17-game schedule already has players who’ve done it

Only eight NFL players since 1930 have played 17 regular-season games in a single year. By the end of this year, hundreds will join them.

The league has gradually increased its number of games over the years. The 2021 NFL season will feature a uniform 17-game schedule for the first time, with the Kansas City Chiefs favored to win the Super Bowl at +450 with BetMGM.

The eight players who hit the 17-game threshold all played on multiple teams in a single season. It meant they left Team A prior to its bye week and joined Team B (without missing a week) after its bye had passed.

So what do the eight members of the 17-game club have in common? Not much on the surface, but it takes an added pain threshold — plus luck — to make it through 17 games in 17 weeks without a bye.

What NFL players this season will endure is slightly different as they’ll get a bye. (Although there’s a chance someone will give us our first 18-game season since the barnstorming days of the 1920s.)

We tracked down a handful of the eight to get their thoughts on what they went through then, and what the elongated 2021 season might be like for hundreds more in a few months. Plus, we learned a few fascinating stories from those seasons.

(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)

(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)

2004 — Wide receiver Jerry Rice

Oakland Raiders, Seattle Seahawks

Most great Rice stories center on his work ethic or his style. The story of Rice’s bizarre 2004 season includes both.

Early that year, Rice had been phased out of the Raiders’ offense. He bookended the week he turned 42 that October with a pair of zero-catch games. Rice asked for a trade and got his wish and went to Seattle.

“Some of the young receivers might have felt threatened by his arrival,” Matt Hasselbeck, the Seahawks’ QB that season, told Yahoo Sports.

One who wasn’t: Rookie Jerheme Urban.

“He was just soaking up everything Jerry did,” Hasselbeck said. “I mean everything. Jerry would run a mile on the treadmill in his uniform, cleats and pants — all of that — before every single practice.

“All of a sudden [Urban] would do it every practice, too.”

Urban confirms the story. Now head coach at his alma mater, D-III Trinity College in San Antonio, Urban said he wasn’t about to pass on picking the the GOAT’s brain.

“I was jacked up,” Urban told Yahoo Sports. “Even at that age, he prepared every day like an undrafted free agent. Well, I was an undrafted free agent, so why wouldn’t I soak that up?

“If Jerry sat in the front of the classroom, I was going to sit in the front of the classroom.”

For being such a perfectionist, Rice had to scramble prior to his first game with the team at Arizona. The way Hasselbeck tells it, Rice had to make a last-minute stop to Nordstrom to grab some designer jeans and meet the team’s dress code.

Only one problem with the purchase.

“The lady working the register forgets to take the security tag off of the jeans. You know, those thick, white plastic thing?” Hasselbeck said, laughing. “And [Rice] couldn’t get it off, no matter what he tried.

“For road trips, you basically wear the same thing down that you wear back. So here’s Jerry Rice on both legs of the trip, wearing the security tag — all the way down, play the game, then wearing them all the way back.”

The joke around the team after that, Hasselbeck said, was that Urban was soon going to buy his own designer jeans with the security tag left on.

“I went out and bought five pairs, actually,” Urban joked.

Rice was past his peak. He still had a 145-yard game at Dallas, finishing with a respectable 25 catches in 11 games in Seattle. They’d be among the final ones of his career. Rice was blanked again in the Seahawks’ playoff-opening loss, and he’d officially retire the following year.

Urban earned Rice’s respect in their short, strange season together. The day after the playoff loss, Rice told his teammates he’d be happy to stay for a few hours and sign some stuff for anyone who wanted it.

“The line was around the locker room,” Urban said. “Jerry stayed and signed every single item. Here it was this long season for him near the end of his career, he’d been traded, we had drama when he arrived, all this stuff going on. But he just wanted to be a good teammate.

“I never forgot that. To me, he was the ultimate pro’s pro.”

Jerry Rice played in Seattle for part of his 17-game season, and made an impact in his short time there. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

Jerry Rice played in Seattle for part of his 17-game season, and made an impact in his short time there. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

2009 — Linebacker Will Witherspoon

St. Louis Rams, Philadelphia Eagles

Before his 17-game season finished, Witherspoon had already joined a more ignominious 17-game club.

Dating back to the 2008 season, his Rams had lost 17 straight games. They sat at 0-6, having lost 40 of the past 49 games, when Witherspoon was traded to the Eagles. It was a dark time for the franchise that had dominated not long before that.

“I won’t lie, me and Spags [Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo] butted heads on a few things,” Witherspoon told Yahoo Sports. “But it was just a veteran trying to voice his opinion. When you’re losing, everyone feels it. Things get tense.”

Missouri was — and remains — a special place for Witherspoon. Shortly after signing his six-year deal worth $33 million with the Rams in 2006, he bought a 185-acre farm about an hour from the team facility.

That farm remains home to this day. It’s also his business now.

Shire Gate Farm in Owensville opened as a place for Witherspoon’s two horses — Rocky and Simon — to roam freely. Eventually he developed it into a full-blown cattle operation. Now Witherspoon raises, his website boasts, one of the industry’s “highest standards of humanely raised, antibiotic and hormone free, natural grass-fed beef.”

It was hardly an overnight success. The farm was uninhabited for more than decade. The grass was “5 feet high,” Witherspoon said — including a special strain of grass.

“There was a little marijuana field growing out there,” Witherspoon said with a laugh. “I literally called the Rams’ security guy and said, ‘Look, I need you to handle this.’ We ended up cutting it down and burning it. Wish I had bought it a decade later!”

The Eagles trade took Witherspoon away from the farm for a bit. At least it helped his losing problem. The Eagles won eight of 11 games with Witherspoon, making the playoffs, something the 0-6 Rams weren’t doing.

He had a whopper of a first game in Philly, too: eight tackles, a pick-six and a strip sack. The latter two plays came on back-to-back defensive snaps.

“I actually fractured my tailbone the week before, too,” he said. “I think Rams fans were pissed when they saw how well I did that night.”

Witherspoon, like many players on this list, was a workhorse. In 12 seasons, he missed only four games, taking pride in his ability to stay in the lineup. An Eagles athletic trainer first realized his 17-game situation.

“I realized it at some point, but I didn’t really care,” Witherspoon said. “No one was feeling bad for me, so I wasn’t feeling bad for myself.”

Witherspoon doesn’t think his achievement was remarkable, even though he also started four preseason games plus a playoff game that year.

“It was hard, no lie,” he said, “but I didn’t feel like I accomplished some extraordinary thing. Just putting your hat on and going to work every day. Some days were harder than others.”

1995 — Running back Dexter Carter

New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers

Carter never lived up to the billing from being the 25th overall draft pick in 1990. But he established himself for five seasons as a respectable return man and third-down back, and helped the 49ers win Super Bowl XXIX in the 1994 season.

As a free agent that winter, Carter was set to sign with the Denver Broncos, who had just hired former 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan as head coach. But after getting mixed messages from another Broncos employee, Carter took a three-year deal with the Jets.

Things quickly went off the rails.

Shortly after signing with New York, Carter was working out with his friend, Florida Marlins outfielder Gary Sheffield, who was amazed at Carter’s hitting ability.

“I’ve never told this story, but [Sheffield] told me I should try out for the Marlins,” Carter told Yahoo Sports. So Carter did — and five minutes into the workout, he suffered a broken knuckle on his index finger when he was hit by a ball.

Dexter Carter and the San Francisco 49ers needed each other in 1995. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Dexter Carter and the San Francisco 49ers needed each other in 1995. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

The injury didn’t correctly heal, and it affected Carter’s ability to return punts that fall. He suffered through an unsightly seven fumbles in 10 games for the Jets on only 55 touches. After losing four of the fumbles, Carter eventually lost his job when New York’s record fell to 2-8.

The 49ers immediately re-signed Carter. He picked up — minus the fumbles — right where he’d left off when he left San Francisco. Carter averaged 18.2 yards per punt return for the 49ers, who ripped off six straight wins before faltering in the playoffs. Still, it was a perfect reunion at the time.

“It was a blessing for me and the 49ers,” Carter said. “We needed each other.”

Carter was quite durable for a 170-pounder, playing 16 (or more) games in seven of his eight pro seasons. He says the new 17-game schedule is no big deal.

“Man, they don’t practice like they used to, in pads all the time,” Carter said. “I don’t think it’s a big deal. They still have a bye. I did it at 170. It can be done.”

And in his 17-game year, Carter pulled off a unique NFL feat: He played multiple road games in the same season against three different opponents — Carolina, Miami and Atlanta, twice each.

1993 — Linebacker Chris Singleton

New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins

A sack artist out of Arizona, Singleton was the eighth pick in the 1990 draft. He never found much footing in New England (four sacks in 41 games), set back by injuries, a positional switch and other factors.

Singleton also lost weight as a rookie after bravely donating bone marrow to his identical twin brother, Kevin, before the draft.

When Bill Parcells took over in 1993, he made sweeping personnel changes. Singleton, who was playing out of position at inside linebacker, hung on for the first half of the season. But at 1-8, with Singleton relegated to a reserve role, Parcells cut him.

The 6-1 Dolphins grabbed Singleton off waivers, throwing him right into the mix on defense and special teams — and he even faced the Patriots twice that season.

But Foxborough was where the Dolphins’ playoff dreams died in Week 18 (yes, 18), as Miami lost in overtime, ending a tumble from a 9-2 record to out of the postseason at 9-7. (The NFL had a 16-game, two-bye season for only the 1993 season, making Singleton the only 17-in-18 player.)

Singleton told The New York Times in 2015 he was bitter and depressed over how his career unfolded. It led to weight gain, health concerns, money problems and more. (Singleton did not respond to interview requests from Yahoo Sports.)

“I still hurt, and it takes a big-time toll,” he said. “We’re taught to self-medicate because we’re supposed to be warriors. I put everything on my shoulders, and dealing with the pain can be real destructive.

“I was married once and divorced after I got out of the NFL, and I attribute that to being angry that my career was over, and I thought I was still able to play.”

2004 — Wide receiver Micah Ross

Carolina Panthers, San Diego Chargers

Nominally a wide receiver, Ross had zero receptions in 45 NFL games, earning his trade as a special teamer. Yet he can claim part of two unusual elements of league history.

The first was his spot in the 17-game club, which he achieved with the Chargers and Panthers in 2004.

The other is that Ross became the first Jacksonville-born player to play for the hometown Jaguars in 2001. He attended high school locally, became the first Jacksonville University player to make the NFL, played for the JU basketball team (later suiting up for the USBL’s Jacksonville Barracudas) and played for the Jacksonville Tomcats in AF2.

And as a kid, he even sold concessions at Municipal Stadium, now TIAA Bank Field.

“I took a lot of pride in that, being from Jacksonville,” Ross told Yahoo Sports. “People used to joke I should run for mayor.”

Ross was a special athlete who got his shot after his AF2 coach implored the Jaguars to work him out. At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, with sub-4.4 speed and 2% body fat, Ross was too interesting to pass on.

After three years with the Jags, Ross signed with the Chargers. He didn’t get much time at receiver in games, but he was a practice workhorse.

“Being a bottom-of-the-roster guy, you’re playing on every scout-team unit,” Ross said. “Guys like [Chargers receivers] Eric Parker and Tim Dwight didn’t practice on Wednesdays or Thursdays. So basically, we did a lot of heavy lifting in practice on those days. It was tiring. I would play scout-team [offense], scout-team defense and then flip over on first team and do those offensive things.”

Ross was cut in Week 7, having faced the Panthers the week before. Then they signed him. He took the red eye to Carolina and went straight to practice without eating breakfast or even brushing his teeth.

“Life as a journeyman,” he laughed.

Ross took on similar duties in Carolina as he had in San Diego — special teams dirty work. He was targeted on one pass in 10 games in Carolina on a trick play. Ross fought through a late-season hamstring injury to become the most obscure member of the 17-game club.

“Anytime you’re on a list with Jerry Rice, you’re doing something right, I guess,” Ross said. “It’s pretty awesome to be part of this little club.”

The president of the Jacksonville NFLPA chapter, Ross attends most home Jags games these days. He said he’s OK with the league going to a 17-game regular season but believes rosters should be expanded to 60 players, with 55 dressing on game days.

“Doing it 17 straight weeks without a break was very tough,” he said. “Your body needs that recovery time.”

2013 — Safety Will Allen

Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers

Will Allen, who's ventured into the business world in retirement, played 17 games in 2013 with two of the NFL's most iconic franchises. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

Will Allen, who’s ventured into the business world in retirement, played 17 games in 2013 with two of the NFL’s most iconic franchises. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

Allen played the first seven years of his career with the Buccaneers, two of them for then-DB coach Mike Tomlin. After Tomlin was named the Steelers’ head coach in 2007, he eventually lured Allen to Pittsburgh as a free agent in 2010.

Allen turned himself into a respected player in three seasons with the Steelers before joining the Cowboys in 2013. Monte Kiffin, Allen’s defensive coordinator in Tampa, held the same title in Dallas, so signing with Dallas seemed to make sense.

Despite starting the first two games and making a pick in the Week 1 win, Allen saw his role diminished. After playing all 127 defensive snaps the first two games, he played only 38 combined over his next three outings.

“They said I didn’t provide what they needed,” he told Yahoo Sports. “It was pretty dejecting.”

Allen asked the Cowboys to cut him, and they obliged. The next day, his old boss rang.

“Mike Tomlin called me. ‘Man, you on the wire? You were out there on the street and you didn’t tell me?’” Allen said.

They chatted for a few hours. Allen decided a return to Pittsburgh was best. The Steelers were 0-4, having allowed 74 points the previous two games.

“I ended up having a really good season in 2013,” he said.

After starting out almost entirely on special teams, Allen averaged 46 defensive snaps a game the final eight contests. The Steelers made a mad dash for the postseason with a 6-2 finish before coming up short.

“That was a fun year but a long year,” Allen said. “Playing 17 games in 17 weeks in your 10th season isn’t something I would recommend.

“But I wouldn’t trade that experience of leaving and then having it all change quickly, followed by me coming back to Pittsburgh and finishing on a high note.”

Pittsburgh remains home today. Although he’s retired from football, Allen is as busy as ever. He co-founded an investment holding company in 2016, became a partner in an early-stage venture capital firm this year and has run the Will Allen Foundation — which seeks to better young kids’ lives — for 13 years.

What made it tougher as he tried to establish himself in the business world was the fact that his NFL namesake, the New York Giants’ Will Allen, was convicted of a $35 million Ponzi scheme. The other Allen and his partner defrauded clients out of money with promises of what ended up being shady loans. In 2017, both men were sentenced to six years in prison.

The Steelers’ Allen has had to fight mistaken identity ever since.

“It still comes up,” he said. “It’s really hard, especially now that I am in business. People search my name on Google and it’s his picture, or vice versa, and they don’t know the difference.

“I’m hoping something good will come of this. I am trying to twist that story a little bit and to do better for people.”

2018 — Nose tackle Damon Harrison

New York Giants, Detroit Lions

Harrison is a unicorn on this list, as he’s the only one heavier than 250 pounds to register a 17-game season. In fact, he likely was over 350 bills at the time.

On top of that, Harrison became only the second 17-game club member to start 16 of those games in a single season (Witherspoon was the other). The only game Harrison didn’t start in 2018 was his first one with the Lions after he got traded from the Giants. That ended an 87-game starting streak.

Harrison established himself as a big, mostly fun-loving personality in New York. But the 17-game achievement wasn’t anything to brag about. In fact, he told ESPN.com that season that it meant “absolutely nothing” to him.

“I haven’t really given it much thought at all besides the times [media] brought it up to me,” he said after the final game that season.

Asked then if it might be something he looks back on fondly, Harrison didn’t sound like a man caught up in being a member of the 17-game club.

“Not at all,” Harrison said. “Don’t see why I would.”

2019 — Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders

Denver Broncos, San Francisco 49ers

Sanders’ 17-game season almost didn’t happen. He suffered a torn Achilles in December 2018 but made it back for the Broncos’ opener and ended up catching 16 passes for 184 yards and two scores in Denver’s first two games.

But Denver started 0-2, falling to 2-5 after Week 7. The Broncos’ season was effectively over, so they traded Sanders (a free agent-to-be) to the 49ers in a swap of draft picks.

The move worked for both parties. Sanders became a trusted target for Jimmy Garoppolo, catching 36 passes for 502 yards and three TDs in his 10 games in San Francisco. In fact, Sanders became the first NFL player to catch a pass in 17 straight regular-season games.

The season ended in disappointment. The Chiefs rallied from down 20-10 in the final seven minutes of Super Bowl LIV to beat the 49ers.

Emmanuel Sanders came close to etching himself into 49ers immortality during 2019, when he played 17 games across two franchies. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Emmanuel Sanders came close to etching himself into 49ers immortality during 2019, when he played 17 games across two franchies. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The 49ers’ lasting what-if play from the game: Garoppolo overthrowing an open Sanders for a would-be touchdown with less than two minutes remaining.

“I don’t know if it’s a situation I’ll ever get over,” Sanders told FS1 a month later. “… That right there could have been a legendary moment for me and Jimmy, but unfortunately it didn’t happen. Instead of walking into airports and stores and people saying ‘Great catch, man, you’re a legend.’ Now they say, ‘Aw man, you were this close.’

“That’s a play that will forever be in my mind.”

Sanders suited up for a whopping 23 games that year, counting three preseason games and three playoff games. His first bye was prior to the Super Bowl. In addition to the Achilles injury the year before, Sanders fought through ankle and toe injuries and said then that he was no fan of a 17-game schedule.

“It was definitely tough,” Sanders said. “If the NFL wants to change the season to 17 games they should ask me, and I say no. Because my body was hurting and I needed that break.”

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