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These are the best players who spent their careers on terrible teams

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Joe Thomas retired on Wednesday, bringing to end one of the most incredible, and fruitless, professional careers ever. In an era of free agency and trade-happy general managers, it takes a special player to be one of the best in history, and yet remain on a hapless garbage team, hoping one day things will improve.

If there was a rock shaped like a butt large enough to carve their faces into, we would — but for now we can just appreciate the sacrifice of these salarymen who went to work every day, knowing they were in a horrible job, and kept giving it their all.

The mountaintop

Barry Sanders

Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images

Y’all knew he was going to be here. God, Barry Sanders was so good and the Lions were so helplessly garbage. It takes skill to mitigate the talents of a year-in-year-out 1,000-yard back and erase his 10 average rushing touchdowns to still fail to make the playoffs as much as the Lions did.

Sanders was a 10-time Pro Bowler. He rushed for over 15,000 yards and 99 touchdowns in 10 years. During that time he only got to play in six playoff games total. Insert him into any bottom tier team and they manage to make the NFC Championship at least a couple of times — but the Lions were special.

Joe Thomas

Sanders is no longer alone. Thomas’ loyalty to the Browns borders on sadomasochism. He was a generational talent at left tackle. The kind of player teams dream about having protect their quarterback. Thomas was so good that voters appreciated he was the only saving grace on a decade’s worth of horrible teams, naming him as an All-Pro in seven of his 10 NFL seasons.

Thomas suited up in 167 games for the Browns and never got to the playoffs. He destroyed himself so the likes of Derek Anderson and Jeff Garcia could be safe. Football is unfair.

Calvin Johnson

The Lions strike again. Like Sanders, the team broke his spirit and made him walk away from the game, when he still had to much to give. Stat lines include 11,000 receiving yards, 83 touchdowns — when he retired he was still a 1,000-yard pass catcher.

Megatron is a tragedy because he never got to experience winning in college either. He was drafted out of Georgia Tech on the promise he would be explosive in the NFL, and he was — but he never got to shine in three straight five-loss seasons, all with a quarterback who couldn't complete 50 percent of his passes.

Johnson is put in the top tier for not just an NFL career full of floundering teams, but a football life shaped by it.

Matt Le Tissier

David Beckham of Manchester United   Matt Le Tissier of Southampton

The Southampton midfielder wins the award for longevity, playing an astonishing 17 seasons without so much as a peep from The Saints. The best they ever finished during his time with the club was seventh, and almost every year they were fighting to stave off relegation.

The irony of Le Tissier’s career is that if Southampton had gotten relegated, he’d likely have gone to a much better team and maybe won something, but he was so good and so loyal he was left languishing in the bottom half of the table year-in-year-out forever.

Absolute tragedy.

Felix Hernandez

The fifth head on our Mount Rushmore of sadness, King Felix is in a league of his own when it comes to MLB players. Seriously. Think of a player who has been this good, for this long and never got to play in a single postseason series.

Now look, baseball by its nature requires the kind of collaboration that means a single pitcher can’t shoulder all the burden — but the Mariners have had one of the best in the era, and still can’t put pieces around him.

Thirteen seasons. A career 3.20 ERA. He won the Cy Young in 2010. He’s a six-time all-star. Hernandez’s loyalty has never been repaid because sports are cruel.

Approaching the summit

Philip Rivers

Oakland Raiders v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

The thing I love the most about Philip Rivers is all the stuff surrounding him. The dude is still plugging along, posting amazing season after amazing season, for a Chargers team that never even wanted him. Remember: San Diego WANTED Eli Manning, and settled for Rivers during the draft day debacle that had the Manning progeny turn them down, forcing a trade.

So Rivers goes to the Chargers, forcing out Drew Brees — who leaves and wins a Super Bowl with the Saints. Rivers keeps playing for the Chargers, hoping things will improve and has only played in nine playoff games.

Now Rivers is on the wrong side of 30, has thrown for over 4,000 yards in eight seasons and still throws twice as many touchdowns as he does interceptions every year.

Shane Doan

Shane Doan has 972 career points, placing him in the top 100 players of all time. Somehow, some way, he avoided being traded or leaving the Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes for 20 years. There was a time he’d be mentioned among the top players in the league, easily — but never got a chance to show the world what he was capable of.

When it was all said and done, Doan finished with just 10 playoff series to his name.

Steven Jackson

The poster child for 7-9 bullshit, Jackson languished on so many shitty Jeff Fisher teams it’s remarkable. Now, yes, he did go on to play for Atlanta and New England — so that just helps to bump him down on a the list a little.

Had Jackson stayed in St. Louis his entire career we’d have one for the ages. Over 10,000 rushing yards, 56 touchdowns with the Rams. He’d also add over 3,000 through the air. All-in-all, he wasn’t that far off Sanders stat wise, and only appeared in two playoff games in St. Louis.

Maurice Jones-Drew

MJD was a victim of being a really good player at a really bad time. His role on the Jaguars was identical to Leonard Fournette, except the team around him was always trash. With only nine seasons to his name it’s easy to lose him in the shuffle, but it has to be appreciated just how good Jones-Drew was, and just how bad the Jaguars were around him.

He gathered 8,000 rushing yards and 68 touchdowns. Oh, and one playoff win.

Honorable mentions

These guys definitely aren’t on the same tier, but their contributions to bad teams should be appreciated for all time.

Carey Price — He’s only 30, so there’s a lot more time for the Canadiens netminder to cement himself among the greats.

Ernie Banks — Only kept off this list because he played before free agency. He was trapped on a horrible team, and he had no other options.

J.J. Watt — Jury has to be out on this one. The Texans are FINALLY showing a ton of promise with DeShaun Watson at the helm, and could actually break through.

Allen Iverson — Making the NBA Finals cures a lot of ills. That said, without Iverson those 76ers teams would have been a dumpster fire.

Larry Fitzgerald — Loyal to a fault. Like Iverson, he made a Super Bowl, which helps this a lot — but unless something changes very quickly he’ll be on the mountaintop too.

Who do you think deserves to be honored as being one of the best players on one of the worst teams?