Every year in the NFL brings both a sunrise and sunset to the careers of many participants. The departures are especially filled with melancholy because years of contributions have allowed the fan to grow accustomed to their faces.
While a typical NFL career averages out to just about two seasons for players, there are some who defy these laws. Olin Kreutz retired after four games this year, despite being the starting center of the New Orleans Saints.
Jason Hanson is close to completing his 20th season as the placekicker of the Detroit Lions. The two-time Pro Bowler has shown no signs of slowing down and remains one of the top kickers in the entire league.
He has missed just four kicks this year, a typical rate in his career. Two came from distances 50 yards or further, but he has made four at that range so far. Hanson will be 42 next season, so his retirement would have a tremendous impact on a franchise that has relied on the 1,997 points he has provided in his career.
While the 41 year old Hanson may not be as well known outside of the Motor City, some players are considered well enough known that the y are known beyond the gridiron. These individuals have raked in so much cash for the league that they will likely be offered jobs when the cleats come off for the final time.
Peyton Manning is telling everyone he plans to play again, but he will be 36 years old and entering his 15th season in 2012. Manning sat out this year with a neck injury that has given mixed reports on the healing process. There are even rumors that Manning underwent stem cell surgery to accelerate the healing process, but it did not take as expected.
As Indianapolis trudges through the 2011 season without a win thus far, they are also primed to have the very first draft pick next year. Most expect them to snag quarterback Andrew Luck, who exhibits many of the traits of the 11-time Pro Bowl Manning. The likely scenario is both will be on the Colts roster next year, though some media members have wondered if the Colts would be brash enough and trade Manning to excise his salary from their payroll.
Manning isn’t the only future Hall of Famer who might retire at the end of this season. Ray Lewis, Jason Taylor, Brian Dawkins, Ronde Barber, Tony Gonzales, Hines Ward and LaDainian Tomlinson are all old veterans who may decide to call it quits.
Lewis is considered one of the finest middle linebackers in the history of professional football. The 12-time Pro Bowler would most likely call it quits if the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl this year, but other factors may lead Lewis to that decision regardless.
The leader of the Ravens is currently sidelined with a frustrating toe injury that has caused him to miss three games so far. His production has also declined somewhat, so Lewis may decide to leave before he is a shell of his former self. He will be 37 years old soon, so the inevitable retirement approaches more rapidly each day.
Taylor has six sacks this season and could probably still be able to sack a quarterback in 2032. He has 138.5 sacks in his career and has the most touchdowns off of fumble recoveries in NFL history.
Yet he will be 37 years old in 2012. His switching from defensive end to outside linebacker in 2009 has extended his career, one many thought was over after a subpar 2008 season, but Taylor may not want to return to a Miami Dolphins franchise many expect to struggle again next year.
Dawkins is 38 years old right now. He is in his 15th season and many expect it to be his last. The eight-time Pro Bowler is as much a leader as he is a ferocious and smart player, but the Denver Broncos now have a pair of young safeties perched to take over in 2012. A coach on the field, Dawkins will certainly be able to stay in the game by joining the coaching ranks on the sidelines in 2012.
The writing appears to be written on the wall for Tomlinson, but there are no guarantees he will want to retire just yet. He has beaten the odds of many NFL running backs so far by lasting 11 years in the league while being an absolute workhorse in eight seasons.
Tomlinson gained over 1,100 rushing yards in his first eight years, but the San Diego Chargers thought his career was over after he struggled for 730 yards in 2009. Even though he signed to be a reserve on the New York Jets last year, Tomlinson showed his greatness by churning out 914 yards on the ground.
This year has not only been filled with injuries that have curtailed him somewhat, the rushing production has fallen at the lowest levels of his career. Tomlinson can still go out and catch the ball, as his 610 career receptions show, but he may not find that to be enough to return in 2012.
The Jets could ask him back, because the 13.5 yards per catch is the best of his career, but Shonn Greene is now the man. Tomlinson has never had fewer than 219 rushing attempts in his career, but it now appears he won’t reach 75 in 2011. By grinding out 13,590 yards so far, his is a career most running backs could only dream of having.
Barber, Ward and Gonzales are all still very productive players, but the clock is certainly pulling the pads slowly off of them as well. These proud players may decide to stave off retirement for another year of football.
Barber is still the best cornerback on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but the five-time Pro Bowler will be 37 years old in 2012. His 13 non-offensive touchdowns is the fourth most in NFL history and he did record the first safety of his career this season. There haven’t been a ton of cornerbacks his age in NFL history, though Barber may want to challenge that logic.
Ward is still getting open as a possession wide receiver, but he has seen Antonio Brown taking starts from him while Mike Wallace has become the top pass catcher on the team. The Pittsburgh Steelers may want to hang onto a veteran that is the longest-tenured current player on the team and has helped them win a pair of Super Bowls, but the Super Bowl XL MVP will be 36 years old next year and may not want to continue playing while watching his production to continue to steadily decline.
Gonzales is a 11-time Pro Bowler who has the most career catches, receiving yards and touchdowns by a tight end in NFL history. He also holds the record for the most receptions ever in a single season by a tight end.
While he will soon be 36 years old, the 15-year veteran has had a more productive season than he did in 2010. Gonzales hasn’t had fewer than 70 receptions since 2003 and he still one of the main weapons of the Atlanta Falcons. After such a productive season, his prediction earlier this year appears to be correct when Gonzales said he had three years left in him.
There are other great players who also may be appearing in their final games these next few weeks. Many that have been to the Pro Bowl and a few that have played in Super Bowls.
Players like Jeff Saturday, London Fletcher, Marion Barber, Chad Clifton, Kelly Gregg, Takeo Spikes, Adam Vinatieri, Matt Bryant, Ricky Williams, Clark Haggins, Thomas Jones, Shaun Ellis, Na’il Diggs, Orlindo Mare, Casey Wiegmann, James Farrior and Matt Birk all have been productive this season without showing any real signs of aging. Yet they all are players who have played in a ton of games and are at a point of their careers where retirement is on the cusp.
Others appear ready to retire even if they are interested in returning. Players who may not be asked to play for an NFL team because there are younger and cheaper options.
Kerry Collins, Jon Kitna, Jeff Garcia and Jake Delhomme are all quarterbacks who might not be seen on a sideline wearing pads again. They are all considered too old, even if they have resumes that many upcoming quarterbacks can only hope to attain one day.
Keith Brooking, Mike Sellers, Joey Porter, Mike Peterson, Reggie Kelly, Vonnie Holliday, Gerald Warren, Aaron Smith, Charlie Batch, Chris Hoke, Brendon Ayanbadejo, Matt Turk, Anthony Becht and Brandon Stokley all showed a decline in production that usually accompanies players of their experience and age. A group of excellent players who have had Father Time catch up to them and most likely ended their playing careers after this season concludes.
Some players have hung on this year despite aging bodies telling them it is time to retire. Derrick Mason is a wide receiver who has lasted 15 years in the league and has 943 career receptions so far. Once a dynamic return specialist as well, the two-time Pro Bowler has rarely been used this season after being traded by the Jets to the Houston Texans a few months ago.
Bob Sanders was the 2007 Defensive Player of the Year, but he has not been the same since singing a contract that year that made him the highest paid safety in the history of the NFL at the time. He has played in 11 games since then, which includes a two game stint with the Chargers this season.
While it appears Sanders has run out of chances, running back Kevin Faulk might try to stay on with the New England Patriots next year. He just returned from an injury that has limited him to just seven games since 2010, but Faulk’s role has a pass catcher has now seemingly been taken over by a group of other Patriots backs and he will be 36 years old soon.
Al Harris is a cornerback who beat the odds to become a Pro Bowl player twice since being drafted by the Buccaneers in the sixth round of the 1998 draft. After the Bucs cut him, he was soon starting for the Philadelphia Eagles. After five years there, Harris logged productive seven seasons with the Green Bay Packers.
Though he has spent the last two years with the Dolphins and Saint Louis Rams, Harris has not been able to stay healthy since 2008. He is now 37 years old and it seems unlikely any team will want to sign any team will sign an oft-injured cornerback of his age.
Sometimes a player will decide to retire at the pinnacle of their game. The NFL has seen Hall of Famers like the immortal Jim Brown and Barry Sanders do it, and even saw it this year when the Channing Crowder retired at just 27 years old.
Antonio Gates is on the verge of surpassing Hall of Famer Charlie Joiner for the most receptions in Chargers history. He made the NFL in 2003 as an undrafted player because he played just basketball in college.
Yet the seven-time Pro Bowler has been hobbling around on bad feet the last two seasons, causing him to miss eight games so far. While highly productive at just 31 years old, Gates plays the game for love rather than money. No one could begrudge him for choosing to walk away from the game in relative good health, much like Brown and Sanders did, rather than risking further damage to his brittle wheels.
Yet it is a quick good bye to many of these greats. There are no gold watches handed out and few dinners given. As soon as one player leaves, another quickly steps in to replace him. Even if the level of play may decrease, the uniforms stay the name even if the names don’t.
It is hard to say a man is old and past his prime at such a young age, but a career in the NFL is fleeting. All one is left with are enjoyable memories, even if they temporarily frustrated because that player beat a fans favorite team. So enjoying them while still able can bring temporary joy.