Bryce Harper and the Washington Nationals were one strike away from defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2012 National League Division Series.
Washington, D.C. sports teams have had their share of bad losses. Championship games, playoff games, games with the playoffs on the line, blowouts, collapses, multiple overtimes, games against rivals—we’ve seen it all. The last two decades have been particularly frustrating in the nation’s capital, with no pro championships outside of D.C. United’s four Major League Soccer crowns.
Sometimes it seems like we’re Charlie Brown; Lucy is always pulling the ball away from us, and we wonder if we’ll ever get the little red-haired girl.
If these losses had occurred in Boston or Chicago, they might be considered poetic, even romantic. But, curiously, D.C. is a place where even its biggest media stars mock the city and its fans for losing.
On the other hand, D.C.’s luck may be turning. Washington is now home to five of the brightest stars in sports, and most Washington teams are either good (Nats, Caps and D.C. United) or getting better (Redskins and Wizards).
The list below describes 33 of the worst losses in the modern era of D.C. sports, one for each year the District went without baseball. The list goes back to the early 1970s when the Redskins appeared in their first Super Bowl, the Senators left D.C., the Bullets arrived from Baltimore and the Capitals were created.
Losses before the modern era, such as the Redskins’ 73-0 rout by the Chicago Bears in the 1940 NFL Championship Game, aren’t included. Losses in championship games don’t automatically make the list, such as when the Redskins, Bullets and Capitals lost to better teams.
What is the worst loss in modern D.C. sports history?
The list leaves much room for debate, but the first few losses are so bad that they deserve a ranking at or near the top.
“Black Sunday,” Super Bowl XVIII, January 22, 1984: L.A. Raiders 38, Redskins 9
One year after the Redskins won their first Super Bowl, some experts were calling them one of the greatest teams of all time. The 16-2 Redskins had set the NFL record for most points in a season with 541. Their two losses were by one point each. Theismann was the NFL MVP, while Riggins set a league record for most touchdowns with 24. The Redskins could have become just the fourth franchise to win back-to-back Super Bowls.
Instead, Washington came out flat, and things only went downhill from there. Nothing went right for the Redskins, who must have read their pre-Super Bowl press clippings. First, the Raiders blocked a Redskins punt, scoring their first touchdown. With the score 14-3, L.A., just before the half, the Redskins called “Rocket Screen,” which seemed like a good idea at the time. It worked earlier in the year for big yardage. The only problem was that it worked against the Raiders, who were ready for it. Theismann’s pass, intended for Joe Washington, was intercepted by Jack Squirek for a TD, and the rest was history.
“Epic Fail,” National League Division Series Game 5: St. Louis Cardinals 9, Nationals 7.
In the first D.C. baseball playoff series in 79 years, the Nationals’ loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 was the biggest single-game meltdown in D.C. playoff sports history. In fact, it was the worst collapse ever in a winner-take-all baseball postseason game. The Nationals were twice within a strike of reaching the National League Championship Series. Washington gave up leads of 6-0 in the third inning and 7-5 with two outs in the ninth.
Closer Drew Storen gave up four runs in the ninth. Four of the Nats’ six pitchers gave up runs. Meanwhile, over the final six innings, the Nats’ bats went silent, producing just one run. As great as Jayson Werth’s heroics were in Game 4, the Nats’ choke in Game 5 was equally devastating.
“The Comeback,” December 16, 1979: Dallas Cowboys 35, Redskins 34
A win against the hated Dallas Cowboys at Texas Stadium would have put the Redskins in the playoffs for the first time since 1976.
Joe Theismann and John Riggins were in their prime. Theismann ran for a touchdown and threw for another. Riggins rushed for 151 yards and two touchdowns, including a 66-yard touchdown that put the Redskins up 34-21 with 6:34 to go. Somehow, Dallas came back, with touchdown passes from Roger Staubach to Ron Springs and Tony Hill in the final 2:20.
After the game, Harvey Martin threw a funeral wreath into the Redskins locker room. Riggins quit football for a year. And the 10-6 Redskins missed out on the playoffs by point differential. The Chicago Bears needed to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals by more than 33 in their final game to get the final playoff spot in the NFC. The Bears won, 42-6, knocking the Redskins out of the playoffs.
“The Final Game,” September 30, 1971: N.Y. Yankees 9, Senators 0
The Senators were leading the Yankees, 7-5 with two outs in the ninth inning in the final baseball game at RFK Stadium before the team moved to Texas. A fan ran onto the field. Soon, hundreds of unruly fans stormed the field, looking for souvenirs. The teams escaped to the dugouts, and the game was ruled a forfeit. There wasn’t another baseball game in D.C. for 34 years.
ACC Championship: March 9, 1974: N.C. State 103, Maryland 100 (OT)
For the third straight year, Maryland lost in the ACC tournament final. But this was back when only the tournament winner made the NCAA tournament. Maryland, led by All-Americans John Lucas, Tom McMillen and Len Elmore, finished the regular season ranked 4th in the nation. But N.C. State was No. 1. In what may have been the greatest game in ACC history, Tom Burleson scored 38 points, David Thompson had 29 and the Wolfpack prevailed in overtime. Devastated by not qualifying for the NCAA tournament, Maryland elected not to play in the NIT.
“Easter Epic,” Patrick Division Semifinals Game 7, April 18, 1987: N.Y. Islanders 3, Capitals 2 (4 OT)
In the NHL’s first four-overtime game since 1951, Pat LaFontaine scored the game-winner for the Islanders, ending the longest Game 7 in NHL playoff history. The four-overtime classic overshadowed the fact that the higher-seeded Caps led 3-1 in the series.
NCAA Championship, April 1, 1985: Villanova 66, Georgetown 64
The top-seeded Hoyas fell to eighth-seeded Villanova in possibly the greatest college basketball upset of all time. The defending national champion Hoyas were in the title game for the third time in four years. Georgetown, led by All-American center Patrick Ewing, came into the game with a record of 31-2 and had won 16 in a row. Villanova shot 79 percent from the field for the game.
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Game 7, April 28, 2010: Montreal 2, Capitals 1
In 2010, the Caps won the President’s Trophy with 121 points and a record of 54 wins, 15 losses and 13 overtime losses. Top-seeded Washington gave up a 3-games-to-1 lead to lose in seven games to the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens.
Final Four, March 31, 2001: Duke 95, Maryland 84
Duke came back from a 22-point first half deficit to defeat the Terrapins. Duke cut the lead to 11 at the half, but that was still the biggest halftime lead blown by a team in the Final Four. The Blue Devils outscored Maryland 78-45 after trailing 39-17. It was the third time that season Duke came back from a double-digit deficit to beat Maryland. Duke went on to win the national championship. Fortunately for the Terps, they won it a year later.
Patrick Division Semifinals Game 7, May 1, 1992: Pittsburgh Penguins 3, Capitals 1
The Caps blew a 3-games-to-1 lead, while the Penguins went on to win the Stanley Cup for the second year in a row. The Caps scored 20 goals in the first four games. This may have been the best Caps’ team ever, with Hall of Famers Dino Ciccarelli and Rod Langway, and Caps stalwarts Peter Bondra, Dale Hunter and Kevin Hatcher. Even goalie Don Beaupre made the All-Star team. Caps fans couldn’t believe the constant failures in the playoffs and couldn’t take any more. This was 20 years ago.
NBA Finals Game 4, May 25, 1975: Golden State Warriors 96, Bullets 95
In 1974-75, the Washington Bullets finished with the best record in the NBA with 60 wins. Golden State had 48. All-time greats Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld were in their prime. The Bullets had two other All-Stars, Phil Chenier and Kevin Porter. The Warriors played their home finals games in San Francisco, not Oakland, because no one thought they would make it to the finals. But in the finals, it was the Warriors who swept the Bullets behind Finals MVP Rick Barry, who called it the greatest upset in the history of the NBA Finals.
World Series Game 7, October 17, 1979: Pittsburgh Pirates 4, Baltimore Orioles 1
After leading 3-1 in the series, Willie Stargell and Dave Parker led the Pirates back against Eddie Murray, Ken Singleton and the O’s. This makes the list because back then many D.C. fans treated the O’s as if they were their own. Four years later, the Birds would win the World Series.
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Game 5, May 14, 1995: Pittsburgh Penguins 6, Capitals 5 (OT)
Leading three games to one in the series, the Caps led Pittsburgh in Game 5 2-0, and again 5-4, but couldn’t put Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and the Penguins away.
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Game 7, May 18, 1995: Pittsburgh Penguins 3, Capitals 0
Ken Wregget shut out Washington as the Caps again blew a 3-to-1 first-round lead in losing to Pittsburgh in seven games. The Caps gave up 16 goals in the final three games of the series.
NCAA Championship, March 29, 1982: North Carolina 63, Georgetown 62
After a jump shot by freshman Michael Jordan gave North Carolina a one-point lead, Georgetown's Fred Brown mistakenly threw the ball to James Worthy of the Tar Heels. It was the first of three finals appearances for freshman Patrick Ewing. Still, it was no shame to lose to a team with three future NBA All-Stars, in Jordan, Worthy and Sam Perkins.
ACC Championship, March 1, 1980: Duke 73, Maryland 72
For only the second time ever, the University of Maryland won the regular season ACC title in 1980. The Terps, led by Albert King, Buck Williams and Ernest Graham, finished the regular season ranked eighth in the nation. Maryland had a chance to win only its second ACC tournament since 1958. With seconds to go in the ACC championship game, King’s jump shot was slightly off. Williams was in position for the rebound, but Kenny Dennard of the sixth-seeded Blue Devils infamously undercut Williams, and no call was made. Gene Banks led Duke with 21 points. The Terps would go on to win the ACC tournament in 1984 and 2004, while Duke would win the title 13 more times.
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Game 4, April 24, 1996: Pittsburgh Penguins 3, Capitals 2 (4 OT)
After winning the first two games in 1996, the Caps lost four in a row to the Penguins in the first round. Game 4 was the fifth-longest in NHL history. Petr Nedved ended the Caps’ misery, scoring in the final minute of the fourth overtime. Olaf Kolzig had 62 saves. Jaromir Jagr had 12 shots for Pittsburgh, while Peter Bondra had 11 for the Caps.
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Game 6, April 20, 2003, Tampa Bay Lightning 2, Capitals 1 (3 OT)
In 2003, Washington won the opening two games of its first round series against Tampa Bay, but lost the next four to the Lightning, including Game 6 in triple overtime at home.
Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 7, May 13, 2009, Pittsburgh Penguins 6, Capitals 2
In 2009, the Caps had the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, but lost in the second round to Pittsburgh (who else?). The Caps jumped out to a 2-0 series lead, but lost two of the next three games in overtime. Then in Game 7, the Caps fell behind 5-0 in the second period on the way to a 6-2 loss. It was the sixth time the Caps had lost in the playoffs to Pittsburgh. Four of those times the Caps had two-game leads in the series. Sidney Crosby got the best of Alex Ovechkin again.
NFC Championship, January 11, 1987: N.Y. Giants 17, Redskins 0
Lawrence Taylor, Phil Simms and the Giants dominated the Redskins at windy Giants Stadium, earning their first trip to the Super Bowl. Jay Schroeder was 20-of-50, while the Skins rushed the ball just 15 times. Art Monk had his usual stellar performance with eight catches for 126 yards, but few other Redskins played up to par.
Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 4, May 4, 2011: Tampa Bay Lightning 5, Capitals 3
In 2011, the Caps were swept by Tampa Bay in the second round despite finishing with the second-best record in the NHL.
November 5, 1989: Dallas Cowboys 13, Redskins 3
The Redskins lost to one of the worst teams of all time. Dallas was 0-8 going into the game and finished 1-15.
Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 5, May 7, 2012: N.Y. Rangers 3, Capitals 2
With 6.6 seconds left against the New York Rangers, the Caps allowed the Rangers' Brad Richards to tie the game and send it into overtime. Then just a minute-and-a-half into the extra period, Marc Staal got one past Caps goalie Braden Holtby.
“Miracle Minute,” January 27, 2001: Duke 98, Maryland 96 (OT)
Maryland, ranked eighth in the nation, had a 10-point lead over No. 2 Duke with 54 seconds to go in College Park. Then Duke point guard Jason Williams did his Reggie Miller impression, hitting two three-pointers and a pair of free throws in 14 seconds, and the Terps lost in overtime. The teams would meet again that March in the Final Four, again won by Duke.
November 24, 1991: Dallas Cowboys 24, Redskins 21
The Redskins went into the game at 11-0, on their way to a potential perfect season, and it was ruined by the Dallas Cowboys.
November 15, 2010: Philadelphia Eagles 59, Redskins 28
The Redskins were humiliated on national television in a Monday night game. Michael Vick threw for four touchdowns and ran for two on the same day the Redskins signed Donovan McNabb to a $78 million dollar contract. The Redskins gave up 592 yards for the game and a team-record 45 points in the first half.
November 26, 2011: N.C. State 56, Maryland 41
In the final game of a disastrous season, coach Randy Edsall’s Terrapins led N.C. State 41-14 in the third quarter. Somehow, N.C. State scored 42 unanswered points, including 35 in the fourth quarter. It was Maryland’s 10th loss of the season, a year after going 9-4. Mike Glennon passed for 306 yards and five touchdowns for the Wolfpack. It was the second-biggest comeback in ACC history.
“Body Bag Game,” November 12, 1990: Philadelphia Eagles 28, Redskins 14
Buddy Ryan’s Eagles knocked eight Redskins out of the Monday Night Football game. With a Redskin lying on the ground, a Philadelphia defender supposedly asked an injured Redskin, “Do you guys need any more body bags?” The Redskins finished the game with rookie running back Brian Mitchell at quarterback.
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Game 6, May 5, 2006: Cleveland Cavaliers 114, Wizards 113
Gilbert Arenas missed two free throws with 15 seconds left in overtime in D.C. as the Cavaliers eliminated the Wizards in overtime. LeBron James whispered in Arenas’ ear before the second free throw, then Damon Jones hit the game-winner for Cleveland. It was Jones’ only basket of the game. It was the second straight overtime loss for Washington, which lost three games in the series by one point.
September 27, 2009: Detroit Lions 17, Redskins 14
The Redskins lost to a Lions team that hadn’t won it its last 19 games.
November 20, 1990: Sacramento Kings 87, Bullets 82
Sacramento had a road record of 1-40 in 1989-90. The Kings’ one road win? It came against the Bullets at the Capital Centre. Bernard King actually scored 45 points for Washington, but only two other Bullets scored in double figures.
March 24, 1993: Dallas Mavericks 101, Bullets 98
The Bullets lost at home to a team that came into the game 1-31 on the road. Dallas would win just 11 games the entire season.
March 30, 2007: Toronto Raptors 123, Wizards 118
With Washington up by three, Wizards forward David Ruffin threw the ball up to the rafters as time ran out. Or so he thought. When the ball came down, there was still one second left on the clock. Morris Peterson caught the ball, launched a three-pointer before time expired, and sent the game into overtime.