Rare is the unassailable NFL career. It often feels like even great players who boast résumés that put them on the Hall of Fame’s doorstep have at least a mark or two against them. Terrell Owens tore locker rooms apart. Patrick Willis played only seven full seasons. Hell, until this year even Terrell Davis — who owns a Super Bowl and regular-season MVP — couldn’t get into Canton.
In a brutal sport featuring such diversified roles for such specialized talents, it’s tough for any player to walk away as a unified chorus of observers exclaims that he was among the best to ever play his position. But that was the treatment DeMarcus Ware rightly received on Monday afternoon.
After 12 seasons in the league, the former Cowboys and Broncos pass rusher announced on Twitter that it was time to "accept the unknown and retire from my NFL career."
The initial response was almost uniform. Ware is widely considered a lock for the Hall and will probably make the cut in his first year of eligibility. His downright ridiculous list of accomplishments includes being voted to the Pro Bowl nine times and being named first- or second-team All Pro in seven straight seasons from 2006 to 2012 — a stretch that saw him collect double-digit sacks each year. His 138.5 career sacks rank eighth all time; every player above him on that list played at least three more seasons. Since 2006, no player affected quarterbacks more.
Those accolades alone should be enough to earn Ware an HOF bust, but they hardly do him justice. He was the best player on one of the league’s most storied teams for more than a decade, an unflinching pillar during what was occasionally a trying time in Cowboys history. For most of Ware’s career, there was no surer bet than the lineman piling up at least 10 sacks while keeping offensive coordinators gripping their pillows the night before they played Dallas.
He was a physical marvel from the moment he came out of Troy University in 2005, but his combination of tools wasn’t what made Ware unique. We’ve seen plenty of 6-foot-4, 250-pound pass rushers; Ware was different because of how efficiently he used those gifts. He never wasted movements when rushing the passer. He never seemed frantic. Even at full speed — and his full speed was fast — he always had a plan, a way to scheme and search. The jumble of hands in front of him never pulled his eyes from the quarterback, and for more than a decade, that meant he was a step ahead. Some of Ware’s best sacks came in Denver, during the final years of his career, when his savvy meant more than his speed.
It took a nagging back injury and a $16 million salary for Ware to end up with the Broncos in the first place. After he finished the 2013 season with only six sacks (the first time since his rookie year that Ware had dipped below 10), the cash-strapped Cowboys released the then-30-year-old to save a much-needed $7 million against the salary cap. As part of a massive free-agent haul by Broncos GM John Elway, Ware signed a three-year, $30 million deal (with $20 million guaranteed) to play opposite Von Miller in Denver.
That type of late-career contract for an aging star has gone awry countless times, but for the Broncos, it turned out to be worth every penny. It’s no coincidence that Ware’s arrival in Denver coincided with Miller’s ascent. Ware’s effect on Miller’s approach was widely understood. "You helped me become the person/player I am today," Miller wrote on his Instagram account on Monday. With Ware’s guidance, Miller’s unlimited potential was finally unlocked during the Broncos’ march to a championship after the 2015 season, but shaping his fellow pass rusher was far from Ware’s only impact during that Super Bowl run. Ware was a devastating force in the season’s most crucial moments, hitting Tom Brady seven times in the AFC championship game and adding two sacks of Cam Newton during the biggest game of his life.
In the locker room following the Broncos’ championship win, most of the attention was understandably directed toward Miller and Peyton Manning, but Ware’s jubilation was just as noteworthy. The all-time great had just a single playoff win in his career before arriving in Denver, but he became a Super Bowl champion after a decade in the NFL, long after most players have come and gone. Considering everything else that Ware has accomplished at the individual level, that may seem superfluous when examining the full scope of his greatness. In a way, though, all the praise Ware garnered on Monday still might not be enough to provide proper context for how remarkable his career was.
While Ware never won Defensive Player of the Year honors, he’ll go down as one of the best players to fall short. Despite finishing the 2008 campaign with 20 sacks, Ware came in second behind Steelers linebacker James Harrison, but in an argument over who deserves the Defensive Player Championship Belt, Ware’s case for both the 2007 and 2008 seasons is better than anyone’s. No defender affected the game on a play-to-play basis during those years more than Ware.
The common thread between the DPOY winners during those two seasons (the Colts’ Bob Sanders in 2007 and Harrison in ’08) is that their teams led the NFL in points allowed. They were the best players on excellent defenses, and they were awarded for it. Ware never benefited from similar circumstances in Dallas, but that’s part of what made his role on an all-time great Broncos unit even more rewarding — both for Ware and for those who’d admired his play for so long. His time in Denver was the final note in a pitch-perfect performance. Not many careers deserve unfettered adulation, but DeMarcus Ware’s does.