Well, it looks like Tony Gonzalez really is retired, so I guess it’s safe to run this post. I wanted to add his 2013 performance to my list of Best Final Seasons in NFL history, but there was always the chance the Patriots or some other tight end-needy contender would talk him into playing another year.
Gonzalez wanted badly last season to close out his career the way Ray Lewis, Michael Strahan and Jerome Bettis had in recent years — by winning the Super Bowl. (In his case, his first.) Alas, the Falcons were one of the league’s biggest flops, going 4-12 after reaching the NFC title game the season before, and Tony’s typically sterling efforts (83 catches, 859 yards, 8 touchdowns and his 14th Pro Bowl) went for naught.
Still, at least he retired at or near the top of his game. The same can’t be said for Lewis, Strahan and Bettis, despite their fairytale endings. Ray missed 10 games in 2012 with a torn triceps and failed to make the Pro Bowl. Strahan ranked third on the Giants in ’07 with nine sacks (to Osi Umenyiora’s 13 and Justin Tuck’s 10). And Bettis rushed for a career-low 368 yards in ’05 (though his nine rushing touchdowns were tops on the team).
Other players have hung ’em up after having much better seasons — and a handful have even done it while winning a ring (or whatever bauble owners handed out in those days). The lineup of Fabulous Finishers:
BEST FINAL SEASONS IN NFL HISTORY
● 2013 – Tony Gonzalez, TE, Falcons (age: 37): I’ve already hit you with his numbers. You’ll appreciate them even more when I tell you he had 80 receptions (or better) at ages 31, 32, 33, 35 and 36, too. No other tight end has been older than 30 when he caught that many balls.
● 2006 – Tiki Barber, RB, Giants (age: 31): Had 1,662 rushing yards, 2,127 yards from scrimmage and made the Pro Bowl with an 8-8 club that somehow stumbled into a playoff berth. Contemplated making a comeback several years later, after his TV career went south, but couldn’t find a taker.
● 1999 – Kevin Greene, LB, Panthers (37): Racked up the last 12 of his 160 sacks (No. 3 all time) for 8-8 Carolina.
● 1998 – John Elway*, QB, Broncos (38): Posted a passer rating of 93, earned a Pro Bowl berth, won the Super Bowl and was voted the game’s MVP (after throwing for 336 yards). Endings don’t get any sweeter than that.
● 1998 – Barry Sanders*, RB, Lions (30): Hard to believe the NFL lost two Hall ofFamers – who were still playing at a high level – to retirement in the same year. Sanders’ ’98 numbers (coming on the heels of his 2,053-yard rushing season): 343 carries, 1,491 yards, 4 touchdowns. Alas, Detroit went 5-11 in his Pro Bowl swan song.
● 1996 – Keith Jackson, TE, Packers (31): Caught a career-high 10 TD passes and played in the last of his five Pro Bowls as Green Bay won its first championship since the Lombardi years.
● 1983 – Ken Riley, CB, Bengals (36): Exited after a season in which had eight interceptions (second in the league), ran back two for scores (one a game-winner) and was elected to his first Pro Bowl. The Bengals weren’t nearly as good as he was, finishing 7-9.
● 1979 – Roger Staubach*, QB, Cowboys (37): Won his fourth NFL passing crown (rating: 92.3) and appeared in his sixth Pro Bowl for division champion Dallas.
● 1965 – Jim Brown*, RB, Browns (29): Before going off to make movies (e.g. “The Dirty Dozen”), Brown had a typically terrific season, leading the league in rushing (1,544), rushing touchdowns (17) and yards from scrimmage (1,872). His final game, though, with the title at stake, was less satisfying: a muddy 23-12 loss to the Packers.
● 1960 – Norm Van Brocklin*, QB, Eagles (34): The Dutchman was the NFL MVP, tossing 24 TD passes (and, on the side, averaging 43.1 yards a punt) in quarterbacking the franchise to its last championship. Retired to become coach of the expansion Vikings, making him the last player to call it quits and step directly into a head-coaching job.
● 1955 – Otto Graham*, QB, Browns (34): Led the league with a 94 passer rating and went to the Pro Bowl as Cleveland won its second straight title (and seventh in a decade, counting its time in the All-America Conference).
● 1955 – Pete Pihos*, E, Eagles (32): Was still a Pro Bowler – and catching more passes (62) for more yards (864) than anybody in the NFL – when he decided he’d had enough. Philly’s 4-7-1 record undoubtedly made it easier.
● 1950 – Spec Sanders, S, New York Yanks (32): Picked off a league-best 13 passes in his one NFL season (after coming over from the All-America Conference). Only one player in history has had more: the Rams’ Night Train Lane (14 in ’52).
● 1945 – Don Hutson*, WR, Packers (32): Capped an incredible career with 47 receptions, tops in the league, for 834 yards and 9 TDs. (And the season, mind you, was just 10 games. His stats would project to 75-1,334-14 over a 16-game schedule.) Green Bay had won the championship the year before, but finished third in the West in ’45 with a 6-4 mark.
● 1937 – Cliff Battles*, RB, Redskins (27): Took his second NFL rushing crown with 874 yards, helping the Redskins, in their first season in Washington, win their first title. A contract dispute with owner George Preston Marshall caused him to retire and turn to college coaching.
* Hall of Famer
Another familiar name that should be on this list is Reggie White. The legendary defensive end initially retired after the 1998 season, when he had 16 sacks for the Packers and was the league’s defensive player of the year. But he reconsidered two seasons later and gave it one last go with a 7-9 Panthers team, adding 5 ½ (needless) sacks to his resumé. All it did was delay his entry into the Hall of Fame.