30 NFL Superstars Who Have Felt the Sting of Being Fired
Job security is something that NFL players have to live without. In fact, given the ruthless nature of America’s most popular sports league, the acronym NFL should actually stand for “Not For Long” rather than National Football League. While there are certainly players (both past and current) who have enjoyed the luxury of not having to look over their shoulders on a daily basis, history has also proven that virtually no player is safe from the chopping block.
In today’s day and age, most Americans go through the humbling experience of losing their job. NFL players are not exempt from this reality. If you’ve ever lost your job, it may help to know that these 30 NFL stars –– some of the greatest to ever play the game –– were also “fired” at some point during their respective careers.
1. Peyton Manning, quarterback
Believe it or not, Peyton Manning, who holds nearly every major NFL passing record, got cut by the Indianapolis Colts in 2012. The five-time NFL MVP is almost singlehandedly responsible for guiding the Colts out of obscurity and turning them into a franchise that was a perennial Super Bowl contender for most of his time in Indy.
Manning missed the entire 2011 season with a neck injury, and without him in their lineup, the Colts were the worst team in the league. They landed the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, which meant Indianapolis would have the first crack at landing Andrew Luck.
The Colts officially released Manning during an emotional press conference in early March. The 10-time All-Pro landed with the Denver Broncos, and quickly made the Colts look foolish for letting him go. Bottom line: If Manning can get fired, it can happen to anybody.
2. Emmitt Smith, running back
Emmitt Smith may not have been as flashy as some other running backs, but there is no denying that he is one of the all-time greats. The five-time All-Pro was one of the most important players in the Dallas Cowboys’ mini-dynasty during the ’90s (they won three Super Bowl titles). He led the league in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns four times throughout his 13-year stint in Dallas.
During his final season with the Cowboys, Smith became the NFL’s all-time leader in rushing yards, yet America’s Team still made the decision to cut him while he still had plenty of gas left in his tank. Smith spent his final two NFL seasons with the Arizona Cardinals before retiring in during the 2005 offseason.
3. Charles Woodson, defensive back
Charles Woodson is one of the greatest, and quite possibly the most versatile, defensive players the NFL has ever seen. After playing at an All-Pro level for the first eight years of his career with the Oakland Raiders, the 1997 Heisman Trophy winner signed with the Green Bay Packers in 2006, where he went on win the 2009 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award and help the Packers win Super Bowl XLV.
Despite all of his success, the Packers cut Woodson in 2013. Woodson re-joined the Raiders to finish his career. He earned All-Pro honors as a safety in his final NFL season (2015).
4. Cris Carter, wide receiver
Before Cris Carter developed into the Hall of Fame wide receiver we all remember him as a troubled player who almost destroyed his own NFL career. Carter started his career with the Philadelphia Eagles, where he quickly emerged as the team’s top wide receiver before his off–field issues got the best of him. In a somewhat shocking move, Eagles head coach Buddy Ryan cut Carter following the 1989 season.
Carter later explained that Ryan cut him due to drug and alcohol abuse. He landed with the Minnesota Vikings, and the rest is history.
5. Kurt Warner, quarterback
One of the greatest stories in NFL history: Kurt Warner’s rise to stardom. His first release came at the hands of the Green Bay Packers, who’d signed Warner as an undrafted free agent in 1994. He then went on to play in the Arena League (after spending a year bagging groceries) for two years before landing a contract with the St. Louis Rams.
Warner won two NFL MVP awards and a Super Bowl title with the Rams, but he still had to exit the franchise in 2004. After one disastrous season with the New York Giants, Warner signed with the Arizona Cardinals. The 2017 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee had five solid seasons in Arizona before retiring in 2010.
6. Champ Bailey, cornerback
Bailey is hands down one of the best cornerbacks in NFL history. The future Hall of Famer played at an All-Pro level for well over a decade and still holds the record for the most Pro Bowl appearances (12) by a cornerback in league history. The Denver Broncos acquired Bailey in a trade with the Washington Redskins in 2004, and cut him in 2014 after their Super Bowl loss to the Seattle Seahawks. As history would have it, Super Bowl XLVIII was Bailey’s final NFL game.
7. James Harrison, outside linebacker
Brace yourselves for this: Teams have cut James Harrison, likely a future Hall of Famer, a whopping six times. The 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 2002. The Pittsburgh Steelers signed and released him three times from 2002–03. Harrison then latched on with the Baltimore Ravens, where he lasted until 2004.
After the Ravens cut him, Harrison re-joined the Steelers and emerged as the impactful player we all know today. Pittsburgh again released Harrison (for salary cap purposes) in 2013, and he then spent one season with the Cincinnati Bengals (2014) before yet another contract termination. Harrison briefly hung up his cleats, but the Steelers coaxed him out of retirement in 2014. Pittsburgh recently extended the four-time All-Pro’s contract, which should ensure that he retires with the Steelers.
8. Wes Welker, wide receiver
All we must say here is that longtime NFL coach Marty Schottenheimer still considers cutting Wes Welker to be the biggest mistake he ever made when it comes to releasing players. After his one game with Schottenheimer and the San Diego Chargers, Welker went on to have a borderline Hall of Fame–caliber career (mostly with the New England Patriots).
9. Ladainian Tomlinson, running back
When it comes down to it, first-ballot Hall of Famers typically tend to be the types of players who aren’t supposed to get cut. But that is exactly what happened to LaDainian Tomlinson, who will enter into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2017, after nine amazing seasons with the San Diego Chargers.
San Diego cut ties with Tomlinson in 2010 after the former TCU Horned Frog rushed for 12,490 yards and 138 touchdowns and caught 530 passes for 3,955 yards and 15 touchdowns in a Chargers uniform.
10. Jeff Saturday, center
Before Jeff Saturday became one of the greatest centers in league history, the former North Carolina Tar Heel was a Baltimore Ravens castoff and an NFL afterthought. Saturday got his break when his college roommate, Nate Hobgood-Chittick, recommended him to then Indianapolis Colts GM Bill Polian.
Saturday became a full-time starter in his second season with the Colts and anchored their offensive line for the next 11 years. The six-time Pro Bowler signed with the Green Bay Packers in 2012 (his final NFL season); the team released him after one year.
11. Brandon Marshall, wide receiver
Although the six-time Pro Bowler has experienced the jolt of getting cut only one time during his 11-year career, Brandon Marshall will play for his fifth NFL franchise in 2017. The New York Jets released the 32-year-old wide receiver earlier this offseason, while his previous three teams (the Denver Broncos, Miami Dolphins, and Chicago Bears) all traded him.
The 6-foot-4, 229-pounder is easily one of the most physically gifted wide receivers the league has ever seen and a likely Hall of Famer, but he has also been a major distraction (both on and off the field) at times.
12. Jason Peters, offensive tackle
It’s hard to figure out how Jason Peters slipped through the cracks before establishing himself as one of the best left tackles in NFL history. He went undrafted in 2004 (in large part due to the fact that he played tight end in college), which is shocking when you consider the fact that he ran a 4.93-second 40-yard dash and posted a 31.5-inch vertical after measuring in at 6-foot-5, 328 pounds at the 2004 NFL Combine.
Peters began his career with the Buffalo Bills, who cut him before the 2004 season and re-signed him to their practice squad while he learned to play offensive tackle. By 2007, the six-time All-Pro had established himself as an elite left tackle. After a nasty contract dispute, the Bills shipped Peters to the Philadelphia Eagles, where he has since cemented his status as a future Hall of Famer.
13. DeMarcus Ware, outside linebacker
Thanks to some less than stellar salary cap management, the Dallas Cowboys cut DeMarcus Ware in 2014 after the seven-time All-Pro recorded 117 sacks for America’s Team. The future Hall of Famer went on to finish his career (and win a Super Bowl title) with the Denver Broncos before retiring this offseason.
14. Darrelle Revis, cornerback
There was a point during Darrelle Revis’s career where the four-time All-Pro was arguably the most dominant defensive player in the game. Nonetheless, thanks to the massive contracts he insisted on signing, Revis changed played for four different teams (Jets, Buccaneers, Patriots, back to the Jets) for four consecutive years (2012–15).
The Buccaneers cut Revis in 2014, and then the Jets cut him this offseason. The 31-year-old also dealt with the Patriots declining to pick up his roster option in 2015.
15. Steve Smith Sr., wide receiver
After 13 seasons, five Pro Bowl and three All-Pro selections, and countless franchise records, the Carolina Panthers chose to cut Steve Smith Sr. for salary cap reasons during the 2014 offseason. In their attempts to trade Smith before his release, the Panthers “irreparably” damaged their relationship with the future Hall of Fame wide receiver. At the end of the day, Smith is the best player in Panthers history — period. He deserved better from the Carolina front office.
16. Tony Gonzalez, tight end
Tony Gonzalez is the greatest tight end to ever play the game in the eyes of most NFL experts. Nevertheless, the future first-ballot Hall of Famer still went through the unfortunate experience of being cut before his distinguished career came to an end. Luckily for Gonzalez, though, the Atlanta Falcons released him in 2014 when he was ready for retirement.
17. Joe Namath, quarterback
A little known fact: The New York Jets released “Broadway” Joe Namath at the tail end of his career. Injuries got the best of Namath during his final years with the Gang Green, and he would only play in four games during his only season with the Los Angeles Rams, who signed him following his release.
18. Brett Favre, quarterback
It’s kind of hard to believe that Brett Favre only experienced getting cut one time during his 20-year NFL career. Teams traded him twice (the Atlanta Falcons in 1992 and the Green Bay Packers in 2008). However, the New York Jets is the only franchise that officially cut the three-time NFL MVP.
19. Randy Moss, wide receiver
Randy Moss may be the single most talented wide receiver to ever play in the NFL. At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, the four-time All-Pro was nearly unstoppable in the red zone. And on top of that, his speed (he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.25 seconds) and leaping ability (39-inch vertical jump) made him one of the most dangerous vertical threats the league has ever seen.
Unfortunately, Moss was also no stranger to controversy. The six-time Pro Bowler’s displeasure with his teams at various points throughout his career resulted in three trades. It wasn’t until his second stint with the Minnesota Vikings that Moss’s brashness (he stated that then Vikings head coach Brad Childress was unfit to coach in the NFL in a postgame press conference) caused him to get cut.
20. Chad Johnson, wide receiver
Chad Johnson’s ability as a wide receiver often gets overlooked due to his polarizing personality off the field. From 2002–07, the four-time All-Pro was arguably the premier wide receiver in the league. However, Johnson became a bit of a distraction during his final years with the Cincinnati Bengals, which caused the team to trade him to the New England Patriots.
The Pats cut Johnson after one marginally productive season (by own standards). He then signed with the Miami Dolphins who cut him during training camp.
21. Johnny Unitas, quarterback
Johnny Unitas is easily one of the most recognizable names in all of American professional sports. But before he became a legend and Hall of Fame quarterback for the Baltimore Colts, he was cast aside by the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers selected Unitas in the ninth round of the 1955 NFL Draft, but cut him (without ever truly giving him a chance) before the 1955 season began.
The 10-time Pro Bowler sat out the 1955 season, and signed with the Colts for the 1956 season. The rest, as they say, is history.
22. Terrell Owens, wide receiver
For most people, Terrell Owens is the first player that comes to mind when talking about diva NFL wide receivers. And quite frankly, were it not for his outspoken personality and off-putting behavior, Owens likely would have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and would be a part of the greatest wide receiver in NFL history conversation.
Instead, despite his immense talent, Owens saw himself get cut (by the Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys, and Seattle Seahawks) three times over the course of his career.
23. Ed Reed, safety
During his 11 years with the Baltimore Ravens, Ed Reed was easily one of the best defensive players in the NFL. During that time he joined nine Pro Bowls; he earned All-Pro honors eight times; he won the 2004 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award; and he helped the Ravens win Super Bowl XLVII.
When his contract expired with the Ravens, Reed signed with the Houston Texans where he lasted only seven games before the team cut him.
24. Willie Brown, cornerback
Willie Brown’s Hall of Fame career got off to a rocky start. After going undrafted out of Grambling State in 1963, the four-time Pro Bowler was completely ignored by NFL teams and ultimately signed with the Houston Oilers of the now defunct American Football League (AFL).
The Oilers cut Brown during his first professional training camp. But he quickly landed with the Denver Broncos, where he became a starter by the end of his rookie season and an All-AFL performer in his second season. After four years in Denver, Brown moved to the Oakland Raiders, where he developed into one of the premier defensive backs of his era.
25. DeSean Jackson, wide receiver
DeSean Jackson getting cut is still a sore subject for most Philadelphia Eagles fans. In one of several head-scratching moves Chip Kelly made during his time with the Eagles, he cut the explosive playmaker during the 2014 offseason — just two years after Jackson signed a five-year, $51 million contract extension. Jackson was still in the prime of his career and quickly landed with one of the Eagles’ biggest rivals, the Washington Redskins.
26. Jamaal Charles, running back
In his prime Jamaal Charles was one of the most explosive running backs in the league. If you don’t believe us, just consider the fact that the three-time All-Pro’s career 5.5 yards per carry average is the second-best in NFL history among running backs with 750 carries or more.
27. Julius Peppers, defensive end
In terms of being a physical freak of nature, Julius Peppers is nearly unmatched among all past and present NFL players. He’s also one of the greatest pure pass rushers the league has ever seen. He currently ranks fifth all-time with 143.5 career sacks, and could easily move into the top-three with two more solid seasons. Knowing this, most people will be surprised to learn that he was cut by the Chicago Bears following the 2013 seasons.
28. Shaun Alexander, running back
In 2005, Shaun Alexander put the Seattle Seahawks on his back and carried them to an appearance in Super Bowl XL (which they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers). That season capped off an incredible five-year run for Alexander, where he rushed for 7,504 yards and 87 touchdowns. In total, the 2005 NFL MVP rushed for 9,429 yards and 100 touchdowns (both are franchise records) for the Seahawks. That wasn’t enough to save Alexander from getting cut, though, as Seattle released him during the 2008 offseason.
On a side note, Alexander signed with the Washington Redskins who ended up cutting him after only four games.
29. Jim Plunkett, quarterback
It’s truly hard to believe that Jim Plunkett was once cut during the prime of his NFL career. He originally entered the league with the New England Patriots, who selected him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1971 NFL Draft. After five seasons with the Pats, Plunkett was traded to the San Francisco 49ers for a king’s ransom.
Plunkett lasted only two seasons before getting cut by the Niners. He then latched on with the Oakland Raiders where he would go on to win two Super Bowl titles.
30. Marvin Harrison, wide receiver
Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison teamed up to form the most productive quarterback/wide receiver duo in NFL history. They connected for 114 touchdowns, but more importantly, they led the Indianapolis Colts to a victory in Super Bowl XLI.
The Colts cut Harrison following the 2008 season (at his request), after the eight-time All-Pro set franchise records for receptions (1,102), receiving yards (14,580), and touchdown catches (128).
Statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.