Sports Misconceptions: "Clutch" Football Players

Anthony WilliamsonCorrespondent IMay 13, 2009

It was my junior year in High School when I learned the true definition of the word.

May 7, 1995.

I know I'm dating myself, but I'm trying to make a point.

In Game One of the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinal series, the Pacers trailed the Knicks by six points with 18.7 seconds to play. Not being a fan of either team I watched impartially as Miller hit a three-pointer with 16 seconds left.

So what? That's what Reggie does; he hits three pointers there's still not enough time left to-

"... And a steal! Miller retreats to the three point line... and hits again! Reggie Miller has tied the game with 13 seconds remaining!"

After Knicks guard John Starks missed two foul shots, Miller grabbed a Patrick Ewing miss, was fouled and calmly sank his two free throws (not surprising, as Miller shot .888 from the line for his career).

Miller scored eight points in 11 seconds to end the game, shocking Spike Lee and the rest of Knicks fandom.

Basketball is full of stories like this, where individuals step into the moment and make clutch plays. So is baseball, with its bottom of the ninth heroics and its "Struck 'em out! The Phillies are World Champions of Baseball!"

Sorry, I love that call...

Anyway, the prevailing theme in each of those moments is that it's an individual effort.

Reggie Miller hit that three-point shot.

Miller pushed Greg Anthony to the floor.

Miller stole the ball.

Miller dribbled behind the three point line and Miller drained another shot.

In my opinion a player can truly be called clutch when: "A player individually leads his team to victory in extreme circumstances."

So: The Miller situation qualifies; "The Catch" does not.

Joe Montana led the game winning drive, yes. He made some amazing throws, yes but is it fair to call him clutch when he didn't do it on his own?

His offensive line has to block, or the game is over.

The coaches have to read the defense to call the correct plays or the game is over.

The wide receivers have to run the right route and catch the ball or the game is over.

Even if Montana had run 89 yards (the 49ers started that drive on their own 11) for the touchdown, there still would have been another player involved in that play. A key block down field for instance.

I say this not to take anything away from Montana, who was arguably one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, but instead to show that in the sport of football a quarterback simply cannot be "clutch". Contrary to the opinion of another writer.

If on a game winning drive a quarterback gets sacked? Is it:

A) He held the ball too long?

B) The line failed to protect him?

C) The receiver didn't recognize the blitz?

D) The coaching staff called a play with routes that take too long to develop?

E) The QB just crumbles under pressure?

The problem with the question is that either one of these answers could be argued as correct.

What if the rest of the quarterbacks' team fail him? Suppose the QB lives for the big moment and everyone else gets tight? Guess what? It doesn't matter how good the player is; in football you need everyone to believe.

Some won't see this as correct. After all, if a quarterback makes a bad throw at the most inopportune time isn't that considered choking?

I would say even a bad throw can be made into a good one under the right circumstances.

Take this past Super Bowl. The catch made by Santonio Holmes was a great one, maybe the best in a long time, but consider:

He catches the ball and the announcers say Roethlisberger puts the ball in a place where only Holmes can make a play on it. Translation: He came through in the clutch!

If he had dropped it, Roethlisberger threw an uncatchable ball. Translation: He did not come through in the clutch.

Yet both situations depend on more than just the throw by the QB.

If a baseball player gets a game-winning hit with the pressure on, it's him against the pitcher.

If a basketball player nails a game winning shot with the pressure on, it's him against the defender.

One on one.

A kicker could have the strongest most, accurate leg in the league, but if the snap is bad, the hold is bad, the wind picks up, the protection breaks down...

Then Tom Brady might have two less rings and suddenly not be clutch. The inverse of that is if Scott Norwood doesn't push the kick wide, guess who suddenly is?

Football is the consummate team sport; the only time it's one on one is during training camp.

That means in football, "clutch" is at least an eleven man responsibility, maybe even 13 if you consider the head coach and the coordinator as part of the equation.

You can't succeed by yourself and it takes a team to choke.

Ask Jim Kelly.

(It's my hope that this opens up debate, so feel free!)


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