Call It A Day: The Greatest One-Hit Wonders In NFL History
Any given Sunday. It’s the mantra of the NFL that suggests that anything is possible in any game once the whistles blow and the ball is kicked off. But while that usually pertains to wins and losses, it also holds true for magical moments and games that define careers. Joe Namath’s guarantee, The Immaculate Reception, The Perfect Season.
And for some NFL players, that one given Sunday was the day that defined a career bereft of any other highlights. A single Sunday where it all came together, often in the playoffs or Super Bowl, and lifted a player from obscurity into the spotlight, only to drop them right back out of the game and back into anonymity. These are the NFL’s one-hit wonders.
Ed Podolak, Chiefs-Dolphins Double OT 1971
When you think NFL triple threat (rushing, receiving, kick returns), you think of guys like Darren Sproles and Eric Metcalf. You have to really dig deep into the memory banks to find Ed Podolak, but when you get there, you’ll find arguably the greatest all-purpose playoff performance in NFL history.
The Christmas Day playoff game in 1971 between the Dolphins and Chiefs is already memorable for its overtime drama – it’s the longest game in NFL history (82 minutes, 40 seconds), not decided until Garo Yepremian’s field goal in the second overtime. But the game is also remembered for Podolak, who did a real-life Bo Jackson/Tecmo Bowl imitation on the otherwise stout “No-Name” Dolphins defense.
All Podolak did was rush for 85 yards, catch eight balls for 110 yards, and rack up 155 yards in kick returns. Add it up and Podolak had an NFL playoff record 350 all-purpose yards, as well as two touchdowns. His 78-yard kickoff return deep into Miami territory late in regulation should have been the game-winning play, but the usually-reliable Jan Stenerud missed a chip-shot, game-winning kick, sending the game into overtime.
Podolak was no slouch in his nine-year career. He’s still the Chiefs’ No. 2 all-time rusher and his 8,717 total yards are second in Chiefs’ history. But his amazing playoff game in 1971 is the one-hit wonder by which all others are measured.
Clint Longley, Thanksgiving Day 1974
Longley is known for two chapters in Cowboys history, one heroic, the other sophomoric. The latter involved picking a fight with starting quarterback and all-around superhero Roger Staubach in 1976, sucker-punching Captain America in the locker room at the team’s training camp and earning an immediate exile to San Diego, where his once-promising career died a quick death.
But two years earlier, as a rookie on Thanksgiving Day in 1974, “The Mad Bomber” demonstrated why the Cowboys thought enough of Longley, who played at Abilene Christian University and left school a year early, to acquire his rights for a fifth-round pick.
The Cowboys, on the verge of elimination from the playoff hunt, trailed the Redskins 16-3 in the third quarter when Staubach was knocked out of the game with a concussion. Enter Longley, who hadn’t taken a regular-season snap over Dallas’ first 11 games.
But the raw rookie showed no signs of nerves, leading the Cowboys to a touchdown on his first drive, hitting Billy Joe DuPree for a 35-yard touchdown to make it 16-10, then leading another TD drive to give Dallas a 17-16 lead in the fourth quarter.
“The triumph of the uncluttered mind,” offensive lineman Blaine Nye would later remark.
But the Redskins struck back and led 23-17 with 1:54 left and the Cowboys with the ball on their own 40-yard line. The ball was on the 50 with 35 seconds left when Longley shocked the Redskins, as well as football world. A year before Staubach would hit Pearson for a last-minute, 50-yard touchdown against the Vikings that would go down in history as the “Hail Mary,” Longley did the exact same thing, connecting with Pearson on a deep ball to give the Cowboys a 24-23 win.
But the Hail Longley did not lead to lasting fame – at least not in a positive way. Longley would attempt just one pass the rest of the 1974 season and played just sparingly in 1975, as Staubach led the Cowboys back to the Super Bowl. Frustrated with his backup status and feuding with the incumbent, Longley picked two fights with Staubach during training camp in 1976, the second one the sucker punch that got Longley traded to the Chargers. Longley would play in just three NFL games the rest of his career, but for Cowboys and Redskins fans alike, the 1974 Thanksgiving Day Miracle lives forever.
Timmy Smith, Super Bowl XXII
Even in the white-hot glare of the Super Bowl, few fans outside of Redskins die-hards were familiar with Redskins running back Timmy Smith. The storyline on the Washington side of this game was the historic appearance of Doug Williams, the first African-American quarterback to start a Super Bowl.
Smith’s anonymity was self-apparent. The running back was a rookie seventh-round pick, and with George Rogers leading the team in rushing in the regular season, Smith was anchored to the bench, appearing in just seven games and carrying the ball 29 times. But that all changed once the playoffs began.
With Rogers struggling in a Divisional playoff game against the Bears, head coach Joe Gibbs turned to his rookie, and Smith responded with 66 yards on 16 carries. Gibbs used Smith to grind down the clock in the fourth quarter, as the Redskins advanced to the NFC Championship Game against the Vikings. In that game, Smith again excelled off the bench, rushing for 72 yards on just 13 carries.
The Redskins won to advance to Super Bowl XXII against the Broncos, and Gibbs decided that Smith had earned the right to make his first career start. But Gibbs did not inform Smith of this development until hours before the game, hoping not to burden the rookie with the awesome expectations of a Super Bowl start.
It proved a wise move, as Smith turned the Super Bowl into his personal highlight reel. After spotting the Broncos a quick 10-0 lead, the Redskins set the game on fire in the second quarter with five unanswered touchdowns to take a 35-10 halftime lead. And though Williams started the onslaught with two touchdown passes, it was Smith who dominated, scoring the first of his two touchdowns on a 58-yard run and ultimately amassing a Super Bowl record 204 rushing yards to go with a second touchdown to complete the 42-10 rout.
But Smith’s sudden success proved the undoing of his career. Just days after the game, his agent demanded the Redskins make Smith the highest-paid back in the league, and Smith held out of training camp, which soured his relationship with Gibbs and the front office. Although he started eight games in 1988, he never came close to re-capturing the success of his Super Bowl rampage. He was overweight from skipping camp, and there was the added weight of drug speculation.
The Redskins let him go after the 1988 season. Though he was signed by the Chargers and Cowboys over the next two years, an ankle injury limited him to one game, the last one he played in the NFL. He would eventually run afoul of the law for attempting to sell cocaine and was sent to prison for two years in 2006, a potentially brilliant career derailed in large part because of the greatest night by a running back in Super Bowl history.
Larry Brown, Super Bowl XXX
Sometimes, you make your own breaks. You prepare for the big moment, execute the plan and reap the rewards. And sometimes, Neil O’Donnell inexplicably throws the ball right to you, TWICE!, instead of his own receivers, and even though you really didn’t do anything other than be in the right place at the right time, you’re suddenly a Super Bowl MVP.
And so it was for Dallas Cowboys cornerback Larry Brown, who, like the rest of us who watched Super Bowl XXX in 1996, is probably still wondering what in the world O’Donnell was thinking. TWICE! Brown had been part of two previous Super Bowl winners with Dallas in 1992 and ’93, but was never considered a lockdown defender – although Jerry Rice might disagree with that statement.
Nevertheless, in the third quarter of Super Bowl XXX and the Cowboys leading 13-7, O’Donnell and his receiver crossed signals and O’Donnell’s pass went right to Brown, whose return set up a touchdown for a 20-7 lead. The Steelers shook off O’Donnell’s brain cramp – in part because of a successful surprise on-side kick, and closed to 20-17 late in the game. Then O’Donnell went oops, and did it again.
The second interception remains a total head-scratcher, even after more than two decades. With the Steelers driving for, at the minimum, a game-tying field goal in the final minutes, O’Donnell once again threw a pass downfield to an area where the only player within yards of the football was Brown. And, once again, Brown made the easy interception, returning the ball deep into Pittsburgh territory and setting up the clinching touchdown in a 27-17 victory.
For his pair of picks, Brown was named Super Bowl MVP, and the timing could not have been better, with the cornerback hitting the free-agent market. And though he cashed in with a five-year, $12.5 million deal with Oakland, he only played in 12 games over two seasons with the Raiders, starting just once. His career ended after four games off the bench with Dallas in 1988. Thank goodness for Neil O’Donnell, or Brown would have ended up in the dustbin of history.
Matt Flynn, 2010-11
Not every memorable NFL one-hit wonder has to come in January. And sometimes the one-hit is actually two hits. For Packers backup quarterback Matt Flynn, his two starts for the Packers – one late in the 2010 season and the other at the end of the 2012 season — showcased a poise and talent that, for whatever reason, only revealed themselves in these two games.
The poise appeared in Week 15 of the 2010 season, when Flynn made his first career NFL start against the New England Patriots in Foxboro, Mass. Aaron Rodgers was held out of this nationally-televised Sunday night game because of injury, and most expected the Patriots to carve up the inexperienced Flynn. Instead, the former LSU quarterback completed 23 of 37 passes for 254 yards and three touchdowns, nearly pulling off a stunning upset by getting the Packers to the New England 15-yard line for the game’s final play, only to get sacked in a 31-27 Patriots win.
But the next time Flynn got a start, things would turn out much different. Given the keys to the car for an otherwise meaningless regular season finale in 2011, Flynn put on a show that outpaced anything ever done by Rodgers, Brett Favre or Bart Starr. Against the Lions, Flynn threw for 480 yards and six touchdowns in a 45-41 win, setting Packers team records in both categories. That game was played on New Year’s Day in 2012, so, yeah, maybe the best one-hit wonders do happen in January.
Flynn parlayed his huge day into a contract with Seattle in 2012, but he appeared in just three games as a backup to a young quarterback named Russell Wilson. Flynn would start just five games the remainder of his NFL career, never coming close to that magical day against the Lions.
Percy Howard, Super Bowl X
The most wondrous of one-hit wonders wasn’t even supposed to see the field on Jan. 18, 1976, which makes the improbable story of Percy Howard all the more remarkable. Howard was already an NFL oddity before he took the field for his first game. A 6-foot-4 basketball player at Austin Peay University, Howard did not play a down of college football, but was signed by the Cowboys before the 1975 season as a wide receiver, banking on his height and athleticism.
But Howard was never considered more than a project, a player who occupied a roster spot, but whom was being groomed for future seasons. With Drew Pearson and Golden Richards manning the wideout positions in a two-receiver offense, Howard never got a chance to see the field, except for an occasional special teams rep. But that all changed in the most dramatic of ways, as Howard suddenly found himself the key man for the Cowboys in the biggest game of them all.
Super Bowl X in Miami pitted the Cowboys against the defending champion Steelers and its Steel Curtain defense. One of Pittsburgh’s leaders was cornerback Mel Blount, who didn’t mind resorting to cheap shots to keep opposing receivers honest – or injured. Late in the Super Bowl, Blount cheap-shotted Richards and broke several ribs, knocking Richards from the game. So with Cowboys trailing 21-10 with just over three minutes left, Howard became the No. 2 receiver in Dallas’ go-for-broke offense.
Roger Staubach, three weeks removed from his “Hail Mary” 50-yard touchdown pass to Pearson to beat the Vikings, now went to work on the Steelers, marching Dallas 80 yards on four passes to a touchdown. The final play was a 34-yard heave into the left corner of the end zone. And waiting for the ball was Howard, having blown right past Blount to get behind the defense, then gathering in the pass and falling backwards to the ground on the Steelers’ logo in the end zone, his legs scissor-kicking in the air. It was the first catch of Howard’s pro career, and it cut the deficit to 21-17.
Amazingly the Cowboys got the ball back again with 1:22 on their own 39, and after two plays, the Cowboys were just 38 yards from the end zone. After one incompletion, 12 seconds remained and Staubach lofted a jump-ball toward Howard in the end zone. Howard, the former basketball player, tried posting up against the Steelers’ Glenn Edwards, but the jostling threw off his timing, and because of his mis-timed leap, the ball bounced off Howard’s helmet for an incompletion, just inches from a catch into immortality. Edwards then intercepted Staubach’s final try as time expired.
Howard would have to settle for a touchdown catch in the Super Bowl as his only reception in the 1975 season. But what Howard had no idea was that the play in Super Bowl X would be the only catch of his career. In training camp the next season, Howard tore up his knee and would never again see the field. Another knee injury in the 1977 preseason ended his career. And with that, Howard became the only player in NFL history to have his lone career catch result in a Super Bowl touchdown.