Week of Woe: The one that got away for all 32 NFL teams

Welcome to Yahoo Sports' NFL
Welcome to Yahoo Sports' NFL "Week of Woe." (Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports)

Let's face it: Rooting for sports teams can often be woeful. Only one gets to lift the trophy at year's end, and the months-long grind to determine that champion is stomach-churning. It's frustrating. It's also fun as hell. With that in mind, welcome to Yahoo Sports' "Week of Woe" in the NFL, where we look at some sliding doors that could have turned championships toward different hands. First up: The ones that got away.

The biggest mistakes in the NFL aren't just a wasted draft pick on a bust or a huge free-agency contract that doesn't work out. It's the opportunity cost.

For every draft bust, there's a future star that team instead could have had. For every great trade in NFL history, there was a team that was on the bad end of it.

Here are the biggest "the one that got away" stories from each of the 32 NFL teams, including coaches they didn't hire, draft picks they didn't make or trades that were instantly regrettable:

Arizona Cardinals: Not signing Joe Namath

The greatest quarterback the Cardinals ever drafted was Joe Namath. He was the 12th pick in the 1965 NFL Draft. But the Cardinals couldn't keep up in a famous bidding war with the AFL's New York Jets, who picked him first in the AFL's draft that year. The Cardinals — who many believe were secretly working for the Giants, and would have traded him to New York's NFL team upon signing him — are still trying to win their first Super Bowl. Namath signed with the Jets and led them to a win in Super Bowl III. He became one of the most famous players ever. Imagine how NFL history would be different had the Cardinals outbid the Jets.

Atlanta Falcons: Trading Brett Favre

The Falcons made one of the best draft picks in NFL history and didn't know it. In the second round of the 1991 draft, Atlanta took Southern Miss quarterback Brett Favre, who would set numerous NFL records and go to the Hall of Fame. But for the Falcons, Favre attempted four passes and didn't complete any of them. (Actually two were completed ... to the other team for interceptions.) Fed up with Favre's partying ways, the Falcons traded Favre to the Packers for a 1992 first-round draft pick, which probably seemed smart at the time.

Baltimore Ravens: Cutting Trent Dilfer

You wouldn't think that Trent Dilfer would be the biggest one who got away from the Ravens, but Ray Lewis says it cost the Ravens more Super Bowl titles. Dilfer helped the Ravens win a championship in the 2000 season and then they cut him, opting to sign Elvis Grbac. Grbac didn't work out and the Ravens didn't win another title for 12 years.

In 2018, Lewis said cutting Dilfer was one of the biggest mistakes in team history.

"It took us a 12-year stint to get back to another Super Bowl. We went through, what, 17 quarterbacks?" Lewis told radio host Colin Cowherd, via the Baltimore Sun.

“I’m counting on one hand an opportunity of at least five to six Super Bowls that are supposed to be in my closet. But we made that decision.”

The Ravens got rid of Trent Dilfer right after he helped them win a Super Bowl, then spent nearly a decade in QB purgatory. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
The Ravens got rid of Trent Dilfer right after he helped them win a Super Bowl, then spent nearly a decade in QB purgatory. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Buffalo Bills: Trading up for Sammy Watkins

The 2014 NFL Draft was awesome. It wasn't so great for the Bills. They traded up to the fourth pick, sending the ninth pick as well as first- and fourth-round selections in 2015, to the Browns. The Bills took Sammy Watkins, who was a bust. Khalil Mack, Jake Matthews and Mike Evans were picked in the next three selections. If the Bills had stayed at No. 9, they basically couldn't have done worse than Watkins.

Here are the Pro Bowl players picked between Nos. 9 and 17 that year: Anthony Barr, Eric Ebron, Taylor Lewan, Odell Beckham Jr., Aaron Donald, Kyle Fuller, Ryan Shazier, Zack Martin and C.J. Mosley. It's amazing to think that the Bills paid up to move to No. 4 and somehow missed 12 future Pro Bowlers with the pick, including some future Hall of Famers.

Carolina Panthers: Tim Biakabutuka over Eddie George

In the 1996 NFL Draft, the second draft in Panthers history, they took a running back at No. 8. Instead of going with Eddie George, who just won a Heisman Trophy at Ohio State, they took another Big Ten back. Michigan's Tim Biakabutuka was the pick and it didn't turn out well. Biakabutuka never had more than 718 yards in a season for the Panthers. George went 14th to the Titans and had an outstanding career, gaining 1,000 yards seven times in eight seasons with the team.

Chicago Bears: Forcing George Blanda into retirement

The Bears wanted to use George Blanda, a multi-talented player and promising quarterback, as just a kicker starting in 1959, his 11th season. So Blanda retired. Then, when the AFL started in 1960, he joined Houston and restarted what would become a storied career. Blanda played until 1975, playing quarterback and kicking. He was a three-time champion in the AFL and was elected to the Hall of Fame. The Bears haven't had a first-team All-Pro quarterback since 1950.

Cincinnati Bengals: Not promoting Bill Walsh

When Paul Brown stepped down after the 1975 season, it seemed like the obvious move was promoting offensive coordinator Bill Walsh, who had already established himself as a young star in the business. But Brown went with offensive line coach Bill "Tiger" Johnson. Johnson went 18-15, was fired after an 0-5 start to his third season and never was a head coach again. Walsh built a dynasty with the 49ers that included two Super Bowl wins over a Bengals team that inexplicably passed him over.

This could have been you, Bengals. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
This could have been you, Bengals. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Cleveland Browns: Cutting Len Dawson

Technically, the Browns didn't fire Bill Belichick until the NFL had approved the team's move to Baltimore. So that doesn't count. However, the team did cut Len Dawson before he went on to seven Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl IV MVP with the Chiefs. The Browns traded for Dawson, who was stuck behind Milt Plum for two seasons. He was released after the 1961 campaign having thrown just 28 passes for the team. The Browns haven't had a Hall of Fame quarterback in the Super Bowl era.

Dallas Cowboys: Trading the Shaun Alexander pick for Joey Galloway

The Cowboys wanted to get a new offensive star, so they traded two first-round draft picks to the Seahawks for Joey Galloway. Little did they know that the offensive star in that deal was Shaun Alexander, whom the Seahawks took with one of the Cowboys' picks and would go on to be NFL MVP. Galloway played only four seasons with the Cowboys, never topping 1,000 yards in a season.

Denver Broncos: Failing to get Russell Wilson the first time

The Broncos could have avoided what looks like a bad trade for Russell Wilson by simply drafting him many years ago. The Broncos had just signed Peyton Manning but were looking at quarterbacks early in the 2012 NFL Draft. In the second round, they passed on Wilson, off an outstanding season with Wisconsin, to take Brock Osweiler. Wilson was considered too short by many, including apparently then-general manager John Elway, who took the 6-foot-7 Osweiler. Wilson went to nine Pro Bowls in 10 seasons with the Seahawks, who took him in the third round, and helped beat the Broncos 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVIII. While Osweiler played a key role on a 2015 Broncos team that won a title, he never panned out as an NFL quarterback. The Broncos were still looking for a long-term Manning replacement last year when they traded for Wilson, who had a terrible first season in Denver and has plenty of questions going forward.

Detroit Lions: Having Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson retire

We'll cheat a little here. Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson weren't ones the Lions didn't acquire when they could have; both had Hall of Fame careers for Detroit. But both superstars retired in their prime, in part because of persistent losing with the team. Those two abrupt retirements became emblematic of the Lions' futility for the entire Super Bowl era.

Green Bay Packers: The whole 1989 draft

The 1988 Packers were well on their way to getting the No. 1 overall draft pick in 1989. Then, inexplicably, a 2-12 team won its final two games. They got the second pick, and that shift changed NFL history. The Dallas Cowboys got the first pick and took Troy Aikman. The Packers were in great shape, in retrospect, with the second pick. Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders, three of the greatest players ever, were on the board. The Packers took Tony Mandarich, perhaps the greatest bust in NFL Draft history. It ended up OK for the Packers, who ended up with Brett Favre three years later, but they had a shot at four Hall of Famers in the 1989 draft and somehow ended up with Mandarich, who was unremarkable in 31 starts for the Packers.

Houston Texans: Taking David Carr over Julius Peppers

David Carr was a good prospect and it made sense that the expansion Texans wanted to make a quarterback their first-ever pick in the 2002 NFL Draft. In retrospect, putting Carr behind a horrible offensive line was bad for Houston and ruinous for Carr's career. The player who went second overall, Julius Peppers, is fourth all time with 159.5 career sacks and is considered a great bet to go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2024, his first year of eligibility.

Indianapolis Colts: Trading John Elway

John Elway put the Colts in a tough spot. He threatened to go play baseball if the Colts drafted him first overall in 1983. The Colts drafted him and then-general manager Ernie Accorsi was adamant the team should not trade the once-in-a-generation talent. But Colts team owner Robert Irsay made a deal with the Broncos himself, and the Colts were stuck without an answer at quarterback until 1998, when they drafted Peyton Manning. Elway retired after that season following his second Super Bowl win.

John Elway said he wouldn't play for the Colts, so they traded him to the Denver Broncos. (Getty Images)
John Elway said he wouldn't play for the Colts, so they traded him to the Denver Broncos. (Getty Images)

Jacksonville Jaguars: Sticking with Blake Bortles, ignoring Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson

In 2017, the Jaguars could have moved on from Blake Bortles to draft a quarterback. They had the fourth overall pick, and Bortles had taken a big step back during the 2016 season. Instead of admitting a mistake on Bortles and taking Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson, they drafted running back Leonard Fournette and exercised the fifth-year option on Bortles for the 2018 season. Bortles was gone after the 2018 season and Fournette lasted just three frustrating seasons with Jacksonville. Mahomes is on pace to be one of the greatest quarterbacks ever and Watson has been an elite quarterback, though sexual misconduct allegations have overshadowed that.

Kansas City Chiefs: Letting Rich Gannon walk

The Chiefs wanted to make it work with Elvis Grbac at quarterback, and that kept Rich Gannon on the bench. Gannon played well at times when Grbac was hurt, but after the 1998 season he left as a free agent. To be fair, not even the Chiefs could have known that Gannon would sign with the Raiders and go to four straight Pro Bowls, winning an MVP and leading the Raiders to an AFC title. And the Chiefs got to see Gannon's revival happen twice a year in person in the AFC West.

Las Vegas Raiders: The missed John Elway trade

It's too bad the Al Davis-Pete Rozelle feud didn't happen in the social media era. It would have been even more entertaining.

The feud was the epicenter of a big controversy involving the 1983 draft and one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. The Raiders thought they had a deal with the Chicago Bears to acquire the sixth overall pick of the draft, which they would have packaged to move up to No. 1 overall and draft John Elway. The deal was never finalized. Davis, the Raiders' owner, accused Rozelle, the NFL commissioner, of getting involved and having the Bears nix the deal due to the NFL's distaste for the Raiders, which included Davis' lawsuit against the league over relocation. The NFL denied that but Davis always believed he was robbed of Elway. Even worse for the Raiders, who haven't won a Super Bowl since that 1983 season, Elway eventually went to the division rival Broncos and had a great 16-year career.

Los Angeles Chargers: Cutting Wes Welker

Welker made the 2004 Chargers after being an undrafted free agent. He returned kicks in Week 1. Then he was cut after one game when the Chargers claimed safety Clinton Hart off waivers. Hart ended up starting 39 games for the Chargers. Meanwhile, Welker redefined the slot receiver position with 903 catches and 9,924 yards, leading the NFL in receptions three times with the Patriots. He made the Pro Bowl five times and his one game with the Chargers was mostly forgotten, except among Chargers fans.

Los Angeles Rams: Trading Jerome Bettis to draft Lawrence Phillips

Yes, the Rams basically chose Lawrence Phillips over Jerome Bettis. The Rams took Phillips, a troubled star at Nebraska, sixth overall in the 1996 NFL Draft. To clear room for him, they traded Bettis to the Steelers for second- and fourth-round draft picks. Bettis, who had won NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year three years before he was traded, went on to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Phillips was one of the biggest busts in Rams history. His off-field issues never left him, and in 2016 he was found dead in his prison cell. His death was ruled a suicide.

Miami Dolphins: Failing Drew Brees on his physical

The most famous butterfly effect tale in pro and college football history is what would have happened if the Dolphins had cleared Drew Brees on his physical. Brees was a free agent coming off a shoulder injury. Miami's doctor wouldn't pass him, so the team didn't sign him. Then-Dolphins coach Nick Saban says that was the moment he knew that was it for him in the NFL.

"So, I decided right then when that happened that we don’t have a quarterback in the NFL, we’re not going to win. I’m getting out of here. I’m not staying here," Saban said in 2021, via 24/7 Sports.

Brees went on to be a record-setting quarterback and Super Bowl champion with the Saints. Saban went to Alabama and became arguably the greatest college coach ever, overseeing a Crimson Tide dynasty. The Dolphins haven't won a playoff game since missing out on Brees.

Minnesota Vikings: Everything that was traded for Herschel Walker

When you're on the wrong side of what is generally considered the greatest trade in NFL history, you'll have some regrets. The Vikings didn't have some of the foundational pieces for a dynasty like the 1990s Cowboys had, like Jimmy Johnson and Troy Aikman, but they gave Dallas the ammunition to build a champion when they traded for Herschel Walker. They sent eight draft picks and multiple players to the Cowboys. The Vikings have still never won a Super Bowl.

Trading Herschel Walker was a huge step in the Cowboys' 1990s dynasty, and didn't turn out so well for the Vikings. (AP Photo/Jim Mone, File)
Trading Herschel Walker was a huge step in the Cowboys' 1990s dynasty, and didn't turn out so well for the Vikings. (AP Photo/Jim Mone, File)

New England Patriots: Passing on Archie Manning for Jim Plunkett, then trading Plunkett

The Patriots had a big choice at the top of the 1971 NFL Draft. They took Stanford's Heisman Trophy-winning QB Jim Plunkett over Ole Miss legend Archie Manning. Plunkett was solid for his first four seasons, but a shoulder injury in Year 5 opened the door for rookie Steve Grogan. The Patriots decided to trade Plunkett to the 49ers, and he would eventually win two Super Bowls with the Raiders. Manning never became an NFL superstar but that's mostly blamed on a terrible situation in New Orleans, and his fortunes might have been better in New England.

New Orleans Saints: Trading away the 1999 draft class (and some of 2000 too)

Imagine if a team traded an entire draft class — and high picks in next year's draft — to select a running back fifth overall in the social media/"running backs are devalued" age. It happened in 1999 when Saints head coach Mike Ditka traded the entire 1999 NFL Draft class and first- and third-round picks in 2000 to Washington so his team could draft Ricky Williams. It was eight picks in total, including two first-rounders. The first-rounder in 2000 was second overall. Washington screwed up a lot of the picks, but you can only wonder how the Saints would have looked different through the next few years with all those picks instead of Williams, who never played at a Pro Bowl level in three Saints seasons.

New York Giants: Letting Vince Lombardi go

Vince Lombardi wanted to coach the Giants. He was the offensive coordinator there in the 1950s. But he was more interested in being a head coach, and the Giants had Jim Lee Howell. When the Packers hired Lombardi away, Giants co-owner Wellington Mara thought he had an agreement that he could hire Lombardi back when Howell stepped down. Howell wanted to step down after the 1959 season, Lombardi's first season in Green Bay (right after Giants defensive coordinator Tom Landry went to coach the expansion Cowboys), but Lombardi didn't want to come back to New York. Howell stayed on one more year, Mara tried Lombardi again but was denied ("It became a sore subject, both ways," Mara told The New York Times), and Lombardi went on to a legendary run with the Packers. The Giants didn't win their first Super Bowl — and the Lombardi Trophy — until the 1986 season.

New York Jets: Passing on Jerry Rice

The Jets weren't the only team to miss on Jerry Rice. Thirteen teams passed on him in the 1985 NFL Draft. The Bills and Oilers passed twice. But the Jets are remembered for it most because they took another receiver (though, so did the Cincinnati Bengals, taking Eddie Brown). The Jets took Al Toon out of Wisconsin 10th overall, and he was on his way to a good career before concussions ended it prematurely. But Toon still wasn't Rice, who was drafted 16th overall and would score 208 career touchdowns, 33 more than any other player in NFL history.

Philadelphia Eagles: Jalen Reagor over Justin Jefferson

Let's go with a recent whiff for the Eagles, who haven't made many big mistakes lately. With the 21st pick of the 2020 NFL Draft, they took TCU receiver Jalen Reagor. He had 64 catches with the Eagles, many bad drops and was dumped after two seasons. With the 22nd pick, the Vikings took Justin Jefferson. Jefferson has 4,825 yards through three seasons, an NFL record, and won NFL Offensive Player of the Year in 2022. The Eagles won the NFC last season, but imagine how much better they'd be with Jefferson instead of Reagor.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Passing on Dan Marino

Taking Dan Marino in the 1983 NFL Draft was almost too obvious for the Steelers. He was from Western Pennsylvania and starred at Pitt. The Steelers needed to replace Terry Bradshaw, who was near the end of a great career. Aware of drug rumors with Marino, the Steelers took Texas Tech defensive tackle Gabriel Rivera. Head coach Chuck Noll admitted in an interview nearly a decade later that the rumors, which were unsubstantiated, influenced the Steelers' draft decision.

Rivera was paralyzed in a car accident midway through his rookie season. The Steelers struggled to replace Bradshaw for many years while Marino became an all-time great with the Miami Dolphins.

San Francisco 49ers: Alex Smith over Aaron Rodgers

The 49ers wanted a quarterback with the top pick of the 2005 NFL Draft, and Aaron Rodgers was a local product who was impressive at Cal. But the team went with Alex Smith, the safer pick. Then-49ers head coach Mike Nolan said the team had issues with Rodgers' throwing motion, and also saw Smith as a friendlier personality while Rodgers was "very cocky, very confident, arrogant," via Smith didn't have a bad NFL career, but Rodgers became one of the greatest quarterbacks ever.

NFL history would have been much different if the San Francisco 49ers would have taken Aaron Rodgers (12) over Alex Smith in the 2005 NFL Draft. (AP Photo/Mike Roemer)
NFL history would have been much different if the San Francisco 49ers would have taken Aaron Rodgers (12) over Alex Smith in the 2005 NFL Draft. (AP Photo/Mike Roemer)

Seattle Seahawks: Trading the Tony Dorsett pick

The Seahawks could have drafted Tony Dorsett, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, with the second overall draft pick in 1977. But Dorsett might have been hard to sign and the expansion Seahawks needed to stock up on picks, so they traded the selection to the Cowboys for the 14th pick and two second-rounders. The players from those picks — offensive linemen Steve August and Tom Lynch and linebacker Terry Beeson — were solid players but they weren't Dorsett, who became a Hall of Famer with Dallas.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Alienating Bo Jackson

Bo Jackson is one of the most electrifying athletes ever, and the Buccaneers blew the chance to have him. In 1986, the Bucs made Jackson the top pick of the draft. But Jackson was angry at team owner Hugh Culverhouse, who he blamed for ending his baseball eligibility at Auburn. The Buccaneers flew Jackson to Tampa for a physical, which he didn't know was against NCAA rules. Jackson refused to play for Tampa Bay and his NFL highlights live on forever as a member of the Raiders, who drafted Jackson in the seventh round a year later.

Tennessee Titans: Trading Steve Largent

We have to go back to the Houston Oilers days for the franchise's biggest regret. Houston drafted Steve Largent in the fourth round in 1976, but he didn't impress head coach Bum Phillips right away. Instead of cutting the rookie before the season, the team traded him to the Seahawks for a future eighth-round pick. When Largent retired he was the NFL's all-time leader in receptions, yards and touchdowns, all with the Seahawks.

Washington Commanders: Howard Milstein's ownership bid denied

The entire Daniel Snyder era could have been avoided. In 1999, New York real estate mogul Howard Milstein made an offer for the Washington franchise. NFL team owners were against it, in part because a lot of Milstein's bid was based on debt, so Milstein withdrew his offer. He'd later sue team president John Kent Cooke and general manager Charley Casserly, claiming they interfered with his bid to buy the team. One of Milstein's partners, Snyder, went forward with a different partnership group and landed the team. That led to one of the worst ownership tenures in sports history.

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