by Bryan Knowles
Out quest to find the best players to never make the playoffs continues as we flesh out the Joe Thomas All-Stars! Yesterday, we took a look at Joe's teammates on offense. Now, we flip to the other side of the ball to find out which defensive standouts never got to experience postseason play.
Once again, we're focusing on players after 1967, as that's when the NFL postseason as we know it today began -- this isn't going to be a list of Hall of Famers from the NFL's prehistoric age. In addition, while we're technically listing a 3-4 front on our roster here, we're not really highlighting one defensive alignment over another. Rather than try to cram 50 years of NFL defensive advancement into a modern alignment, we're just naming seven front seven players, and we'll let our coach figure out how best to use them.
Oh, and we're going to need a coach as well, aren't we? In that case, we'd better stop talking and get to our picks.
Rich "Tombstone" Jackson
1966 Oakland Raiders, 1967-1972 Denver Broncos, 1972 Cleveland Browns
3x All-Pro, 3x Pro Bowl, 41 Weighted Career AV
You know, I could tell you all about Jackson, who (along with Deacon Jones) was one of the masters and innovators of the head slap. Alternatively, I could just quote Paul Zimmerman, who called Jackson "the very best run-pass defensive end the game has ever seen":
Jackson occupies a special place in my memory because 1) no one ever heard of him, since he was an outlander from one of the AFL's backwater franchises, and 2) he has never reached any serious level of Hall of Fame consideration, despite my lobbying for him every year in the preliminary balloting, mainly because knee injuries took the heart out of what could have been a glorious career.
Closest Call: Jackson suffered a severe knee injury in 1971, which essentially ended the dominant portion of his career. He gave it a go in 1972, traded to the Cleveland Browns -- who did, actually, make the postseason that year. It does not appear, however, that Jackson actually played in the divisional playoff game. Pro Football Reference doesn't list him, no contemporary report I've been able to find mentions him, and watching highlights of the game, I've only spotted his No. 87 on the sidelines. Assuming he didn't slip into the game for a play, he qualifies!
2001-2009 Buffalo Bills
2x Pro Bowl, 61 Weighted Career AV
Ah, the Buffalo Bills. Despite having the second-longest playoff drought of the modern era, they didn't have a single player named to the offensive side of the Joe Thomas All-Stars. They'll pick up the slack here, though. Aaron Schobel was a consistent presence on the Bills' defensive line throughout the 2000s, racking up three double-digit-sack years along the way. He's second only to Bruce Smith on Buffalo's all-time sack rankings, finishing his career with 78. While never the most dominant pass-rusher in the game, Schobel provided regular and reliable production as an edge rusher for nearly a decade, before opting to retire rather than continue his career outside of Buffalo. He is the all-time sack leader for defensive linemen who never made the playoffs, with the caveat that "all-time" begins in 1982 for official NFL purposes.
Closest Call: Schobel was a key part of the 2004 Bills' fearsome defense. Before this season, we looked back at the top 30 defenses of the past 30 years, and Buffalo's -28.5% DVOA ranked fourth -- they're the best defense no one really remembers. These Bills were the best team of the century to miss the playoffs, and they did so in one of the most heartbreaking manners possible -- by losing a win-and-in game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were resting all of their starters. The fact that it's not the most painful loss in Buffalo history just underscores how many painful losses there have been in Buffalo history.
2010-2017 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
1x All-Pro, 6x Pro Bowl, 61 Weighted Career AV
Gerald McCoy remains one of the top five defensive tackles in football today, and was the only true difference-maker on the Tampa Bay defense last season. He's quicker than any good tackle not named Aaron Donald, has exceptional strength and technique to fight through double-teams, and generally has done a good job reminding Buccaneers fans what exceptional defensive line play should look like. He's always up there with our league leaders in defeats by interior linemen, and he has had to pull double-duty as Tampa Bay's best run-stopper and pass-rusher for years now.
Closest Call: The 2010 Buccaneers saw a sudden turnaround thanks to the infusion of a number of rookies in key positions, including McCoy. They became the first team since the merger to start 10 rookies and achieve a winning record, finishing 10-6 with a 3.7% DVOA. It wasn't enough, however -- the Buccaneers finished in a three-way tie at 10-6, losing tiebreakers to both Green Bay and New York. Even if they had made the playoffs, however, McCoy wouldn't have joined them -- he tore his left biceps in December and ended the year on IR.
The NFL didn't start recording individual sack leaders until 1982, so any list of the top pass-rushers in NFL history is going to be incomplete, but here are the biggest recorded totals for players without a playoff appearance:
|Most Sacks, No Playoff Appearances, 1982-2017|
There are a couple All-Pros who I struggled to leave off the list in favor of Schobel. Cleveland Elam was part of the 49ers' Gold Rush line that led the league in sacks in 1976 -- he unofficially had 32 sacks in 1976 and 1977. Chuck Walker played for 12 seasons in both St. Louis and Atlanta, and was a key player on the first Falcons team ever with a winning record in 1973. Either would replace Jackson if it turns out he did slip into that playoff game.
James Hall had two seasons with double-digit sacks in Detroit and St. Louis. He boasts the worst "adjusted career winning percentage" in NFL history, per Chase Stuart, so his career was just full of fun times. John Zook was one of the best linemen in Falcons history and would appear on this sack list if sacks had been an official stat in the 1970s; when teams would double-team Claude Humphrey, Zook would make them pay. Chris Kelsay was another member of those 2004 Bills and another victim of Buffalo's long playoff drought.
When it comes to defensive tackles, Sean Gilbert deserves a nod, even if he's more famous now for leveraging an awkward franchise tag situation with Washington into a humongous contract in Carolina than for being the youngest ever Pro Bowl starter. You also find plenty of staples of terrible teams for a decade: Bob Pollard with the 1970s Saints, John Mendenhall for the 1970s Giants, Tim Goad for the 1980s and 1990s Patriots and Michael Bankston for the 1990s Cardinals and Bengals. And then you have the 2010s Jets, which leads us into…
With respect to Dr. Z, I had Muhammad Wilkerson on the list up until the very last minute -- when he's motivated (which, admittedly, happens less and less these days), he can be slotted anywhere on the line and wreak havoc. When he was next to Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams, that was one of the most impressive defensive lines in football. Both Wilkerson and Richardson would join McCoy on a 12-playoff team-era squad.
The only other active Pro Bowler to have never made the playoffs is Joey Bosa, who hasn't had long enough of a career to really count as a snub yet. After that, the well runs dry, unless you count Lamarr Houston, who was a defensive lineman in a 4-3 system in Oakland at the beginning of his career. Probably best to stick with McCoy and the Jets.
1965-1973 Chicago Bears
Hall of Famer, 5x All-Pro, 8x Pro Bowl, 78 Weighted Career AV
We mentioned in the offensive article that there are only four modern-day Hall of Famers who never saw the playoffs, and two of them came into the league together. Butkus and Gale Sayers were both part of a 1965 Chicago draft that really should have meant great things for the franchise, with seven solid contributors taken -- but they never made the playoffs. They'll just have to console themselves with Butkus, who basically defined the middle linebacker position for decades -- one of the meanest, toughest tacklers the league has ever seen.
Closest Call: There actually was an extra playoff game in 1965. At that time, the NFL didn't use a tiebreaker system. They just had the tied teams play an extra game to determine who made the NFL Championship. The Green Bay Packers and Baltimore Colts tied at 10-3-1 atop the NFC West… and the Bears were a half-game behind, at 9-5. Butkus was a first-team All-Pro and replaced fellow Hall of Famer Bill George without missing a beat, while the offense was led by Sayers. They finished the season on a 9-2 run, and things looked bright from there, but that promise never actually translated into on-field success.
1998-2002 Cincinnati Bengals, 2003-2006 Buffalo Bills, 2007 Philadelphia Eagles, 2008-2010 San Francisco 49ers, 2011-2012 San Diego Chargers
1x All-Pro, 2x Pro Bowl, 84 Weighted Career AV
Takeo Spikes played in 219 regular season games, and never made a single postseason appearance. That's an NFL record. He was a team captain for nearly all of his 15 seasons, and a productive player. He finished with more than 1,000 tackles in his career -- solo tackles, that is, not including assists -- and never dropped under 50 when healthy. He was a key cog in that historically great 2004 Bills defense, earning his one All-Pro nod. Playing strongside linebacker in 4-3 fronts and inside linebacker in 3-4 sets, Spikes was at times dominant and always consistent. He also may be the only linebacker in NFL history to have a section of his Wikipedia page dedicated to his neck, which measures at 21 inches around.
Closest Call: Oh, where to begin? Spikes somehow managed to find one of only two Eagles teams in the 2000s to miss the playoffs. He got replaced by NaVorro Bowman in San Francisco just before Jim Harbaugh turned the 49ers into Super Bowl contenders. He was part of the aforementioned 2004 Bills team that somehow missed the playoffs. The Eagles, 49ers, and Chargers all made the playoffs the year after he left. Takeo Spikes was cursed, I tells you.
1988-1993 Phoenix Cardinals, 1994-1998 Washington Redskins
4x Pro Bowl, 64 Weighted Career AV
Ken Harvey has more (official) sacks than any other player who never made the playoffs, which is enough in and of itself to get him onto this list. Harvey was a good player in Phoenix, but somewhat misused -- he wasn't even a full-time player in their "big nickel" system by the end of his time in the desert. It was in Washington where his talents really hit their peak. He was the first Washington player to lead the NFC in sacks, with 13.5 in 1994. Kicking in to defensive end on passing downs, Harvey is one of the best pass-rushing threats Washington has ever had, and he was named to their 70 Greatest Redskins during their 70th anniversary season.
Closest Call: With "only" nine sacks, 1996 was a down year by Harvey's standards, but it looked like it was going to be a great year for Washington -- they started out the season 7-1. No team had ever missed the playoffs after starting 7-1! There's a first time for everything, however. Due in large part to a historically awful 20.1% rush defense DVOA, Washington collapsed to a 9-7 record and lost the conference record tiebreaker to Minnesota.
2012-2017 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
1x All-Pro, 1x Pro Bowl, 52 Weighted Career AV
Oh, another Football Outsiders article extoling the virtues of Lavonte David, what a surprise. David has been atop our defeats leaderboard basically since he entered the league. His lightning-quick reflexes and the ability to quickly diagnose a play essentially makes him the perfect modern 4-3 linebacker. His raw numbers haven't been as good the last three seasons, but that's mostly due to the void of talent around him than anything with David's game itself. He has only been in the league six seasons, so placing him above some of the long-time vets is a difficult call. David has just been so good these past six years that he deserves to jump the queue while he waits for Tampa Bay to put together a competitive team.
Closest Call: 2016 could have been Tampa Bay's year! The '16 Bucs only managed a -3.0% DVOA, but it turns out that the NFL doesn't assign playoff spots via our advanced stats (…yet.) Tampa Bay came on hot down the stretch, with a five-game winning streak in November and December, but early-season struggles held them to nine wins. That left them tied with Detroit, a tiebreaker they lost on common opponents. It remains the only winning season of David's career.
We're going with a 3-4 look to squeeze extra inside linebackers onto our list, and we still find ourselves in need of more room. Tommy Nobis was the first player the Falcons ever selected, and the greatest linebacker Atlanta has ever had. He was named to the NFL's All-Decade Team in the 1960s and has the unofficial single-season record for tackles with 294 (combined tackles and assists). Multiple stars of his era, including Larry Csonka, said that they would rather go up against Butkus than the hard-hitting Nobis. He could easily slot into any starting position.
After Nobis, you have a number of long-time veterans -- players who never reached the heights of our top three, but were consistent performers for the better part of a decade. We're talking Joe Federspiel in New Orleans, Brian Noble in Green Bay, Eric Hill in Arizona, and James Laurinaitis, the Rams' all-time tackle leader. Impressive depth.
On the outside, Charlie Weaver was originally my pick over David. A solid linebacker in Detroit for more than a decade, he was able to rush the passer, stop the run, and cover running backs out of the backfield with equal ability, and appears all over Detroit's all-time list in tackles and interceptions and the like. Kamerion Wimbley ended up with 53.5 sacks for Cleveland, Oakland, and Tennessee. And, again, you have long-term tenured veterans, like Don Hansen in Atlanta, Billy Ray Smith in San Diego, and Rob Frederickson in Oakland and Arizona.
Other than David, there are a couple active players with a Pro Bowl appearance but no playoff games. David's teammate Kwon Alexander is one, as a Tampa Bay playoff appearance would have a major impact on this defensive roster. He's joined by Zach Brown and Joe Schobert, though Schobert has only been in the league two seasons. When it comes to veterans, Demario Davis just signed with the Saints after years of toiling on the Jets and Browns, so he's chasing that elusive playoff spot. No one else active really comes close.
2003-2010 Oakland Raiders, 2011-2012 Philadelphia Eagles, 2013 San Francisco 49ers
2x All-Pro, 3x Pro-Bowl, 62 Weighted Career AV
Nnamdi Asomugha was one of the top shutdown cornerbacks in the NFL when he was in a man coverage scheme in Oakland. After he intercepted eight passes in 2006, opposing quarterbacks simply stopped throwing the ball his way -- he was targeted just 31 times the next season, and 27 times in each of the two years after that. That's about as high a mark of respect as you can get from quarterbacks around the league, as well as a condemnation of the rest of Oakland's defense. Asomugha's reputation was tarnished a bit outside of Oakland, as age and unfamiliar schemes ended up seeing his performance fall off a cliff. But when he was on top of his game, there were few better.
Closest Call: Asomugha did end up playing for one playoff team -- the 2013 49ers, at the very tail end of his career. He was waived in November, however, as injuries and the emergence of Tremaine Brock made him expendable. Asomugha never played again.
2003-2012 Buffalo Bills
1x Pro Bowl, 48 Weighted Career AV
There's no one else that really jumps out at the cornerback position -- Asomugha's peak is head-and-shoulders above anyone else eligible for the list. So we'll go with Terrence McGee, yet another member of that 2004 Bills defense. He's mostly remembered for his return skills -- he's Buffalo's all-time leader in all-purpose yards, kickoff return yards, and kickoff return touchdowns. He's a big reason why the 2004 and 2005 Bills ranked 11th and 12th in our top special teams units of the past 30 seasons. McGee was certainly a starting-caliber cornerback when he was healthy -- a situation which occurred more and more infrequently as his career went on -- but it's his special teams ability that pushes him over the top of a field of similar prospects.
Closest Call: 2004 Bills!
1960-1972 St. Louis Cardinals
Hall of Fame, 5x All-Pro, 8x Pro Bowl, 85 Weighted Career AV
Larry Wilson is the fourth and final modern Hall of Famer to never see the postseason. Wilson's biggest impact on the game was the development of the safety blitz -- the Cardinals used his athleticism, toughness, and great vision to essentially invent and popularize the play. Wilson wasn't just a hitter, though -- he was great in space and had tremendous ball-handling skills. His 52 career interceptions are impressive enough; the fact that one of them famously came with both hands in casts is the anecdotal icing on the cake. Wilson is one of only two first-ballot Hall of Fame safeties in NFL history, and is likely the greatest Cardinal to ever play the game.
Closest Call: Imagine if the Vikings and Jaguars had to play a game to determine which team was the third-best in the NFL, a week after their losses in the conference championship games. That would be terrible, right? Welcome to the Playoff Bowl, an experiment between 1960 and 1969 where the second-place teams from each conference would play an exhibition game against one another, a week after the NFL Championship for … reasons. Mostly "getting more TV money" reasons. These were not official playoff games, and so Wilson's Cardinals' victory in the 1964 edition doesn't count. Vince Lombardi called that Cardinals-Packers game a "hinky-dink football game, held in a hinky-dink town, played by hinky-dink players." Seems fairly conclusive.
1971-1977 Atlanta Falcons, 1978-1980 New Orleans Saints
53 Weighted Career AV
Ray Brown played both strong and free safety with the Falcons, starting 94 games in Atlanta before finishing his career with the Saints. A ball-hawking member of the Falcons' "Gritz Blitz" defense, Brown had 31 interceptions in Atlanta, most by a safety by a wide margin and second-most in franchise history. In his last season in Atlanta, he was part of a defense that allowed just 129 points -- the all-time record in a 14-game season.
Closest Call: The 1973 Falcons were on the cusp of clinching the first playoff berth in franchise history. They were 8-3 entering December, just one game behind the Rams in the NFC West and a game ahead of the Cowboys for the wild card. Things went poorly from there -- losing to O.J. Simpson's Bills wasn't anything to be embarrassed about, but they were absolutely destroyed by the St. Louis Cardinals, who entered the game on a 1-8-1 run. A win in either game would have seen them in the playoffs; instead, they were on the outside looking in at 9-5.
The expanded playoff field and easier player movement has made all these "best of" tables very 1970s- and 1980s-heavy to this point, but the all-time interception leaderboard takes it to an entirely new level.
|Most Interceptions, No Playoff Appearances, 1967-2017|
|*Not including pre-1967|
What you're seeing there is the effects of years of rules changes -- the 1978 illegal contact rules, the 2004 emphasis on enforcing illegal contact, and so on -- and the development and popularity of the West Coast Offense and other high-accuracy passing philosophies. Teams threw 1.6 interceptions a game in 1967; they threw 0.8 interceptions per game last season. It is not "every cornerback from the 1970s is so much better than they are today," though I would posit we might see more interceptions if players today had rad nicknames like "Spider Lockhart."
Bill Bradley and Tony Greene were both first-team All-Pros in the 1970s at free safety. They didn't stand a chance of being named to the team with Larry Wilson sitting out there, but they definitely deserve honorable mentions, as do three-time Pro Bowler Gary Barbaro, two-time Pro Bowler Spider Lockhart, and Saints Hall of Famer Tom Myers. There's a ton of depth at free safety to choose from here! The pickings are a little thinner when it comes to strong safeties, with a pair of veterans from the 1990s -- Robert Blackmon and Marty Carter -- leading the pack.
Cornerback, however, is thinnest of all. Next man up would likely be Kermit Alexander, a Pro Bowler for the 49ers in the 1960s, but so much of his career was before regular playoffs started happening that I couldn't justify giving him a slot. Tom Carter and James Hunter show up in the top 10 in interceptions, so they're worth a look, and then you have (in rough chronological order) players like Joe Beauchamp, Leroy Mitchell, and Joe Taylor, who were all good enough to hold down a starting job on bad teams for about a decade.
There may be hope yet for the cornerback position. There are two active Pro Bowlers who have yet to make the playoffs -- Jason Verrett and Alterraun Verner. You can add Jason McCourty to find your top three eligible active cornerbacks, though McCourty's trade to New England will probably see him fall off this list shortly. After that we're looking at … maybe Buster Skrine if you're trying to create a dime package? Maybe not. Among safeties, you have Reshad Jones -- a multiple-time Pro Bowler who has been mired in Miami's mediocrity for his entire career. After him, the next best option is probably Chris Conte, and I think it's somewhat safe to say that the top of the safety list doesn't have much to fear from the active contingent.
2000-2002 Seattle Seahawks, 2003-2012 Buffalo Bills, 2013 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
31 Weighted Career AV
2001-2013 Buffalo Bills, 2012 Dallas Cowboys
2x All-Pro, 2x Pro Bowl, 23 Weighted Career AV
Our kicker (Rian Lindell) and punter (Brian Moorman) come from the same franchise at the same period of time. Buffalo's kicking situation was settled for a decade with Lindell and Moorman. The Bills finished first in special teams DVOA in both 2004 and 2005, thanks in significant part to this pair. Of the two, Moorman was better -- a two-time All-Pro and a member of both the NFL's 2000s All-Decade Team and Buffalo's 50th Anniversary Team. Moorman ended up in positive figures in our punting stats in every year from 2004 to 2009. Lindell was shakier, but ranks second on Buffalo's all-time lists in field goals made and field goal accuracy.
No one has kicked more field goals without making the playoffs than Lindell, and it isn't particularly close.
|Most Field Goals, No Playoff Appearances, 1967-2017|
Moorman is similarly ahead of the field, though Greg Montgomery and Nick Harris are at least in spitting distance.
Greg Zuerlein's herniated disk kept him out of the Rams' playoff run last year, meaning he's still technically eligible for this list. The odds of him kicking another 150 field goals before the Rams make another playoff appearance feels relatively low, however. Bryan Anger is the best active punter to have never made the playoffs -- whether that justifies Jacksonville selecting him five picks before Russell Wilson (or T.Y. Hilton or Nick Foles or Brandon Brooks, for that matter) is left as an exercise for the reader.
1966-1970 St. Louis Cardinals, 1974-1975 New York Jets
44-44-5 career record
For a head coach, we're loosening the rules to "never made the playoffs as a head coach," and that still doesn't help us all that much. No coach in the modern era is more than three games above .500 without reaching the playoffs, and very few last long at all. We're going with Winner, a longtime assistant of Weeb Ewbank, Don Shula, and George Allen. Winner finished .500 or better in four of his seven seasons, with late-season collapses dooming him in St. Louis twice.
Closest Call: It was a slow start rather than a deflating finish that killed Winner's Cardinals in 1968. They ended up sweeping eventual Century division champion Cleveland, but a 1-3 start proved too much to recover from, as they ended the year at 9-4-1. Had they managed to beat 2-11-1 Pittsburgh, rather than settling for a 28-28 tie, they would have earned the tiebreaker over the 10-4 Browns and ended a 20-year playoff drought.
The all-time wins list for coaches who never made the playoffs is … well, it's rather ugly.
|Most Wins, No Playoff Appearances, 1967-2017|
|Norm Van Brocklin||1967*-1974||37||49||3||0.433|
|*Not including pre-1967|
John Ralston is the only eligible coach without a losing record (minimum 40 games coached). Ralston led the Broncos to four second-place finishes in the AFC West, and led Stanford to a pair of Rose Bowl victories. Squint your eyes and ignore his last year in San Francisco, and Dennis Erickson's pro career looks alright -- three 8-8 finishes and two 7-9 seasons in Seattle and San Francisco. He, too, had more success in college, where he won two national titles with Miami. Norm Van Brocklin is a Hall of Famer as a quarterback. That skill didn't quite translate to the sidelines, though he did nearly earn Atlanta their first playoff appearance in the early 1970s.
Todd Bowles has really done a surprisingly solid job with what he has had to work with in New York. Everyone and their brother thought the Jets were doomed in 2017, making a 5-11 record perhaps not something to be proud of, per se, but at least notable. He has a 20-28 record, including the 10-6 year in 2015 where his Jets just missed the postseason. Dirk Koetter had a 9-7 record in his first year as a head coach, though last year in Tampa Bay went wrong in just about every way a season could. Anthony Lynn is the only eligible active coach with a winning record, having gone 9-7 in his first full season as coach of the Chargers.
So there you have it. It is very difficult for truly great players to slip through the cracks and miss out on the postseason. It really makes you admire Joe Thomas all that much more: there were multiple points during his career where he could have refused a new contract, or demanded to be traded, or otherwise raised a media storm about the terrible state of the teams surrounding him, but he didn't. For 10,363 consecutive snaps, Thomas played at an elite level for a team that surrounded him with nothing. Twenty different quarterbacks. Six different head coaches. Seven different general managers. Two different owners. 128 losses. We may never see someone that good tolerate that much career turmoil ever again. The least we can do is surround Thomas with one great team -- or, at least, a support group he can go talk to. So, one last time, here are your
2004 Buffalo Bills Joe Thomas All-Stars!
|The Joe Thomas All-Stars|
|QB||Archie Manning||DE||Tombstone Jackson||K||Rian Lindell|
|RB||Floyd Little||DT||Gerald McCoy||P||Brian Moorman|
|RB||Gale Sayers||DE||Aaron Schobel||HC||Charlie Winner|
|WR||Brandon Marshall||OLB||Ken Harvey|
|WR||J.T. Smith||OLB||Lavonte David|
|TE||Kellen Winslow II||ILB||Dick Butkus|
|OT||Joe Thomas||ILB||Takeo Spikes|
|OT||Matt Herkenoff||CB||Nnamdi Asomugha|
|OG||Lance Smith||CB||Terrence McGee||
|OG||Doug Van Horn||FS||Larry Wilson|
|C||Jon Morris||SS||Ray Brown|
(Ed. Note: Career AV numbers courtesy Pro-Football-Reference.com)