There is no greater impact to one’s legacy than being a Super Bowl champion, but not winning the big one also follows many players well after their careers, too.
Whether they could not come through when it counted most, or they simply did not have the right surrounding cast to get them there, not being a Super Bowl champion is always part of the conversation when discussing these all-time greats.
11 Brian Urlacher, LB
Brian Urlacher was one of the most feared defensive players of his time, finishing his career in the top 10 of most tackles and was the 2000 Defensive Rookie of the Year and 2005 NFL Defensive MVP. One year later, Urlacher was playing in Super Bowl XLI against the Indianapolis Colts, but Peyton Manning and Co. were too much for the Bears. It was the only time during Urlacher's 13-year Hall of Fame career that he played in a Super Bowl.
10 Jim Kelly, QB
Poor Jim Kelly. The Hall of Fame quarterback led the Buffalo Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls, and lost all four times. Kelly struggled in those games, combining to complete 81 of 145 passes for 829 yards, but had two touchdowns and seven interceptions. Despite his shortcomings, Kelly is still revered in Buffalo as the franchise has not even sniffed the Super Bowl since his days as quarterback.
9 Tony Gonzalez, TE
Tony Gonzalez may be the greatest tight end of all time. He holds the record with 1,325 receptions at the position and is second all time among tight ends with 111 receiving touchdowns, and was a first ballot inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2019. Yet Gonzalez never played in a Super Bowl after spending 12 years with the Chiefs and five years with the Falcons. He came close in 2012 with the Falcons, but they fell to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.
8 Randy Moss, WR
Randy Moss is among the greatest wide receivers to play the game, but fell short of winning a Super Bowl. Moss was part of what is arguably the greatest team in NFL history, the 2007 New England Patriots, who went 18-0 before falling to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII. Moss had 23 TDs that season, and even had five catches for 62 yards and a TD in a losing effort in the Super Bowl.
Moss returned to the Super Bowl again in 2013 after coming out of retirement to join the San Francisco 49ers. Moss, while not an integral part of the offense, again fell short in a heartbreaker as the Niners fell to the Baltimore Ravens, 34-31.
7 LaDainian Tomlinson, RB
LaDainian Tomlinson was such an amazing player, fans were fine dubbing him "LT," despite the great Lawrence Taylor already owning that nickname. Tomlinson was one of the most dynamic running backs in NFL history, ranking second all time on rushing TDs behind Emmitt Smith, and third all time for rushing and receiving yards behind Smith and Jerry Rice. Yet, after 11 years — nine with the San Diego Chargers and two with the New York Jets — Tomlinson never reached the Super Bowl.
Tomlinson had several chances, though. His best chance may have been in 2006 when he was NFL MVP and the Chargers finished 14-2. But the New England Patriots ousted them at home in the Divisional Round to crush their Super Bowl dreams. The Patriots stood in the way again in 2007 with the Chargers reaching the AFC Championship Game, but Philip Rivers playing through a torn ACL was not enough. Tomlinson finally got the best of the Patriots as a member of the Jets in 2010, but fell to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game.
6 Fran Tarkenton, QB
Fran Tarkenton was the Jim Kelly before Jim Kelly. The Hall of Fame quarterback had a renaissance at the end of his 18-year career, and reached the Super Bowl three times with the Minnesota Vikings in a four-year span between 1973 and 1976, but lost each time. While Tarkenton was league MVP in 1974, he failed to play up to that potential on the biggest stage.
In Super Bowl VIII, Tarkenton threw for 182 yards and an interception, no TDs. In Super Bowl IX the next year, Tarkenton choked with a three interception performance. In his final try against the Raiders in Super Bowl XI, Tarkenton threw a TD and two interceptions, and backup Bob Lee replaced him in the final drive of the game, although it was well over by then with Minnesota down 32-7 before a garbage time TD.
5 Adrian Peterson, RB
As of January 2020, Adrian Peterson is still active in the NFL, but at 34 years old he is still without a ring and the window is rapidly closing. Like Tomlinson, Peterson is among the greatest running backs of all time, and ranks fifth behind Barry Sanders on the all-time rushing leaders list.
Peterson has never reached the Super Bowl in his career, but was close in 2009 when the Vikings took the New Orleans Saints to overtime in the NFC Championship Game, but came up short. Peterson is currently a member of a Washington Redskins team that is amid a rebuild, so unless he joins a contender it is safe to say Peterson's Hall of Fame career will not consist of a Lombardi Trophy.
4 Junior Seau, LB
Junior Seau was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before at the linebacker position. From rushing the passer to dropping back in coverage, Seau seemingly was involved in every play which made him a 12-time Pro Bowler, six-time All-Pro and Hall of Famer over his 20 year career.
Despite playing two full decades in the NFL, Seau never won a Super Bowl. He was part of the 1994 San Diego Chargers team who lost to Steve Young and the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIX. Seau played his final four seasons of his career with the New England Patriots with hopes of getting that ring, and like Moss, was part of the 2007 undefeated Patriots who lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl.
Seau tragically took his own life in 2012 and was posthumously inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015. Seau finished his career in the top 10 in tackles and had 22 interceptions and 57.5 sacks.
3 Bruce Smith, DE
Bruce Smith was a quarterback's absolute nightmare. He remains the all-time career sacks leader with 200 and played 19 seasons in the NFL — 15 with the Bills and four with the Redskins — but no Super Bowl victories despite getting there four years in a row with the Bills. Smith was a dominant force in the playoffs, too. His 14.5 sacks are the second-most all time in the postseason, but in four Super Bowls, Smith combined for two sacks and a safety. While he never got his hands on the Lombardi Trophy, Smith is still considered the G.O.A.T. among pass rushers.
2 Barry Sanders, RB
Barry Sanders is the epitome of a great player who was just never on a great team. Arguably the greatest running back of all time (Jim Brown being the other), Sanders reached the postseason six times in his career, but just one postseason win to show for it. The Lions teams that reached the playoffs were hardly Super Bowl contenders, either, with Sanders carrying an offense that lacked any sort of true franchise quarterback.
While running backs typically don't last long in the NFL, Sanders' retirement at 30 years old was still shocking for many and who knows what the future could have been for Sanders. Perhaps he could have signed with a contending team to go for that ring.
1 Dan Marino, QB
When the discussion of great players who never won a championship comes up, Dan Marino is almost always the first name that is mentioned. The Hall of Fame quarterback was putting up gaudy numbers years before the game would evolve into a pass-heavy league. In 1984, Marino was NFL MVP in just his second season and had the Dolphins in his first of what many expected to be several Super Bowls. They lost to Joe Montana and the 49ers, as Marino threw for 318 yards and a TD, but two interceptions. Marino was just 23 years old, though, and would surely return and have another shot.
However, Marino never took the big stage of the Super Bowl again despite making the playoffs eight more times in his career. While not winning the "big one" is always brought up when discussing Marino's career, he is still one of the greatest quarterbacks of his generation and was ahead of his time with some of the numbers he put up early in his career.