You can consider the following football players a combination of the Right Said Fred, Vanilla Ice, and/or the Sir Mix-a-Lot of the NFL: the greatest one-hit wonders the league has ever seen. They flashed enormous potential for one season, and then never came anywhere close to that afterwards.
Without further delay, here’s our list of the most memorable one-year “flashes in the pan” in NFL history:
When Peyton Hillis arrived in Cleveland prior to the 2010 season, after playing two seasons at fullback for the Denver Broncos, he found himself buried deep on the depth chart behind a hodgepodge of running backs the Browns had collected on their roster. But after a string of injuries to the guys ahead of him, Hills got to start early in the season, and finished the year with 1,177 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns (tied for 6th in the NFL).
But Hills then fell victim to the “Madden Curse,” after he was featured on the cover of the 2012 edition of the popular video game, amidst a string of injuries and squabbles over his contract in 2011. He left Cleveland after the 2011 season, and by the end of the 2014 season, he was out of football.
Robert Griffin III
There was a brief moment in time that the most powerful man in the nation’s capital was none other than Robert Griffin III, better known by fans as “RG3.” In his rookie season, Griffin burst onto the NFL scene by winning NFC Offensive Player of the Week after his first NFL game, and NFL Rookie of the Month after his first month in the NFL. By the end of the year, he had led the Washington Redskins to an NFC East title.
But after suffering a catastrophic knee injury in the Redskins playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks, a combination of egotism, squabbles with head coach Mike Shanahan, and a greater focus on promoting his brand (versus playing quarterback) led to him being benched in 2014, in favor of quarterback Kirk Cousins. Griffin was out of the NFL for all of the 2017 season before landing as a backup with the Baltimore Ravens in 2018.
After his transcendent performance in the 2006 Rose Bowl, in which he won the MVP award in what many consider to be the greatest college football game ever played, Vince Young followed it up with a brilliant rookie season in the NFL, winning the rookie of the year award and being named to the Pro Bowl.
But all that fame eventually got to Young’s head, and thanks to a combination of immaturity, too much partying, too little focus on football, and the continued coaching negligence of Jeff Fisher, Young never really built on his stellar rookie season nor fulfilled all the promise we believed he held.
David Tyree is a name that will forever live in Boston sports infamy. The backup wide receiver and Special Teams ace became immortalized in NFL history after the famous “helmet catch” in Super Bowl XLII, which put the New York Giants in position for what was eventually the game-clinching touchdown.
That catch was easily the one shining moment of Tyree’s otherwise highly unspectacular NFL career; he never caught more than 20 passes in a single season, and finished his six-year NFL career with a total of four touchdown catches.
Younger fans will know of Elbert L. “Ickey” Woods for his hilarious cameo in the GEICO commercial in 2014, singing about how he was going to “get some cold cuts” while performing his famous “Ickey Shuffle.”
But longtime football fans will remember Woods as the first round draft pick by the Cincinnati Bengals, who set the Bengals franchise rookie records for rushing with 1,066 yards yards, was selected for the Pro Bowl, and named First-team All-Pro after his first year in the NFL.
Sadly, Woods suffered a torn ACL in his second game of his sophomore year in the NFL, which altered the course of his promising NFL career. After just two more years, Woods was out of football at age 26.
Barnidge spent several seasons in Carolina and Cleveland as a special teams contributor before coming out of nowhere in 2015 as a pass-catching tight end. For a few weeks that season, he looked like the best tight end in football, ultimately catching 79 balls for 1,043 yards and nine touchdowns on his way to receiving a Pro-Bowl invitation.
That production was nearly cut in half the following season after undergoing surgery for a sports hernia over the off-season. In the spring of 2017, Barnidge was released by the Browns and hasn’t played in an NFL game since.
A third round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, rookie running back Steve Slaton burst onto the NFL scene by finishing with 1,282 rushing yards and nine touchdowns, good for sixth in the NFL and tops among all other rookies (in a draft that saw five running backs taken in the first round).
But one year later, Slaton had the mother of all “sophomore slumps,” fumbling the ball seven times that year, which led to him getting benched late in the year. By the end of the 2011 season, Slaton was already out of the NFL, and headed north to play in the Canadian Football League.
Grossman had a sensational college career at Florida and looked like he could become a franchise quarterback in the NFL. However, after serving as a backup as a rookie, injuries prevented him from establishing himself as the full-time starter for the Bears the next two seasons. In 2006, he finally managed to start all 16 games, and despite nearly throwing as many interceptions as touchdowns, Grossman played well enough to guide the Bears to the Super Bowl, ultimately losing to Peyton Manning and the Colts.
However, early in the 2007 season, Grossman lost his starting job to Brian Griese. He didn’t get back to being a full-time starter again until he started 13 games for the 5-11 Redskins. Despite remaining in the league as a backup and practice squad player until 2015, Grossman never threw a pass after the 2011 campaign and never had any kind of sustained success outside of that 2006 Super Bowl season.
Most football fans would think of Kurt Warner when looking back at the top performance by a quarterback in the 1999 NFL season. Which would be fair, considering he won the MVP award that year and led the (then St. Louis) Rams to a Super Bowl win. But how many people realize that NFL journeyman Steve Beuerlein, then the quarterback of the Carolina Panthers, led the NFL in passing yards?
After never throwing for more than 3,200 yards in any of his 10 previous years in the NFL, Beuerlein threw for a league-high 4,436 yards that year. Ironically, just over one season later, the Panthers released Beuerlein, and he retired after the 2003 NFL season.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected wide receiver Michael Clayton out of LSU with the 15th selection in the 2004 NFL Draft. Even with the revolving door of quarterbacks throwing him the ball, Clayton finished with 80 receptions for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie. But after that promising first year in the NFL, he was never the same player afterwards, thanks to a string of injuries and further inconsistencies from Tampa Bay’s quarterbacks.
By 2010, Clayton found himself joining the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football league. His pro football career ended after the 2011 season, after his final comeback attempt with the New York Giants ended just a few games into the season.
Calling Jonas Gray a “one-year wonder” would be an extremely generous statement, because in reality, Gray was nothing more than a “one-game wonder.” Little more than an afterthought in the MASH unit that was the running back group for the New England Patriots during the 2014 season, Gray led the team in rushing by year’s end… with a paltry 412 yards. To make matters worse, he accumulated almost half of those yards (201) in one Sunday night game against the Indianapolis Colts.
From that game on, Gray had a total of just 260 rushing yards — including the postseason — for the remainder of his NFL career. New England thought so little of Gray that they let him go after the 2014 season, and after brief stints with the Miami Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars, Gray was out of football by the end of 2015.
As a rookie in 1987, Smith got his first career start in Super Bowl XXII. He ended up setting the Super Bowl rushing record with 204 yards and two touchdowns in Washington’s win. It seemed like the start of a brilliant career, but nothing could be further from the truth.
After his Super Bowl heroics, Smith held out for a better contract. He ultimately came to training camp overweight and quickly lost his starting job. In 1989, he failed a physical and was spotted talking to a suspected drug dealer. He got six carries for six yards with the Cowboys in 1990, and that was it for Smith’s time in the NFL. In 2005, he was arrested for selling cocaine and served two years in federal prison.
If not for off-field problems, Blackmon could have been something great. He had 64 catches for 865 yards as a rookie with the Jaguars in 2012, performing far better than the average rookie wide receiver. Based on that and his incredible accomplishments at Oklahoma State, it was a safe assumption that Blackmon was going to be the next elite NFL receiver.
Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. He played only four games in his second season because of two different suspensions. For what it’s worth, he was real good in those four games. After the suspensions, he had to apply for reinstatement to the NFL and was ultimately denied. Blackmon has had multiple arrests since then, making reinstatement unlikely. As recently as 2018, he was still on Jacksonville’s roster on the reserve list. Technically, he remains suspended from the NFL, as well as the CFL.
You could try to argue that Brown is more than a one-season wonder. Of course, you could also say he was a one-game wonder. Brown actually made the NFL’s All-Rookie Team in 1991. But he’s best known for his two interceptions in Super Bowl XXX while playing for the Cowboys. Dallas turned those two interceptions into two touchdowns in their 27-17 win over the Steelers.
Naturally, the Super Bowl MVP was in-demand when he hit the free-agent market the following year, landing a five-year, $12.5 million deal from the Raiders. One year into that contract, he was relegated to a backup role. Later, he was suspended for “conduct detrimental to the team” and eventually waived by the Raiders. From there on out, his only jobs were providing depth to teams with a bad secondary.
Admittedly, it’s weird to think about Tebow as a one-season wonder because he’s an unforgettable part of football history. But in terms of his NFL career, that’s exactly what he was. The only time he shined was during that magical stretch during the 2011 season when he somehow willed the Broncos to six straight wins, which turned out to be just enough to get them to the playoffs. He capped it all off with that memorable 80-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas on the first play of overtime to beat the Steelers.
But that was the end of the line for Tebow in the NFL. The Broncos traded him the following off-season when they landed Peyton Manning. Tebow never did much with the Jets and eventually left football altogether in order to chase a baseball career. Of course, he seems to be doing well as a college football commentator, so Tebow is still very much a part of the sports world.
Over the last two decades, the Cleveland Browns have had exactly one season in which they won double-digit games. In 2007, they finished with a 10-6 record, thanks to the efforts of quarterback Derek Anderson, who had a career year throwing to (fellow one-hit wonder) wide receiver Braylon Edwards.
Anderson threw the fifth most touchdown passes in the league that year (29) and finished in the top 10 in passing yards. But he then endured two injury-plagued seasons after that, before leaving Cleveland. In the 11 seasons since his magical 2007 season in which he threw 29 touchdown passes, Anderson has thrown a combined total of just 26 touchdowns.
Running back Robert Edwards is perhaps the biggest reason why the NFL is so reluctant to hold any type of skills competition events leading up to the Pro Bowl, like other professional sports host in the days leading up to their respective All-Star games. The New England Patriots drafted Edwards with the 18th overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft. Edwards was sensational in his rookie season, rushing for 1,115 yards and nine touchdowns, plus an additional 331 yards receiving and three more scores.
Unfortunately, Edwards suffered a freak knee injury in a rookie flag football game on the beaches of Hawaii, prior to the Pro Bowl. The injury was so gruesome that Edwards almost had to have his leg amputated below the knee, and was told that he may never walk again. He shockingly made a return to the NFL over three years later, but was a shell of his former self. Edwards owns one of the strangest “what could have been” stories of all time.
Olandis Gary was one of the string of players who helped perpetuate the the theory of “Mike Shanahan can get a thousand yards rushing from any running back.”
After (now Hall of Fame) running back Terrell Davis went down with an injury in 1999, Gary came in and ran for 1159 yards on 276 attempts, with seven touchdowns. But after hurting his knee the following year, he was never the same player. After the 2004 season, Gary was already out of the NFL.
Before the legend of Brett Favre even began in Green Bay, there was another star quarterback in northeast Wisconsin; that would Don Majkowski, “the Majik Man” himself. In 1989, Majkowski threw for 4,318 yards, leading the NFL en route to a Pro Bowl selection and being named Second-team All-Pro. But just 10 games into the ensuing season, the “Majik” was gone.
He suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in 1991, and eventually replaced as the starter. And when he did make an appearance in the 1992 season, he suffered another season-ending injury that made way for Favre to take over the job, and not give it back for quite some time after that.
In his first three seasons in the NFL, between 2001 and 2003, wide receiver Drew Bennett of the Tennessee Titans never had more than 504 yards receiving or four touchdowns. And then, in 2004, he had a monstrous breakout season, catching 80 passes for 1,247 yards (good for 8th in the NFL) and 11 touchdowns (tied for 8th in the NFL also).
And then, after that, everything went “back to normal” for him, as he failed to reach more than 738 yards receiving or four touchdown catches during his final four years in the NFL.
Most football players who stand 5’6’’ don’t get a chance in the NFL, so the fact that James spent any time in the NFL is an amazing feat, making him an inspiration to short-statured athletes in all sports. After he shared the backfield at Auburn with Bo Jackson, the Chargers took a chance on him in the 5th Round of the 1984 Draft. James did not disappoint. In his second pro season, he led the AFC in receptions and set the NFL record with over 2,500 all-purpose yards.
“The Little Train,” as he was called, was a trendsetter of sorts, being a running back capable of catching passes out of the backfield before that was seen as a necessary skill set for running backs. However, he hurt his knee during training camp in 1986 and was limited to just seven games. Knee issues continued to plague him, causing him to lose carries, spending just three more seasons in the NFL. Ultimately, Derrick Mason broke his record for all-purpose yards and James was largely forgotten about like most one-hit wonders.
Some people will know James for his TV work or his failed political career, but others will know him for being a one-hit wonder in the NFL. In his second pro season in 1985, James was a Pro Bowler with over 1,200 rushing yards and another 360 yards receiving while helping the Patriots reach the Super Bowl. But a shoulder injury at the end of the 1986 season was the beginning of the end for him. He never got past the shoulder issues and had just eight carries combined in 1987 and 1988 and never played again.
Of course, James appeared on ESPN as a college football analyst for many years and also did in-game work for CBS during NFL games. He left ESPN after the 2011 season so he could run for a seat in the U.S. Senate, only to be defeated in the Republican primary.
Betts is a rather unusual one-season wonder because he spent nine seasons in the NFL. However, his impact was rather limited outside the 2006 seasons. With Clinton Portis hurt, Betts started nine games for Washington, rushing for over 1,100 yards while also catching 53 passes for another 445 yards. Along the way, he became the only player in Redskins history to have back-to-back games with 150 yards rushing.
However, Betts didn’t produce much after that. He returned to being a backup the following year. He started just two games before the 2006 season and three games after it. Outside of that one season, Betts had an unexceptional career and isn’t remembered much except by Washington fans who have a great memory.
Jordan was just another career backup until finally getting a chance to shine with the Raiders in 2005. After seeing him serve as a viable backup to Curtis Martin with the Jets for four seasons, the Raiders gave Jordan a five-year deal worth $27.5 million. He immediately repaid their faith in him by rushing for over 1,000 yards and racking up over 500 yards receiving.
But that would be as good as it got for Jordan. He tore up his knee midway through the 2006 season and suffered another injury in 2007 that caused him to lose his starting spot. The Raiders released him with two years left on his five-year contract and stints with the Patriots and Broncos couldn’t get his career back on track. Jordan spent nine years in the NFL, but only one was memorable. He coached in the AAF in 2019 and also owns a restaurant.
For a minute, we all thought Curtis would be the next great slot receiver. He was actually a 3rd-round pick, so expectations were somewhat high as a rookie. He even scored a 48 out of 50 on the infamous Wonderlic Test. But he had modest numbers with the Rams for four seasons before he exploded with the Eagles in 2007, catching 77 passes for over 1,100 yards.
However, sports hernia surgery kept him out early in the 2008 season. He then missed 12 games in 2009 because of knee surgery and was released the following off-season. During that off-season, Curtis was treated for testicular cancer but managed to find a home with the Dolphins. But he caught just one pass that season, and it would be the last catch of his career despite continued efforts to get another chance in the NFL.