A Former NFL Player's Take on Failing in the Clutch

Stephen White@sgw94Featured ColumnistSeptember 27, 2012

4 Nov 2001 : Steve White #94 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Packers won 21-20. DIGITAL IMAGE. Mandatory Credit: Elsa/Allsport
Elsa/Getty Images

When people talk about football players failing in the clutch, they rarely bring up a defensive lineman.

Instead, the conversation usually centers around a quarterback throwing an interception or maybe a running back who fumbles at the end of the game. Back when I was in the NFL playing defensive end for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers I did fail in the clutch once, however, and that play still bothers me to this day.

The year was 1999, and for me it was a year of ups and downs as a professional football player. I won the starting right defensive end position coming out of training camp and had a very good first game in a loss to the New York Giants. Then, unfortunately, I had a series of injuries that would keep me in and out of the lineup for the rest of the season.

Even when I did play during the regular season after that first game, I rarely felt anywhere close to 100 percent. It was frustrating knowing that I couldn't make the plays I normally would if I were healthy.

Thankfully, my personal injury issues didn't hold the team back, and we ended up winning the old NFC North division and making the playoffs. I put in a strong performance in the divisional round of the playoffs in an exciting win over the Washington Redskins. I sacked Redskins quarterback Brad Johnson twice, including once late in the fourth quarter when I forced the fumble that led to our offense scoring the winning touchdown.

I was later named NFC Defensive Player of the Week for my performance, and I couldn't wait to go to St. Louis to face the Rams for a shot to play in the Super Bowl. 

Going into the game, most people thought that the Rams would blow us out with "The Greatest Show On Turf" since our offense wasn't exactly known for putting up a bunch of points. What none of the naysayers knew before kickoff was that we had other ideas about how the game was going to go down.

From the opening whistle we followed a defensive game plan designed to limit the big play and punish the Rams receivers whenever they caught the ball on short passes. For most of the game this plan worked tremendously well, and we could tell that we had the Rams offense frustrated. 

The next thing you know, it's late in the fourth quarter and we have held that high-powered Rams offense to just a field goal. At that point, we were leading 6-5 and still believed we were going to find a way to win that game.

Most NFL fans know what happened next.

With a little less than five minutes left in the game, Rams quarterback Kurt Warner dropped back on third down and threw a bomb to Ricky Proehl, who hauled it in for a touchdown and what would be the game-deciding points. 

What most people probably don't know is that I had a major part in allowing that play to happen.

Prior to that drive, our defensive coordinator, Monte Kiffin, and defensive line coach, Rod Marinelli, came to the defensive line and told us that when we blitzed on third down, Rams left tackle Orlando Pace would fake like he was blocking the end man on the line of scrimmage to make him hesitate then block the inside rusher. This had the effect of allowing him to block two of our players and giving Warner the time to get the ball off before the blitz got to him.

The adjustment they came up with was to have that end man on the line of scrimmage, usually one of us defensive ends, line up closer to Pace's outside shoulder. So if we got off the ball and he tried to block the inside rusher again, we would come right off his back and hit or sack Warner.

Now, when I was playing, I prided myself on not making any mental errors. For whatever reason, though, I heard the adjustment and just totally forgot about it on that third-down play.

If you ever watch a clip of the play, you will notice that just after Warner throws the pass, there is a Bucs player coming to hit him.

Yeah, that was me.

After I saw Proehl catch the touchdown, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was literally an arm's length away from hitting Warner before he got that pass off, but because I had lined up wide instead of closing down to Pace as I had been instructed, I came up just short of making the play.

Everyone saw our defensive back get burned on that play, but nobody aside from a few of my teammates and coaches could have possibly have known that my screw-up allowed the play to happen at all. It killed me as I went to the sideline. 

After the game I kept replaying that play in my head, and it ate me up inside. We were this close to fulfilling one of our dreams of making it to the Super Bowl, a dream most of us had since we were kids. And with one play that opportunity was snatched from our grasp.

I sat at my locker for a while feeling terrible, but everyone felt bad. But nobody pointed fingers after the game—not at me, not at that defensive back, not even at our offense, even though they didn't give us much help during the game. We were all just kind of quiet and ready to get away from St. Louis as fast as we could.

It was all a blessing and a curse for me that we wouldn't meet again as a team for at least a few months after that game.

On the one hand, I definitely could have used the support that I'm sure some of my teammates would have provided.

On the other hand, if I had to face those guys on a consistent basis after that night, I would have been paranoid that at least some of them were talking behind my back. 

It took me literally months to get over that play. Not the game, just that play. I couldn't even watch the play on film for years because I knew what I would see. But failing like that when my team really needed me motivated me to work even harder to make sure it would never happen again. 

Still, I was sick about it and completely miserable for a long, long time. That play was stuck in my head.

To this day, I still wonder about how my career may have played out had I actually made the adjustment and hit Warner before he was able to get that pass off.

Up until that point, I had actually played a pretty good game. In fact, on the first play of the game I intercepted Warner as he was trying to complete a screen pass to Marshall Faulk

If I don't screw up at the end of that game, would my interception still be in heavy rotation on the NFL Network? If I had sacked Warner, would I have been celebrated as the hero of that game?

Just think about it: An unheralded defensive end, former sixth-round pick who was cut by the team that drafted him, goes on to have two big games in a row in the playoffs to help his team reach its first Super Bowl.

I mean, it makes of a great story, right?

Unfortunately athletes, professional or otherwise, never get a do-over when we screw up like that.

Instead, the guys who make the obvious errors get scorned mercilessly from the outside, while guys like me who make less noticeable mistakes beat ourselves up internally.


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