Not everyone gets to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. Even some of the best players in NFL history were never able to win a Super Bowl — players who had bonafide Hall of Fame careers.
Greatness doesn’t guarantee a Super Bowl ring, or in some cases even a chance at a ring. Terrell Owens, Tony Gonzalez, LaDainian Tomlinson, Cris Carter, Eric Dickerson, Tony Gonzalez — the number of titans who have come up empty-handed goes on and on.
It’s nearly impossible to list every truly great player who didn’t win the big game. Instead, we picked out eight players we still can’t believe don’t have a Super Bowl championship on their resume.
Depending on who you talk to, Randy Moss just might be the best receiver of all time. He’s certainly one of the best receivers to ever step on a football field — he was a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection last year.
Despite a career that includes 982 receptions, 15,292 receiving yards, and 156 touchdowns, Moss was unable to clinch a Lombardi trophy. That includes his legendary 2007 stint for the New England Patriots. Moss caught an NFL-record 23 touchdowns for a Patriots that took a perfect 18-0 record into the Super Bowl. They ended up losing to the New York Giants 17-14.
It’s almost criminal that one of the best receivers in NFL history never got a Super Bowl while playing for one of the best teams in the history of the NFL.
Moss got one more chance at a ring in his final season in the league. After a brief retirement, Moss came back to play for the 49ers in 2012. They went on to Super Bowl XLVII, where they lost to the Ravens — another close three-point loss for Moss’ team.
Arguing that Barry Sanders is the best running back of all time is a lot like making the case that Randy Moss was the best receiver. Neither played long enough to chase down major career records, but both were as freakishly unstoppable as the NFL has ever seen.
Sanders won the Heisman Trophy in 1988 with the most absurdly dominant season of football anyone has ever had. Then he made NFL defenses look silly for 10 years, earning a Pro Bowl nod in all 10 seasons.
He averaged 99.8 rushing yards per game, 5.0 yards per carry, and is one of only three players to ever eclipse 15,000 yards. What he never got was a trip to the Super Bowl — something no Lions team has ever done.
Sanders was a member of the only Lions team to play in the NFC Championship in the Super Bowl era. Detroit lost that game, 41-10, to Washington in January 1992.
His career ended abruptly with an unexpected retirement a couple weeks after his 31st birthday. Sanders did more than enough to be an easy first ballot Hall of Fame entry, but unfortunately, we never got to see him win it all.
In January, Larry Fitzgerald announced he’ll return for a 15th NFL season with the Arizona Cardinals. One more year should be more than enough to give him the second spot on the career receptions list (he’s only 22 behind Tony Gonzalez), but it almost definitely won’t get him his first Super Bowl ring. Not unless Kliff Kingsbury is a miracle worker in his first NFL season.
Fitzgerald will probably end his career 0-1 in Super Bowls. That’s a shame because he played some of the most dominant postseason football of any receiver in NFL history.
He finished Super Bowl 43 with seven receptions for 127 yards and two touchdowns against the Steelers. That was after he had 152 receiving yards and three touchdowns in the NFC Championship, and 166 yards and a touchdown in the Divisional Round. In four games that postseason, he had 30 catches for 546 yards and seven touchdowns.
His clutch 64-yard touchdown in the Super Bowl put the Cardinals on top late in the fourth quarter:
And it would’ve given them the win if Ben Roethlisberger hadn’t answered with a touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes.
Fitzgerald will finish his career second all-time in receiving yards, likely second in receptions, and likely sixth in receiving touchdowns. But maybe the most wild stat of his career is that he’s one of eight players with 10 or more receiving touchdowns in the playoffs. He got there in nine games.
That should’ve got Fitzgerald the Super Bowl ring he deserves. Unfortunately, the Cardinals couldn’t piece things together with enough consistency to give him that chance.
Seau was the quintessential multipurpose linebacker; a West Coast wrecking ball who had the intelligence, size, and athleticism to cover any situation in an opponent’s playbook. Unfortunately for him, he was star-crossed by being drafted by the league’s most cursed franchise (non-Browns edition), the Chargers. In San Diego, his quarterbacks were some wretched combination of players like Billy Joe Tolliver, John Friesz, Stan Humphries, Craig Whelihan, Jim Harbaugh, and Ryan Leaf. The fact the franchise even made it to Super Bowl 29 is a testament to Seau’s playmaking.
When his Chargers tenure came to an end, he went to the Dolphins as a 34-year-old linebacker, missed 18 games in three seasons, and generally looked washed up. And then, whoops, turns out that’s just a byproduct of playing in Miami, became a valuable veteran presence, and looked like he’d finally win a ring in the most Rodney Harrison-ish of ways — by escaping San Diego and playing for Bill Belichick.
Seau spent four seasons in New England, somehow right at the start of the franchise’s longest championship drought of the millennium. He saw the Pats go 18-0 in 2007 only to get upended by the Giants in that year’s Super Bowl. He retired after the 2009 season, winning zero more playoff games along the way.
His life after football played out like a Roman tragedy, ending with a battle against CTE and his untimely death in 2012, years before his family would enshrine him as a first-ballot Hall of Famer. With or without a ring he’ll be remembered as one of the greatest players to ever take the field, but if you’re looking for worthy candidates for “best player to never win a Super Bowl,” Seau’s 20-year career, 1,846 tackles, and 10 All-Pro awards certainly puts him in the running.
It’s not rare for an elite player to spend the bulk of his career with a bad team. There’s nothing unique about Frank Gore’s situation — but few players who have played at the level he has for as long as he has did it with his level of dedication, work ethic, and satisfaction. Gore rarely complained when the 49ers were a terrible team, and he didn’t complain when he joined the on-the-cusp Colts, who then collapsed, or the Dolphins, who weren’t particularly good when he joined them.
Gore is nicknamed “The Inconvenient Truth” for a reason: five Pro Bowls, nine 1,000-yard rushing seasons (with another three of at least 850 yards), and fourth all-time in career rushing yards. The man runs hard, in every single situation, and just when you think he might be slowing down, he’ll burn you for a huge gain. Throughout his career, opposing players have often referred to Gore as one of the most difficult players to tackle.
It never seemed possible that Gore would reach a harsh decline and then retire. He’d simply chug along, shouldering defenders into the turf until he decided to hang up the cleats. After he continued to produce at 35 years old in Miami this past season, that’s still the case.
Doesn’t it seem like Dan Marino has a Super Bowl ring? Let’s say it’s weekly trivia night and you have to name as many Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks as you can in one minute so that your team, Tony Romo Knows the Question Before It’s Asked, can beat those nerds at the next table with a name like Trivial Pursuit of Happiness. You’re listing Tom Brady, the Manning brothers, Troy Aikman, Joe Montana ... maybe Dan Marino slips in there. Because it sounds right.
But nope, Marino went to the Super Bowl just once in the 1984 season. The Dolphins got smoked 38-16 by Montana’s 49ers.
Marino had a prolific career, spending all 17 seasons with the Dolphins and getting inducted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. He threw for 61,361 yards in his career (fifth-most in NFL history), 420 touchdowns (also fifth-most), and 8,358 pass attempts (yep, fifth-most), completing 4,967 of them (hey, fifth-most again). He won 147 regular season games, which ranks ... fif—wait, SIXTH all-time. Everyone ahead of him in those rankings is either a fellow Hall of Famer or will be once he’s eligible.
He also helped make the Dolphins popular, which seems nearly impossible nowadays.
Pretty much EVERY Hall of Famer on the Bills teams that lost four straight Super Bowls — but especially Bruce Smith
Jim Kelly. Thurman Thomas. James Lofton. Bruce Smith. Andre Reed. Coach Marv Levy. All Pro Football Hall of Famers. All helped the Bills during their four-year run as the most Sisyphean team in Super Bowl history (though Lofton was only on those first three runner-up teams).
It was a cruel fate for all those men. It doesn’t seem right that none of them can claim a championship. But let’s single out Smith in particular because defenders need love too — and he was one of the best.
Smith’s production can’t be matched — he’s the NFL’s all-time sack leader (with 200!). His longevity is nearly unparalleled, too. He played for 19 seasons and finally retired at the age of 40. He was such a master on the field that pass rushers after him all studied his game — and still do, a decade and a half since his last NFL game.
It’s only fitting that one of Smith’s most memorable plays came in the Super Bowl, the Bills’ first — and closest — loss. In Super Bowl XXV, Smith bulldozed through the Giants offensive line in the blink of an eye to take down quarterback Jeff Hostetler for a safety.
That put the Bills up 12-3 in the second quarter.
It would have been the most defining play of the game, if not for a little something called Wide Right.
No, Wes Welker probably doesn’t count as one of the best to ever do it, but looking back it’s pretty remarkable that he was never a part of a Super Bowl-winning team. Despite spending six years with Tom Brady and two years with Peyton Manning, Welker never won a Super Bowl ring.
He did play in three Super Bowls, though. He was a member of the record-setting 2007 Patriots team with Randy Moss that lost to the Giants, played for the 2011 Patriots that also lost to the Giants, and the 2013 Broncos team that got annihilated by the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Eight years with arguably the top two quarterbacks of all time and no Super Bowl ring to show for it. Life ain’t fair.