Who had the best final seasons in NFL history?
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Who had the best final seasons in NFL history?

Some acclaimed NFL talents recently submitted strong final seasons, with multiple perennial Pro Bowlers opting to call it quits earlier than expected. Here is how these players rank among the best final seasons in the NFL's first 100 years.

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30. Kevin Greene

Kevin Greene
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It isn't surprising that one of the NFL's greatest sack artists went out with a 12-sack season. Greene's 12 quarterback drops in 1999 sit second-most for a player in his final season, and those last sacks may have been crucial to the outside linebacker's Hall of Fame entry. Oddly overlooked for more than a decade, Greene was inducted in 2016. The former Rams and Steelers renegade rush man remains No. 3 on the all-time sack list (with 160) and in 1999 he recorded four two-sack games — including two in his final contest.

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29. Randy Gradishar

Randy Gradishar
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One of the best players not in the Hall of Fame, Gradishar announced before the 1983 season that it would be his last. While 1983 is known more for John Elway's Denver debut, the Broncos inside linebacker again led his team in tackles to finish his career with upward of 2,000 (though, tackle numbers from this era are unofficial). The former Orange Crush centerpiece earned second-team All-Pro honors in '83 and went to his seventh Pro Bowl. The Broncos (ninth in points allowed) returned to the playoffs for the first time since the 1970s.

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28. Charles Woodson

Charles Woodson
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The future Hall of Famer did not decline much, finishing his career as one of 2015's best safeties. The former Heisman Trophy winner and shutdown cornerback intercepted five passes and recovered four fumbles in a Pro Bowl walk-off at age 39 — Woodson's first Pro Bowl in four seasons and ninth overall. Pro Football Focus rated the 18th-year defender as its top coverage safety that season. While that Raiders rebuild did not end up taking off like it appeared to be in 2015, Woodson did his part to help. His five INTs moved him into a tie for fifth all time.

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27. Ryan Shazier

Ryan Shazier
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Shazier announced his retirement earlier in 2020, wrapping up an inspirational yet tragic process that began when he suffered a life-altering spine injury in December 2017. The former first-round Steelers draft pick was on his way to an extension and a place as a premier linebacker. An elite coverage 'backer, Shazier still led all linebackers with 12 passes defensed in his 12-game season. And he intercepted three passes en route to a second Pro Bowl. The Steelers defense did not recover from their top linebacker's injury; their season ended with Blake Bortles' Jaguars hanging 45 points on them in Round 2. 

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26. Will Shields

Will Shields
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The Chiefs amassed a historic talent collection upfront in the early 2000s, with fellow Hall of Famer Willie Roaf and perennial Pro Bowl left guard Brian Waters joining Shields. Roaf retired after 2005, but Shields and Waters steered Larry Johnson to a dominant 2006 season. The first-team All-Pro totaled 2,199 scrimmage yards, helping a Chiefs team that lost Trent Green to injury for much of the year to the playoffs. Shields retired after Kansas City's wild-card loss (and after his 12th straight Pro Bowl). Johnson had other issues but was never close to the same after Shields retired. 

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25. Kevin Mawae

Kevin Mawae
Rich Kane-Icon Sportswire

The AFC's No. 1 seed in 2008, the Titans did not return to the playoffs in 2009. But this 8-8 team is associated with one of the NFL's greatest rushing seasons. Chris Johnson became the league's sixth 2,000-yard rusher, and his 2,509 yards from scrimmage remain the single-season record. One of his blockers was a 38-year-old Hall of Famer. On his third team and in his 16th season, Mawae started 16 games and made his eighth Pro Bowl. CJ2K never had another season close to that one, and his two years running behind Mawae at center featured the best per-carry averages (4.9, 5.6) of his career.

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24. Michael Strahan

Michael Strahan
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Retirement rumors followed Strahan in 2007, but the Hall of Fame defensive end has since admitted he preferred to skip training camp in his NFL finale. The Giants benefited from having their defensive leader back. Strahan led a fearsome pass rush that also included Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck. While Strahan registered only nine sacks in the regular season and didn't receive a Pro Bowl invite, Big Blue's longtime left end added two in the playoffs — including one on Tom Brady in the Giants' Super Bowl XLII upset — and seven QB hits before exiting after one of the NFL's most iconic games.

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23. Ed Newman

Ed Newman
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One of the few players from the Dolphins' early-1970s dynasty to be part of Dan Marino's record-setting 1984 season, Newman made his 12th and final slate count. Not a full-time starter until his seventh season, Newman surged onto the All-Pro first team at age 33 after helping Marino shatter decades-old NFL records. A weight room wonder who joined Hall of Fame center Dwight Stephenson on 1984's top All-Pro team, Newman started all 19 Dolphins games that season and ended his career in Super Bowl XIX. A 1985 knee injury prompted the four-time Pro Bowler to call it quits. 

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22. Luke Kuechly

Luke Kuechly
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Kuechly stunned the NFL with his early retirement, though exiting the league early has become more commonplace in recent years. Retiring at 28, Kuechly still probably did enough to secure Hall of Fame entry. The 2019 season did not go well for the Panthers, who lost their final eight games, but Kuechly made his seventh Pro Bowl. The tackling cyborg still registered 144 stops and remained an elite coverage linebacker, notching 12 passes defensed, two INTs and his only career safety. No other player in Panthers history has more than two first-team All-Pro honors; Keuchly retired with five.

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21. Pete Pihos

Pete Pihos
Bettmann-Getty Images

The top receiving option on the Steve Van Buren-fronted offenses that led the Eagles to the 1948 and '49 NFL titles, Pihos went out on top in 1955. Announcing in November that he was retiring at season's end, the acclaimed split end led the NFL in receptions (62) and receiving yards (864). Pihos, a 1970 Hall of Fame inductee, closed his career with four straight first-team All-Pro honors. The 6-foot-1 weapon remains top five in Eagles history in receiving yardage (5,619) and aerial TDs (61). 

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20. Kurt Warner

Kurt Warner
Rich Kane-Icon Sportswire

Although Warner was not invited to his fifth Pro Bowl, the Cardinals quarterback delivered another strong season in 2009, which included one of the great playoff performances ever. The 38-year-old passer shredded the Packers for 379 yards and five touchdowns in a 51-45 overtime win in a wild-card duel with a young Aaron Rodgers. Warner threw for 3,753 regular-season yards and 26 touchdowns, and his Cards soundly defeated Brett Favre's Vikings in November. A concussion against the Saints ended Warner's career, but he punctuated one of the most unusual NFL odysseys in memory in his 11th and final season.

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19. Marshal Yanda

Marshal Yanda
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Likely bound for the Hall of Fame, Yanda ended his career on a record-setting offense. The Ravens pivoted to a Lamar Jackson-piloted attack midway through the 2018 season and turbocharged it in 2019. Yanda made the Pro Bowl in both years, and the dominant guard helped Baltimore break a 41-year-old record. The Ravens' 3,296 rushing yards eclipsed the 1978 Patriots' single-season mark, and Baltimore parlayed that cutting-edge formula to a franchise-best 14-2 record and the AFC's No. 1 seed. Yanda retired as an eight-time Pro Bowler.

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18. Spec Sanders

Spec Sanders
Bettmann-Getty Images

Sanders played one NFL season and did so for a franchise that existed for only three years. But the defensive back produced one of the more randomly excellent seasons in NFL history while closing out his career for the 1950 New York Yanks. (They played their home games, naturally, at Yankee Stadium.) Coming over from the All-American Football Conference's New York Yankees, the 32-year-old Sanders intercepted 13 passes. A two-way player as an AAFCer, Sanders worked solely on defense in his NFL debut, which also included two fumble recoveries. The 13 INTs (in 12 games) rank second in league history.

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17. Barry Sanders

Barry Sanders
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Sanders was steamrolling toward Walter Payton's career rushing record before a summer 1999 retirement, but the all-time great's 1998 season was a bit off his historic '97 showing. The most brilliant runner of his era saw his per-carry average drop from 6.1 yards to 4.3. Sanders finished the '98 slate with just four TDs. That said, he still rushed for 1,491 yards — fourth that season — and stuck out on a mediocre Lions team. Sanders' 10th season ended with his 10th Pro Bowl. Detroit's superstar retiring at 30 deprived the sports world of seeing how far he could bury that rushing record.

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16. Bobby Boyd

Bobby Boyd
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One of only three cornerbacks to be named first-team All-Pro in his final season, Boyd left the game after the most shocking upset in NFL history. The 1968 Colts deployed a menacing defense that allowed an NFL-low 10.3 points per game. Playing for defensive backs coach Chuck Noll in his final season as an assistant coach, Boyd intercepted eight passes and landed on his third All-Pro squad. His age-31 season also included one pick in the playoffs. Of course, the Jets spoiled the Colts' coronation with a one-sided Super Bowl III. Boyd's 57 INTs (T-13th) sat third in NFL history when he retired.

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15. Robert Smith

Robert Smith
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One of the NFL's more underrated players for a stretch, Smith walked away after by far his best season. Turning to Daunte Culpepper for the first time, the Vikings rolled to the NFC's No. 2 seed in 2000. While Randy Moss and Cris Carter obviously helped the cause, Smith blazed to a 1,521-yard rushing season — third-most all time for a player in his final year — and added three receiving TDs to finish with a career-high 10 scores. The running back on Minnesota's record-setting 1998 offense and the Vikes' starter for four seasons, Smith retired at age 28, doing so after a second-team All-Pro bid.

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14. Jamir Miller

Jamir Miller
Jonathan Daniel-Allsport

If not for Spec Sanders, Miller would be this list's most random name. The linebacker's final season (and lone Pro Bowl nod) came with the 2001 Browns. A 1994 Cardinals top-10 pick, Miller dropped a borderline-historic '01 season: 13 sacks, four forced fumbles, 99 tackles. The 13 sacks are the most for any player in his final NFL season. Miller's versatile 13/99 showing has been bettered by only one player this century: James Harrison in his 2008 Defensive Player of the Year slate. (Miller outdid Harrison with 22 tackles for loss, however.) He retired after tearing his Achilles before the '02 season.

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13. Don Hutson

Don Hutson
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By far the greatest wide receiver of his era, and one of the best ever, Hutson left the game after his 11th season. His 1945 slate featured typical brilliance. In 10 games the 32-year-old Packers deep threat led the NFL with 47 receptions and turned those into 834 yards and nine touchdowns. As he did each season, Hutson played defense as well, intercepting four passes to finish his defensive career with 30 picks. The nine TD grabs inflated Hutson's career total to 99. That record stood until Jerry Rice's 1992 season. When Hutson retired, he had 62 (!) more receiving TDs than second place

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12. Andrew Luck

Andrew Luck
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Luck's late-summer 2019 retirement stunned the sports world, particularly because the Colts quarterback had surmounted a troublesome shoulder injury the year prior. Obscured somewhat by Patrick Mahomes' stratospheric season, Luck finished second in 2018 with 39 touchdown passes en route to Comeback Player of the Year acclaim. After missing all of the 2017 season, Luck powered a rebuilding Colts team to the playoffs after a 1-5 start. The Colts have yet to truly replace the former No. 1 overall pick, turning to stopgaps. A Luck return should not be ruled out, but he has now taken multiple seasons off.

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11. Ken Riley

Ken Riley
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Oddly unrewarded (accolades-wise) for a 15-year career with one team, Riley landed on the 1983 All-Pro team and made sure his name would appear near the top of the interception list a generation later. The Bengals cornerback picked off eight passes in his final season and returned two for scores. He intercepted two passes in his final game, and those two grabs have Riley still tied for fifth on the all-time INT list, with 65, 37 years later. The other members of the top eight are all Hall of Famers, yet Riley was never selected to a Pro Bowl. 

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10. John Hannah

John Hannah
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One of the league's greatest guards left the game after his 13th season, which doubled as a significant year for the Patriots. The NFL's first road wild-card team to book a Super Bowl berth, the 1985 Pats upset three teams to face the Bears in Super Bowl XX. Their offensive line anchor secured the seventh of his All-Pro honors, helping pave the way for Craig James' career year (1,227 rushing yards). In the Pats' AFC title game upset over the Dolphins, Tony Eason threw for just 71 yards. The Pats rushed for 255. Their next game did not go well, but it does not diminish Hannah's final season.

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9. Cecil Isbell

Cecil Isbell
Bettmann-Getty Images

A 2008 inductee into the Pro Football Researchers Association's Hall of Very Good, Isbell did not opt to stay in the NFL long. He left the game after five seasons, but his 1942 swan song stands out. Benefiting from throwing to Hutson, in the Packer legend's time-capsule season, Isbell led the NFL in passing yards and touchdown tosses by wide margins. Isbell's then-record 24 TD tosses were eight more than second-place Sammy Baugh's during this World War II-era season; his 2,021 yards paced the league by over 500. Isbell retired after throwing a TD pass in an NFL-record 23 games. 

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8. Roger Staubach

Roger Staubach
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Like Steve Young later would, Staubach made a late entrance as an entrenched NFL starter. The Hall of Famer's run as the uninterrupted Cowboys first-string quarterback lasted just seven seasons, but his 1979 finale was top class. The 37-year-old passer established new career highs in passing yards (3,586) and touchdown passes (27) in a Pro Bowl season — one Staubach punctuated with one last comeback. The two-time Super Bowl champion helped Dallas clinch the NFC East by erasing a 13-point Washington lead in the final three minutes in a 336-yard performance. 

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7. Jerome Brown

Jerome Brown
Stephen Dunn-Getty Images

Brown in 1991 was at his apex, squarely in a prime that had him pointed toward the Hall of Fame. But the gregarious Eagles defensive tackle died in a 1992 car accident. Reggie White left in free agency months later, ending one of the NFL's top position groups' run. But in '91, Eagles D-linemen Brown, White and Clyde Simmons were first-team All-Pros. The youngest member of this lethal trio finished with nine sacks and helped a Randall Cunningham-less Eagles team to 10 wins. Those Eagles rate as the greatest DVOA defense Football Outsiders has measured.

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6. Tiki Barber

Tiki Barber
James D. Smith-Icon Sportswire

Although the 2007 Giants won Super Bowl XLII, their best player in 2006 was undoubtedly their running back. Barber carried a flawed team to the playoffs in his final season. Announcing midway through the '06 season he was retiring at age 31, Barber set a new statistical standard for running back walk-offs. The all-purpose back's 1,662 rushing yards and 2,127 scrimmage yards are the most in a player's final season. Buoyed by his late-career ball-security technique, Barber amassed a 234-yard rushing night in Week 17 to book Big Blue a playoff berth. He rushed for 137 in the Giants' wild-card loss. 

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5. Sterling Sharpe

Sterling Sharpe
James V. Biever-Getty Images

Because of the older Sharpe brother's career stopping after seven seasons, the Packer great is a bit overlooked. But this was Jerry Rice's top peer in the early 1990s, and in 1994, Sharpe and Brett Favre continued their special connection. Although Sterling's 1,119 yards were only his fourth-best total, Favre found him for 18 touchdowns — still third-best all time. A neck injury forced Sharpe to quit after his age-29 season, but he went out after his fifth Pro Bowl. Had Favre played with Sharpe for a few more seasons, the Packers probably would have become an even more formidable '90s operation.

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4. Otto Graham

Otto Graham
Bettmann-Getty Images

Graham set the table for Favre by unretiring in 1955. The Browns quarterback's first exit rivals Michael Jordan's second for the best ever, having led Cleveland to a 56-10 thrashing over rival Detroit for the NFL title. But Paul Brown's successor options struggled in the 1955 preseason, and he lured Graham back. The result: a lesser workload (just 185 attempts), more TD passes than 1954 (15) and another walk-off championship — this one a 38-14 win over the Rams to tilt the Browns-Rams title-game rivalry at 2-1 Browns. Graham retired with seven championships (three NFL) and played for a title in all 10 of his pro seasons.

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3. John Elway

John Elway
E. Bakke-Getty Images

The modern version of the Graham exit, Elway considered retirement after the Broncos' Super Bowl XXXII title but returned to pilot a stacked team. The 38-year-old quarterback's 1998 season included a four-game injury absence, but the Broncos went 14-2 and cruised to the Super Bowl XXXIII victory. Elway threw 22 touchdown passes and made his eighth Pro Bowl. While MVP Terrell Davis (2,008 rushing yards in '98) drove this team after Elway had spent his career carrying lesser rosters, No. 7's final showing was a 334-yard, Super Bowl MVP-securing dissection of the Falcons and former Broncos coach Dan Reeves.

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2. Norm Van Brocklin

Norm Van Brocklin
Bettmann-Getty Images

Van Brocklin joined Graham in retiring twice. The former Rams quarterback backtracked on quitting after the 1957 slate in Los Angeles. After a 1958 trade to Philadelphia, "The Dutchman" completed a finale for the ages in 1960. Throwing a career-high 24 touchdown passes (in the then-12-game season), the 34-year-old QB led the Eagles to a 10-2 record and was named NFL MVP. The future Hall of Famer then became the only passer to best Vince Lombardi's Packers in a championship game. Van Brocklin led a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter to lift the Eagles to a 17-13 win.

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1. Jim Brown

Jim Brown
Focus on Sport-Getty Images

The 1964 Browns championship represents the most recent Cleveland football conquest, but arguably the greatest player ever did his part to defend the crown. Brown in 1965 scored a career-high 21 touchdowns, rushed for 1,544 yards (his eighth rushing title in a nine-year career) and earned his eighth All-Pro honor. The Packers beat the 11-3 Browns for that year's championship, but instead of coming back for an age-30 season — which he said would be his last — Brown retired after a "The Dirty Dozen"-related dispute with owner Art Modell. The Browns have not played for a championship since. 

Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.

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