People say the longer you play into your thirties, the worse you get. Father Time is undefeated, and it’s a matter of time before one can’t muster the ability to play to their full potential. In the NFL, younger is typically better than older, with some positions becoming outright obsolete upon hitting a certain age. Of course, there are exceptions to everything, and with that, I decided to look into the most notable cases of players performing spectacularly at a time when they probably shouldn’t have. On a further note, this list is specifically looking for players that weren’t already consistently great players. One must simply perform far better than initially expected at the most unexpected time of their careers. Much like the saying, “It’s not how you start, but how you finish.”
#10: Aqib Talib
The only current player on this list, Aqib Talib is a somewhat polarizing player. His antics within games has given him the image of a dirty player, and at times costs his defense some ground. Controversial image aside, his production is something that makes up for his bad temper.
Talib was drafted 20th overall in the 2008 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He became an established starter the year after, where he would stay until 2012, when prior to the trade deadline cutoff, he was traded to the New England Patriots. As 2013 rolled by, it was evident that the Buccaneers gave up a great player when Talib was named to his first Pro Bowl with the Patriots. Unable to work out a long-term deal, he signed with the Denver Broncos prior to the 2014 season, where he would become a part of a mega-deal spending spree for Denver, along with the signing of DeMarcus Ware and T.J. Ward. Talib showed he was worth every penny.
Between 2008 and 2012, Talib was a good, but not great player. Once he had joined a great team in New England, his true skills were brought to light, then again when joining Denver. Since 2013, Talib has made the Pro Bowl every year, along with a First Team All-Pro selection just this last year. His skills as a corner also reflect in his ability to turn those picks into points, as he’s recorded five pick-sixes in the last three seasons with Denver. At age 31, his ability to play doesn’t seem to be in question, which can’t be said for other once-great corners, unfortunately.
#9: Dan Fouts
Fouts’s career surge isn’t exactly late into his own specific career, but it’s late enough to be considered something noteworthy. With the addition of head coach Don Coryell in 1978, the San Diego Chargers’ offense got retooled into something unlike the NFL had ever seen before. At the helm was Dan Fouts, a third-round pick back in 1973 who had had limited success as a starter, but was kept around for sheer talent alone. That talent bloomed suddenly in 1979 when the offense began to click on all cylinders.
The Chargers of the early ’80s were what many considered the father of the modern passing attack of today’s NFL. Dan Fouts managed to conduct the passing machine with grace as he consistently piled on the passing yards game after game. In his first three years as a 16-game starter, he threw for 4,082, 4,715, and 4,802 yards, numbers that were mind-blowing at the time. Even with the strike-filled 9-game 1982 NFL season, he threw for 2,883 yards, good for an average of 320 yards per game. Those are Drew Brees numbers back when Drew Brees was in diapers.
Between 1979 and 1985, Fouts was named to six Pro Bowls and granted two First Team All-Pro honors. His rampant success didn’t begin until he was 28-years-old. He may have placed higher on this list if he sustained that success until retirement, but alas, his last two seasons were forgettable at best. Injuries also caused the acceleration of his regression. If only his talent allowed him more success in the playoffs.
#8: Jimmy Johnson
No, not that Jimmy Johnson. This Jimmy Johnson was a long-time player for the olden-days San Francisco 49ers. And boy, did his career go out with a bang.
The start of Johnson’s career proved just as interesting as the developmental prodigy’s finish. While listed as cornerback, Johnson also saw some time on offense in 1962, catching 34 balls for 627 yards and four touchdowns. For 1962, those are some fine numbers! Snagging that many receptions would make sense for Johnson’s ability to snag interceptions as a cornerback, with 47 career interceptions along a sixteen-year career. His role in the offense dissipated after 1963, and for a while, he served as a capable, if not expendable starter for the 49ers’ defense. At the tender age of 31, Johnson became a part of a changing atmosphere in San Fran, part of which shows with his production.
Between 1969 and 1972, Johnson landed four straight Pro Bowls nods and was named to four straight First Team All-Pro teams. He had established himself as the league’s top corner after nine seasons of subpar team records. He even has a safety to his credit! A safety! As a cornerback! He would make the Pro Bowl one more time in 1974 before finishing his career the same we he started it: by consistently playing to his best capabilities. A sixteen-year career as a cornerback is rare in and of itself, but to have your best success on the wrong side of thirty? That’s remarkable. Jimmy Johnson deserves some recognition for his fantastic ability to stop the clock, if only for a little bit.
#7: Ted Hendricks
Many remember Kurt Warner’s early success, middle blank, and late revival, but Ted Hendricks did it nearly thrity years before. Only difference was that while Warner was undrafted and had to work to get his shot in the NFL, Hendricks was a second-round pick and immediate starter for the Baltimore Colts in 1969. He made an impact, too, though the hardware wouldn’t start until 1971.
Between 1971 and 1974, Hendricks made the Pro Bowl four straight years and snagged two First Team All-Pro titles. Interestingly enough, one of those All-Pros was earned in a lone season for the Green Bay Packers in 1974. In ’75, he signed with the Oakland Raiders and wasn’t immediately named a starter. He eventually gained the coaches’ trust and became one of the core pieces of a championship-caliber team, but his production was somewhat overshadowed by other members of the team. Hendricks’s rise to fame came at the twilight of his career, in 1980, his twelfth NFL season.
At age 33, Hendricks was named to his third First Team All-Pro team, then continued his dominance by earning another two years later, all the while being voted to the Pro Bowl in as many years. He again was voted to the Pro Bowl in 1983, his last NFL season, which ceremoniously ended with the fourth Super Bowl ring of his career. With four Pro Bowls and two First Team All-Pros in his last four NFL seasons, and a Super Bowl title win in his final game, Ted truly rode out on top of the world.
#6: Bill Forester
An oldie, but a goodie.
Before the Packers were run by the late Vince Lombardi, they were a laughing stock. Losing season after losing season, the team had talent, but couldn’t ring in their ability to win games. Bill Forester was one of those players that were lost in the shuffle of it all. As a third-round pick in 1953, Forester played within a team in disarray, but played well enough to earn his starting spot. He would remain in that spot for his entire career, never missing a game between 1953 and 1963. Once Lombardi came along, Forester became an irreplaceable plug in the Lombardi conundrum.
In every year but his last once Lombardi was head coach, Forester made the Pro Bowl. He also made three straight First Team All-Pros between 1960 and 1962. Even with his final season, he performed well enough to start every game and contribute to the team. Under the right management, Forester was able to unleash his talent in a way that suited his strengths, and the league recognized his superior talent within a pool of fantastic athletes. Forester was one of many greats in Lombardi’s Packer defense.
While Bill’s success didn’t seem all that late, with his best years coming in his late-twenties, he retired somewhat early in 1963, at the age of 31 (31 keeps coming up in this list for some reason). Who’s to say if his career would’ve stayed consistently great had he kept playing, or if he realized his ensuing regression in his final year and decided to hang up the cleats to save himself the embarrassment. Whatever the case, Bill’s legacy lives on in the hearts of many old Packers fans, as he helped his team win back-to-back championships in ’61 and ’62.
#5: Rich Gannon
Rich Gannon is a player who was lucky enough to survive in the NFL for as long as he did. The man was drafted by the New England Patriots, but never played a down for them. He caught on with the Minnesota Vikings and eventually became their primary starter, but flamed out after three years. A quick, one-year stop in Washington also didn’t pan out very well. He would see limited success with the Kansas City Chiefs years later, playing well enough for the Oakland Raiders to take a crack at him in 1999… twelve years after he was drafted by New England.
34-years-old, Gannon would see his career take a different turn suited in the silver and black. In his first year as a starter, he made the Pro Bowl. The next three years, his team would go 33-15, and a big part of that was Gannon throwing for 81 touchdowns, a 64% completion rate, and around 12,000 yards. His performance earned him two First Team All-Pro honors and three straight trips to the Pro Bowl, bringing his total to four in four years with the Oakland Raiders. There was no doubt that in that four-year span between 1999 and 2002, Gannon was a top-three quarterback in the NFL.
His success wouldn’t continue through his final two seasons, unfortunately, as injuries and a rapidly regressing team cost him a shot at winning the big one. He would end his career on a soft note, but to think that Gannon would be considered among the best quarterbacks of the early 2000’s after twelve years of relative obscurity is something no one would’ve predicted from a fourth-round pick in 1987. Winning the NFL MVP award at the age of 37 isn’t too shabby, either.
#4: Charles Woodson
This selection is very similar to that of Ted Hendricks. Only difference is that Woodson was a bonafide star coming out of college, as the only defensive player in College Football history to win the Heisman Trophy. Selected fourth overall by the Oakland Raiders in 1998, he would enjoy a little of that success that Rich Gannon enjoyed when he was signed there a year later. Woodson, also like Gannon, enjoyed immediate success donning the silver and black.
In his first four years, Woodson was named to the Pro Bowl four straight years, along with First Team All-Pro honors in 1999. In 2002, the year Oakland made it to the Super Bowl, Woodson was injured halfway through the season, almost symbolic of the downward spiral the franchise would face for years to come. Woodson would continue to deal with injuries for the next few years, until he was eventually released by Oakland after the 2005 season. He eventually signed with the Green Bay Packers, and after two seasons of good play, his real potential would be unleashed once Aaron Rodgers took over the team in 2008.
Between 2008 and 2011, Woodson was selected to four straight Pro Bowls, snagged two First Team All-Pro honors, and won the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2009. He picked off 25 passes in that span, with seven scores along with them. Woodson was at the top of his game playing in his early thirties, the age most defensive backs were slowing down. The performance wouldn’t last, as in 2012, an injury cut his season short, and was released by the Packers soon after. As fate would have it, Woodson would sign back with the Oakland Raiders and spend three years as their starting safety. In his final season in the NFL, at the age of 39, he made the Pro Bowl one last time.
#3: Gene Hickerson
A seventh-round pick out of Mississippi, there wasn’t much expectation for Hickerson to become the star that he did. For a while, that expectation stood, as while he played in a good number of games, he wasn’t so important to the team that he was recognized as a star on the field. No, Hickerson wouldn’t find his groove until mid-way through his career.
Gene didn’t make his first Pro Bowl until the age of thirty, in 1965, seven years after he was drafted. This would result in a consistent surge from Hickerson, making the Pro Bowl six straight years between 1965 and 1970. In that span, he was also named First Team All-Pro three straight years. For a seventh-round pick, this was an absolute steal.
By the end of his career, Hickerson would appear in over 200 career games, performing at a level many wouldn’t have expected him to. His last three years were standard fare, but he started every game and ended it with the toughness that the Cleveland Browns were known for back in the old days. He would eventually be rewarded for his efforts by making the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007, 34 years after he retired. This honor wouldn’t have happened without that unprecedented six-year span of dominance, and is very well deserved, despite the wait.
#2: Chuck Howley
Speaking of the Hall of Fame, here’s a player that probably really deserves to be in there.
Chuck Howley was drafted seventh overall by the Chicago Bears, but had so little impact for them that he may as well have not played for them. After two seasons in Chicago, he didn’t play at all in 1960, but was eager to play the next year. Chicago traded him to Dallas, where he would play under Tom Landry and the “Doomsday Defense,” though his contributions wouldn’t become notable until some years later.
Howley played well within the defense, but his best years started in 1965, seven years after he was drafted and at the age of 29. Between 1965 and 1971, he would make six Pro Bowls and five First Team All-Pros. His exertion of skill showed tremendously in his early-to-mid-thirties, in spite of Father Time. He recorded two seasons of five or more interceptions as a linebacker. Some defensive backs can’t even do that, and to do it in the ’60s? Absolutely fantastic.
While playing well in 1972, he didn’t make the Pro Bowl, and injuries caused his final season in 1973 to be relegated to a single game. Still, how poetic it is to have Howley’s last great season as a Cowboy be celebrated with a Super Bowl victory. It almost seems like once he made it to the top of the mountain, he took his time coming back down. Even so, the journey to the top paid off for him in a big way, with all sorts of awards to his credit as one would expect from a first-round pick. It just took him a little while to find a system where he could play to his heart’s content.
#1: Steve Young
This was really a no-brainer, at least for me. Steve Young is one of the most fascinating stories in NFL history, and his talent is evident in his performance alone.
Touted as a great NFL prospect in 1984, Young decided to skip the NFL and sign a ten-year, $40 million contract with the emerging USFL football league, where he would play with the Los Angeles Express. In 1985, the league went under, and after being selected first overall in the NFL’s Supplemental Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Young would spend his first two NFL seasons being chased around by opposing defenders. His record with Tampa Bay as a starter was 3-16. He was traded to the San Francisco 49ers in 1987, where he would serve as the back-up to the legendary Joe Montana. He would play sparingly, but never took the starting spot from Joe until a fateful injury in 1991.
Starting in 1992, at the age of 32, Steve Young was the bonafide starter for the San Francisco 49ers. He performed as though Joe Montana was just another quarterback.
While Young didn’t win as many Super Bowls, he was absolutely magnificent in the starting role. In the span between 1992 and 1998, he made the Pro Bowl every year, was awarded with three-straight First Team All-pro honors, and won the NFL MVP award twice. His three-year run between 1992 and 1994 had him post three consecutive quarterback ratings of over 100. In 1994, he completed over 70% of his passes, a feat only done three times up to that point. He led the league in completion percentage five times, in quarterback rating six times, and in touchdown passes four times. He was an absolute monster as the 49ers starting quarterback, and in a lot of ways better than his predecessor. It would be naive to say he wasn’t the best quarterback of the ’90s. His only knock was that he didn’t perform nearly as well in the playoffs.
Almost in a Peyton Manning-like sense, Steve Young was a fantastic pure passer, but wasn’t exactly the best person to win championships with. Even so, what he was able to accomplish in the regular season (along with a single Super Bowl victory) makes him incredibly deserving of the top spot on this list. Young enjoyed the most success of his career when most quarterbacks would be relegated to back-up roles. For that, his late-career surge is certainly one that should be noted for all who wish to know.
Honorable Mentions: Kurt Warner, Jay Hilgenberg, London Fletcher