Life in the NFL reaches a climax when you finally climb the mountain and win the Super Bowl. It is the zenith of a career in football, yet it isn’t something that every player can achieve.
Of course, you find players who are limited in ability and are never realistically going to be part of a team good enough to challenge for a championship. But there are situations where the complete opposite is true.
Many NFL legends have been unable to reach the promised land of a Super Bowl title for varying reasons. Their individual performances have often been of a spectacularly high level, but bad luck or poor teammates often go against them.
It’s remarkable how many legends have fallen short throughout NFL history, especially when you look at some lesser players who have gotten their hands on the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
#5 – Dan Marino (QB)
Dan Marino is one of the truly great quarterbacks to ever play in the NFL. He perhaps doesn’t get the recognition he deserves because he emerged and played alongside Joe Montana, but Miami Dolphins fans remember him as the guy who gave their franchise hope.
Marino spent 17 seasons with the Dolphins, throwing 420 touchdown passes for 61,361 yards, yet his record was mixed in the postseason. In those 17 seasons, he reached the postseason just 10 times, retiring with a record of 8-10.
Marino, though, came close to winning a championship in 1984, just his second season in the NFL.
He steered the Dolphins to wins over the Seattle Seahawks and the Pittsburgh Steelers to set up a Super Bowl matchup with the feared San Francisco 49ers.
Marino fell short on the big stage, throwing two interceptions, while Montana showcased his best throws in the NFL’s showpiece matchup.
Marino would never again get as close to the Vince Lombardi Trophy as that, with the Dolphins failing to get back to the Super Bowl ever since.
#4 – Jim Kelly (QB)
Jim Kelly’s NFL career didn’t start until three years after the Buffalo Bills drafted him. For a person now considered to be Buffalo’s favorite son, Kelly showed an aversion to playing football for the Bills.
The Bills drafted Kelly with the 14th selection, yet he refused to play for the team and was able to sign for the Houston Gamblers of the USFL.
After two seasons in Houston, the USFL folded, and Kelly was suddenly an elite quarterback who was unemployed. The Bills still held his NFL registration rights, and thus, he finally made the journey to freezing Buffalo.
He was an instant hit in a no-huddle offense that saw the Bills turn into the best team in football. He would play quarterback for the Bills for 11 seasons, throwing 237 touchdown passes, but his career is remembered more vividly for a string of Super Bowl failures.
In perhaps the most heart-wrenching development on this list, Jim Kelly led the Bills to four successive Super Bowls. He lost all four and never got his hands on the trophy, a pain that still resonates throughout Buffalo.
#3 – Randy Moss (WR)
Randy Moss was a prodigious talent at wide receiver, even if NFL teams were petrified of him ahead of the 1998 draft. After slipping all the way to the Minnesota Vikings at No. 21, Moss systematically began a career of proving people wrong and making defenders look stupid.
Moss scored 156 touchdowns and caught 15,292 yards in his career, but he never found himself on the right team at the right time, except once.
The 2007 New England Patriots were boosted by the signing of Moss, who had burned his bridges with the Oakland Raiders. He proved to be the best receiver in the league as the Patriots had a 16-0 regular season and went all the way to the Super Bowl.
It seemed a given that they would steamroll the 10-6 New York Giants in the Super Bowl, but the infallible team was defeated in the biggest upset in modern Super Bowl history.
Moss would again be part of a losing Super Bowl effort with the 49ers in 2012, ensuring he retired without a ring.
#2 – Bruce Smith (DE)
With 200 sacks in the NFL, Bruce Smith lives on as one of the most feared pass rushers to ever play the sport. He was instrumental in the rise in popularity of defensive players after 1985 and won the Defensive Player of the Year award on two occasions.
He spent his entire career with two franchises: the Buffalo Bills and the Washington Commanders. He was selected into the Pro Bowl 11 times but was also part of the infamous Bills team that reached four successive Super Bowls.
Having been one of the best players in his position ever to play, it is a shame Smith got so close but never over the final hurdle in the playoffs. However, it shows that even the most dominant defensive player in NFL history isn’t enough without a small slice of good luck.
#1 – Barry Sanders (RB)
Barry Sanders remains universally famous for being an NFL star who was relatable. He turned up every week to do his job and did it exceptionally well.
Sanders entered an ailing Detroit Lions franchise and became the greatest running back ever to play. In 10 seasons with the Lions, Sanders led the NFL in rushing four times. He won the Offensive Player of the Year award twice and the NFL MVP award on one occasion after rushing for 2,053 yards in the 1997 season.
Despite his individual brilliance, there wasn’t a huge amount of talent around him, and his postseason career was full of disappointment.
Sanders didn’t reach the playoffs until his third season in the league, winning his only playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys.
In the four seasons in which Sanders reached the playoffs again, the Lions were one-and-done every single time. This left Sanders without ever having a realistic chance of a Super Bowl, despite his generational talent.