that postseason, including a crucial pick in the Super Bowl win over the Chicago Bears.
In 2007, he played a crucial role in the Colts’ defense and was able to stay on the field for 15 games, earning him First-Team All-Pro recognition as well as the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award, one of just four DBs to win it in the last 28 years.
Standing at just 5’8″, Sanders defied expectations with his exceptional speed and aggressive play on the field. Despite his diminutive stature, his tenacity left a mark on the season and solidified his reputation as one of the game’s defensive standouts.
Stat Bob Sanders 2007 Stat Bob Sanders 2007 Ranking (Among DBs) Sacks 3.5 T-2nd Combined Tackles 97 T-1st Tackles For Loss 6 T-4th QB Hits 4 T-4th
However, a string of injuries including arm and ankle ailments as well as worrying recurring knee swelling spanning four consecutive years ended his journey far too soon, leading to retirement following the 2011 season after playing in just 11 total games from 2008-2011. Once on a trajectory for the Hall of Fame, Sanders now finds his career fading from recent memory.
Michael Vick’s impact on the NFL transcends conventional quarterback roles. He was among the league’s greatest athletes, renowned for his blazing speed, remarkable arm strength, and exceptional balance. Vick’s style of play revolutionized the quarterback position, inspiring a new generation of mobile signal-callers, including Cam Newton and Lamar Jackson.
What truly sets Vick apart is his remarkable rushing prowess. Boasting an unparalleled NFL record for career rushing yards by a QB with 6,109, he surpassed the achievements of other notable running backs such as Reggie Bush, Todd Gurley, and Mike Alstott. His yards-per-carry mark of 7.0 is the best in NFL history, reflecting his exceptional ability to make game-breaking plays with his legs.
However, Vick’s journey faced a significant setback in 2007 when authorities discovered evidence of a dog fighting ring known as ‘Bad Newz Kennels’ while searching his property. Vick, along with three others, faced federal conspiracy charges, leading to his imprisonment for 548 days, thereby missing out on his prime 26 to 28-age seasons.
This forced hiatus from the NFL raised doubts about his return to the field, but Vick eventually made an inspiring comeback with the Philadelphia Eagles. While he managed to return to the NFL, the dog-fighting scandal left an indelible stain on his legacy. It also turned a career that had serious Hall of Fame promise into one that will merely be talked about as a “what if” for decades to come.
Former Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis was a dominant force in his short-lived seven-season career, with only four fully healthy seasons. Davis ran for 6,413 yards and 56 TDs in his first four seasons, the former mark surpassed only by Eric Dickerson and Earl Campbell. He led his team to Super Bowl glory in 1997 when he gashed the Atlanta Falcons for 157 yards and three touchdowns to earn Super Bowl MVP honors.
He also notably reached the 2,000-yard mark in 1998 before going on to another 100-yard performance in a second straight Super Bowl victory. However, this season turned out to be his last complete one before a debilitating knee injury early in the 1999 campaign altered the course of his career and forced his retirement in 2001 after just 16 games over his final three seasons.
Davis might seem like just another Hall of Fame running back at this stage. Yet, having accumulated over 6,400 yards in his initial four seasons, if he could have stayed healthy, we would have seriously been looking at a guy who could’ve challenged Emmitt Smith’s seemingly untouchable career rushing record.
Many people forget just how good Billy Sims was because just five years after he went down, the Detroit Lions had another elite running back sporting the No. 20 jersey: Hall of Famer Barry Sanders. Sims, the top overall pick from Oklahoma in 1980, earned Pro Bowl honors in his first three NFL seasons and Second-Team All-Pro recognition in his first two, also winning Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1980.
However, on Oct. 21, 1984, his promising career abruptly ended on the unforgiving turf of the Metrodome. Sims found the end zone with a one-yard run early in the third quarter, narrowing the Minnesota Vikings’ lead to 14-7. After Minnesota’s three-and-out, the Lions got the ball back, and Sims received his 22nd carry of the game, etching a fateful moment into the official play-by-play record.
Taking a handoff from QB Gary Danielson, Sims followed his linemen to the right. As he turned upfield, Vikings linebacker Walker Lee Ashley delivered a crushing hit that resulted in a devastating knee injury. Sadly, after attempting to rehab the knee for two years, Sims announced his retirement, never stepping onto the field for another game.
4 Priest Holmes (1997-2007)
In his prime, Kansas City Chiefs running back Priest Holmes captivated fans with his remarkable ball-carrying skills. Achieving notable feats, he scored eight rushing touchdowns and led the league with 1,555 rushing yards in 2001, becoming the first undrafted rushing champion since 1954.
His dynamic presence earned him three straight Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro nods, two rushing titles, and an NFL Offensive Player of the Year award over his first three years in K.C. The standout year, 2002, saw Holmes amass 1,615 rushing yards and a league-high 21 rushing touchdowns.
He recorded 1,420 rushing yards the following year and set a single-season NFL record with 27 more scores. He also contributed at least 60 receptions and 600 receiving yards each season as a consistent dual-threat. Despite being limited to eight games in the 2004 season, Holmes tallied 892 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns.
However, in October 2005, a tackle by Shawne Merriman led to a serious spinal injury, and Holmes continued to grapple with spinal issues through the 2006 preseason and subsequently missed the entire campaign. Holmes officially retired in 2007 after re-injuring his neck in a game against the Indianapolis Colts that year.
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Green Bay Packers wide receiver Sterling Sharpe, older brother of Hall of Famer and pundit Shannon Sharpe, was one of the most dominant receivers on the football field, boasting five 1,100+ yard seasons and four 90+ catch campaigns in six years. Despite not constantly receiving the same recognition as contemporaries like Jerry Rice or Michael Irvin, Sharpe’s excellence was undeniable.
In his three seasons with Brett Favre, Sharpe exceeded 100 catches in two, amassing impressive yardage totals of 1,461, 1,274, and 1,119 in consecutive seasons. During this period, he received MVP votes twice and consistently caught double-digit touchdowns, peaking at an impressive 18 in 1994. Sharpe also led the league in receptions in 1992 and 1993 and touchdown receptions in 1992 and 1994.
In 1993, Sharpe became the second Packer in team history to catch four touchdown passes in a single game, a feat previously accomplished by Don Hutson in 1945. Unfortunately, his NFL tenure was curtailed by a neck injury, ending a remarkable career in 1994 that included five Pro Bowl invitations and three First-Team All-Pros. What made it even more devastating was that his Packers would go on to win the Super Bowl not two years later.
Bo Jackson’s NFL career spanned from 1987 to 1990 as a running back for the Los Angeles Raiders. As a dual-sport athlete, Jackson was initially selected as the No. 1 overall pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 1986 NFL Draft. However, he declined to play for them, instead signing a baseball contract with the Kansas City Royals.
In the 1987 NFL Draft, the Raiders gave Jackson another opportunity, selecting him in the seventh round after his rights with the Buccaneers had expired. Raiders owner Al Davis was known to covet speed, and no one had it in spades like Jackson, who, legend has it, once ran an inhuman 4.13 40-yard dash. The massive strength he combined with that raw speed made him an unprecedented football weapon.
His touchdowns of 91, 92, and 88 yards during his short career, and his 5.4 yards per carry average, which sits him tied for second all-time for running backs with 500+ carries, were evidence of that otherworldly speed. Jackson’s final NFL season concluded on a tragic note, but before that, he showcased his prowess in 10 games. Almost reaching the 700-yard rushing mark, he scored five touchdowns and maintained an impressive average of 5.6 yards per touch while earning his only Pro Bowl nod.
However, Jackson suffered a severe hip injury in a playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Rumors circulated that he felt his hip pop out of its socket, and he purportedly popped it back into place himself. While medical professionals argue the impossibility of such an act, Jackson’s extraordinary nature challenges conventional understanding. Unfortunately, Jackson was unable to return to the gridiron after the incident, though he did continue on the baseball diamond for a few years.
“Give me 18 inches of daylight; that’s all I need,” NFL legend Gale Sayers proclaimed, encapsulating what made him arguably the most electric player in pro football history. In 1965, on a rain-soaked field against the San Francisco 9ers, Sayers made history with six touchdowns.
Despite 55 years since his rookie campaign, and the fact that they played just 14-game seasons back then, Sayers’ record of 22 touchdowns in 1965 remains unmatched by any rookie. During that exceptional season, he had 14 rushing touchdowns, caught six touchdown passes, and scored on both a punt and a kickoff return. That year, Sayers beat out his teammate Dick Butkus for Rookie of the Year while also picking up the first of five straight First-Team All-Pro nods and the first of four Pro Bowls.
Nine games into the 1968 season, his most successful campaign up to that point, Kermit Alexander of the 49ers collided with Sayers, resulting in a ruptured cartilage and two torn ligaments in his right knee. This injury forced Sayers to sit out the remainder of the season, but he came back with another All-Pro performance in 1969.
However, another devastating knee injury early in 1970, this time to his left knee, marked the effective conclusion of his career. Limited to just two games in 1971, he retired at just 28 years old. Sayers set seven NFL records and 23 team marks over the course of his career, including the highest kick return average (30.56) to this day. He’s also one of just two players in NFL history versatile enough to score at least 35 rushing TDs, nine receiving TDs, six kick return TDs, and two punt return TDs.
Sayers was also known for his transcendent friendship with Brian Piccalo, his teammate on the Chicago Bears in the 1960s. The duo formed a close and groundbreaking bond that defied racial norms of the time. Tragically, Piccolo was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and Sayers supported him throughout his battle. This powerful story of friendship and resilience was adapted into the 1971 movie “Brian’s Song,” capturing their relationship’s emotional depth and impact.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference and all contract information courtesy of Spotrac unless stated otherwise.
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