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Jon Kendle is Director of Archives and Football Information at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His biweekly columns tell unique and interesting stories starting from the league’s founding in downtown Canton in 1920 to the present day.
The National Football League’s new league year started last week. Along with it comes the NFL’s free agency period and optimism for all 32 clubs that this is the season they will reach the pinnacle. Each franchise is scouring the open market, vying for services from players they hope will propel them to a Super Bowl championship.
Many prominent players have changed teams throughout the years – with varying levels of success. Even future Hall of Famers have traded iconic uniforms for something less familiar later in their careers.
So how many free agents can say their signing filled the missing piece that helped enable their new team to hoist the Lombardi Trophy?
Two members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2021 can make that claim.
Peyton Manning was selected with the first pick of the 1998 NFL Draft. He would go on to lead the Indianapolis Colts to two Super Bowl appearances, including a victory in Super Bowl XLI. Manning then became one of the most sought-after free agents in NFL history. He signed with the Denver Broncos and led them to a 24-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50.
The Green Bay Packers were looking for a defensive playmaker to put them over the top in 2006. Charles Woodson was looking for a fresh start after eight seasons with the Oakland Raiders. He was the exact player the Packers coveted and became 2009 NFL AP Defensive Player of the Year and helped lead the team to a Super Bowl XLV victory.
Shannon Sharpe found All-Pro success while playing with Hall of Fame thrower John Elway in Denver (1990-99). But after 10 seasons with the Broncos, the tight end was signed by the Baltimore Ravens. Sharpe then played an integral part in helping the franchise win Super Bowl XXXV. His 96-yard touchdown reception in the 2000 AFC Championship Game remains the longest TD catch in NFL playoff history. Sharpe caught 140 passes for 1,621 yards and seven touchdowns in two seasons with the Ravens.
Rod Woodson became Sharpe’s teammate when he signed with the Ravens after 10 seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers (1987-1996) and one with the San Francisco 49ers (1997). The cornerback/safety picked off 20 passes and scored five times during his four-year stint in Baltimore and was a major factor in the team’s Super Bowl XXXV victory.
Charles Haley, who already had won two Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers, also found huge free agent success. He signed with the Dallas Cowboys in 1992 after six seasons in San Francisco and went on to help the Cowboys win three Super Bowls in four years.
One of Haley’s teammates in Dallas was Deion Sanders. Originally drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in 1989, Sanders went on to play with four other teams during his career. His most notable free agent stints included the San Francisco 49ers (1994) and the Dallas Cowboys (1995-99) where he helped both teams win Super Bowls.
Which brings us to one of the most impactful free agents of all time.
Reggie White was without a doubt one of the most coveted free agents to hit the market. The defensive end spent eight seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles (1986-92) and built a Hall of Fame resume. After a wild period that saw several teams campaigning to lure White, the Packers, under GM Ron Wolf (a 2015 Hall enshrine), successfully wooed the “Minister of Defense” to Green Bay.
With White leading the team’s defenses, the Packers won the NFL Central Division title in 1995 (the team’s first division title in 23 seasons). The next year, White and a Packers team that boasted the NFL’s top-ranked defense won the Vince Lombardi Trophy for the first time since 1967.