Big-Time Sports Stars Who Just Aren't Clutch
Numbers matter, but not as much as results. Few stars rack up the accolades or break records without a corresponding impact in the win column; but the outcome of a game—of a competition—is often decided in the blink of an eye.
Of course there are always exceptions, such as retired Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders, who transcended the awfulness of a losing franchise to have a Hall of Fame career.
But, more often than not, legacies are built on how a star responds when it matters most; how a man or woman performs in the face of adversity. It's about being clutch.
Stats help quantify the value of an athlete, but history offers the final appraisal. Fans and the sports media alike reserve a special, cynical place in the sports universe for those who excel at being great when greatness is irrelevant; just as we revere those who may not categorically dominate, but make a play that is the difference between glory and infamy.
These are the big-time sports stars who just aren't clutch.
Andrew Bynum, Philadelphia 76ers
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The Andrew Bynum experiment in Philadelphia has been a failure because of knee injuries preventing the former Laker from playing a single minute as a 76er. It's not Bynum's fault—he's a big dude and gravity is unforgiving.
What makes Bynum a player who just isn't clutch is the arc of his career; his failure to make the most of those moments when he was healthy, questions about his ability to stay healthy, and the complete non-return on investment made by the 76ers.
As a Laker, Bynum turned in one stellar postseason performance in '12, with his record-setting 10-block effort in Game 1 of the first round series against the Denver Nuggets.
However, he's rarely been a difference-maker beyond that moment and when Kobe Bryant questions your heart...and you don't see the court since...there is little reason to believe Bynum can be counted on.
Matt Schaub, Houston Texans
Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub's career as a starter didn't have a conventional start; as Michael Vick's backup in Atlanta, he parlayed strong performances during limited action into a 2007 trade to a Houston franchise looking to start anew after the era of expansion-draft bust David Carr.
Over the next four years, the Texans became the 'it' team—yet to make a postseason appearance as a franchise, but featuring enough talented players on both sides of the ball that they became an easy team to pick as a playoff newcomer.
With studs like All-Pro wide receiver Andre Johnson, linebacker DeMeco Ryans and defensive end Mario Williams, it seemed that a solid passer was all the young organization was missing.
While Schaub was an instant upgrade, postseason eligibility eluded the team until the '11-'12 season, when the Texans beat the Cincinnati Bengals in the Wild Card Round before losing to the the Ravens in the divisional round. In '12-'13, history nearly repeated itself, but instead of the Ravens eliminating the Texans, the Patriots did the favor.
The problem for Schaub? In '12 he wasn't the signal-caller who led the Texans to their first-ever playoff win. It was unproven rookie T.J. Yates, who subbed for the injured Schaub.
In '13, Schaub had the reins in the postseason, and while he wasn't awful, he was so very Matt Schaub—adequate but not elevating. He didn't kill their chances, but Schaub did little to overcome the game plans of the Bengals and Patriots. He was more Trent Dilfer than Aaron Rodgers.
Caroline Wozniacki, Women's Tennis
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In October 2010, women's tennis pro Caroline Wozniacki grabbed the WTA's No. 1 ranking at the age of 20—a ranking she held for 67 straight weeks, despite disappointing performances in four Grand Slam tournament appearances. The Dane failed to reach the finals, with her best finishes coming in the 2011 Australia and U.S. Opens, where she reached the semifinals.
After becoming the world's top-ranked women's tennis player, Wozniacki did little in terms of quality wins and clearly struggled under the pressure of her No. 1 status. She finally relinquished the top spot after losing to Kim Clijsters in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in February 2012.
Instead of seizing the moment and justifying the No. 1 ranking with at least strong showings in Grand Slam tournaments, C-Woz made headlines for her very public relationship with PGA Tour star Rory McIlroy—as both have offered uneven performances in the last two years, just as the two flirted with greatness.
Though Wozniacki has publicly expressed confidence in her ability to regain her title as No. 1 on the WTA Tour, she's done little on the court to inspire similar sentiment among fans; she lost five consecutive matches on the tour entering the French Open.
Manti Te'o, San Diego Chargers
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Okay, let's go ahead and vanquish the elephant in the room. This has nothing to do with San Diego Chargers second-round pick Manti Te'o's off-the-field, phantom girlfriend drama—though the weirdness of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo turned a highly publicized career at Notre Dame into a front-page spectacle.
After the Fighting Irish's improbable undefeated season, the Lott Trophy, Maxwell Award, Chuck Bednarik Award, Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Butkus Award, Lombardi Award, Walter Camp Award winner and Heisman runner-up was simply doing a little housekeeping on his way to a top-10 selection in the 2013 NFL draft.
Few people believed Notre Dame had more than a puncher's chance against the Alabama Crimson Tide in the BCS Championship, but win or lose, Te'o just needed to show the same sound, fundamental skills, motor and leadership that defined his college career against the big, bad Tide.
That didn't happen—with the nation watching (and the media maelstrom over his "catfishing" victimization breaking in just over a week) Te'o and the Irish defense were rendered powerless by Alabama running backs Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon and the pro-caliber Tide offensive line.
With only three solo tackles and a bevy of those missed in a decidedly lackluster performance, Te'o laid the table for future skeptics. He has all the time in the world to make his mark as a pro, but in his biggest moment thus far, Te'o failed to capitalize.
Roberto Luongo, Vancouver Canucks
According to CBS Sports, jaded netminder Roberto Luongo’s tenure with the Vancouver Canucks is likely coming to a merciful end after seven, oft-tumultuous years. The team could be planning to move Luongo, by trade or release, after the Canucks were swept by the San Jose Sharks in the first round of the 2013 playoffs.
After a shortened season when he played sparingly in favor of goaltender Cory Schneider—until the latter was hurt in a game late in the regular season—Luongo started the first two games against the Sharks before being replaced by a healthy Schneider. Despite who was in net, it produced the same result.
However, it’s been clear that the Canucks, the 2011 NHL points leader that lost to the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Finals, have lost faith in Luongo’s ability to perform in the postseason—long after many fans. Luongo’s uneven play in 64 postseason appearances made him an easy scapegoat; often with good reason.
Luongo is 32-31 in the postseason and was particularly bad against the Blackhawks in the Conference semifinals in ’10 and in the final two losses in the Cup finals the next year. Sure, he probably got more of the blame than he should have, but it’s obvious Luongo needs a change of venue as much as the team needs fresh blood.
Robinson Cano, New York Yankees
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You have to hand it to the New York Yankees—no franchise has been more effective at assembling an absurdly expensive nucleus of postseason choke-artists. While each star has made a solid case for winning the title of Mr. Futility, it's hard not to give it to second baseman Robinson Cano.
0-for-29: that's Cano's record-setting streak of plate appearances without a hit during last year's playoff series against the Orioles and Tigers.
As putrid as going 0-for-29 when getting on base matters the most, his play bookending the hitless streak was hardly any better. Overall, Cano was a miserable 3-for-40, posting a batting average of .075, with four RBI and six strikeouts.
Cano’s failure to produce in the clutch is not a new phenomenon, even if ’12 represented a career-worst. Over seven years and 51 postseason games played, he’s batted .222 with eight home runs, 33 RBI and a OBP of .267.
Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos
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Peyton Manning is going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. No one doubts his greatness across all phases of the passing game—intelligence, instincts, ability to make all the throws and work ethic.
As a thought exercise, naming which quarterback you’d want under center for a single game is divisive and maddening—but given truth serum, most fans outside of Boston would whisper, “Peyton Manning.”
However, if it was one playoff game, the answer wouldn’t come so easily. This is the one mark on Manning’s legacy: for all the records and accolades, he’s 9-11 in the postseason.
Of active NFL quarterbacks, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers all have one or more Super Bowl victories; with Brady, Big Ben and Eli all boasting of at least two.
While he can take comfort in his lone Super Bowl victory in 2007, as such an elite player, the postseason disappointments are glaring; but Manning isn’t in the Marino Club.
The miraculous, two-overtime victory of the Baltimore Ravens over the Broncos in the 2013 AFC divisional round only served to underscore Manning’s postseason failures. In that game, Manning was responsible for three killer turnovers, including a pick-six.
Peyton has the hardware and the records—no one is going to stand in the way of his induction into the Hall of Fame or seriously question his status as one of the greatest passers in NFL history. But, there will always be an unwritten asterisk.
Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins
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When Marc-Andre Fleury fought off Henrik Zetterberg and Nicklas Lidström's last-second, frenzied attempts to tie Game 7 of the '09 Stanley Cup Finals, saving the championship for the Pittsburgh Penguins, it seemed like the former first overall pick (2003) was destined for greatness.
"The Flower" needed to improve as a puck-handler and limit rebounds, but with his athleticism and uncanny ability to collapse a seemingly wide-open net, the Pens goaltender had the tools to anchor a new NHL dynasty.
Today, that moment seems frozen in another era—Fleury has largely lived up to the lofty expectations established in the final moments the Pens' victory over the vaunted Red Wings, but not when the chance at another Cup was on the line.
Uneven in stretches and prone to soft goals in first-round postseason losses to the Montreal Canadiens in '10 and Tampa Bay Lightning in '11—both in seven games—Fleury's inability to steal a game or two were excused as an aberration against the Habs and injuries to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin against the Lightning.
But, no label adequately describes Fleury's series against the Flyers in '12 other than "meltdown." He had little help from the players around him, but the typically steady netminder looked off-kilter—allowing 26 goals in just six games. The only redeeming element of the series was the fact that the Flyers goaltender was almost as bad...giving up 21.
"The Flower" and Pens fans alike hoped his awful performance in the face of adversity was simply an aberration, but this year's quarterfinal matchup against the suddenly rising New York Islanders was a continuance of last year's nightmare.
He was pulled in favor of grizzled veteran Tomas Vokoun after allowing the tenacious Isles to tie the series.
Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks
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On one hand, there is no denying that the New York Knicks' resurgence as a playoff-caliber NBA franchise is in large part due to the addition of Carmelo Anthony in 2011; leading the Knicks to the playoffs after a six-year drought.
On the other, how will history look back on the trade if he vastly improved the team but never moves past his own postseason failures?
After the Knicks were eliminated in the conference semifinals by the Indiana Pacers this year, Melo’s postseason career record now stands at 23-42. It’s an improvement—dropping Anthony from the top spot in the list of the worst NBA postseason records in the last 20 years, to the fourth-worst spot (minimum 50 games played).
Melo has had some big performances in playoff games over his career, but he has struggled mightily as well—including critical stretches of the series against the Pacers this year.
Though Melo hasn’t had the greatest stable of talent around him over much of his career with the Nuggets and Knicks, as a nine-year veteran, the window is starting to close—ever so slightly—on Anthony’s opportunity to change the narrative.
Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
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When Matt Ryan entered the 2008 NFL draft, the former Boston College star quarterback drew comparisons to Peyton Manning. Ryan, like Manning, was considered the total package—he could make all the throws, had a high “football IQ,” was a tenacious study and a strong leader in the locker room. With Ryan standing at 6’4” and Manning at 6’5”, both have the prototypical pro quarterback build.
Beyond the pre-draft assessments, Ryan has followed in Manning’s footsteps in the pros; establishing himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the league, but failing to translate regular-season success into playoff victories.
Eerily, the Manning comparison extends to the team—since drafting "Matty Ice" in 2008, the Falcons have qualified for the playoffs in all but one season. Until beating the Seahawks in the divisional round this year, Ryan and the Falcons have been one-and-done in the postseason; including getting blown out by the Packers in 2011 when Atlanta held the NFC’s top seed.
Ryan’s win over Seattle this year and overall performance in the playoffs was head-and-shoulders above his postseason play in years prior—posting QB ratings of 114.8 and 93.7, respectively (much better than the 70.9 rating in three games prior playoff games combined).
Alex Rodriguez, New York Yankees
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At 37, Alex Rodriguez will never recapture the glory of his career-best years. One of the most feared sluggers and two-way players in the MLB when the star was acquired by the Yankees in 2004, most assumed the boys in pinstripes would obliterate the competition for a decade with A-Rod.
Considering the A-Rod and the team's postseason production since then (one World Series championship; seven early exits), few would argue that club received a fair return on its investment.
While A-Rod's regular season production has slipped over the past four seasons, his well-known playoff struggles have persisted since he left the Mariners in 2000.
Though an apples-to-apples comparison to beloved teammate Derek "Captain Clutch" Jeter shows little disparity on paper, it would be disingenuous to claim that Jeter has come up as small—and as often—in big moments as Rodriguez.
In 75 postseason games and 274 plate appearances, "Mr. September" has a batting average of .263 with 13 home runs, 41 RBI and 75 strikeouts.
But the numbers don't tell the whole story; his benching during the 2012 ALCS against the Tigers was a low point and a mockery of his $29 million salary.
Kendrick Perkins, Oklahoma City Thunder
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The Miami Heat's path to a second consecutive NBA championship has appeared unfettered since the moment LeBron James began—in earnest—his MVP, record-setting run. The Heat went on a 27-game winning streak, with King James averaging 27 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, nearly two steals and shot just over 57 percent from the field.
If there was any hope for a true challenge to Miami's procession to another title, it would come from Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder. No player but Durant has the combination of ability, size and athleticism comparable to James, and with a talented nucleus anchored by star point guard Russell Westbrook, a rematch with the Thunder promised an entertaining, competitive NBA final.
It wasn't to be: in the first round against the Houston Rockets, Westbrook suffered a season-ending knee injury. Despite the setback, Durant shouldered the burden and helped the Thunder move on to face the Memphis Grizzlies. Then, they got crushed in five games.
Contributing in large part to the Thunder's failure to step-up in Westbrook's absence was the historically terrible postseason play of center Kendrick Perkins.
I realize Perkins isn't a star, but considering his hefty salary, the big man needed to step up much, much more than he did. He scored a meager 24 points in 11 games and failed to make difference outside of the scoreboard—averaging just 3 rebounds and less than a third of a block a game. In short, Perkins' minutes were far beyond less than clutch...but a detriment.
Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals
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Before Washington Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin caught on fire in the second half of the NHL’s shortened ’13 season—scoring 23 goals in 23 games—the familiar narrative of Ovi’s failure to propel the Caps to the Stanley Cup after dominating during the regular season had almost completely shifted to one about the slumping star’s precipitous decline as a pro.
After a 109-point season in ’09-’10, his production declined consistently until netting 32 goals in this year's shortened season, winning the NHL’s Rocket Richard Trophy and being named a Hart Memorial Trophy finalist. I believed Ovi’s return to form cast his struggles over the last two years under a different light.
Alex Ovechkin was hurt by uncertainty around former coach Bruce Boudreau’s job status. He had to learn and adjust to new systems installed by Boudreau’s successor, Dale Hunter, and then Adam Oates.
Then, the suddenly hot, worst-to-first Caps won the Southeast Division and faced off against the New York Rangers in the first round. Once again, Ovechkin’s old demons returned—after taking a commanding 2-0 series lead over the sixth-seeded Rangers, the Caps lost the next two and eventually the series in seven games.
Ovi came up small in the postseason, again, scoring just once in the series.
Ovechkin’s Caps are 3-6 in nine playoff series and 2-5 in Game 7s, including a 1-4 record at home.
However, Ovi still has plenty of time to transform his legacy from one defined by a disappearing act in the most crucial moments to one of a insanely talented player finally winning an elusive championship.
Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys
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For the average NFL fan, the notion that Dallas Cowboys veteran quarterback Tony Romo isn't clutch is almost cliché. Likewise, it's become almost laughably predictable that when an analyst or reporter criticizes Romo's play in critical situations, an apologist will quickly come to his defense; pointing out that the passer's stats are great in the fourth quarter.
When a player racks up the yards and touchdowns in a given quarter or game, more often than not, the final result is aligned with the numbers. However, any good football fan knows that a player does on paper is only part of the story.
Football is a sport dictated by momentum; by individual plays. A guy like Romo can shred a defense for three-and-half quarters, but the first 52 minutes of a game are all but forgotten if a player gives the ball away or comes up short with the game in the balance. This is why Romo has earned the reputation as a choke artist—he’s failed when it has mattered most.
Maybe he’s snakebitten. In his first full season as a starter in ‘06, he helped propel the Cowboys to only their second playoff game since 1999…only to fumble away a potential game-winning, chip-shot field goal. Surely, few people thought the moment would define Romo’s career…but it has.
The starting quarterback of “America’s Team” is a star by default—but, with one playoff win and just three postseason appearances in seven years, Romo has failed to live up to expectations.
Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Vancouver Canucks
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The formidable tandem of Daniel and Henrik Sedin are a big reason why the Vancouver Canucks transformed into a perennial Western Conference contender in the new millennium. The twin brothers are a puck-possessing duo, capable of scoring anytime they're on the ice.
Yet, their creepy twin-powers seem to vaporize when the regular season has concluded, the playoff seeding is set and the Stanley Cup looms just out of reach. The Canucks postseason failures over the last decade are clearly bigger than any one player (or one pair of twins), but the impotence of the Sedins in the playoffs is impossible to dismiss.
While netminder Roberto Luongo has played the role of Totem of Playoff Futility, no Canucks player has consistently underperformed at a more disparate level than the Sedin brothers.
Consider this year's postseason disappointment—swept at the hands of the San Jose Sharks, Henrik and Daniel managed to produce six points, with no goals and a minus-two in just under 84 minutes of ice time.
The Sedins obviously relinquished their failure with customs officials, because the duo is crushing the Ice Hockey World Championships as part of Sweden's team.
In 96 postseason games, Daniel has recorded a paltry 23 goals, 44 assists and a minus-11. His brother has played three more games, accumulating a frighteningly similar 22 goals, 52 assists and a minus-15.