Lawrence Phillips: #6 NFL Draft Bust


Lawrence Phillips Mug

Synopsis: As the only running back included as a Top 10 Bust, Lawrence Phillips stood out among his peers. Most football busts highlighted by this site excelled in college but lacked the talent to succeed in the NFL. In contrast, Phillips had NFL-worthy talent but suffered from serious personality flaws. Of note, his anger issues led to numerous suspensions as well as criminal charges. It’s fair to argue that Phillips sabotaged his football career because of legal problems. Similarly, one could argue that O.J. Simpson sabotaged his broadcasting career because of a disagreement with his ex-wife. Both statements are accurate, but drastically understate the former players’ situations. As a talented player who failed miserably in the NFL (and in life), Lawrence Phillips earned the title of #6 NFL Draft Bust.

[Note: Since I first wrote this post in October 2014, Phillips was charged in September 2015 with first-degree murder for strangling his cellmate while in state prison. So much for thinking he couldn’t sink any lower.]

[2nd Note: In January 2016, prisons guards found Phillips unresponsive in his jail cell. Apparently, Phillips committed suicide after attending a hearing about his pending murder trial. At this point, the only remaining question relates to the potential that he suffered chronic brain damage from playing football. Regardless, his life story has gotten even sadder.]


While I’m not delusional enough to think that players named as Top 10 Busts should view their inclusion as a compliment, they shouldn’t take themselves too seriously and get insulted by it either. I don’t intend to ridicule underachieving athletes simply to entertain the masses. Instead, I hope to vindicate some players for their perceived failures. I also hope to acknowledge others who had outstanding college careers even if their professional careers didn’t live up to expectations. The remaining few include players who truly are the worst of the worst because they lack any redeeming qualities. One of these players is Lawrence Phillips, whose failures extend farther further than the football field.

Jamal Wallace from Finding Forester
Click here to see Jamal explain the difference between farther and further.

By definition, all Top 10 Busts competed at an extremely high level in college but at an extremely low level in the NFL. When given sufficient opportunity to prove themselves, most of them showed that they lacked the physical and/or mental ability to succeed at the next level. Lawrence Phillips proved to be an exception because he had the physical talent to compete in the NFL. However, he had personal flaws that sabotaged every aspect of his life. Even though these demons appeared in college (and probably even before that), enablers coddled him to the point that he never had to face the harsh reality of his actions. As a result, Phillips became another example of someone who didn’t address his problems until too late.


As a freshman at Nebraska in 1993, Lawrence Phillips served most of the year as the second-string running back. Still, he played in most games and became the featured back by the end of the season. In fact, he even started in the Orange Bowl, which pitted the #2 ranked Cornhuskers against the #1 ranked Florida State Seminoles. Based on the team’s rankings, the game served as the National Championship. Perhaps less well know, the game also featured O.J. Simpson in his last college football broadcasting assignment. If you’re confused about that reference, the foreshadowing will make sense later.

Despite the similar team rankings, Florida State went into the game as a 17-point favorite. Regardless, Nebraska kept the game close and even took a lead at 16-15 with a little over a minute to go. Unfazed by the situation, Heisman-winning quarterback Charlie Ward led FSU on a game-winning drive.

After 21 impressive seasons as Nebraska’s Head Coach, Tom Osborne came within 75 seconds of his first national title. During that time period, the Cornhuskers only once finished outside the top 15 in the final rankings. So close to his ultimate goal, Osborne may have lost perspective of his priorities over the next few years.


Approximately two months later, Phillips got involved in an altercation that resulted in him being charged with misdemeanor assault, disturbing the peace, and two counts of vandalism. By agreeing to a pretrial diversion program, he initially avoided any punishment. However, he failed to complete the program in the requisite time period. As an aside, how could the coaching staff let him ignore the requirements of the pretrial diversion program? Perhaps they didn’t care because the trial didn’t start until after the end of the season.

Able to avoid any football-related consequences, Phillips continued to blossom as a sophomore. With respect to players from Division 1-A schools (think FBS), he ranked 4th with 16 rushing touchdowns and 3rd with 1,722 rushing yards. Based on these numbers, he finished 8th in the Heisman voting. Thanks to a strong rushing attack, Nebraska made it back to the Orange Bowl. This time it featured the #1-ranked Cornhuskers against the #2-ranked Miami Hurricanes. Unlike the prior year, Nebraska won the game and earned Tom Osborne his first National Championship.

Phillips’ junior season began with two productive games during which he ran for 359 yards and seven touchdowns. Think about those numbers for a second before moving on. At that point of the season, the Heisman Trophy was his to lose. True to form, that’s exactly what he did.


Despite the great start to the season, Phillips continued to have off-the-field problems. In particular, he got arrested for domestic violence (remember the OJ reference). According to the police report, Phillips dragged his girlfriend down three flights of stairs, punched her in the face, and kicked her in the chest. He pleaded “no contest” to the charge, but somehow remained on the football team. Apparently, Osborne thought he only needed to suspend his star player for a few games.

If you watched ESPN at any point in early September [2014], you couldn’t avoid a frame-by-frame analysis of Ray Rice’s assault of his fiancée in an Atlantic City casino. Based on Rice’s testimony and a video from outside the elevator, Goodell suspended him for two games.

Ray Rice Video – Outside Angle
rice outside
Worth 2-game suspension

Once TMZ released the video from inside the elevator, the Ravens cut Rice and the NFL suspended him indefinitely.

Ray Rice Video – Inside Angle
rice inside
Worth one-season suspension (and maybe more).

Rice’s appeal will be heard in two weeks so we should soon find out who knew what and when. To start, what did Roger Goodell really think happened inside the elevator? For as disgusting as the video from inside the elevator was, it wasn’t inconsistent with the previously disclosed description of the assault. Perhaps its release simply forced everyone to face the harsh reality of the situation. In other words, we had to get our heads out of our as the sand.

In the midst of a PR fiasco, Goodell finally caved to all of the mounting pressure from the media. Even ESPN worried so much about potential PR fallout, that it suspended Steven A. Smith for a controversial comment. I always thought Steven A. could talk a hungry rapacious dog off a truck prodigious motorized transport. In this case, however, the commentator loquacious rhetorician couldn’t avoid a becoming a meal caloric ingestion. The Ray Rice coverage had become a black hole swallowing up anyone who came too close.

Lawrence Phillips
Based on Nebraska’s attitude towards Phillips, he must have felt untouchable.

Unlike Goodell, Osborne fought off the national media and held firm with his decision to keep Phillips on the team. As Nebraska made its final push for a championship run, Osborne reinstated his troubled player with two games left in the regular season. Phillips regained his starting job just before the 1996 Fiesta Bowl. For the third consecutive season, Nebraska earned a spot in the national championship game. This time, the #1-ranked Cornhuskers faced the #2-ranked Florida Gators. Even though Phillips contributed to Nebraska’s victory with 165 yards rushing and three total touchdowns, Nebraska probably could have won anyway given the final score of 62-24.

During the season, Osborne claimed that he kept Phillips on the team to provide structure and support for his troubled player. Phillips contributed to a team that had competed in three straight national championship games, winning two of them and narrowly losing the third. Would that “structure and support” have been there for everyone on the team? Don’t worry, I know the answer.

Fed up with Phillips’ off-field problems, Osborne recommended that Nebraska’s star running back skip his senior year and enter the draft. I don’t have any credibility to challenge Osborne’s integrity as a person or as a head coach, but perhaps focused so much on winning that he looked the other way when convenient. Considering what the media (i.e. ESPN) did to Joe Paterno when the former Penn State head coach did the same thing, Osborne wouldn’t have been given a free pass today.

As shown by the following table, Phillips was very productive in college (when on the field).

Rushing Receiving
Year Games Att Yards Avg TD Rec. Yards Avg. TD
1993 10 92 508 5.5 5 2 6 3.0 0
1994 12 286 1,722 6.0 16 22 172 7.8 0
1995 5 71 547 7.7 9 4 14 3.5 0
Total 27 449 2,777 6.2 30 28 192 6.9 0

The previous table should confirm Phillips’ talent as a football player. In fact, most analysts viewed Lawrence Phillips as the most talented player available in the 1996 Draft. His off-field transgressions concerned many teams, but apparently not the Rams. In the midst of a turnaround, St. Louis overlooked these issues and still selected him with the 6th overall pick.

Doubling down on the pick, the Rams traded their 2x Pro-Bowl running back Jerome Bettis to the Pittsburgh Steelers immediately after getting Phillips. While in St. Louis, Phillips had 13 touchdowns and slightly over 1,300 yards from scrimmage. In comparison, Bettis had 80 touchdowns and over 11,300 yards from scrimmage with Pittsburgh. One’s in the Hall of Fame and the other’s in jail.


Phillips’ personal problems resurfaced even before showing up at training camp as a rookie. While on probation because of the domestic violence incident, Phillips got arrested for DUI in June 1996. Prior to Phillips’ DUI arrest, the Rams reportedly offered him a six-year contract for $10 million with a $5 million signing bonus. In July, Phillips signed a 3-year contract for under $6 million with no signing bonus. Obviously, he had some expensive drinks that night.

Lawrence Phillips
Despite numerous opportunities, Phillips failed to see them.

Phillips had a rough rookie season on and off the field. After rushing for 632 yards and four touchdowns in 15 games, Phillips continued to have legal problems during the off-season. To start, he served a 23-day sentence for violating probation related to the domestic violence charge. Then, he pleaded no-contest to a charge that he threatened police officers who responded a call claiming that he assaulted a woman at a hotel party. Even though Phillips didn’t face criminal charges for the alleged assault, the alleged victim sued him. I understand that professional athletes often get sued because they have money and litigious people see an easy payday. However, Phillips doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt.


In his second NFL season, Phillips exceeded his rookie production within the first ten games. His totals of 633 yards and eight touchdowns equated to annualized numbers of 1,000 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. Regardless, Rams Head Coach Dick Vermeil demoted Phillips to second string. Of note, Vermeil attributed the demotion to consistent personal problems instead of inconsistent football production. Unhappy with the demotion, Phillips walked out on a team meeting and skipped practice. In response, the Rams released him from the team. Really?!? That was the final straw?

Despite the flashing red lights, the Dolphins decided to pick Phillips up for their playoff run at the end of the 1997 season. With the second worst rushing offense in the league, they needed help. Trying to address concerns surrounding the team’s decision to sign the troubled player, Dolphins Head Coach Jimmy Johnson claimed that he would have “zero tolerance” for any off-field issues. Phillips played in the Dolphins’ last two games of the year but amassed only 44 yards on 18 carries for a 2.4 yards per carry average.


During the off-season, Phillips again couldn’t avoid trouble as he allegedly punched a woman twice in the face for refusing to dance with him. Apparently, “zero tolerance” is not really zero tolerance because Phillips lasted another month with the team before getting cut.

Phillips couldn’t catch on with any NFL teams for the 1998 season, but got an opportunity to play for the Barcelona Dragons in the NFL-Europe during the spring of 1999. He confirmed his talent after rushing for 14 touchdowns and a league-record 1,021 yards. Given the importance of winning in the professional sports, Phillips became a hotly desired free agent. Don’t forget, legendary head coach Vince Lombardi is credited for having said, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”


As General Manager of the San Francisco 49ers, Bill Walsh (another legendary head coach) decided to sign Phillips in a move that Machiavelli would have applauded. At the time of the signing, Walsh said “Lawrence will come to the 49ers with a clean slate as far as football is concerned.” Apparently, the ends justify the means when winning is the only thing.

Interestingly, the Baltimore Ravens publicly stated that they would avoid signing Phillips because of his off-field issues. Apparently, that same organization was OK with Ray Rice after hearing that he knocked his fiancée unconscious, but not OK after seeing a videotape of him doing it.

Somehow, Lawrence Phillips lasted eight games with the 49ers before getting suspended and then released by the team. In the third game of the year, Phillips came off the bench to rush for 102 yards and one touchdown on nine carries. Despite his production in the game, Phillips’ biggest “contribution” came from missing a block that could have prevented a sack of Steve Young. Young left the game after suffering a concussion on the play. With a history of concussions, Young decided to retire instead of continuing to risk long-term damage. In essence, Phillips’ missed assignment resulted in a career-ending injury to one of the NFL’s all-time great QBs.

After three years with four different teams, Phillips ended his NFL career with the following stats.

Draft (Pick) Weighted Average Value Games Yards from Scrimmage Avg Yards / Carry TD Fumbles
1996 (#6) 11 35 1,672 3.4 15 7

Despite his tremendous talent, Phillips failed to live up to his potential. Unfortunately, his sad tale didn’t end there. Not surprisingly, Phillips signed with teams in the Arena Football League and Canadian Football League. Also not surprisingly, he didn’t last long with any of those teams due to assorted behavioral problems.


Without the “structure and support” of a football team, Phillips’ off-field transgressions went into overdrive, literally. In August 2005, Phillips was arrested in Los Angeles for driving over three teenagers with a car after an argument that started during a pick-up football game. At the time, authorities in Los Angeles and San Diego wanted him for separate domestic violence incidents. In one of the incidents, he allegedly choked his former girlfriend until she reached unconsciousness. Ultimately, Phillips received a sentence of 31 years in prison.

[Since my original post in October 2014, Phillips was charged in September 2015 with the murder of his cellmate at Kern Valley State Prison in Delano, California. In April 2015, prison guards found the victim’s unresponsive body in their locked cell after Phillips called out to them in the middle of the night. Prosecutors filed formal charges of first-degree murder once investigators determined that Phillips’ cellmate died of strangulation. At this point, Phillips will never spend one living day as a free person outside of a prison. So much for thinking his life couldn’t get any worse.] 


Similar to other Top 10 NFL Draft Busts, Phillips was a college superstar who significantly underachieved in the NFL. Unlike most of them, however, he had the talent to compete at the highest level of his sport. As support for that claim, numerous teams were willing to overlook his nightmarish faults in the hopes that he might help them win. Phillips was a failure but the system around him was a failure too. He doesn’t deserve any excuses but I wonder how his life might have been different if his coaches cared more about him as a person instead of him as a football player.

Currently, we may be witnessing the self-destruction of another potential NFL superstar. That player, Jameis Winston, has shown the same signs that Phillips did twenty years ago. Winston has people reaching out to help, but he doesn’t appear to be listening. In particular, Bo Jackson talked about his inability to get through to the troubled college football star. On the Jim Rome Show, Jackson said, “Jameis Winston needs to make some changes in his life. . . It’s affecting him now, and it’s definitely going to affect him down the road.” Hopefully, Winston grows up and learns how to be more responsible. If not, he’s sure to be a future inclusion as a Top 10 Bust. Phillips is a lost cause, but his lesson needs to be learned by others.


[In one final twist to this tragic story, Lawrence Phillips died in January 2016 as the result of an apparent suicide. Guards found his unresponsive body in his jail cell shortly after he returned from a court hearing about his pending murder trial. Regardless of Phillips’ past, it’s hard not to feel sad for someone who clearly suffered from serious mental problems. 

Since I originally wrote this post, Jameis Winston just completed a strong rookie season with Tampa Bay. More importantly, he didn’t have any off-field problems. Hopefully, Winston truly has accepted the responsibilities of his job as an NFL quarterback. In retrospect, I may have been focused on the wrong former Heisman-winning quarterback. Of note, Johnny Manziel seems to be ruining his career due to poor decisions in his personal life. As a #22 overall pick, Manziel went too low in the draft to be considered a Top 10 Bust. However, I have reserved a spot for him as a future T10B Honorable Mention.