The end of the regular season always has some inevitabilities about it – not least of which is the reality that it is the last opportunity to watch some of the greats of the game at the end of their careers. Below we take a look at 5 big names for whom the last few games this season will be the last few games of careers that will likely end up in Canton, Ohio.
Charles Woodson, DB, Oakland Raiders
Start carving the bust now, Woodson will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2021. Despite still playing at a Pro Bowl level, ranking near the top in all metrics for his position, Woodson announced this week that he will be retiring at the end of this season. Rumours abound that Oakland might use him as the 3-way threat he was at Michigan this Thursday night, giving him snaps at WR, DB and as Returner which would be a fitting tribute to the career of an all-time great.
Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos
The ultimate competitor, Manning is not going to want to go out like this but it may be that he doesn’t have a choice. Father Time has officially caught up to him and there is little chance he is Denver’s starter in 2016. While it has been rumoured that Peyton is not ruling out playing elsewhere next season, he is going to want to be a starter and recent film, when viewed objectively, shows he no longer is physically capable of leading a franchise. All-time greats Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens both ended their careers unable to survive pre-season roster cut-downs and it would be a shame for Manning to go the same way. If he does decide this is the end he will join fellow 1998 draftee Charles Woodson in the Class of 2021.
Antonio Gates, TE, San Diego Chargers
There aren’t any indications out of San Diego currently that Gates is retiring at the end of the season but it is something the veteran TE will definitely want to consider. Even though slowed by age and injuries this season, Gates still has served as QB Philip Rivers’ security blanket and primary red-zone target. With the rumoured franchise re-location looming for 2016 it would not be a big surprise if the, formerly undrafted, star decided to bow out while still a SAN DIEGO Charger – or even a Charger at all. Gates is due to be a free agent after this season, and there’s no guarantee that the Chargers will choose to re-sign him – or indeed, that any team will bring him in. Rather than risk the potential humiliation of not being considered a hot commodity in the free agency market, Gates may prefer to call it a day. As only the 2nd TE in NFL history with more than 100 TD receptions to his name, Gates could also find himself being fitted for a Gold Jacket in 2021.
Jared Allen, DE, Carolina Panthers
All players want to bow out on a high note and there would be nothing higher than as part of an undefeated team and winning your first Super Bowl trophy. That is an option that could be available to Jared Allen following his in-season trade to the Carolina Panthers. No longer as effective as he was in his Vikings days (6 seasons, 6 double-digit sack campaigns) Allen may consider calling it a career following this season. Allen will have one more year left on his contract with Carolina after this season, and if he continues to play, he might find himself in a similar situation that Gates may face this coming offseason – the ignominy of being an undesired free agent. If the Panthers win it all this year, he may choose to walk away rather than Allen’s 136 sacks are the most among active players in the league and rank him 9th overall on the all-time list. His candidacy will be heard in the halls of Canton, Ohio when he becomes eligible for inclusion in the HOF.
James Harrison, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Harrison has already retired once before, 2 years, but answered the call of the injury ravaged Steelers and has enjoyed a productive career swansong back in the familiar Black and Yellow uniform. A longtime ‘enforcer’ on the Steelers defense Harrison is a former Defensive Player of the Year, respected and feared in equal measure across the league. There are more than a few offensive players in the AFC North in particular who would emit a rather large sigh of relief should he decide to hang up his ‘terrible towel’ at the end of the year, especially as the Steelers could cut him from their roster with only a negligible cap hit ($250k) for doing so. Harrison may choose to go out on his own terms than be handed his papers by the Steelers. Already a 2-time Super Bowl winner and 5-time Pro Bowler, his candidacy for the Hall of Fame will provoke long discussion amongst the selection committee.