Biggest Choke Artists in Sports
Few things in life are worse than losing—except, losing in a way that is horrible and far below expectations. Before each season, before the chips fall where fate directs them, sports fans dream of greatness.
For most sports fans, that dream is scattered—destroyed—with haste, when our highest expectations come crashing into reality. Let's be real: all but the most deluded individuals can read the tea leaves early. There are exceptions of course, but those as rare things.
So, when expectations are high—when we let slip our closely guarded cynicism—nothing bites with more vigor or venom than lofty expectations betrayed. Choking is a tease for fans, so imagine how it feels for the athlete.
Choking is the lowest denominator of athlete criticism; 'choking' implies an inability to handle the psychological weight of success. Choking is a failure of character—fair or not. For those athletes who aren't blue chip prospects or the elite of the elite, they enjoy the benefit of being a guy or girl with "a motor"—one who transcends talent with tenacity.
Being a choke artist is the worst of all worlds: you have all the ability—the hope of your most devoted fans—but not the makeup as a human to realize your true potential. Choke artists are a meticulously prepared Thanksgiving Dinner that is dry and lacking flavor.
These are the biggest choke artists in sports.
Boston Red Sox
The bad news for Red Sox fans is that, despite breaking their epic championship drought in 2004, this is a team that has choking in its DNA. The good news is that it's no longer a permanent state of being. For decades they have found new and inventive ways to torment the Boston faithful with their hot-then-not performances.
No one knows their fury and frustration better than one-time local pariah Bill Buckner, whose error in the 1986 World Series cost the Sox Game 6 against the Mets, tying the series at 3-3. And we all know how Game 7 turned out for Boston (In case you don't…let's just say in didn't end in their favor).
Just over a decade earlier they were bested in another seven-game World Series. Except that in 1975 it was the Sox who had battled back in Game 6, only to be sunk by the Reds in Game 7. Which, no doubt, made it all that more gut wrenching for players and fans alike.
At least by the time the Red Sox reached new heights of choking in September 2011, fans in Boston had two World Series wins to cushion the historic fall. The team began the month with a nine-game lead, before going 6-18 the rest of the way and failing to reach the playoffs. No team in history has ever blown a bigger lead in September.
That dysfunctional team was more or less blown up in 2012, finishing dead last in the AL East—four games behind the Blue Jays in fourth. But they have flipped the script this season, beginning September in first place and finishing there too. The Red Sox may always be prone to the occasional choke job, but it's no longer the thing that defines them as a franchise.
At 27-years-old, technically the door is anything but closed for the Rockets big-ticket big man Dwight Howard. Although NBA players generally peak between 25-26, their prime can stretch into the early to mid-30s. Of course, that's speaking in generalities.
When it comes to Howard, specifically, his one-year stint with the Lakers—not to mention the trade saga with the Magic that preceded it—proved just how poorly he performs on the biggest stages. Not only that, but his performance seems to have peaked at the age of 24.
The best years of Howard's career came with the Magic from 2007-10. Since then his stats have steadily fallen across the board. The desperate offseason push for his services was more about the NBA being a star-driven league and his being the most recognizable name on the free agent market.
Sure it was a big get for the Rockets but the Lakers ultimately won by getting Howard's loser mentality off the team. In July he said "You don't need a ring to be a winner," which may be the case in Houston, but it's certainly not in Los Angeles.
Howard has since backpedaled on that, telling a reporter in Houston that he's "betting $30 million" on a ring with the Rockets. Talk about baseless confidence in his postseason performance. I just wish I had $30 million to put up against his—that's where the smart money is.
New York Knicks
Jeez. There are few teams in American professional sports that try as hard and come up as short as often as the Knicks. The New York franchise was founded in 1946, but has just two championships—one in 1970, the other in '73—since then.
The Knicks really gained their reputation as choke artists under the leadership of 15-year tenure of big man Patrick Ewing. Right or wrong Ewing, the Hall of Fame center, who is undoubtedly one of the greatest Knicks of all-time, was given the title of "choker" by Pacers great Reggie Miller during the 1993-94 season.
It was one of the few times that decade a team outside of Chicago could capitalize on a Michael Jordan-less Bulls team to capture a championship. Although the Knicks ultimately defeated Miller's Pacers in that infamous series, they went on to lose to the Rockets 4-3 in the finals.
Ewing went championshipless in New York, much like another league superstar—Carmelo Anthony has done the same thing with the nicks in three-straight playoff appearances. And by "the same thing," obviously I mean "absolutely nothing."
It's really confusing to think of Tiger Woods—the greatest golfer any of us will ever see play in his prime—as a choke artist. And in reality, calling him a "choke artist" is actually more a testament to his greatness than anything else.
It may be hard to see it like that, but I promise you that's exactly the place in which I'm coming from here. I'm a golf fan…and, more than that, I'm a Tiger Woods fan. So being forced to label one of my favorite athletes in history of all sports a "choke artist" just plain hurts my soul.
Unfortunately, Woods has had epic collapses time and time again over the last few years. As early of August 2009 he was already starting to come to terms with his choking. But it wasn't until 2013, when people began expecting—if not demanding—his comeback, that things really got intense.
In August 2011 there was the PGA Championship. In April 2013 there was the ridiculous penalty at the Masters at Augusta. In June 2013 there was the U.S. Open. In July 2013 there was the British Open. In September 2013 it was the FedEx Cup.
Of everyone/every team on this list, there is no one who will be more defined by his own personal successes/failures. If Woods doesn't turn it around in '14, it's hard to imagine he has even a chance of beating Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 Majors.
As someone who grew up a Pirates fan in the 90s (I know, right?), I find it absolutely stunning that the Braves have managed just one World Series win since…well…since 1958. Of course, I can't speak knowledgeably on this issue prior to 1990, so I'll have give them the benefit of the doubt until then.
Including this season, the Braves have won their division 15 times since '91, making the playoffs 17 times through two additional Wild Card berths. Atlanta hasn't won an NL Pennant since 1999, but before that they had won it in 91-92 and 95-96.
After over a decade of unprecedented success, the Braves have only made the playoffs twice since 2006. They were man-handled by the Giants in '10, losing the NLDS 1-3. And last season they lost the Wild Card playoff to the Cardinals. Of course the competition was pretty stiff.
This season the Braves have really returned to their winning ways, having led the NL East for most of the year. They've already clinched their division and will certainly finish among the best records in MLB when all is said and done. In a weak NL, anything short of the NLCS should be considered a choke job for these Braves.
And unless they face the Dodgers or the Cardinals in the NLCS—it's World Series or bust.
San Jose Sharks
The San Jose Sharks have been considered Stanley Cup contenders most years dating back to the 2001-02 season. In that period they've finished first in the division six times, second three times and third once. In fact, dating back to the 1997-98 season, they've missed the playoffs just once.
That's a pretty impressive stretch of success in any sport. These Sharks were built with a solid foundation that has carried them a very long way…in the regular season. In the playoffs they've done next to nothing.
In all those postseason appearances, the Sharks didn't often make it beyond the conference semifinals. The three times they stuck around until the Western Conference Finals they lost 2-4 to the Flames in '04, 0-4 to the Blackhawks in '10 and 1-4 to the Canucks in '11.
Some say the window is closing for the Sharks, but until they fail to put a competitive team on the ice, I don't necessarily agree. They just need to figure out how to take what they do in the regular season into the playoffs with them, which we all know is easier said than done.
Believe it or not, it took me a while to decide whether or not Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo would make this list. Much has been made about his December shortcomings, but I'm of the mind that the dysfunction in Dallas starts at the top—with GM Jerry Jones.
That being said, for all the flashy stats that Romo has put up since becoming a starter in 2006, he's still just 1-3 in the postseason. His only win came against the Eagles in '09 and the Cowboys were blown out by the Vikings in the next round. Which happens to be the last year they made the playoffs.
Last season the Dallas faithful were quick to proclaim Romo's infamous December struggles O-V-E-R after he went 3-0 to start the month. Then they disappeared after he finished the month 0-2, including an 18-26 loss to the Redskins, which cost them the division and the playoffs.
It took just two weeks for it to go from an "un-Romolike December" to the very definition of a "Romolike December." At this point it doesn't matter if the Cowboys have faced especially tough competition late in the season, until they make some waves in the postseason, Romo is going to be saddled with this label.
Sorry Cowboys fans—just don't shoot the messenger.
The Canucks have been a lot like the Sharks over the last decade, except for they've done even better in the regular season and failed even worse in the playoffs. That must be pretty much the most terrible thing in the world for their fans.
Dating back to the 2000-01 season, Vancouver has missed the postseason just twice. Not only did they routinely win their division over that stretch, they usually finished among the best teams in the NHL in terms of total points. They were the top seed from the Western Conference in 2010-11 and had a league best 117 points in the regular season.
Yet the Canucks have a nasty habit of laying an egg the moment stuff gets real. Their best showing in a decade was a hard-fought battle against the Bruins in the Stanley Cup finals in '11—they lost 3-4, sparking riots in Vancouver. At least city officials don't have to worry about them making the finals, generally.
In '07, '09 and '10 the uncompetitive Canucks were bumped in the conference semifinals, hardly having put up a fight. In '12 they lost in the first round to the Kings 1-4 and in '13 they were swept by the Sharks in the first round.
After coming up short yet again last season, the team brought in ex-Rangers coach John Tortorella. That means they'll probably do the same thing again this season, only their coach will be much more of a jerk about it.
San Diego Chargers
Sorry Chargers fans! Considering all you've been through, I really hate to do this to you—but I think you must already know your lighting bolts are well-known choke artists. Right now they're three games into the third coaching regime in just over a decade.
Under Marty Schottenheimer the Chargers were pretty good—particularly in his last three seasons. They were first in their division in 2004 and '06, and lost the first (and only, obviously) playoff game each year. Under Norv Turner they made the playoffs in each of his first three seasons, making it beyond their first game just once…and then losing to the Patriots in the AFC Championship.
During much of the last decade the Chargers entered the regular season as one of the Super Bowl favorites from the AFC. Despite their penchant for underachieving in a big way, they were dubbed "too talented" to keep disappointing—except they did keep disappointing. In Turner's last three seasons the Chargers developed a habit of finishing strong, after digging themselves an insurmountable hole early.
And it looks like that trend is continuing under first-year coach Mike McCoy. Right now the Chargers are 1-2, their only win coming in Week 2 against the Eagles, who completely melted down in the second half. That being said, each of their games have been decided by just three points.
So at least they're competitive choke artists.
If there has been any team in college basketball more disappointing than the University of Pittsburgh over the last decade, you'll have to let me know because no one else is coming to mind. Since the 2001-02 season the Panthers failed to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament just once.
Despite routinely achieving Top 10 rankings—Pitt was actually ranked No. 1 in the nation for several weeks during the 2008-09 season—they haven't made it beyond the third round in recent years. Sweet Sixteen appearances were pretty standard early in coach Jamie Dixon's tenure, but it's been five years since they saw the Elite Eight in '09.
If you're ever looking for an early round upset in your brackets, Dixon's Panthers should be a top choice each year. Assuming they survive their opener, which is a big assumption, Pitt can generally be counted on to choke in grand fashion in their second.
To be fair, they have had some success in failure. In '12 the Panthers were among the 16 teams invited to the CBI—which is the tournament for all the teams who weren't invited to the NCAA Tournament or the NIT. And they won! They are the champions of the third-rate losers. Congrats.
The term "Clemsoning" from a very reputable source (the Urban Dictionary) is something I had never heard until recently. Essentially it's defined as "the act of delivering an inexplicably disappointing performance" in between relatively lengthy stretches of success.
Although there are plenty of college football teams known for "Clemsoning," the Tigers have the dubious distinction of doing it enough in recent years to have actually become a verb, rather than just a proper noun. Generally ranked among the Top 25 teams in the nation, Clemson tends to deliver at least one—sometimes as many as three—head-scratching losses each year.
That being said, these Tigers might just be set to rewrite history this season. In 2012 their only losses came against Florida State and in-state rival South Carolina—neither were embarrassments. So far this season they're 3-0 and are currently ranked No. 3 in the AP Top 25 Poll.
After making a habit of coming up short against ranked opponents, quarterback Tajh Boyd beat SEC big boys LSU in the Chick-fil-A-Bowl in January and Georgia in Clemson's season opener this season. Boyd is generating Heisman buzz and the Tigers achieved their best ranking in decades—they gotta be feeling the pressure to redefine "Clemsoning."
I can already feel people freaking out about this one, but that doesn't make it any less true. And just to be clear—I am, personally, a big fan of Peyton Manning. So this isn't about settling a score because he's beaten up on my team, which he's done plenty of times.
Having been in the NFL for going on 15 years, at this point Manning has beaten up on everyone's team plenty of times. The only time, it seems, that Manning ever gets beaten up himself, is in the playoffs.
With the Colts, Manning had nearly a decade of stunning success—nine consecutive years of 10 regular season wins or more. And usually it was more. He led Indianapolis to a Super Bowl twice, winning just once…against a Bears team quarterbacked by Rex Grossman.
So far it looks as though Manning's playoff troubles have followed him to Denver. The Broncos loss to the Ravens in the playoffs last season was certainly avoidable. Another Super Bowl would go a very long way in repairing Manning's reputation as a regular season warrior.
Henrik and Daniel Sedin
With the Canucks occupying one of the top spots on this list, it's only fair that their regular season warriors, twin brothers Henrik and Daniel Sedin, have an even higher spot. There are more teams than individual players on the list because it's not always easy (well maybe it's easy, but not always accurate) to identify single problems in an overall failed effort.
Such is not the case with the Sedins. Canucks fans are quick to argue that their Swedish ginger duo isn't soft, but rather the product of an anti-ginger conspiracy in the media. (Or something like that) But the fact that new coach John Tortorella was quick to point out the brothers will be blocking shots and killing penalties this season, well that proves the image is not just a figment of our collective imagination.
Dating back to the 2005-06 season, the Canucks have been able to count on the brothers for anywhere from 70 to over 100 points. 70 is the absolute basement—they have averaged in the high 80's over that period.
The Sedins peaked in the regular season the same year as their team—the Canucks were the best team in the NHL in 2010-11. That season they were both among the league leaders in scoring—Henrik with 94 points and a +/- of +26 and Daniel with 104 and a +/- of +30.
In the playoffs they played 25 total games on their way to a 4-3 loss to the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Finals. In the postseason Henrik averaged .88 points per game and was -11 while on the ice. Daniel averaged .8 points per game and was -9 while on the ice—and he racked up 32 penalty minutes, which took him 82 games to do in the regular season.
Although that year certainly looks like their biggest disappointment, it's pretty much par for their postseason course. It's just that the Canucks rarely play more than 8-10 playoff games, so it doesn't look quite as bad for them individually.