This is in part because happy endings are so rare in the NFL. For every classic sendoff like Michael Strahan's, there are countless examples of all-time greats like Jerry Rice finishing his career behind Darius Watts and Charlie Adams on the 2005 Broncos' depth chart.
Rice hardly needed a big finish to be a Hall of Famer, but other players aren't so lucky. The Pro Football Hall of Fame's selection process is notoriously difficult to predict, and only the rare players are no-brainers.
For this exercise, I wasn't concerned with Hall of Fame locks like Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, DeMarcus Ware, Darrelle Revis, Adrian Peterson and Larry Fitzgerald. Steve Smith should absolutely make it and the immortal Chris Wesseling already wrote the definitive case for him. Potential Hall of Famers like Earl Thomas, Julio Jones and J.J. Watt weren't considered, because they have too many years left. Even someone like Devin Hester, who would get my vote as the first return specialist to be enshrined, is not listed below. He will make it to Canton -- or not -- based on what he's already done; his résumé is essentially complete.
These 11 players are already franchise legends. No one knows what the selection committee will think of them. I know that a show of greatness on the field in 2016 can only bolster these players' chances of one day putting on a gold jacket.
Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants
In reaction to seeing Manning on a list of "bubble" players, the dusty, reductive corner of the internet will scream, "BUT SUPER BOWL TITLES!" Yet, we know championships won can't be the only measure of a player's career, even for a team's most important leaders. Jim Plunkett won two Super Bowls and isn't in the Hall of Fame. Coaches George Seifert, Tom Flores and Jimmy Johnson have two Super Bowl titles, and they aren't in Canton, either.
Manning's playoff heroics -- especially his sensational run after the 2011 regular season -- will live forever. But to simply send the two-time Super Bowl champion to Canton for a pair of playoff runs is to partly ignore that football is our greatest team sport. The Hall of Fame is an individual honor. So how has Manning stacked up when compared to his fellow quarterbacks?
Unlike the other signal callers on this list, Tony Romo and Philip Rivers, Manning has never been a top-five quarterback. (2011 could be the only season he even had an argument for inclusion in that tier.) He's never made a first- or second-team All-Pro squad. He has been selected for two Pro Bowls in 12 years. (Manning was also added twice as an alternate, the same as Andy Dalton.) Manning has finished in the top 10 in ESPN's QBR metric twice, but never in the top eight. Don't like advanced metrics? He has finished in the top 10 in passer rating once. The only stat he's ever led the league in: interceptions. He's done that three times.
Stats, of course, don't tell the whole story. Manning is terrific at avoiding sacks, and he's one of the sharpest field generals of his era. He defines reliability, having started 16 games per season since 2005. That consistency has helped Manning rack up counting stats like passing yards and touchdowns, where he'll finish in the top 10 all time no matter how the rest of his career goes. (Raw passing stats will have to be adjusted down in this era, but that is another discussion.) Manning has undeniably been a huge asset for the Giants, and their belief in him as a "franchise quarterback" has proved warranted. He is excellent at making comebacks and game-winning drives.
"BUT WINS AND LOSSES!" shouted the crowd.
Even if you focused only on wins and losses, Manning has a mixed record. He is 97-86 as a starter in the regular season. Those two playoff runs were incredible, but they also marked the only seasons in which he won a playoff game. The Giants haven't been back to the playoffs since their 2011 season.
The point of this exercise is not to say that Manning should be held out of the Hall of Fame or that his rings should be taken away. He's had an incredible career and reached the pinnacle of team success. It's just that a big finish to his career on an individual level (with assistance from Odell Beckham Jr.) could help secure him a spot in Canton.
Pro Football Reference has a great feature that compares the quality and shape of a career to other pros. Through 11 seasons, the most similar quarterback to Manning was Donovan McNabb. Through 12 seasons, it was Mark Brunell. Both of those quarterbacks played in eras with lesser passing numbers. Manning can set himself apart by having great seasons after turning 35, just like his brother, Peyton. Then even skeptics like me will struggle to argue against him.
Andre Johnson, WR, Tennessee Titans
Forget last season with the Colts (41 catches for 503 yards and four touchdowns). AJ has done enough to be a Hall of Famer, and he's listed here because I hope he doesn't need to do anything else to make it to Canton. The end isn't pretty for most all-time greats.
Even a mediocre season in Tennessee would vault him past Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne for seventh on the all-time receiving yardage list (he currently ranks ninth with 14,100 yards). Passing Wayne would be helpful, because Wayne and Johnson could be going against each other on Canton ballots someday. Wayne was a terrific talent, but he wasn't a top-three receiver for most of his prime like Johnson in Houston. In six separate seasons, Johnson was first- or second-team All-Pro, or All-Pro Football Focus. (All-PFF is a designation we think will get increasing weight with voters.) Johnson led the league in receptions twice and yards twice. He had three seasons with at least 100 catches and 1,500 yards.
Too often, Johnson was overlooked because of his quiet nature, nondescript quarterback play with the Texans and the mid-level organization he played for. He should be a lock. With all that said, climbing up the yardage list while helping out a young quarterback (Marcus Mariota) would only bolster Johnson's chances.
Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego Chargers
A top-10 quarterback since the moment he hit the field, what-ifs knock Rivers down like so many opposing defensive ends.
What if former Chargers general manager A.J. Smith didn't fire Marty Schottenheimer after he went 14-2 in Rivers' first year as San Diego's starter? What if Rivers didn't partially tear his ACL during the 2007 playoffs? What if he played with LaDainian Tomlinson through his prime? What if the Chargers fixed their offensive line this decade or had managed to field a top-10 running attack at any point since 2007?
For the last decade, Rivers has made his head coaches, coordinators, teammates and owner look better. He's prevented the Chargers from having a losing season all but two times. I could list his individual successes, including his three years atop the league in yards-per-attempt, but it should be clear Rivers has the individual numbers, which will only continue to go up.
It is my hope that he already resembles a Hall of Famer to voters, but quarterbacks are judged differently than other players. Voters want team success above all, even when the team lets the quarterback down. Rivers' best playoff moments are now far in the rear-view mirror. Piloting his team to a Super Bowl would go a long way toward reminding voters how impressive his entire career has been. Rivers doesn't need to do anything differently to change the perception of his career. His team needs to do the changing.
Julius Peppers, OLB, Green Bay Packers
I hesitated to put Peppers on this list, because he struck me as too obvious. He was the Defensive Rookie of the Year with the Panthers in 2002. He was a first-team All-Pro three times and a second-teamer twice more. He was on the Hall of Fame's All-2000s team and leads all active players in sacks with 136. This one should be obvious, right?
Peppers was included because it can't hurt to give him more credit during a career that too often lacked respect. His best years came in Carolina, yet fans wanted more out of him, because his athleticism was so hard for mortals to fathom. He does crazy things like block 13 field goals, second all-time. He was J.J. "Swat" before the nickname, ranking third all-time in passes defensed by a defensive lineman. Peppers' toughness and run-stuffing were overlooked while folks grumbled about his averaging "only" 10.5 sacks in his first five seasons.
It's almost as if it took his last two years in Green Bay for everyone to realize what a special player Peppers has been for so long. Now 36, Peppers still performs insane athletic feats, and it's easier to recognize the passion for the game he's always played with. The Packers leg of this journey hopefully has cemented his place in Canton. A memorable playoff run and a rise into the top five in the list of all-time sack leaders (5.5 more will get him there) would put any lingering doubts to rest.
Dwight Freeney, OLB, Atlanta Falcons
Robert Mathis, OLB, Indianapolis Colts
Let's start by recognizing that Freeney is the superior player here, although the total statistical output is surprisingly similar. More on that in a minute.
At his best, Freeney was one of the league's best defensive players. He was perhaps the best pure pass rusher of his era, with speed, flexibility and country strength for days. He shared first-team All-Decade honors on the Pro Football Hall of Fame's team of the 2000s with Michael Strahan, and he made first-team All-Pro three times. It feels like Freeney is an obvious pick for Canton, yet a highly informal poll found more disagreement about him than expected.
Freeney has 119.5 career sacks -- only 1.5 more than Mathis. Forced fumbles has been a particularly knotty stat to keep track of throughout NFL history, but Pro Football Reference has data going back to 1981. Since that time, Mathis is the all-time leader with 51. Freeney is fourth with 46. (Peppers, incidentally, is second with 48.)
Freeney clearly had the better peak, but Mathis' consistency and monster 2013 season (19.5 sacks and eight forced fumbles) deserve notice. Pitting the two against each other is ultimately a false way to look at things. They both are worthy candidates and have signature assets to remember: Freeney's spin move and Mathis' strip sacks. Another productive sackmaster-for-hire season by Freeney in Atlanta and a successful injury comeback from Mathis with the Colts would only serve as encores for two careers with years full of hits.
Tony Romo, QB, Dallas Cowboys
One season could change so much. A twilight-years playoff run might just be the best story possible in this league, and it would do an enormous amount to alter the perception of his career. Perhaps a Super Bowl push would make folks start to notice that only one quarterback in NFL history has a higher net yards-per-attempt average than Romo (7.09): Peyton Manning (7.23).
Few players are more unfairly maligned for the disorganization around them. Romo ranks high in supposed "clutch" stats like comebacks (25, 14th-most since 1960) and game-winning drives (30, tied for 16th since 1960). He's thrown eight touchdowns against two picks in his six playoff outings, yet all anyone remembers is a fumbled snap he never should have taken. Romo has hung on the edges of the top five quarterbacks in football during a golden age for the position.
People who knock Romo ignore that he has authored only one losing season as a starter, his aborted six-game run in 2010. A quarterback's record is a highly imperfect stat in a team sport, yet Romo's value to his uneven organization stands out. Since he took over for Drew Bledsoe in 2006, the Cowboys are 78-49 with Romo under center. They are 7-20 without him.
Luckily for Romo, he has the talent around him in Dallas this season to pile up points and victories again. One magical season is all it would take to stop those weak Twitter jokes before they happen. Like so much of his career, it would be a blast to watch.
Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City Chiefs
Four monster seasons have not been enough to get Terrell Davis into the Hall of Fame, so there is little reason to think Charles is knocking on the door yet, given that he has only five standout seasons to his name, and those still pale in comparison to what Davis did in his peak. Unlike the rest of the players on this list, however, Charles is still in his 20s and has a longer runway with which to build his case.
I favor players with brilliant peaks over stat-compilers who stick around for a long time. Charles has the peaks. He was a first-team All-Pro twice ahead of Adrian Peterson. He's also the NFL's all-time leading running back in yards per carry (5.5). Now the former track star needs a strong closing sprint to his career that puffs up his numbers while providing those memorable moments voters love.
James Harrison, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Deebo is admittedly the biggest stretch on the list. Based on the criteria usually valued by voters, Harrison's condensed peak will make his case very difficult to make.
But here's the case anyway: Between 2007 and 2011, Harrison was a top-five NFL defensive player. He won Defensive Player of the Year in 2008, beating peak seasons from DeMarcus Ware and Ed Reed. He came in third in the voting another season. He made first- or second-team All-Pro four straight years.
That's the problem for Harrison: Stats don't define him. He was the most destructive run-stopping outside linebacker of his era, and it's hard to measure "disruptions" or how well he set the edge. He was a more complete player than other greats like Robert Mathis, Jared Allen or John Abraham. He has many big playoff moments, including one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history. He's played an entire 16-game season in the postseason, including last year's playoffs, when he notched two sacks at age 37.
Harrison's bid will probably short-circuit because he didn't make a big impact until he was 29 years old and has endured as a quality role player. Now 38, he might have only one chance to transcend his stats. Provide another all-time Super Bowl play in a winning effort, and sentiments could change. No one thought Jerome Bettis was a Hall of Famer, either, until he went out on top.
Frank Gore, RB, Indianapolis Colts
For years, I've touted Gore as a potential Hall of Famer because of the eyeball test. Few running backs in this era combine his power, receiving skills, blocking and uncanny ability to make defenders miss in small spaces. He's been a top-five player at his position for most of his career, including his first 10 seasons in San Francisco, and everyone who has played with or against Gore speaks of his football skills in reverent tones.
Gore's numbers and low-key name value, however, always meant he'd face an uphill climb to Canton. Unfortunately for Gore, "2-yard losses that were turned into 4-yard gains" isn't a statistical category that is kept. However, in the same way he sneaks up behind his offensive line, patiently waiting for a hole to develop, Gore has quietly snuck up on some impressive benchmarks. With 700 yards this season, Gore will pass players like Tony Dorsett, Jim Brown, Marshall Faulk and Marcus Allen to reach eighth on the all-time career rushing yards list. He could stay in the top 10 for a long while; among current players, only Adrian Peterson is an obvious candidate to pass him.
To give himself a real chance for enshrinement, "The Inconvenient Truth" needs 1,000 yards on a Colts playoff squad in 2016. That would make him, at 33, the oldest player to top 1,000 since John Riggins did it at 35 in 1984 -- a fitting milestone for a throwback player -- and would remind voters of Gore's toughness and longevity.
Anquan Boldin, WR, Detroit Lions
One of the toughest receivers to tackle in NFL history, Boldin has busted expectations to construct a fascinating Hall of Fame résumé for voters to eventually consider. He is unlikely to be selected on his first or second ballot, in large part because he's usually been a second option on his own team. Yet his team-first ethos is part of what makes Boldin great.
When Boldin was asked to be a No. 1 option early in his career in Arizona, he finished among the NFL league leaders in receiving three times. He was a No. 1 option for the 49ers at ages 33 and 34 again. In between, Boldin had an undeniable knack for making big plays on the big stage. He was a huge part of deep playoff runs for three different organizations. After Joe Flacco, Boldin was the most valuable Raven during the team's title run. They simply don't win Super Bowl XLVII without him. It is somehow fitting in an underappreciated career that he was traded after his greatest triumph.
Boldin is admittedly a personal favorite. Few players have suited up with more obvious joy for the game. It doesn't hurt Boldin's case that he's one of the best people in the sport. That is an intangible, and Boldin's playoff moments add more juice to his candidacy. Let's be real: Intangibles matter to voters. Boldin, who sits at 12th all time with 1,009 career receptions and 17th with 13,195 receiving yards, also tangibly has a chance to vault into the top 10 receivers in NFL history with one more big season, this time in Detroit. The odds are against him, but that's been the case Boldin's whole life.