NFL players can come out of nowhere to make phenomenal plays in clutch moments of a game, forever giving them a cult following. Guys can dominate for entire games out of the blue, too, only to go back to their usual role as a backup.
But can guys really do it for an entire year without having success in any other season? Apparently, they can. And apparently, it happens more often than I thought it would have.
We’ve looked at the guys who did it throughout MLB history, for which there were multiple contenders for all 30 teams, and the 32 NFL squads are no different.
For every team there are several candidates, except for in the rare cases when one guy sticks out above all the others in such an obvious and undebatable way. One way I narrowed down the choices a little bit was by limiting the selection to the past 40 years, though that still leaves a humongous group to choose from.
Without further ado, let’s look at some of the strangest outliers for each NFL team since 1980.
All stats retrieved from Pro Football Reference.
Denver Broncos – Tim Tebow, 2011
7-4, 1,729 passing yards, 12 TDs, 6 INT, 660 rushing yards, 6 Rushing TDs, 5.4 y/a
Gaston Green and Olandis Gary started and ended the 1990s with respective breakout 1,000-yard rushing seasons, never to be heard from in the same capacity again. But the most obvious name to roll with here is Tim Tebow, whose most memorable performance came not in the regular season but against the Steelers in the the playoffs (316 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INT, 50 rushing yards, 1 rushing TD).
Kansas City Chiefs – Joe Delaney, 1981
1,121 rushing yards, 3 rushing TDs, 4.8 y/a, 22 receptions, 246 receiving yards
Spencer Ware was one of many running backs involved in the Chiefs’ carousel of rushers, including Jamaal Charles, Knile Davis, Charcandrick West, Kareem Hunt and others throughout the 2010s. His 1,338 yards from scrimmage, to go along with 5 touchdowns, marked the only time in his career he ever even broke 500 yards from scrimmage. But the late Joe Delaney’s 1981 season was even better, and his inspirational quality of helping others ultimately ended a life and career that was destined to be very successful in 1983.
Los Angeles Chargers – Danario Alexander, 2012
37 receptions, 658 yards, 7 TDs
Alexander was a beast in 2012; it’s as simple as that. He posted the above stat line in only 10 games, meaning a full 16-game slate would, at this rate, have resulted in 1,053 yards and 10 touchdowns. Unfortunately, a torn ACL in the 2013 preseason marked the end of Alexander’s burgeoning NFL career.
Las Vegas/Oakland Raiders – LaMont Jordan, 2005
1,025 rushing yards, 9 rushing TDs, 3.8 y/a, 70 receptions, 563 receiving yards, 2 receiving TDs
Jordan finished in the top 10 in yards from scrimmage and rushing touchdowns in 2005, achieving totals it had taken him the three previous years combined to accumulate. His unstoppable Week 7 performance — 122 rushing yards, three touchdowns, 40 receiving yards — earned him the AFC Player of the Week award.
Houston Texans – Steve Slaton, 2008
1,282 rushing yards, 9 rushing TDs, 4.8 y/a, 50 receptions, 377 receiving yards, 1 receiving TD
Slaton was a solid candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year in a strong group of talented young players, including eventual winner Matt Ryan — who actually won by a large margin — and Bears RB Matt Forte. But while those two went on to experience long-term success, Slaton dealt with fumbling trouble and was benched and eventually placed on IR the following season. He last played in the 2011 season.
Indianapolis Colts – Brandon Stokley, 2004
68 receptions, 1,077 yards, 10 TDs
Stokley was on the receiving end of some pretty cool milestones, including the then-record 49th single-season touchdown from Peyton Manning in 2004. That same year, he joined Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison as the first trio of receivers with 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns, a feat Manning couldn’t even repeat in 2013 when he threw for 5,477 yards and 55 TDs — though he did have four double-digit touchdown receivers.
Jacksonville Jaguars – Allen Hurns, 2015
64 receptions, 1,031 yards, 10 TDs
Hurns still has a chance to make an impact in his NFL career, though he decided to opt out of the 2020 NFL season. But the current Dolphins wideout likely reached his peak at age 24, when he formed a deadly duo with Allen Robinson (1,400 yards, 14 TDs) in Blake Bortles’ high-volume passing attack.
Tennessee Titans – Kendall Wright, 2013
94 receptions, 1,079 yards, 2 TDs
Wright was nothing if not consistent in Tennessee, finishing among the team’s most reliable wide receivers year after year in the 2010s. But one season was unlike the others, as 2013 marked the only time he ever surpassed 65 catches or 750 receiving yards, and he was last on the field in 2017 for the Bears.
Baltimore Ravens – Justin Forsett, 2014
1,266 rushing yards, 8 rushing TDs, 5.4 y/a, 44 receptions, 263 receiving yards
The late Michael Jackson enjoyed a change of scenery after spending time in Cleveland with Bill Belichick, and he showcased all his untapped potential in his first year with the Ravens (76 receptions, 1,201 yards and a league-high 14 touchdowns). But his breakout wasn’t quite as unforeseen as that of Justin Forsett, considering the journeyman running back had spent time on four teams in six seasons before stopping in Baltimore and going off. However, his next season was underwhelming (641 yards, two TDs) and he last played in 2016.
Cincinnati Bengals – Ickey Woods, 1988
1,066 rushing yards, 15 rushing TDs, 5.3 y/a, 21 receptions, 199 receiving yards
Harold Green was a force to be reckoned with in 1992, picking up a Pro Bowl nod after rushing for 1,170 yards — a total he never again came close to — and picking up an additional 214 through the air. But you can’t pick against Ickey Woods, best remembered for his “Ickey Shuffle,” which we saw frequently in 1988. Unfortunately, injuries prevented us from seeing the memorable celebration much more.
Cleveland Browns – Peyton Hillis, 2010
1,177 rushing yards, 11 rushing TDs, 4.4 y/a, 61 receptions, 477 receiving yards, 2 receiving TDs
Tight ends Jordan Cameron (80 receptions, 917 yards, seven touchdowns in 2013) and Gary Barnidge (79 receptions, 1,043 yards, nine TDs in 2015) are two one-season wonders for the Cleveland Browns, a franchise that offers many examples of this NFL phenomenon. However, one stands alone as so outrageously random and anomalous — complete with a Madden cover — that it would feel wrong to go any other direction. Of course, Jerome Harrison’s single-game performance is among the most odd breakouts in NFL history, but the entire 2010 season from Hillis was completely out of the blue following his 54-yard 2009, and the rest of his career was ineffective to the point where his last game was in 2014.
Pittsburgh Steelers – Barry Foster, 1992
1,690 rushing yards, 11 rushing TDs, 4.3 y/a, 36 receptions, 344 receiving yards
The Steelers were smart to transition Foster to a running back role as opposed to his special teams role from early in his career, especially given the fact that he quickly became a Pro Bowler and first-team All-Pro member. He rushed for fewer than 100 yards in only four games, which made him a co-owner of the NFL record until Barry Sanders rushed for 100 or more yards in 14 of his 16 1997 games.
Buffalo Bills – C.J. Spiller, 2012
1,244 rushing yards, 6 rushing TDs, 6.0 y/a, 43 receptions, 459 receiving yards, 2 receiving TDs
The two-headed running back corps of Spiller and Fred Jackson was great for everyone, except for C.J. Spiller fantasy owners. Still, 2012 proved to be a year in which the Bills (and fantasy teams) could expect Spiller to carry the load on his shoulders and use his dazzling speed and shiftiness to produce an amazing 6.0 yards per carry. Though he surpassed 900 yards on the ground the next season, too, his scoring and receiving production fell way off, and he spent 2014 through 2017 with five different teams and barely any role.
Miami Dolphins – Jay Ajayi, 2016
1,272 rushing yards, 8 rushing TDs, 4.9 y/a, 27 receptions, 151 receiving yards
Lamar Smith had racked up 1,948 yards over six seasons before joining the Dolphins in 2000, so it’s safe to say that no one foresaw his 1,139-yard, 14 touchdown breakout that season. But he was a high-volume running back whose efficiency totals — 3.7 y/a and 3.1 y/a in his two years with Miami — were less than stellar. Ajayi, on the other hand, was an extremely efficient running back, but was sent to Philadelphia in the middle of the 2017 season and has never quite been able to reach full health since 2016. When we last heard from him, he had joined the Philadelphia Union, an MLS squad, as their professional gamer.
New England Patriots – Robert Edwards, 1998
1,115 rushing yards, 9 rushing TDs, 3.8 y/a, 35 receptions, 331 receiving yards, 3 receiving TDs
Jonas Gray may be the most memorable on the list of the one-game wonders that I wrote about here, but it was another running back whose full season of work sticks out as the most memorable. Edwards was selected by the Pats as a first-round pick and performed as such, but his career and life was flipped upside-down early in his New England stint. A devastating leg injury practically left his left knee in bits and pieces, nearly requiring the limb to be amputated. He miraculously returned in 2002, appearing as a backup for the Dolphins.
New York Jets – Richie Anderson, 2000
88 receptions, 853 receiving yards, 2 receiving TDs, 63 rushing yards
Anderson paced the NFL and set the Jets franchise record for most receiving yards from a running back in 2000, which was good enough to earn him the starting fullback spot on the Pro Bowl roster that year. He was a consistent receiver from the backfield from then on, but he never quite lived up to those lofty totals after that point.
Arizona Cardinals – Steve Breaston, 2008
77 receptions, 1,006 yards, 3 TDs
David Boston was close to being my selection here despite more than just one good season. It’s just that his 2001 All-Pro campaign (98 receptions, eight touchdowns and a league-best 1,598 receiving yards) was heads and shoulders more productive than any other season in his brief NFL career. However, Steve Breaston is the guy here, as he only surpassed 1,000 yards once in his NFL career and failed to ever surpass 800 outside of 2008, the year referenced above in which he, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin became the fifth 1,000-yard receiving trio in NFL history. He was out of the NFL after the 2012 season.
Los Angeles Rams – Dieter Brock, 1985 and Charles White, 1987
Brock: 11-4, 2,658 yards, 16 TD, 13 INT
White: 1,374 rushing yards, 11 TDs, 4.2 y/a, 23 receptions, 121 receiving yards
It was too hard for me to choose just one here. Brock, a former CFL superstar, signed with the Rams as a 34-year-old rookie and led the team to a ton of success, including seven straight victories out of the gate and a fair share of franchise rookie records. He wouldn’t play another NFL snap after an injury in the 1986 preseason.
White joined the Rams the season after, bouncing back from struggles in Cleveland and winning the NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award after a phenomenal showing.
San Francisco 49ers – Marquise Goodwin, 2017
56 receptions, 962 yards, 2 receiving TDs
Goodwin joined the Eagles and was expected to contribute as a deep threat, but he opted out of the season for family reasons. Still, if he’s able to replicate his 2017 success as a deep threat in Philadelphia, he’ll remove himself from this list and make Eagles fans very, very happy.
Seattle Seahawks – Derrick Fenner, 1990
859 rushing yards, 14 rushing TDs, 4.0 y/a, 17 receptions, 143 receiving yards, 1 receiving TD
A pair of Derricks are worth noting here, as Derrick Mayes’ 829 yards and 10 touchdowns in 1999 were more than he was able to accomplish in three years as a Packer, and he was cut by the Seahawks as early as 2001. But Derrick Fenner’s breakout was a bit more notable, whose tumultuous NFL career began under the shadow of a faulty murder charge and a departure from UNC over guilty charges of cocaine possession. Still, he managed to succeed in the NFL early, leading the league in touchdowns in 1990 before dwindling into obscurity for years to come.
Atlanta Falcons – John Settle, 1988
1,024 rushing yards, 7 rushing TDs, 4.4 y/a, 68 receptions, 570 receiving yards, 1 receiving TD
Harry Douglas put up 1,067 yards out of absolutely nowhere in 2013, a statistic boosted due to Julio Jones’ season-ending injury during Week 5. And, going back earlier, Erric Pegram exploded for 1,185 rushing yards in 1993 before a follow-up effort of 358 yards. But the biggest Atlanta one-season wonder has to be John Settle, who was selected for the Pro Bowl after bowling over defenders for a ton of yards on the ground and through the air. His 1988 effort also marked the first time in history an undrafted running back exceeded 1,000 rushing yards, a feat accomplished recently by Philip Lindsay of the Broncos.
Carolina Panthers – Steve Beuerlein, 1999
8-8, 4,436 yards, 36 TDs, 15 INT, 124 rushing yards, 2 rushing TDs, 4.6 y/a
Patrick Jeffers, who put up a stat line of 63 receptions, 1,082 yards and 12 TDs in 1999, is certainly a one-season wonder for the Panthers. But his success would not have been possible had it not been for the tremendous QB play of Steve Beuerlein, who came out of nowhere and shattered his previous career-highs in yards thrown for (3,164), passing touchdowns (18) and several other categories. His follow-up season was merely average, as the then-35-year-old threw 19 touchdowns to 18 interceptions in 2000.
New Orleans Saints – Willie Jackson, 2001
81 receptions, 1,046 yards, 5 TDs
A 589-yard debut campaign was a promising start for Jackson in 1995, but years of 486, 206 and 165 yards followed. Thus, when he began to turn things around with the Saints in 2000 to the tune of 523 yards and six touchdowns, it was an encouraging sight. But it didn’t hint that Jackson would explode like he did in 2001. Fun fact: Jackson ranks second all-time, tied with Matt Forte and Terance Mathis, with six two-point conversions made in his career.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Michael Clayton, 2004
80 receptions, 1,193 yards, 7 TDs
There are a ton of options here: Bruce Hill in 1988, Shaun King in 2000, Cadillac Williams in 2005, Earnest Graham in 2007. But Michael Clayton’s explosive 2004 was probably the most anomalous of all of these guys’ single-season breakout performances, as he never again reached 500 receiving yards and was a bust considering his first-round value.
Detroit Lions – Scott Mitchell, 1995
10-6, 4,338 yards, 32 TDs, 12 INT, 104 rushing yards, 4 rushing TDs, 2.9 y/a
Germane Crowell had an explosive 1999 season, posting 81 receptions, 1,338 yards and seven touchdowns, but, as is the case with so many names mentioned on this list, the injury bug got the best of him. But injuries weren’t what caused Scott Mitchell’s 1995 season to be an unexpected one; he just wasn’t very good, otherwise, only posting one other season with more touchdowns than turnovers.
Chicago Bears – Marcus Robinson, 1999
84 receptions, 1,400 yards, 9 TDs
The late Rashaan Salaam burst onto the scene in 1995, with 1,074 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, but struggled with ball security and only lasted in Chicago for two more seasons. There’s also quarterback Erik Kramer, who came into that same 1995 season with 35 passing touchdowns and 32 interceptions in his career before leading the Bears to a 9-7 record with 29 TDs and 10 INT. But it’s Marcus Robinson, the 1998 NFL Europe MVP and one of three Chicago receivers ever to total 1,400 yards in a season (along with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery) who gets the nod here. Robinson recorded only 738 yards the following season and never again broke the 700-yard barrier in his nine-year career.
Green Bay Packers – Don Majkowski, 1989
10-6, 4,318 passing yards, 27 passing TDs, 20 INT, 358 rushing yards, 5 rushing TDs, 4.8 y/a
A torn rotator cuff was likely the downfall of Majkowski’s promising early career, but he also may not have been as good as his 1989 season would suggest if he were healthy. The fact that he led the league in completions and yards in that season, leading the Pack to a 10-6 record, is perhaps overshadowed by the memorable “Instant Replay” game against the Bears.
Minnesota Vikings – Sidney Rice, 2009
83 receptions, 1,312 yards, 8 TDs
A significant knee injury forced tight end Joe Senser to cut his career short, despite an attempted return following the injury in 1984, but his 1981 season was one to remember (79 receptions, 1,004 yards, 8 TDs). And before Adrian Peterson, there was Michael Bennett… for one good year, at least (1,296 yards, 5 TDs, 5.1 y/a in 2002). But when the 2009 Pro Bowl featured Sidney Rice and his 1,312 yards — good for fourth in the league — the Vikings knew they had experienced their truest one-season wonder. Rice couldn’t avoid injuries and only had one more healthy season with Seattle in 2016.
Dallas Cowboys – Laurent Robinson, 2011
54 receptions, 858 yards, 11 TDs
Robinson’s 2011 performance with the Cowboys was so inspiring, especially after four years of mediocrity, that it caused the Jaguars to sign him to a five-year, $32.5 million contract. It’s safe to say he didn’t live up to that deal, considering he played in only seven games due to concussions, was placed on IR in November, and was cut the following March.
New York Giants – Steve Smith, 2009
107 receptions, 1,220 yards, 7 TDs
With only 725 rushing yards to his name entering the 2008 season, Derrick Ward caught the league off-guard with his 1,025-yard campaign for the Giants, a season which would be his last in New York and the only good one of his career. But Steve Smith’s elite performance in 2009 is more deserving of this spot, as he led the NFL in receptions, yards and touchdown catches a quarter-way through the season and became the first 90-catch receiver in Giants history. He was out of football by 2012.
Philadelphia Eagles – Kevin Curtis, 2007
77 receptions, 1,110 yards, 6 receiving TDs
If not for Nick Foles’ unforgettable postseason run and Super Bowl LII performance, his 27-TD, 2-INT campaign in 2013 would take the cake. But instead, I opted to go for one of the many wide receivers throughout the 2000s and 2010s, and Kevin Curtis’s 2007 display was better than other candidates, such as Riley Cooper (835 yards and eight TDs in 2013).
Washington Football Team – Robert Griffin III, 2012
9-6, 3,200 yards, 20 TD, 5 INT, 815 rushing yards, 7 rushing TDs, 6.8 y/a
Ladell Betts exploded for 1,154 rushing yards out of nowhere in 2006, and Albert Connell was pretty much his wide receiver equivalent, reaching 1,132 yards randomly in 1999. RG3, however, is a guy who became an immediate superstar his rookie season, and then faded into obscurity almost as immediately. He has a real chance to redeem himself in a unique role in 2020 and beyond as a member of the hard-to-stop Baltimore Ravens.