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What's the Biggest Choke in Super Bowl History?

Tom examines the candidates for biggest choke in the storied history of the Big Game.

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
In noodling over a very memorable end to another NFL season, I wondered whether the debacle of a finish - including an outstanding play by the Patriots' Malcolm Butler - constituted the biggest "choke" in Super Bowl history.

As Hogs Haven's (entirely self-appointed) resident NFL historian, I thought back to other possible candidates for this dishonor to see whether any of them measured up to the head-scratching conclusion we saw a little over a week ago.

"Choke" is a strong word.  Maybe it's not even a word that some out-of-shape, ex-barely-an-athlete should be throwing around when discussing the best players in the world.  But, this is the Internet, and that's what we do!

You know what else we do?  We make lists.

Let's define the terminology.  There are two basic kinds of "chokes" in this context.  The first is a "choke" when a team that's expected to win plays poorly and loses against an opponent that's perceived as inferior.  It's not a run-of-the-mill upset.  It's an upset in which the favored team poops the bed (to use the technical term).

Two, there's the more specific, situational choke.  That is, an individual play or very small set of plays that includes blunders that change the outcome of a game.  That could mean anything from a poor coaching decision to a mental error to an uncharacteristic or profound physical mistake that costs the team the Super Bowl.

This is what we saw on Sunday.  More on that in a minute.

In chronological order, then, here are the other leading candidates:

Super Bowl III: Colts lose to Jets - Anyone who follows the NFL at all has undoubtedly seen the iconic visual of Joe Namath's defiantly extended index finger after New York knocked off the Colts 16-7 to become the first AFL team to win a Super Bowl.  The Colts were famously 18-point favorites, losing only once all year - then avenging that one loss by crushing the Browns 34-0 in the NFL title game.  Baltimore had outscored opponents by a whopping 402-144 margin in going 13-1.  Didn't matter.  The Colts turned it over five times and the Jets prevailed.

How big of a choke? Pretty big.  The Colts were the better team.  In fact, they were ostensibly better than either of the Packer teams that had already won the Super Bowl.  They were also coached by Don Shula, one of the finer coaches in NFL history.  Again, none of this mattered.  The Colts looked out-of-sorts all day, and the Jets (with plays called by Namath) moved the ball effectively against Baltimore's vaunted defense.


Super Bowl IV: Vikings lose to Chiefs - This was Super Bowl III redux, except one-tenth as many people remember it because the Jets had already pulled off the feat of taking down the "invincible" NFL.  The Vikings weren't quite as dominant as Baltimore had been the year before, but they were still a powerhouse.  Minnesota finished #1 in both offense and defense in the NFL.  Meanwhile, the Chiefs were the first wild card team to win a title.  Although they weren't called "wild cards" then, Kansas City did not win its division (12-1-1 Oakland did).  Yet, the Chiefs dominated this Super Bowl from start to finish, whipping Minnesota 23-7.

How big of a choke? Slight.  The Vikings were the best team in the NFL, but they didn't match up well against Kansas City.  Example: newly-minted Hall-of-Famer Mick Tingelhoff had to block the Chiefs' Buck Buchanan and Curley Culp, who out-weighed him by 50 and 60 pounds, respectively.  In addition, not only was the bloom off the rose as far as NFL supremacy went, but the two leagues had also been holding a common draft for three seasons at this point.  The talent pools were increasingly even.  Still, the perception did exist that the Vikings would win, and they didn't even come close.


Super Bowl XIII: The sickest man in America - The Cowboys trailed the Steelers 21-14 in the third quarter of Super Bowl XIII.  On a third-and-three from the Pittsburgh 10, Roger Staubach found veteran tight end Jackie Smith wide-open in the end zone.  The sure-handed Smith flat dropped the ball, leading to that famous description by Verne Lundquist, the Cowboys' play-by-play man at the time.  Dallas settled for a field goal, and those four points they didn't get wound up being equal to the final margin in a 35-31 Steeler victory.

How big of a choke? It's not a zero, but this play is overrated as a back-breaker for Dallas.  First off, there was more than a quarter to play in the game.  That's a lot of football between Smith's drop and the final gun.  Secondly, the Steelers took control of the game in the fourth quarter, scoring a couple of touchdowns (aided by a Randy White(!) fumbled kickoff return) to grab a 35-17 lead.  Dallas recovered an onside kick and scored a cosmetic touchdown with 26 seconds left to make it 35-31, but it's very likely that the Steelers would have played slightly differently had they led by only 14 (and then seven) rather than by 18 and 11.


Super Bowl XVIII: What just happened? - This is the game that those of us who fondly remember the Redskins' glory days don't like discussing.  It's easy to forget this now, but the 1983 Washington Redskins were considered one of the greatest teams in NFL history prior to the Super Bowl.  Had they won, they might have been considered the greatest.  To recap, the Redskins were the defending world champions, having lost only once in the strike-shortened season of 1982.  They went 14-2 in '83, with both losses coming by one point: A 31-30 loss to Dallas in the opener after leading 23-3 at halftime, and a 48-47 loss to Green Bay wherein Mark Moseley missed a field goal at the final gun.  Both games came on Monday Night Football.  The Redskins scored an NFL-record 541 points (since topped by the '98 Vikings, the '07 Patriots, and the '13 Broncos).  Washington's turnover margin that year was a beyond-unbelievable +43(!!!), an all-time NFL record that may never be broken.  No one has ever come closer than +33, and, since the merger, the second-best total is the 2010 Patriots' and 2011 49ers' +28.  The Redskins obliterated the Rams and then beat the Joe-Montana-led 49ers to get back to the Super Bowl.  There, Washington took on a Los Angeles Raiders team that had lost to the Redskins earlier that season.  The result?  A 38-9 Raider victory.

How big of a choke? Slight.  The Raiders were a big match-up problem for Washington, and the previous Redskins' win was a bit misleading.  Marcus Allen, the MVP of Super Bowl XVIII, was out with an injury in that game.  Washington forced six turnovers and still needed a late Joe Washington touchdown to get the victory.  The Raiders were also a very good team in their own right.  Despite the Redskins' fantastic season, the Raiders were only a two-point underdog coming into the game.  Still, this one should have at least been closer.  That back-breaking interception return touchdown at the very end of the first half by Jack Squirek turned a game the Redskins were still in into a 21-3 halftime lead for LA.  Three of the Raiders' scores that day were the Squirek TD, a blocked punt for a TD, and Allen's famous, reverse-field, 74-yard run.  This was an incredibly atypical performance by a Joe-Gibbs-coached team, particularly in the playoffs.


Super Bowl XXV: Norwood's miss - This is as close as Buffalo ever came to winning a Super Bowl.  The 1990 Bills had a dynamic, dangerous offensive scheme and had stars on both sides of the ball.  The Giants were a solid, gritty team, with a great defense and a no-name offense.  New York had looked dominant early in the season, running off a 10-0 start.  However, the Giants began to struggle.  When Phil Simms suffered a season-ending injury in a loss to these same Buffalo Bills, the offense-challenged Giants seemed finished.  Yet, Bill Parcells' squad rallied around Jeff Hostetler, eventually upsetting the two-time defending champion 49ers 15-13 at Candlestick.  Meanwhile, the Bills were fresh off a 51-3 dismantling of the Raiders in the AFC title game.  This was probably the second-best of the excellent Bills teams of this era (the '91 team likely the best).  Buffalo was a touchdown favorite against the Giants, and led 12-3 at one point.  The Giants hung tough, though, taking a 20-19 lead in the 4th quarter.  Buffalo drove into field-goal range, but Scott Norwood broke western New York's heart when he missed a would-be game-winner with eight seconds left.

How big of a choke? Non-choke.  A few things to consider.  One, the Giants were an excellent defensive team that had already proven they could play with anyone in the NFL.  They had lost only three times, and only one of the three losses was by more than four points.  Buffalo was probably better, but not by much.  More importantly, Norwood missed a FORTY-SEVEN-YARD field goal.  That was about a 50/50 proposition at best in 1990.  Even now, a generation later, 47-yarders aren't locks.  Norwood missed it by no more than a few feet.  It would have been his career long on grass had he made it.  I don't think this is a choke.  He barely missed a long-ish field goal.


Super Bowl XXX: Neil O'Donnell's long day - After a decade of dormancy, the Steelers were poised to compete for a title against the mighty Dallas Cowboys.  Pittsburgh fell behind 13-0, cut the lead to 13-7, then Steeler quarterback Neil O'Donnell threw a pick to Larry Brown that set up a one-yard touchdown by Emmitt Smith to make it 20-7.  Pittsburgh rallied again, and the Steelers had the ball down only 20-17 in the fourth quarter.  Again, O'Donnell threw a terrible pick to Brown (who wound up earning MVP honors), and a long return led directly to another touchdown run by Smith, cementing the 27-17 win for Dallas.  O'Donnell threw a third pick on the final play of the game.

How big of a choke? Moderate.  The choke is mitigated a bit by the fact that the Cowboys - who had won titles two and three years earlier - were two-touchdown favorites.  However, it's also fair to say that those first two O'Donnell picks cost the Steelers the game.  In fact, Pittsburgh out-gained Dallas and had 25 first downs to the Cowboys' 15.  The Steelers also had fewer penalties (a mere two for 15 yards).  However, the Cowboys also didn't turn the ball over at all, while O'Donnell gifted them two interceptions that led directly to scores.  And let's also remember that these were Kirk-Cousins-esque, no-one-even-close-type picks.


Super Bowl XXXVI: So much for the Greatest Show on Turf - The Rams were an offensive behemoth under Mike Martz, rolling to a 14-2 record and trying to win a second title in three years.  The upstart Patriots seemed like just another team, having been 5-5 at one point, then barely beating Oakland in the Tuck Rule Game before a 24-17 upset over Pittsburgh.  Turnovers were again the key in the Super Bowl, as the Rams lost three while the Patriots didn't turn it over at all.  New England moved out to a 14-3 lead, then hung on as the Rams came back, winning on Adam Vinatieri's field goal as time expired.  The Patriots got out-gained by the Rams by a huge margin, but still prevailed.

How big of a choke? Pretty big.  The Rams are fortunate that New England's dynasty obscured in hindsight just how big this choke was.  It gets lumped in as just another stroke of Belichick genius.  The reality is that, while the Patriots did play great, the Rams also strayed from the formula that had been so successful all year, with Marshall Faulk curiously absent from the St. Louis play selection for a couple of long stretches.  Another fact that few remember: MVP Tom Brady threw for a whopping 145 yards.


Super Bowl XXXVIII: Anything but THAT! - The Panthers kept pace with the favored Patriots, scoring 19 points in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 29.  The final touchdown came at the end of an impressive Carolina drive, capped off by a 12-yard touchdown pass from Jake Delhomme to Ricky Proehl.  The Panthers just needed to play defense for a minute to take the game to overtime.  Enter John Kasay.  Kasay, who had drilled a 50-yard field goal to end the first half, botched the kickoff, booting it out of bounds and giving the Patriots the ball at their own 40.

How big of a choke? Minor choke.  This is another one with some mitigating factors.  If Kasay kicks it perfectly, the Patriots start with it around the 20, and they still have all three timeouts and Adam Vinatieri at the height of his powers.  Kasay takes a lot of crap for this - and I get it, there's no excuse for kicking it out of bounds there.  Ultimately, though, it just made for a slightly shorter game-winning drive for the Pats.


Super Bowl XLII: Perfection denied - This is recent enough that everyone who wasn't a zygote at the time remembers: The Patriots rolled to a 16-0 regular season record, yet the Giants won the title in a 17-14 heartbreaker for the Pats.  New England had to be content with an 18-1 finish.

How big of a choke? An upset, no doubt.  But not a choke.  The Patriots only turned it over once (the same as the Giants), they didn't have a ton of penalties, and they moved the ball fairly well, despite scoring only 14 points.  The Giants won because of a great defensive gameplan that kept Tom Brady under pressure all day and because of an incredible play by Eli Manning and David Tyree.  A team making an unlikely, spectacular play to set up a win doesn't constitute a choke.  Also recall that the Giants had played the Patriots very tough in the regular season finale, with New England prevailing by only three points.  The two teams played a similar game a few years later, with New England again on the losing end of that Super Bowl.  Quick tangent: For those of you who think the Welker drop toward the end of that game should be included - that was a tough-ish catch and the Pats still had some work to do at that point, so it didn't make the list for me.


Super Bowl XLIV: Colts get caught with their pants down - The Saints had their best team ever in 2009, starting 13-0 before dropping their last three.  The Colts had started 14-0 before dropping their last two.  Indy was a moderate favorite, having many of the same pieces in place that had helped win the Super Bowl two years earlier.  Indianapolis started well, leading 10-0.  The turning point of the game was probably a surprise onside kick by the Saints to open the second half, a recovery that led to a go-ahead touchdown.  Still, the Colts were on top 17-16 halfway through the fourth quarter.  When it counted, though, the Saints stuck together while the Colts fell apart.  Tracy Porter punctuated that collapse by taking a bad Peyton Manning pick 74 yards for a touchdown.

How big of a choke? Big.  The Saints were an excellent team, but the Colts just completely collapsed in the late stages, allowing New Orleans to score the final 18 points of the game.  Getting caught off-guard by an onside kick, being ineffective offensively, and not being able to stop the Saints when it counted is no small thing.


Super Bowl XLIX: The World's Smartest Man - Trailing 28-24 in the fourth quarter, and following a four-yard run by Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks elected to let the clock run down under 30 seconds.  On second down, with one yard separating Seattle from a second consecutive world championship, Pete Carroll (or Darrell Bevell) elected not to give Lynch the ball a couple of more times, but, rather, to pass.  The result?  Malcolm Butler became a household name, if only for an evening.

How big of a choke? Huge.  This has been second-guessed to death by now, but: Seattle has to give Lynch the ball there, especially with a timeout remaining.  If Lynch doesn't get the yard on a couple of carries, so be it, but that's the smart play, goal-line defense or not.  Moreover, a team deciding to throw the ball there at least has to throw a fade or some kind of route where the result of the play is either going to be a touchdown or an incomplete pass out of bounds.  In other words - a play where the defense has almost no chance of getting the ball, and the clock will be stopped at its conclusion.  Instead, the inside rub play seemed more like someone on the Seattle coaching staff trying to show off his giant brain.  And, yes, Russell Wilson deserves some measure of the blame for throwing the ball in a tight window, but, again, Butler read the play like a book.  The real culprit is whoever thought throwing the ball there made any real sense.


Final Verdict: I often point out how culturally myopic we are.  The myopia is an obvious offshoot of our collective narcissism - everything that is happening now must be the best (or worst) that has ever occurred.  Why?  Because it's happening to us, of course, which makes it inherently more important.

That being said, this is that rare circumstance when I honestly believe the thing that just happened really is the worst ever.  Even now, a week later, I'm astonished by it.  The only possible explanation I can come up with is that this was an unnecessary attempt to try to out-smart Bill Belichick, when a conventional play-call would have not only sufficed, but it probably would have given Seattle a world championship.

It's a debatable point, so vote and discuss below - you know, because it's the off-season.  We have a LOT of time to kill, and talking about how bad the Redskins' drafts have been can only take up - what? - 75% of the next six months?

So, debate away, fans!