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Who Were the Best Football Players in the 90s?

The 1990s were a time of significant transition for the National Football League or NFL. A more thrilling wave of play occurred at the same time as the league appeared to be more interesting as a result of rule modifications and other touches that were added to elevate things. 

The rise of the Internet made this possible by allowing for more rapid attention on players who were also getting more involved in the media game. Finding out who was well-known is simple but answering the question of who the best was can lead to a great deal of discussion. It is difficult to decide based on only on championships or statistics, but also on an individual’s entire impact over this decade, which is true for any list of this kind.

Steve Young

Steve Young, a quarterback, was chosen in the 1984 National Football League supplemental draft to play in the league.  In the first round of the special draft, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected the Brigham Young University player who was a consensus All-American. The player had previously played in the failed United States Football League for the previous two seasons. 

Young was transferred to the San Francisco 49ers in 1987, where he served as Joe Montana’s backup quarterback before the future Hall of Famer’s induction.  In 1991, Young replaced Montana as the 49ers’ starting quarterback when he sustained an injury. Young had played sparingly in his first four seasons with the 49ers up until that point.  

Young quickly stepped into his new position as the 49ers’ offensive coordinator.  Although Young missed five games due to a knee injury that season, he still managed to throw for 2,517 yards and 17 touchdowns, leading to a league-best passer rating of 101.8. Young won his first of four straight passing titles during this period.  

Together with the great Sammy Baugh, Young is the only quarterback in NFL history to have won six passing championships after winning two more titles in 1996 and 1997. In the 1930s, Sammy Baugh won his six championships. When he completed 324 of 461 passes for 3,969 yards and 35 touchdowns in 1994, he had his best year. His passer rating for that year was 112.8. This was the highest passer rating ever at the time it was set.  

In addition, Young led the 49ers to a 13-3 record and the NFC West division title while rushing for seven touchdowns for the squad.  The club easily navigated the rest of the postseason.  Young threw two touchdown passes and also scored on the ground to lead the 49ers past the Dallas Cowboys in that year’s NFC championship game. In the end, the score was 38–28.  He ended the year with an outstanding performance in Super Bowl XXIX, in which San Francisco defeated the San Diego Chargers 49-26.  

Young threw six touchdown passes for 325 yards in the Super Bowl, breaking the previous record.  In addition, he was the game’s top rusher with 49 yards on just five carries, which put him in first place for the team.  He received the Super Bowl’s Most Valuable Player award as a result of his contributions. 

In his six seasons of NFL play, the left-handed quarterback threw for at least 3,000 yards six times, had at least 20 touchdown passes five times, and earned a passer rating of at least 100 six times.  Young was a reliable threat to the squad as a runner in addition to being an efficient passer.  During that span, he ran for 4,239 yards and scored 43 touchdowns.

Young won three All-NFC awards and was named an All-Pro in 1992, 1993, 1994, and 1998. He is regarded as one of the league’s all-time best passers.  The two-time league MVP was additionally selected seven times to play in the Pro Bowl.

Shannon Sharpe

The Denver Broncos selected Shannon Sharpe, a former Savannah State football player, in the seventh round of the 1990 NFL Draft. He played for another 14 seasons until calling it quits as the tight end with the most receptions, yards, and touchdowns in position history. 

He had his greatest year in his third season when he led the Broncos in receiving with 53 catches for 640 yards. He also earned the first of his eight Pro Bowl nominations. He received the first of his eight Pro Bowl honors after a standout season. Except for the 1999 season, which was cut short due to injury, Sharpe never finished a season with fewer than 60 receptions. 

After racking up 81 receptions for 995 yards and 9 touchdowns in 1993, he was first chosen for the All-Pro first team. He would receive this accolade four times starting with this one. Following that outstanding season, he set a new career best in receptions in 1994 with 87. 

Sharpe left the Broncos in 2000 and later signed with the Baltimore Ravens as an unrestricted free agent. Shannon Sharpe beat over Ozzie Newsome, who is now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in 2001 while playing for Baltimore to take home the record for the most receptions and receiving yards by a tight end in the National Football League. 

He spent two years with the Ravens before returning to Denver to complete his career with the Broncos for two more years. He concluded his career as the tight end position’s all-time leader in touchdowns scored during his final season. Each of these three career milestones has since been surpassed. 815 receptions, 10,060 receiving yards, and 62 touchdowns make up Sharpe’s career output. Ten times he had seasons with 60 or more catches, including three with an overall total of 80 catches. 

Sharpe had two seasons in which he scored 10 touchdowns and three seasons in which he exceeded the 1,000-yard plateau. During the regular season, he played in 204 games, and he started four games at the AFC championships. 

He started as a tight end in each of the Super Bowls that Denver won back-to-back. In the 2000 AFC Championship Game, Trent Dilfer delivered a short pass to Shannon Sharpe on third-and-18, leading to Sharpe’s 96-yard touchdown reception. The tight end scored the game’s only touchdown while sprinting through the middle of the field without being touched, which was all that was required for the Ravens to win the AFC title and advance to the Super Bowl. The action continues to hold the record for the longest touchdown reception in NFL postseason history. 

Throughout his career, Sharpe placed first in receiving for the Broncos six times and the Ravens once. He was chosen by the National Football League for the first All-Pro and All-AFC teams in 1993, 1996, 1997, and 1998, as well as the 1990s All-Decade Team.

Rod Woodson

After signing with the Steelers in 1987, Rod Woodson reached his full potential during the 1990s. He is the defensive player that has recovered the most fumbles and set the record for the most interceptions that have been returned for touchdowns. A superb performer on defense, Woodson was selected to the Pro Bowl eleven times and won the Defensive Player of the Year award in 1993. 

He was instrumental in the Steelers’ continued success, including their march to the Super Bowl. Before finishing his career in Baltimore, where he was instrumental in the Ravens’ run to a Super Bowl victory, he spent a year with the 49ers. However, Woodson is regarded as one of the best players to ever don a Steelers or Ravens suit and was considered to be one of the top interceptors in the NFL during his time.

Emmith Smith

There is no disputing that Emmitt Smith was one of the most incredible players who has ever stepped foot on a football field, even though he may have had some issues with his ego. After being selected by the Cowboys in the first round of the 1990 NFL Draft, Smith quickly became an indispensable member of the squad that went on to win three Super Bowls and was named Most Valuable Player of one of those games. 

Smith was an exceptional athlete who finally broke Walter Payton’s record for rushing yards, which he still has even though Smith was selected to play in eight Pro Bowls and led the league in rushing for four consecutive seasons. He is the only player in NFL history to win a Super Bowl, the NFL Rushing Leader award, and both the MVP award for the regular season and the Super Bowl in the same year. Smith’s dominance throughout this decade was remarkable, even though the latter part of the 2000s wasn’t as fruitful for him.

Barry Sanders

Barry Sanders may have held the record for rushing yards in the National Football League (NFL) if he had not retired at the age of 31. He had an immediate impact for the Lions, garnering Offensive Rookie of the Year accolades and establishing himself as a man who is capable of amassing 2,000 yards in a single season. 

Sanders was named to the Pro Bowl after each of his ten seasons, and he was also the Most Valuable Player in 1997. The fact that other teams and the Lions weren’t as talented as he was at the right time prevented him from playing in the Super Bowl. Sanders would almost certainly be at the top of our list if he had just a few more years of playing experience, but very few players in the 1990s were as dynamic as he was.

Jerry Rice

Given that he had already been in the league for seven years before the 1990s began, Jerry Rice’s production throughout that decade is even more impressive. Rice continued to improve throughout his career, becoming probably the best wide receiver in the history of the National Football League after forming partnerships with Joe Montana and subsequently Steve Young. 

Rice was a member of two more Super Bowl champion teams in the 1990s and was the league leader in receptions and touchdowns for numerous seasons. He was also a member of the Pro Bowl team 13 times. 

Rice’s production makes him a guy who straddled several decades in amazing play to be among the greatest of this time. Even though he slowed down toward the conclusion of the decade, this still makes him one of the finest of this period.

Rice’s most memorable season of his 20-year career occurred in 1995 when he established the NFL record for receiving yardage in a season with 1,848 yards. This accomplishment made Rice’s 1995 season the most memorable of his whole career. 

He finished the 1990s with a total of 860 receptions and led the NFL in receptions twice while also leading the league in receiving yardage four times throughout the decade. Rice had an incredible 1,549 career catches by the time he departed from the NFL.

Michael Irvin

After having a successful collegiate football career with the Miami Hurricanes, wide receiver Michael Irvin signed with the Dallas Cowboys the next year in 1988. Irvin was picked up by the Cowboys in the first round of the 1988 National Football League Draft as the eleventh player overall. He went on to become one of the best receivers in Cowboys and NFL history very soon. Irvin provided a preview of what was to come throughout his entire career with the Cowboys when he was just starting as a rookie. It had been more than two decades since Dallas had a wide receiver make his debut in the opening game of the season. He made history by doing so. It was in that game that he caught the first of his career-high 65 touchdown passes. 

Irvin’s average of 20.4 yards per grab in his debut season led the National Football Conference. Irvin had at least one season of 1,000 yards of total offense in each of the years 1991 through 1998. Along the way, the Cowboys won three Super Bowl crowns by defeating the Buffalo Bills in back-to-back games, and they made four consecutive trips to the National Football Conference championship game (1992–1995). 

Irvin had his best season in 1995 when he caught 111 passes for 1,603 yards and received an MVP award. In addition to that, he set a record in the NFL by having eleven games in which he gained at least 100 yards and scored ten touchdowns. His strong play carried over into the post-season of that particular year. Irvin had seven receptions for a total of 100 yards and two touchdowns in the National Football Conference Championship Game that the Dallas Cowboys won 38-27 over the Green Bay Packers in 1995. 

He finished off the year with five catches for 76 yards in Dallas’ Super Bowl XXX triumph against the Pittsburgh Steelers, which the Cowboys won 27-17. Irvin finished his career with 750 receptions and 11,904 yards receiving. During his career, which consisted of 159 games, he recorded at least 100 receiving yards in 47 of those games, which earned him a spot on the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1990s.

Brett Favre

The Atlanta Falcons made several mistakes, but the biggest one was throwing away Brett Favre when they had the chance to keep him. In his first year with the Green Bay Packers, Brett Favre finished with 3,337 passing yards and a trip to the Pro Bowl, despite a sluggish start. After that, he was unstoppable when it came to breaking the record for most consecutive starts in NFL history. 

This was after receiving invitations to eleven additional Pro Bowls, two straight Super Bowls (one of which he won), and three MVP trophies in a row. In addition to that, he set multiple records for passing, touchdowns, and receptions, which cemented his legacy as an all-time great player during the 1990s.

Bruce Matthews

In the 1983 National Football League Draft, the Houston Oilers used the ninth overall pick to select offensive lineman Bruce Matthews. Matthews was drafted by the Oilers.  The decision was extremely profitable for the organization over the course of the subsequent 19 seasons. When Matthews resigned as a member of the Tennessee Titans following the conclusion of the 2001 season, the former USC All-American had played in more games (296) than any other full-time positional player in the history of the National Football League.  Because of how long he played, his former teammate from the Trojans, Jeff Fisher, became his coach in the NFL. 

Matthews is a three-time winner of the Offensive Lineman of the Year award. He started all 15 of the postseason games in which he participated and 292 of the 296 games he played during the regular season. Matthews began his career in the NFL as a guard and, after just two games, acquired a starting job on the offensive line for the team he was playing for.  Throughout his lengthy career with the Oilers and Titans, Matthews eventually played every position along the offensive line, which made him an extremely useful asset to the team’s attack.  

He started the most games at guard (99 on the left side and 67 on the right side) and center (87). His starts were on the left side.  In addition, he started all 22 games at right tackle for the squad and 17 games at left tackle. Early on in Matthews’ career, the Oilers endured some difficult seasons for the franchise, including back-to-back 2-14 records during Matthews’ first two seasons in the National Football League.  The Oilers were able to make it to the playoffs by 1987 thanks in large part to the contributions made by Matthews, who helped the team’s offensive become more stable.  It was the first of Matthews and the Oilers’ subsequent six trips to the postseason in a row after that.  

After moving to Tennessee, the squad participated in the postseason a further two times.  In 1999, the Titans won the AFC championship and headed to Super Bowl XXXIV, where they were defeated by the St. Louis Rams in a game that was decided by a single point. Matthews received a plethora of praise as the team’s fortunes began to turn around and continued to improve. 

Beginning in 1988 and continuing right up until the end of his career, he was chosen to participate in the Pro Bowl every season.  His 14 consecutive selections to the Pro Bowl (9 at guard, 5 at center) equaled him for the record with Hall of Famer Merlin Olsen. In addition, Matthews was selected to the first team of All-Pro nine times (1988–1993, 1998–2000), and he was chosen All–AFC 12 times (1988–1993, 1995–2000).  The National Football League (NFL) chose him to represent the decade of the 1990s on its All-Decade Team as a guard.

Deion Sanders

“Neon Deion” was a player noted for his flash and style while on the field. He was the only man to play in both the Super Bowl and the World Series. But he proved his words with his play, earning a spot in the Pro Bowl eight times and was named the Defensive Player of the Year in 1994. 

He is one of the rare people who can say that they have won the Super Bowl with two different teams, having done so with the 49ers and the Cowboys respectively. It is not fair to discount Deion’s incredible performance in this decade as one of the best defensive players of his period because his last years were tougher.

Deion Sanders

Conclusion

The 1990s were a fantastic decade for football all the way through. It was a golden age for football, marked by spectacular victories, passionate supporters, and iconic players all around the world. It seems absurd that so many legendary players who were at the top of their game in the 1990s were not included on this list. Despite this, the top ten still have several illustrious names.

To discover more top football players, you may also check out our list of the best football players of the 80s.

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