All-Time NFL Greats Who Hung Around Too Long

When his career is said and done — and considering the recent news that he had surgery for a torn ACL at some point this offseason, that moment may be sooner than you think — in what uniform will you remember Terrell Owens? As a 49er? A Cowboy? If Owens is in fact able to play next season, it will be for his sixth different team, though I’m sure no one is going to remember the Buffalo Bills page of his career for any given length of time.

Owens certainly isn’t the only all-time great to relocate via free agency or trade, though he is the only player in the all-time top 50 Weighted Approximate Value ranking at Pro Football Reference that has played for as many as five teams (Deion Sanders joins him as the only five-teamer in the top 100). However, plenty of people above Owens on the list made Buffalo-like forgettable stops on their paths to finishing out a great career. Let’s review some of the best.

Reggie White (1) tops the WAV list thanks to a storied career split between Philadelphia (eight seasons) and Green Bay (six seasons). After missing the entire 1999 season, White returned in 2000 at the age of 39 to play with the Carolina Panthers, amassing 5.5 sacks and retiring as the all-time sack leader. Of course, Bruce Smith (7) wasn’t quite done, playing his first of four seasons for the Redskins that year and eventually passing White’s record in his age-40 season in 2003. History isn’t likely to remember the all-time sack leader battle taking place between a Panther and a Redskin, though.

Jerry Rice (2) will always hold a place as one of the greatest to ever play the game. He could very well be the best 49er ever, and fans will also remember his twilight years with the Raiders. However, history will definitely forget Rice’s 11-game stint with the Seattle Seahawks during his age-42 season, in which he started nine games, caught three TDs and averaged 32.9 yards per game. The all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and TDs can thank the Seahawks if Owens or Randy Moss comes just short of breaking any of his records.

Johnny Unitas (10) spent 17 years as the face of the Baltimore Colts, throwing for 39,768 yards and 287 TDs in Baltimore. The Golden Arm was actually drafted by Pittsburgh out of college but didn’t make the team, instead going on to win three MVP awards for the Colts. At the end of Unitas’ career, the team traded him to the San Diego Chargers, where he would start four games and throw three more TDs. What, you haven’t seen a Johnny Unitas Chargers throwback jersey?

The great Carl Eller (11) played before sacks were tabulated as an official stat, but he certainly had his fair share, being credited with 130.5 in his career. Drafted by the Bills in the ’64 AFL draft and the Vikings in the ’64 NFL draft, Eller would obviously go to the NFL to play a major role with the Purple People Eaters. Minnesota would enjoy most of his Hall of Fame career before trading him to Seattle for Eller’s last season in 1979.

Bill George (22) is widely recognized as the first true middle linebacker in a 4-3 defense in NFL history, though he was a jack-of-all-trades at the beginning of his career. Notably the first of several great Bears linebackers, George would play his final season with the Los Angeles Rams in 1966.

The all-time rushing leader, Emmitt Smith (23) is an iconic player for a franchise with many of history’s greats. You’ll no doubt remember him breaking the all-time rushing record with the Cowboys. After reaching that terrific milestone, Smith would then move on to play two seasons for the Arizona Cardinals, long time rival of “America’s Team.” Say it ain’t so!

One can argue whether Steve Young (18) or Joe Montana (32) is the best quarterback in San Francisco history. While Young came to the 49ers after a two-year stint with Tampa Bay, Montana would save his team switch for the end of his career, spending his final two seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs and taking the team to two playoffs. Unlike most of the people on this list, his successful stint with a different team is likely going to stay in people’s minds for a long time.

Owens and Randy Moss (33) were/are similar players in many regards — explosive talents, off-field distractions and multiple return addresses during their excellent careers. Moss is, however, the only guy in our top 50 to play for three different teams in one season, ending last year with the Tennessee Titans and barely seeing any action during his stay with the team. Give it 10 years and no one will remember Moss the Titan.

Two players that tied with Owens on the list also deserve mention. One is undoubtedly familiar — Warren Moon (44) made quite a mark on football even though he didn’t join the Oilers until the ripe old age of 28. He would eventually play until he was 44, and while I can definitely remember him in Oiler, Viking and Seahawk uniforms, I’m having a tough time conjuring up images of his two-year stint in Kansas City. That’s probably because he threw just 37 passes for the Chiefs. Also tied with Moon and Owens is Hall of Famer Ron Yary (44), a seven-time Pro Bowl tackle for the Vikings in the ’70s. He would close his career as a one-year backup for the Los Angeles Rams.

Who will be the next all-time great to (not) make a mark playing on another club during their final seasons? Two active players (discounting Falcon, Packer, Jet and Viking great Brett Favre) are in the top ten all time in Weighted Approximate Value. Could Peyton Manning ever play for another franchise? Will Ray Lewis eventually move on to another team for a season or two? Can Moss top Owens’ five teams (and counting) before all is said and done? Where do you think both will end up for the 2011 season? Randy, I hear Buffalo could use another wide receiver …

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