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Which long-suffering NFL player would you have rescued from his horrible team?

Barry Sanders? Joe Thomas? MJD? Larry Fitzgerald (while there’s still time)?

San Francisco 49ers v Detroit Lions Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images

Too often, great players languish on bad teams. The only thing keeping Larry Fitzgerald from a full decade of losing seasons to start his career was the unexpected resurgence of Kurt Warner. Calvin Johnson played for nine years and won zero postseason games. Joe Thomas played 10,000+ straight snaps for a Browns team that recorded just one winning season over his 11-year career.

But what if you could change that?

Trades and free agency have rescued marooned players from awful teams and given them new lives on Super Bowl contenders. Rodney Harrison escaped a grim lineup of Chargers teams to earn a pair of NFL titles with the Patriots. Jerome Bettis went from a Rams lineup that won 16 games in three seasons to eventually win the big game with the Steelers. Marshall Faulk went in the other direction, leaving a middling Colts team to join the Greatest Show on Turf in St. Louis.

Other players haven’t been as fortunate, churning through exceptional careers destined to end without a Super Bowl title or, in some cases, even a playoff victory. So let’s say you’re a benevolent, time-traveling NFL general manager who can fix that.

Which star player would you rescue from their horrible teams to play for a perennial contender?

There are several big names out there whose postseason success has been limited to fantasy leagues. Ndamukong Suh has never won a playoff game. J.J. Watt has never made it past the Divisional Round. Aeneas Williams spent his first decade in the league with a Cardinals team that qualified for the postseason once.

But if you had one shot to pluck a great team from a bad roster and put him on a Super Bowl contender, regardless of era, who would you pick?

The case for: Joe Thomas to literally any other team but the Browns

Look, I could give you a couple paragraphs on why Joe Thomas was better than the Browns ever deserved, but instead I’m just going to give you this: a list of every quarterback Thomas had to protect in Cleveland.

  • Derek Anderson
  • Charlie Frye
  • Brady Quinn
  • Ken Dorsey
  • Bruce Gradkowski
  • Colt McCoy
  • Jake Delhomme
  • Seneca Wallace
  • Brandon Weeden
  • Thad Lewis
  • Josh Johnson
  • Jason Campbell
  • Brian Hoyer
  • Johnny Manziel
  • Connor Shaw
  • Josh McCown
  • Austin Davis
  • Cody Kessler
  • Robert Griffin III
  • Charlie Whitehurst
  • Kevin Hogan
  • DeShone Kizer

Hah. Gross. — Christian D’Andrea

The case for: Barry Sanders to some team with a defense

Sanders’ mastery of the running back position left him fewer than 1,500 yards from setting the NFL’s career rushing record as a 30-year-old in 1998. Then, he walked away, retiring after 10 seasons and a year in which he’d run for 1,491 yards for a 5-11 Lions team.

It’s not difficult to understand why he’d leave despite coming so close to rewriting history. Sanders languished on a series of Detroit teams with occasionally great offenses and typically awful defenses. The Lions won only a single playoff game in the Sanders era, advancing to the NFC title game in 1991 and then blunting his love of the game with year after year of painful defeats.

Sanders made Detroit just good enough to never bottom out and truly rebuild around him. A decade of roster mismanagement made the franchise just bad enough to never break through. Four wild card defeats followed, and while first-round picks like Herman Moore, Robert Porcher, Ryan McNeil, and Luther Elliss helped, the team’s inability to find starters in the later rounds of the draft kept it in football purgatory.

Sanders famously struggled in the playoffs — he averaged a relatively-low 4.2 yards per carry and ran for fewer than 50 yards in three of his six postseason appearances. Teams understood that taking away Sanders and Moore was all they needed to do to kick the legs out from underneath the Lions — especially against a defense that gave up 32.6 points per game in playoff losses.

Imagine pushing Sanders to a Chiefs team where he could spell a 35-year-old Marcus Allen in spurts. Or pair him with an emerging young quarterback named Brett Favre in an otherwise inefficient Packers backfield. There were plenty of mid-90s teams that would have soared into contention with a prime Barry Sanders on their roster. The Lions were not one of them. — Christian D’Andrea

The case for: Maurice Jones-Drew to a team that’d keep tread on the tires

Imagine the Saints took Alvin Kamara — an exciting, young all-purpose back capable of rushing, receiving, and returning — and gave him about 350-400 touches per season until the wheels came off at age 28.

It’d be a travesty. It’s also exactly what the Jaguars did to Maurice Jones-Drew.

He may seem like a weird addition to this list of players already or soon-to-be in the Hall of Fame. But that’s why it was so frustrating to watch Jones-Drew’s career pan out the way it did.

Jones-Drew was a unique talent, standing 5’7 with legs the size of tree trunks. A small running back comes around every once in a while, but not one who can run through tackles, and knock Shawne Merriman on his ass. Jones-Drew was one of a kind.

In his first three seasons, Jones-Drew split carries with Fred Taylor and contributed as a returner. At the time, the Jaguars were very competitive — even posting an 11-5 record in 2007 and making it to the Divisional Round of the playoffs before running into the 16-0 Patriots buzzsaw.

Then Taylor left after the 2008 season and Jones-Drew became the feature back. In the next three years, the Jaguars broke him. They ran the absolute wheels off Jones-Drew, treating him like he was Jerome Bettis instead of a Swiss Army Knife.

Between 2009 and 2011, he had 1,090 touches — including a league-leading 343 rushing attempts in 2010. It was for a Jaguars team that went 5-11.

By 2012, he was broken down and was a shell of his former self in 2013 and 2014.

The 56 total touchdowns Jones-Drew had in his first four years is the seventh most all-time — more than Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, Adrian Peterson, and Randy Moss. He scored just 23 touchdowns in his last five seasons.

If only Jones-Drew spent his entire career with a team that used him the way the Jaguars did early in his career rather than forcing him into a bell-cow role. — Adam Stites

The case for: Larry Fitzgerald to any team that can win a Super Bowl, hurry, while there’s still time

Unlike the other players on this list, Fitzgerald has been sooooooo close winning a Super Bowl. He’s also the only one who still has a chance of doing it, at least in theory. But time is running out. Fitzgerald will turn 35 in August and rumors of an imminent retirement have swirled for a couple years, despite no discernible decline in the receiver’s play.

Fitz also still plays for the Cardinals, who currently have the NFL’s worst — yes, worse than the Browns and Bills — odds of making the playoffs. With Carson Palmer calling it quits this offseason, the guy throwing Fitzgerald the ball this year will either be “likely injured by Week 4” Sam Bradford, rookie Josh Rosen, or oh god no, Mike Glennon.

And that’s a shame, because Fitzgerald has had to play with more than his share of quarterbacks that you could’ve sworn are imaginary (like what’s their names, John Skeleton and Blaine Garrbet or whatever? Close enough, anyway). If anyone deserves one more shot at a Super Bowl ring, it’s Fitzgerald.

So far in his career, the Cardinals have been to the postseason just four times, most recently during the 2015 season. Fitzgerald pretty much single-handedly brought them to the NFC Championship, where they lost to the Panthers. Afterward, the normally stoic Fitzgerald broke down in the locker room, which I can only advise you to watch if you don’t have a heart.

More notably, Fitzgerald scored what was nearly the game-winning touchdown against the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII. That postseason, Fitzgerald put together a run that’s still in the NFL record books: 30 catches for 546 yards and seven touchdowns in four playoff games. And with just over two minutes left in the biggest game of his career, Fitzgerald came through yet again. He ran a slant, Kurt Warner hit him right on the money, and Fitz raced down the middle of the field for 64-yard touchdown that put the Cardinals on top.

Fitzgerald finished the game with seven catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns. He would’ve been the MVP, until a wide receiver on the other team — Santonio Holmes — tapped his toes in the end zone for what was actually the game-winning score.

Poor Fitz. He’s stayed with the Cardinals for his entire career and has been the only steady presence they’ve had in the last 15 years. His chances of winning a Super Bowl there look grim. But make no mistake: He’s still got it. So please, before it’s too late, let him get a real shot at a championship one last time with another team — just not the Warriors. — Sarah Hardy

So which play would you rescue if you could?


Which legendary NFL player would you rescue from his underperforming team?

This poll is closed

  • 30%
    Joe Thomas from the Browns
    (341 votes)
  • 40%
    Barry Sanders from the Lions
    (449 votes)
  • 3%
    Maurice Jones-Drew from the Jaguars
    (34 votes)
  • 26%
    Larry Fitzgerald from the Cardinals
    (290 votes)
1114 votes total Vote Now