NFL “Un-Bust” Football’s Most Unusual Career Arc

By: William Carroll

The NFL is a truly demanding crucible; fewer than two percent, about 1.6% of college players will ever even make an NFL 53 man roster. For most that do make it, the stay is very short, however for players who are taken in the first round the expectations and investment that the teams have made in them precludes simply cutting them quickly. When a player that is expected to excel has a very slow start to his career, most often than not, once the trajectory begins to spiral downward the die is cast. Now it’s legendary that both Johnny Unitas and Len Dawson were cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers.  OJ Simpson, three years into his career, was only averaging four yards per carry and had not rushed for more than 742 yards in a season, in fact, he was about to be moved to wide receiver when a coaching change reshaped the arc of his career.

To truly unbust a player must be a first-round draft pick who has proved to be a disappointment at least into the start of the third year of his career, the player has to turn his career drastically enough to become a solid long-term starter with a career that lasts at least eight years.  Tony Mandarich is an example that some may cite.  He was an uber-hyped prospect, whose performance enhanced weight-room exploits propelled him to become the second selection of the first round the Green Bay Packers and the highest paid offensive lineman in league history.    

Mandarich had weaknesses despite all of his power; he didn’t have great agility, feet or technique all of which was revealed in the NFL.  After starting 15 career games in Green Bay, all coming during the 1991 season, he was thereafter relegated to the bench and by 26 he was out of football.  Two years later Mandarich got his second chance in 1996. The Indianapolis Colts signed him. To his credit, he played reasonably well for three seasons before injuries ended his comeback. For my purposes, he doesn’t quite qualify because he didn’t play quite long enough or well enough.  However, there are at least ten players that I would like to place before you. I would like to thank Pro Football Reference and Wikipedia, without both I couldn’t find what I need for this article.

10. Robert Gallery, G/T Iowa, like Tony Mandarich, Gallery was an extremely ballyhooed offensive line prospect from the Big 10 who was selected second overall, unlike Mandarich he had no PED, agility or substance abuse issues, however his short arms and struggles with anchoring and losing the leverage battle led to him moving inside to guard. As a rookie, he played 15 games at right tackle and gave up 3sacks. In 2005, he started 16 games at right tackle and gave up 3 ½ sacks. The Raiders moved him to left tackle during the preseason of 2006. During a debacle of an opener to the 2006 regular season, Gallery was part of an offensive line that gave up nine sacks, with 3 of them attributed to Gallery. After 13 games and 10 ½ sacks, he was moved inside to guard. He was an above average guard prior to the 2011 season he was signed by Seattle. After that year the Patriots signed him for 2012 but he decided to retire.

9. Eric Ebron, TE, UNC, Ebron was seen as part of the new trend towards tight ends who were more giant receivers than the hybrid receiver/offensive linemen that were the inline Y position players of previous generations. After being drafted at number 10 in the first round he only tallied 785 yards and six touchdowns in his first two seasons. Like Martellus Bennett he struggled to make much of mark early in his career, unlike Bennett it was Ebron’s battling drops that slowed his early performance.  In 2016 he emerged from this slow start by posting 61 catches for 711 yards and a touchdown. In 2017 he had 53 catches for 574 yards and 4 touchdowns. After he signed with the Colts Ebron has gotten off to the best start of his career, already he has 30 receptions, 326 yards and 6 scores, his previous high for a season was 5 and he’s passed it with 10 games left.    

8. Jadeveon Clowney, DE/OLB, South Carolina, after ‘The Hit’ and a very impressive combine performance Clowney was one of the most anticipated defensive prospects in recent memory. He was the first overall selection in 2014. After an injury-curtailed rookie season, Clowney had four appearances, two of them were starts. In that limited duty, he totaled: 7 tackles with 3 of them for loss. In 2015 he was in 13 games, starting 9 of them, he produced 40 tackles, 4 ½ sacks, 8 tackles for loss, he broke through in 2016 he was in 14 games, all of them starts. In what was his best season to that point he tallied: 59tackles, 6 sacks, 16 tackles for loss, and 17 pressures.  He truly broke out last year.  In the first season in which he was healthy enough to start all 16 games, he totaled: 59 tackles with 21 of them for loss, 9 ½ sacks and so far in 2018 he has 2 ½ sacks, 7 TFL, and 6 QB hits. If Jadeveon Clowney continues upon this path he will become the perennial pro bowler and multiple all pro that he was originally projected to be.                

7. Marc Columbo, OT, Boston College, the current Assistant Offensive Line Coach for the Dallas Cowboys, was the 29th selection in the 2002 draft. The Bears thought that they possibly had a decade-long solution at left tackle, at worst they figured they were set at right tackle. His career took a very serious downturn when late in his rookie season he sustained a dislocated patella with femoral nerve damage. Unfortunately, after three inconsistent and injured seasons, the Bears could wait for him no longer.  In November of 2005, the Dallas Cowboys signed him and by the time the 2006 training camp was over he was the starter at right tackle. Columbo played well and helped the offensive line to become one of the team’s best units. Late in the 2009 season, he fractured his left fibula; Doug Free played well in his absence and after the 2010 season he was released.  He finished his playing career with the Dolphins; he took over the right tackle position from Vernon Carey as Carey kicked inside. He retired after that season. At one point it looked like he was finished before his career was three years old, he became a solid veteran presence on a good offensive line, he’s a clear unbust.  

6. Vinny Testaverde, QB, Miami, after a very celebrated collegiate career which included being named an All-American and winning the 1986 Heisman Trophy, he was drafted with the first pick of the 1987 draft. He went to a very troubled Tampa Bay franchise.  The Buccaneers during his time, 1987-1992 were terrible and Testaverde played poorly. However despite being somewhat color-blind, which made him the butt of jokes, his play improved slightly over time, in 1992 he had his best season to date with a 57.5% completion percentage, 2,554 yards, 14 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions. Testaverde became a free agent after that season. The Browns brought him in to back up his former college back up, Bernie Kosar. He suddenly became a starter again when Kosar was released after a disagreement with Bill Belichick. It was around this point that the fortunes of Vinny Testaverde began to shift. He spent 3 seasons with the Browns and in 1994 led the team to a playoff run that included a victory over the Patriots. In 1996 he moved Baltimore as the team was rebranded as the Ravens. As the Ravens quarterback Testaverde continued to be a steadying presence. When the Ravens decided to hand the reins to a different veteran signal-caller, Jim Harbaugh, Testaverde went to the sidelines as “Captain Comeback” became the starter and the Elmont, Long Island native was made available to the team of his youth, the Jets.  In 1998 he had a watershed season with a 61.5% completion percentage, 29 touchdowns to 7 interceptions and a 101.6 QB rating.  For the first time, he was a Pro Bowl selection. He was now playing for another Hall of Fame level coach named Bill, this time it was Parcells. The team made the playoffs that season and the next year the Jets seemed primed for a Super Bowl run when an Achilles tendon tear ended the 1999 season before it really started when Testaverde was injured in the opener. Against all odds he regained the starting job in 2000; he kept the job in 2001, but in 2002 when he gave way to young Chad Pennington.  It seemed that his career must be finally ending after an uplifting third chapter. However, when Parcells returned to the sidelines in 2004, at the behest of Jerry Jones, he brought several “Parcells Guys” with him, the then 40-year-old Testaverde, among them.  Dallas went through several former minor league baseball players: Quincy Carter, Drew Henson, and Chad Hutchinson, when Carter was suspended after an alleged failed drug test, Testaverde stepped in became the fifth quarterback in league history to pass for over 300 yards at forty years of age. But his interception woes had returned, he led the league in interceptions.  When Drew Bledsoe was brought in the subsequent year, again Testaverde seemed to beat the end of his career, but then unforeseen events intervened.  The Jets had their top two QBs: Chad Pennington and Jay Fiedler lost for the season due to injury after only two games and by week five Testaverde was the starter and he made history twice. He set a record by becoming the first player with 19 consecutive seasons with a passing touchdown and when they played the Patriots with Doug Flutie, together he and Testaverde became the first two 40 plus year-old QBs in NFL history to complete passes in the same game. Yet again it seemed sure that the long and winding road must finally have reached its end, but the Patriots signed him late in the 2006 season.  Testaverde threw a touchdown pass to Troy Brown on December 31, 2006, against the Tennessee Titans, giving him at least one touchdown pass for a 20th straight season, extending his NFL record. Just before the 2007 season, he was released once more and this had to be it, right?  Well not quite, when the Panthers had both Jake Delhomme and David Carr out three games into the season the call was made once more and he made more history. On December 2, 2007, Testaverde became the second oldest starting quarterback in NFL history at 44 years and 19 days old.  Also when he hit Steve Smith with a scoring strike he tallied his 21st season with a touchdown pass. He completed a touchdown to his 71st different player, a record that Tom Brady has since broken. At the end of the season, he was finally done for good and all.    

5. Calvin Pace, DE/OLB Wake Forest, was the 18th selection of round one in 2003 and had 32 tackles with a sack as a rookie, things were seemingly off to a fairly good start. The next year he improved his sack total to 4 ½, but in 14 games he only had 12 total tackles. He ended up on injured reserve in 2005, prior to that he racked up 11 tackles and a sack.  In 2006 he played in all 16 games with five starts and had 29 tackles and a sack. In 2007 he was moved to 3-4 outside linebacker and this revitalized his career. He was the Cardinals team leader in tackles at 106, he added 6.5 sacks and one forced fumble. At the end of his time with the Cardinals, he had 251 total tackles, 14 sacks, an interception, and five forced fumbles. In 2008 he signed as a free agent with the Jets, in his eight seasons with them he really produced, he had 349 tackles, 36 tackles for loss, [note this statistic was only tabulated from 2011 forward], 46 ½ sacks, 2 interceptions, 16 forced fumbles and 18 passes deflected. While early inconsistencies, injuries and even a PED suspension had occurred, he went on to become a productive part of some very good defenses.

4. Jerry Hughes, DE/OLB, TCU Jerry Hughes was a player that Colts general manager, Bill Polian, felt was in the mold of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, a somewhat undersized, quick-twitch pass-rusher, but his early career was maddening for the Colts. After he was a two-time All-American at TCU he was taken with the 31st overall pick of the 2010 NFL draft by the Indianapolis Colts. After three seasons as a Colt, he’d only managed: 51 total tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 12 pressures, and a pass break up. After 2012 the Colts traded him to the Bills in exchange for former third-round pick Kelvin Sheppard.  He paid immediate dividends for his new team.  In his first two seasons in Buffalo he tallied 20 sacks, 5 forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, 100 total tackles, 22 tackles for loss, 2 passes defended and 38 pressures in the 2013-2014 season combined. His pace did slow after that but he’s been solid and consistent. He’s played in 125 games, 76 of those were starts, 38 of his 43 career sacks were as a Bill,262 tackles, 63 tackles for loss, 78 pressures, 9 passes defended, 11 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, and a touchdown. While Hughes might not have become a hall of fame level player, he overcame a slow start to his career and has been a strong contributor, the very definition of unbust.            

3. Alex Smith, QB, Utah, initially the selection of Alex Smith more than 20 picks before, future hall of fame QB, Aaron Rodgers, looked truly indefensible, Smith struggled mightily, playing poorly as the overwhelmed young quarterback of a bad team. While Aaron Rodgers was brought along slowly as part of a hall of Famer, to the hall of Famer succession plan, Smith suffered from a lack of supporting talent and mediocre coaching. The trajectory of his career was changed by a few dramatic events. After his first 30 starts over the seasons of 2005-2007, he had 435 completions on 800 attempts a .554 completion percentage, with 19 touchdown passes and 31 interceptions.  He got hurt in the seventh game of that season and missed all of 2008. The next career changing even came when Jim Harbaugh was hired in 2011.  With the new staff, Smith had his best season as a pro, he was ranked third in the NFL in passer rating (104.1) and led the league in completion percentage with (70%), he had been 19-5-1 as a starter under Harbaugh, and they made the playoffs in 2011 and 2012. Just as it seemed that Alex Smith’s career had been placed on an upward trajectory, again he hit a bump in the road. After the starting nine games in 2012, he suffered a concussion, at that point the team was 6-2-1 he’d completed 70.2% of his passes, for 1737 yards, with 13 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. But Coach Harbaugh was intrigued with the rare speed, agility and arm strength of the second string QB Colin Kaepernick. The team, already playing well, suddenly had an explosive running threat in their quarterback. The 49ers made it all the way to the Super Bowl, where the Harbaugh brothers faced each other. After that season Smith signed with Kansas City as a free agent. Now with another quarterbacking guru, Andy Reid, Alex Smith solidified himself as a consistent, quality starter. After five very good years in a Chief’s uniform, he signed in Washington to replace Kirk Cousins. In his career, he’s passing at a 62.4% rate of completion, with 33,093career passing yards, 189 touchdowns, 98 interceptions, and a career QB rating of 87.6. While he may never justify his first overall selection or being chosen 23 picks prior to Aaron Rodgers, despite that he’s been a very good NFL starting QB for nearly a decade. He’s clearly an unbust.        

2. Jim Plunkett, QB, Stanford, when I first began watching college football, was one of the very few teams that threw the ball often or well. Nebraska and Texas were triple-option teams, Notre Dame and Alabama were Wing-T, Purdue, Tulsa and San Diego State, along with Stanford were among a relatively small number of schools who had productive passing attacks. After an impressive high school career at James Lick high in east San Jose CA, Plunkett attended Stanford, which featured a fairly wide-open passing scheme, in the pro-style offense, heavy Pac-8 of that era. His favorite target was Randy Vataha, who was later signed by the Patriots, who had drafted Plunkett. As Jim Plunkett was completing his college career two other exceptional QBs, Archie Manning and Joe Thiemann, contended with him for the 1970 Heisman Trophy, but he was the first Latino winner. In 1971, he was drafted with the first overall pick in the NFL draft by the New England Patriots. Plunkett is still the only player of Hispanic heritage to have been drafted with the first overall pick of the NFL draft. The Patriots were talent poor, still, the Patriots finished the season at 6-8, fourth place in the AFC East. Plunkett’s first game was a 20-6 victory over the Oakland Raiders. In 1973, after three seasons in New England, Chuck Fairbanks was made the head coach. He remade the team quickly, they drafted: John Hannah, Sam Cunningham, Ray Hamilton, and Darryl Stingley. The rather conservative and run centered offensive style of Fairbanks, whose nickname was “Ground Chuck” due to his love of the run game, was at odds with his quarterback. In 1975, the Patriots drafted Steve Grogan; Plunkett became expendable and was traded to the 49ers. At first, things went well, they started 6-1, but closed the season 6-8. The next season they ended with a 5-9 record and Plunkett was dropped. After the first seven years of his career, he was 983 of 1,994 as a passer for a 49.3% rate of completions, with 84 touchdowns and 117 interceptions. When the Raiders signed him it was as a reserve, to back up Dan Pastorini, another one of the quarterbacks taken in that very deep QB class, with Pastorini taken third behind Plunkett and Archie Manning. Pastorini had been traded to Oakland for Stabler after the 1979 season. Five weeks into the 1980 season, with Oakland at a 2-2 record, Pastorini broke his leg against the Kansas City Chiefs and Plunkett got his third chance.  He made the most of it. That year he led the Raiders to a Super Bowl victory over the Eagles. He platooned with Marc Wilson, but in 1982 Plunkett won the job; he led them to an AFC West title and won the wild-card playoff game versus Cleveland, prior to falling to the Jets in the divisional round. It was in 1983 when it all came together.Wilson started three games, but again it was Plunkett who led the Raiders to the Super Bowl, a blowout win over Washington. Plunkett was 230 of 379 a 60.7% rate of completion, for 2.935 yards with 20 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. In 1984 he was back to sharing snaps with Wilson, who started 10 games. Plunkett only started 3 games the next season and in 1986 Plunkett had his last year of effective play, in 8 starts he was 133 of 252 a 52.8% completion rate, 1,986 yards 14 touchdowns with 9 interceptions. He retired with 1,943 completions on 3701 attempts, a 52.5% completion rate, for 25,882yards, 164 touchdowns with 198 interceptions. While the first several years of Plunkett’s career were not very successful, he is a member of the very exclusive fraternity of multiple super bowls winning QBs. But even at the height of his career, he was sharing snaps. His name is one that still stirs hall of fame controversy.        

1. Steve Young, QB, BYU, after a much-decorated career in Provo, Utah, Young started his career in the USFL with the LA Express, at least in part as an, attempt to avoid playing for Hugh Culverhouse’s Tampa Bay franchise. It was only after the USFL disbanded, that he played 19 games for a very poor Tampa Bay team in 1985 and 1986.  During his Tampa career, the team went 3-16 with Young as a starter, before going to San Francisco, where he had to wait his turn behind Joe Montana. He only got occasional starts during his early 49er years, when Montana was hurt, before taking over full-time in 1991. After taking the reins he struggled to escape the enormous shadow of Joe Montana.  In his years as a Buccaneer Young completed 267 passes of his 501attempts, a 53.3% completion rate, with 11 touchdowns and 21 interceptions. From 1988-1990 Montana was the 49ers’ starting quarterback. Montana was injured for all of 1991; he was traded to Kansas City in 1992. In Montana’s absence in 1991 two Steves, Bono andYoung took the 49ers to 10-6. Young started 10 games, he completed 180 passes on 279 attempts for a 64.5% rate of completion, for 2517 yards, with 17 touchdowns and 8 interceptions.  In 1992 Young took a big leap forward, he played at an all-pro level, the team was 14-2 but lost in the playoffs, this would become a theme that kept reoccurring in his career. Until the 1994-95 season, when Young was astonishing, he was 324 for 461 which was a completion rate of 70.3% for 3969 yards, 35 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. He was only the third quarterback to record a 70% or higher completion percentage, joining Montana, of course, and Ken Anderson. Even now only seven have accomplished this feat. Young continued to play at a very high level and when concussions ended his season and career in the third game of the 1999 season. He had been named to seven pro bowls, he’d been the first team all-pro three times, the MVP twice and 1992 AP offensive player of the year. In his career, he was 2667 for 4149, a 64.3% completion percentage, for 33124 yards, 232 touchdowns, and 107 interceptions.  Just as I’d written in the past, the difference between Archie Manning and the other talented QBs in his draft class: Anderson, Dickey, Pastorini, Plunkett, or Theismann, was that he never had the chance to play for a good team while he was still able to be a top-flight starter. Steve Young almost literally went from the ‘outhouse to the penthouse when he went from the chronically mismanaged Buccaneers to the incredibly well-run 49ers. Steve Young is the perfect example of an UnBust.            

William Carroll
About William Carroll 26 Articles
am now in my fourth decade as a published writer. The Answer Newspaper first carried my sports column over 30 years ago; additionally, I am a published poet, playwright, and military historian. I am a founding member of MPAACT. I have also written for Black Sports Online, Football Reporters Online, and oversaw HBCU Scouting for Consensus Draft Services. Currently, Consensus Draft Services is in a content providing relationship with www.fanspeak.com. My broadcasting career is also long established. I have co-hosted “Local Color” on WEFT, “The Draft-Tastic 4,” and the Sports Chronicles Radio Network. I hosted “Feeling A Draft” and CDS “Pro Prospects Radio.” I have also taught broadcasting at Kennedy-King College.

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