When Jason Witten reflected on his career in December, he made it clear that he wished a few things had gone differently. “It’s hard,” he said, choking back tears. “You put everything you got into it, for a long time, man. … There’s not always a fairy-tale ending.”
Witten is a no-brainer future Hall of Famer and one of the greatest receiving tight ends the sport has ever seen, yet he never sniffed a Super Bowl—he never even played in a conference championship game. That makes him one of the most accomplished NFL players of the modern era to never make it to that stage, up there with the likes of Dick Butkus, Deacon Jones, Gale Sayers, Warren Moon, and, of course, Witten’s longtime Cowboys teammate Tony Romo.
Witten retired in May, giving up his pursuit of a ring to accept a broadcast position with ESPN. In doing so, he bestowed the title of best active player never to play in a conference championship game upon a new crop of guys who’ve had excellent careers but have found little playoff success. So with the 2018 season fast approaching, let’s anoint the Jason Witten All-Stars: distinguished players, from every position group, who head into this fall with plenty at stake. All are in danger of ending their careers without coming to the doorstep of the Super Bowl.
Quarterback: Matthew Stafford, Lions
It’s not a great sign that Stafford’s career highlight to date came in his rookie season.
Since that iconic mic’d-up moment in 2009, Stafford has passed for more than 32,000 yards and 200 touchdowns, but has just one Pro Bowl nod and an 0-3 playoff record to his name. And yet he’s the best Lions quarterback since Bobby Layne. Detroit is 36-28 over the past four seasons; it’s just failed to get over the hump when it matters most.
At 30 years old, Stafford is young by modern quarterbacking standards, but his immediate chances to reshape his postseason legacy are murky. The Lions added some talent this offseason (namely running back LeGarrette Blount, cornerback DeShawn Shead, and linebacker Devon Kennard) and changed coaching staffs, but play in a loaded division and a loaded conference. Getting to the NFC championship game will be a battle.
Running Back: Mark Ingram, Saints
Ingram just missed New Orleans’s Super Bowl run, coming into the league in 2011. His quiet consistency has helped the Saints maintain their usual offensive dominance ever since—but that hasn’t lifted the franchise to the Super Bowl heights it reached by defeating the Colts in February 2010.
Now 28, Ingram is coming off a spectacular season when he set career highs in rushing yards (1,124) and touchdowns (12), and he’s one of the younger players on this list. But his opportunity to make a postseason run could dwindle quickly. Running backs have notoriously short careers, the emergence of Alvin Kamara in New Orleans could make Ingram expendable, particularly given that he’s on the last year of his contract, and he’s suspended the first four games of this season for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy.
It’s not hard to imagine a world where Ingram won’t return to the Saints next year. Recent history shows that running backs can have a tough time finding work as they near age 30.
Wide Receiver: Brandon Marshall, Seahawks
Not only has Marshall never made a championship game, he’s never made the playoffs. The six-time Pro Bowler has played on five different teams … and never taken a postseason snap. He’s coming up on 1,000 career catches. Will he ever make one on football’s biggest stage?
Marshall is 34 and well past his prime at this point—much more so than many other players on this list. He suffered a season-ending ankle injury in October, but even before that he was showing his age: His receiving yards per game (30.8) were the lowest since his rookie year, and he failed to catch even a single touchdown. This campaign with Seattle may represent his last chance to reach the sport’s promised land. Yet his timing may be off here, too; the Seahawks are no longer the powerhouse they were for the past half-decade and will need to make significant strides if they want to beat the Rams and 49ers in the NFC West.
Tight End: Jimmy Graham, Packers
Graham’s rookie season with the Saints came in 2010, the year after New Orleans won the Super Bowl. The team hasn’t advanced past the divisional round since. His tenure in Seattle was similar. Since Graham was traded to the Seahawks in March 2015, Seattle has consistently fallen short of its Super Bowl peak. Hell, he was even injured for the squad’s 2015 playoff run.
Though he accumulated only 520 receiving yards last season, Graham is still one of the NFL’s most dominant players in the red zone, with a catch radius and jumping ability that are nearly unmatched. However, at 31, his skill set—and his hope of making for a deep postseason run—is fading. Graham signed with the Packers this offseason, a team that has been to the NFC championship in two of the past four years and should remain in contention so long as Aaron Rodgers is under center. The potential Graham-Rodgers connection is as enticing as any in football. Can it push Green Bay over the top?
Offensive Line: Andrew Whitworth, Rams
Whitworth has never won a playoff game, despite making six trips to the postseason with the Bengals and one with the Rams. He’s also playing the best football of his career, having made the Pro Bowl in each of the past three seasons and earning first-team All-Pro honors in two of those. The former LSU standout will turn 37 in December. How long will he be able to sustain his remarkably high level of play?
The Rams are loaded up for a short-term, win-now run, making Whitworth arguably the best-positioned player on this list to make it where Witten never did.
Defensive Line: J.J. Watt, Texans
At 29, Watt should still be in his theoretical prime. After two straight seasons marred by injury, though, the three-time NFL AP Defensive Player of the Year’s prime is just that: a theory. Watt looked a step slow in his five 2017 appearances, failing to notch a single sack before a tibial plateau fracture ended his season in October. NFL careers can end in the blink of an eye, and Watt may be on the verge of becoming the defensive version of Terrell Davis: a generational talent whose impact was cut short by injury. Only unlike Davis, Watt doesn’t have two Super Bowl rings to walk away with (at least, not yet).
With stars like Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, and Jadeveon Clowney on their roster, the Texans have a chance to make a big leap right away. That’s key to Watt’s chances of reaching a conference championship game, because there’s no guarantee that he’ll return to being the all-world player he once was.
Pass Rusher: Cameron Wake, Dolphins
Wake joined the NFL in 2009 at age 27, after spending two years in the Canadian Football League. He’s made five Pro Bowls and is fourth on the league’s active sacks list (with 92.0), and has the potential to climb to third should Elvis Dumervil not find a team before the start of the season. Considering Wake’s winding path to get to where he is, his career can be viewed as nothing other than a massive success story.
The last thing that eludes him is a significant playoff run, and at 36 he likely has few opportunities left to make one happen. In nine seasons with the Dolphins, Wake has made the playoffs just once, when Miami was bounced by the Steelers in the 2016 season. The Dolphins went 6-10 last season and aren’t being billed as a Super Bowl threat, but the AFC hierarchy isn’t as obvious as the NFC’s. Miami will enter this fall with Ryan Tannehill back under center. A leap to postseason contention isn’t out of the question.
Linebacker: Derrick Johnson, Raiders
Johnson anchored the Chiefs’ linebacking corps from the time he was drafted in 2005 through 2017, but he didn’t find much playoff success. Kansas City never made it past the divisional round in five postseason trips over that stretch. At 35, Johnson has entered the twilight of his football-playing career, and though he’s said he plans to stick around “several more years,” there’s a reason the Chiefs let their all-time tackles leader go and a reason the Raiders signed him to a paltry one-year, $1.5 million contract.
A few weeks ago, Athletic writer John Middlekauff wrote that he thinks “there is a better chance that Johnson gets cut at the end of camp than ends up the starter.” This may be the linebacking legend’s last shot.
Cornerback: Johnathan Joseph, Texans
Though he has just two Pro Bowl appearances to his name, Joseph has been solid for his entire 12-season career. However, the Texans have never made a real push; Joseph has been to the divisional round three times (in the 2011, 2012, and 2016 seasons), but never gone beyond that.
Though he’s still a perfectly reliable corner, the 34-year-old is a prime candidate for regression. And while he’s on a two-year deal, the Texans could cut him before the 2019 season at virtually no cost. Houston went out of its way to bolster the secondary this offseason, signing cornerback Aaron Colvin and safety Tyrann Mathieu and drafting safety Justin Reid. Those guys aren’t direct threats to replace Joseph in 2018, but the Texans’ efforts to revamp their defensive backfield suggest that Joseph’s hold on his starting spot is tenuous.
Safety: Eric Berry, Chiefs
Berry has been one of the NFL’s best all-around defenders in each of his five healthy seasons. But he’s missed a lot of time in his career: He tore his ACL in the Chiefs’ season opener in 2011; Hodgkin’s lymphoma kept him out of all but six games in 2014; and he ruptured his Achilles tendon in last year’s opener in New England.
There’s reason to believe that Berry should be able to fully recover from his Achilles rupture—just look at the performance of Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs, who returned in November 2012 after tearing his Achilles the previous offseason. If he’s healthy, the 29-year-old Berry could be the defensive fulcrum that helps Kansas City convert its perennial regular-season success into a long-awaited postseason push.