Today’s article discusses notable NFL players who starred for a team who neither drafted nor signed them. Unlike a previous article, which discussed players wearing a uniform different from the one they played much of their career in, today’s article is the exact opposite – players who we’re used to seeing in a certain uniform but began their careers in another one.
There are far more players than the ten that I listed here – but each has played a highly significant role for their new team upon changing uniforms. Some names, you may recognize while others might be rather mysterious. Granted, these ten players each made massive contributions to their teams, some even leading their teams to a Super Bowl.
Len Dawson flamed out in the NFL. Between 1957 and 1961, Dawson made stops in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, throwing just two touchdown passes and completing less than fifty-percent of them. He then went onto the AFL and signed with the Dallas Texans in 1962, leading the team to an AFL Championship in his first season as a starter, leading the league with 29 touchdown passes and a then-unheard-of quarterback rating of 98.3.
Dawson and the since-relocated Kansas City Chiefs went onto win the 1966 AFL Championship and compete in the AFL-NFL World Championship (Super Bowl I) against the Green Bay Packers. Three seasons later, they won Super Bowl IV against the Minnesota Vikings; the team’s final Super Bowl appearance and win until Super Bowl LIV fifty seasons later.
Novacek was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1985 and in his time playing for the Cardinals, who would later move to Phoenix and become the Phoenix Cardinals (known today as the Arizona Cardinals), he caught 83 passes and scored just 7 touchdowns between 1985 and 1989.
That changed when Novacek signed with the Dallas Cowboys in 1990. He would go on to earn five Pro Bowl berths, two selections to the All-Pro Team, and of course, helped fuel the Cowboys’ dynasty in the early-1990s.
Steve Young is known for his time with the San Francisco 49ers and it’s hard to imagine him in another uniform. But Young actually played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for two seasons, throwing 11 touchdown passes versus 21 interceptions in 1985 and 1986, completing just 53% of his passes.
He went to San Francisco in 1987, receiving ample playing time in spot duty behind Joe Montana, eventually taking over for the aging Hall of Famer in 1992 after starting 10 games in 1991. Young never relinquished the starting job until a concussion ended his career in 1999.
Rich Gannon played for several teams over his 17-season career and was nothing more than an afterthought after three forgettable seasons as a starting quarterback in Minnesota between 1990 and 1992. Relegated to a career backup, Gannon spent a year with the Washington Redskins before finding a home in Kansas City, receiving playing time in 1998, paying in twelve games in relief of the injured Elvis Grbac.
Gannon finally signed with the Oakland Raiders in 1999 and was lights-out during the team’s era as an AFC powerhouse from 1999 to 2002. He earned four straight Pro Bowl berths, was a two-time All-Pro, and NFL MVP in 2002. A late bloomer, Gannon became a valuable NFL starter in his thirteenth NFL season.
Everyone knows the story of Brett Favre – Green Bay Packers legend, retired and un-retired about fifty times, and spent his final seasons as field general for the New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings. But what many may not remember is that the Packers never drafted Favre – he went to the Atlanta Falcons in the second round in the 1991 NFL Draft, with the broadcast mispronouncing his name as ‘Brett Favor.’
Favre threw four passes during his rookie year in Atlanta, completing two of them to the other team while the other two fell to the ground. In 1992, Green Bay traded for Favre to be the understudy for Don Majkowski, a seemingly up and coming quarterback who had been to a Pro Bowl and was formerly an All-Pro, but an injury derailed his 1990 season. Majik took the reins again in 1991, only to be replaced by Mike Tomczak but resumed starting duties in 1992 – until another injury sidelined him and Favre took over.
The rest is history.
Everyone familiar with Kurt Warner knows his story – he was stocking grocery store items, earning just over $5 an hour when the St. Louis Rams came calling. But what you don’t know is that Warner played briefly in the NFL in 1994 for the Green Bay Packers, but was cut prior to the regular season.
Warner then played arena football with the Iowa Barnstormers before the Rams offered him a spot and spent the offseason playing for the Amsterdam Admirals in NFL Europe. After leading the league in touchdown passes and passing yards, he spent 1998 as the third-string quarterback to stopgaps Steve Bono and Tony Banks, before starting 1999 as the backup to Trent Green.
When Green went down, Warner stepped in and won the NFL MVP Award, commanding the 1999 Rams who were nicknamed ‘The Greatest Show on Turf.’ Warner became just one of two quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl in his first season as a starting quarterback.
Most of us know Steve Gleason for his post-NFL career spreading ALS awareness, a disease he’s had since 2011. But Gleason was a special teams ace for the New Orleans Saints and made arguably the most important play in Saints history in 2006 – or at least the most important play at the time, blocking a punt early in a game against the Atlanta Falcons, which a teammate recovered and took in for a touchdown. Here’s another angle of the block.
This was the first game held in the Superdome since Hurricane Katrina damaged the stadium and ravaged the City of New Orleans, and also the first touchdown was scored since the team returned to the Superdome, having spent time at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas and Tigers Stadium in Baton Rouge, as well as playing a home game on the road at Giants Stadium. Gleason’s block helped kickoff the most successful season in the team’s history at the time (they would win the Super Bowl in 2009), and also kicked off the team’s relevancy that persists as of this writing in March 2020.
In 2012, a statue depicting the play was unveiled in front of the stadium.
What many might not realize about Gleason that he spent time with the Indianapolis Colts prior to the 2000 regular season – given his contribution to the Saints, he’s often synonymous with the franchise and the City of New Orleans.
Priest Holmes scored ten total rushing touchdowns and one receiving touchdown in his time with the Baltimore Ravens from 1998 to 2000. But many may not realize that Holmes was also rather serviceable during these seasons. After winning a Super Bowl with the Ravens, Holmes went onto Kansas City, where he became the best back in the NFL from 2001 to 2003, leading the league in rushing in 2002.
Holmes would later score 21 rushing touchdowns in 2002 and tack on 3 receiving touchdowns – and in 2003 scored 27 more rushing touchdowns. He was on his way to yet another All-Pro season in 2004, scoring 14 rushing touchdowns in the first eight games of the season until injuries derailed it, giving way to another talented back in Larry Johnson.
While Holmes would be relegated to a limited role from 2005 to 2007, his 3.5 seasons as the Chiefs’ featured back are one of the best back to back to back campaigns in NFL history.
Jake Delhomme led the Carolina Panthers to relevancy upon taking over as the starting quarterback in 2003. He also led the team to the Super Bowl that season, nearly upsetting the heavily favored New England Patriots. Delhomme would earn a Pro Bowl berth in 2005 and led Carolina to the NFC Championship Game that season, and to another dominant season in 2008.
What’s not known by many is that Delhomme began his career as a member of the Saints from 1997 to 2002. During this time, he also played in NFL Europe for two seasons, with the Saints retaining his NFL rights. Delhomme would end his career with the Cleveland Browns in 2010 and with the Houston Texans in 2011.
Finally, we have Matt Hasselbeck, who started his career as an understudy to Brett Favre for three seasons in Green Bay. In 2001, Hasselbeck joined his former head coach in Green Bay, Mike Holmgren, in Seattle and remained in the backup role behind quarterback Trent Dilfer.
He played well enough in 2002 to open the 2003 season as the starter, leading Seattle to the playoffs. Though he’s best remembered for an overtime comment during the 2003 post-season when he exclaimed after winning a coin toss in overtime against Green Bay, “We want the ball and we’re going to score,” prior to losing the game on a pick-six to Packers’ cornerback, Al Harris, he manned the Seahawks’ ship until 2010, leading the team to a Super Bowl appearance in 2005.
During his time with the Seahawks, Hasselbeck earned three Pro Bowl berths. He ended his career with the Tennessee Titans in 2011 and 2012 and with the Indianapolis Colts from 2013 to 2015, returning to a backup role.