For football fans, coaches and players alike, few things suck more than seeing a promising career end because of injuries.
It’s happened plenty of times since the NFL’s inception over a century ago. Though we were fortunate to watch these stars dominate games for some years, you can’t help but wonder what more they could have accomplished had they just stayed healthy.
Here are 10 NFL players who would’ve been Hall of Famers if injuries didn’t cut their careers short.
Luck may be the greatest “what if” athlete of our lifetime. In his four fully-healthy NFL seasons, he was a Pro Bowler and got the Indianapolis Colts to the postseason. This included a trip to the AFC Championship Game in 2014.
A shoulder injury and a lacerated kidney limited him to seven games in 2015. He missed a pivotal 2016 game in Pittsburgh due to a concussion, and all of 2017 recovering from shoulder surgery.
Luck won Comeback Player of the Year honors in 2018 and seemingly had Indy right back in Super Bowl contention. But in August 2019, Luck shockingly announced his retirement after dealing with nagging ankle and calf injuries.
Luck explained that the injuries had taken a toll on him and simply made him lose his desire to play the game. He walked away with a career record of 53-and-33, to go along with 23,671 passing yards and 171 touchdowns.
The top pick of 2012 is fifth all time in career passing yards per game at 275.2 — higher than Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Kurt Warner and Dan Marino. Having retired before his 30th birthday, Luck was unquestionably on a Hall of Fame trajectory.
Even just two or three more healthy seasons would have gotten him into Canton. You gotta tip your hat to the guy for prioritizing his long-term health first. But we also can’t help but wonder what could have been had he stayed healthy and never lost the desire to play.
Here’s the thing: The older brother of Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe probably deserves to be in Canton anyways! But it’s been nearly 30 years since his career ended abruptly, and Sterling still isn’t in the Hall. It’s probably time to accept that the dream is over for him.
Sharpe’s career resume is downright ridiculous. In seven seasons, he was a five-time Pro Bowler, and a three-time first-team all-pro who led the NFL in catches three time and in receiving touchdowns twice.
The Green Bay Packers legend unfortunately suffered a career-ending neck injury in 1994 at the age of 29. He was forced to retire, finishing with 595 receptions for 8,134 yards and 65 touchdowns.
To us, that’s a Hall of Fame resume. But the Canton voters obviously disagree. All we can say is this: Sterling would have been a shoo-in if injuries didn’t force him to retire early. Two more seasons would have guaranteed him a gold jacket.
The former Seattle Seahawks’ superstar running back had one of the all-time greatest seasons ever back in 2005. That year, Alexander rushed for 1,880 yards and a ridiculous 27 touchdowns.
His 28 total touchdowns were a single-season record — although, LaDainian Tomlinson broke it one year later. Alexander won the 2005 league MVP and helped Seattle to the franchise’s first Super Bowl championship, where they fell to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Unfortunately, that was Alexander’s LAST great season. He missed six games in 2006 after suffering a broken foot — and still had 896 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. And he was a shell of his former self in 2007, as all of the injuries had clearly caught up to him.
Washington picked up Alexander in the 2008 offseason following his release from Seattle, but he played just four games before getting cut midseason. The 2005 MVP retired with 9,453 career rushing yards and 100 rushing scores — tied with Marshall Faulk for eighth on the all-time leaderboard.
You can certainly make a case that Alexander should already be in the Hall of Fame, but at this point, it feels unlikely. It’s a shame that injuries quickly derailed his final two years in Seattle. Honestly, staying healthy over the 2006 and ‘07 campaigns could have been enough for him to sneak into Canton.
Prime Jamaal Charles was truly something else. From 2009 to 2014, he had five 1,000-yard seasons, was a four-time Pro Bowler and earned two first-team all-pro nods and one second-team all-pro selection.
Unfortunately, a torn ACL suffered in Week 2 of the 2011 season took away a year of Charles’ prime. He rebounded with three straight 1,000-yard seasons. And then the injury bug struck again.
In Week 5 of the 2015 season, Charles tore his ACL against the Chicago Bears. He played three games in 2016 before subsequent knee surgery ended his season. The Chiefs eventually released Charles, who wound up signing with the Denver Broncos in 2017.
Charles didn’t do much there in a limited role and wound up playing two games for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2018 before retiring. He finished with 7,563 career rushing yards and 44 touchdowns.
Among all players with at least 1,000 career carries, Charles has the best yard-per-carry average, with an insane 5.4. In other words, he was on his way to the Hall of Fame before injuries in 2016 and 2017 derailed that dream.
It’s disappointing that we didn’t get to see prime “Bam Bam” for at least a couple more years. But on the positive side, Chancellor sure made the very most of his eight seasons in the NFL.
The hard-hitting safety out of Virginia Tech formed Seattle’s legendary “Legion of Boom” secondary that also included Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell. That group led Seattle to five straight playoff appearances from 2012 to 2016, two NFC Championship wins and a Super Bowl 49 victory.
Chancellor was one of football’s premier safeties from 2011 to 2015 — with four Pro Bowl nods and a pair of second-team all-pro selections in that span.
Unfortunately, Chancellor suffered a season-ending neck injury in 2017 and had to miss Seattle’s final seven games. It turned out to be a career-ending injury, as Chancellor essentially announced that he wouldn’t be able to play football anymore.
Chancellor, Thomas and Sherman were all on Hall of Fame trajectories before injuries started to pile up for them. Sherman still has a good shot at getting in, but it feels less likely for Chancellor and Thomas.
A true shame, because that was one of the NFL’s all-time great safety duos. And if they both stayed healthy, who knows? Maybe Seattle would have won more than a single Super Bowl in the Russell Wilson era.
You’ve probably heard people joke that, “the Detroit Lions have been rebuilding since 1957.” But if injuries didn’t cut Billy Sims’ career short, would we still be able to say that?
Sims was must-watch TV over his first four seasons, which spanned from 1980 to ‘83. The top pick of the 1980 draft came as advertised, exploiting defenses with his electrifying rushing style.
Sims earned Pro Bowl honors in each of his first three seasons. The 1980 Offensive Rookie of the Year rushed for 26 touchdowns over his first two NFL campaigns.
He crossed 1,000 yards three times in that four-year span. Even in the 1982 season, which was shortened to nine games because of a strike, Sims had 639 rushing yards and four rushing scores.
Sadly, Sims’ promising career abruptly ended in a 1984 game against the Minnesota Vikings. Sims blew out his knee and missed the remainder of the season. In those days, knee injuries were often career-ending. Sims finally gave up and retired in 1986.
He tried a comeback in 1989, but to no avail. The Lions would at least find another legendary running back in Barry Sanders, but who knows where this franchise would have gone if they had Sims for at least a few more years?
From 2010 to 2013, Bowman and fellow linebacker Patrick Willis were the NFL’s best linebacker duo — and it wasn’t particularly close.
These two were instrumental in the San Francisco 49ers’ early 2010s revival under head coach Jim Harbaugh. They fronted a physically-punishing defense that led San Fran to three straight NFC title games from 2011 to 2013 plus a Super Bowl 47 appearance.
In the 2013 NFC Championship Game against the rival Seahawks, Bowman suffered a brutal knee injury in which he suffered ACL and MCL tears. Bowman missed the rest of the game, a 23-17 Seattle victory, and the entire 2014 season recovering from the injury.
Bowman returned with a force in 2015, earning a fourth career first-team all-pro nod and his third Pro Bowl selection. Then he tore his achilles tendon in Week 4 of the 2016 season vs. the Dallas Cowboys, cutting another season of his short.
He split the 2017 season with the 49ers and Raiders before retiring in 2019. Bowman was right up there in the upper tier of NFL defensive players during his prime years. The Hall of Fame was going to welcome him in open arms if not for the tragic 2013 and 2016 injuries.
Out of a possible 128 regular season games from 2004 to 2011, Sanders appeared in 50. Not even half of the possible games. Think about that for a second.
And yet, Bob Sanders’ resume includes a Super Bowl 41 championship, two Pro Bowls, one first-team all-pro nomination, and the 2007 Defensive Player of the Year award. In 50 career games, the hard-hitting Sanders had six interceptions, 16 pass defenses and four forced fumbles.
Sanders never played 16 games in a season. In fact, he only played double-digit games twice: 14 in 2005 and 15 in 2007. He played FIVE total games from 2009 to 2011.
And yet…he accomplished so much. Yep, this guy would have been a Hall of Famer if injuries didn’t force him out of the NFL before his 31st birthday.
When healthy, there were few defensive backs who single-handedly changed games like Sanders — hence why Hall of Fame head coach Tony Dungy called him the “eraser.”
And who knows? Maybe the Colts would have won more than one Super Bowl with Peyton Manning if Sanders stayed healthy.
Prime Daunte Culpepper was a human cheat code for the Minnesota Vikings. The three-time Pro Bowler led Minny to 11 wins in his first full season as a starter in 2000 and got them to the NFC Championship Game, where they fell to the New York Giants.
Culpepper dazzled as a prolific passer and runner. His best season came in 2004, when Culpepper threw for a league-leading 4,717 passing yards and 39 touchdowns to go along with 406 rushing yards and two rushing TDs.
But the dual-threat QB got off to a rocky start in 2005 — throwing six touchdowns and seven picks. He suffered a gruesome season-ending right knee injury in which he tore three ligaments.
That was it for Culpepper in the Gopher State. He was later traded to the Miami Dolphins, but was limited to four games because of injuries. Culpepper required another season-ending procedure on his knee.
The Dolphins released Culpepper in the 2007 offseason, and he signed with the Oakland Raiders. He appeared in six games but suffered a quadriceps injury that cut his season short.
Culpepper started five games for the Detroit Lions in both 2008 and 2009, losing all 10 of them. His NFL career was over after the ‘09 campaign.
A healthy Culpepper, from 2000 to 2004, was one of football’s premier highlight reel players. If a plethora of injuries didn’t pile up on him, we’d be talking about a Hall of Famer. It’s really too bad that we didn’t get to see a full decade of prime Daunte Culpepper.
If not Sterling Sharpe, no one on this list deserves to be in the Hall more than Holmes. Quite frankly, it’s a travesty that Canton has kept him out all these years after his final NFL season.
In 10 seasons, Holmes won a Super Bowl 35 title with the Baltimore Ravens, won Offensive player of the year honors in 2002, and he led the league in rushing in 2001 and in rushing touchdowns in 2002 and 2003.
Oh, and those three first-team all-pro nods aren’t anything to scoff at, either. Same goes for his 8,172 career rushing yards and 86 touchdowns?
The ex-Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs star was limited to eight games in the 2004 season, yet he still had a ridiculous 892 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. A spinal injury in 2005 forced him to miss the Chiefs’ final nine games as well as the entire 2006 campaign.
Holmes returned to the field in 2007 but was limited to four games before suffering a neck injury that ultimately ended his career.
Holmes was arguably THE BEST running back in the NFL during his prime years with the Kansas City Chiefs. Being one of the game’s marquee players at your position for several years should be enough to get in the Hall, but Canton apparently disagrees.
Surely, he would’ve gotten in long ago if he had just two more healthy seasons. Maybe even one…
Which other NFL players would be in the Hall of Fame if not for injuries derailing their careers?
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