Legendary Oakland Raiders’ owner Al Davis once simply but eloquently stated what might be the most important part of any professional athlete’s resume or modus operandi: “Just Win, Baby.”
History always favorably views flawed winners (perhaps unfairly so), even if they weren’t as good as highly accomplished players who came up short (again, perhaps unfairly so). After all, nobody ever talks about the fact that Terry Bradshaw and Joe Namath weren’t really all that great as actual quarterbacks; we just see them as Super Bowl champions.
And then, there’s the opposite end of the spectrum – the guys who had some of the most distinguished careers in NFL history, but always came up short in the playoffs, irrespective of whether it was the fault of their own play, or being on a lousy team.
Here’s our list of the 19 Biggest “Playoff Choke Artists” In NFL History:
After torching NFL passing records in just his second season and bringing the Miami Dolphins back to the Super Bowl for the second time in three years, everyone thought it was just a matter of time before Dan Marino would get a Super Bowl ring (if not several).
But while Marino might’ve been the most productive passer of the 1980’s, he could never lead the Dolphins to another Super Bowl appearance; Miami only had one postseason appearance in the 1980’s after their Super Bowl run. While the Dolphins did make the playoffs seven times in the 1990’s, they were doing so with Marino showing more and more signs of diminishing skills and abilities. In 12 playoff games in the 1990’s, Marino threw 14 interceptions.
Yes, Peyton Manning finished his eventual Hall of Fame career with two Super Bowl wins. But those two wins shouldn’t overshadow the years upon years of postseason shortcomings endured by Manning. Despite setting an uncountable number of passing records during his 17-year NFL career, Manning was first tormented by the New England Patriots during the early 2000’s, getting sent home early virtually every year by them.
However, there was a time when Manning could have overtaken Tom Brady in the conversation for greatest quarterback of all time. But, his “pick-6” interception that led to the New Orleans Saints win in Super Bowl XLIV, and the egregious no-show XLVIII (after Manning shattered passing records as the quarterback of the Denver Broncos) are two major blemishes that limit him from ever earning such a mantle.
Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson currently sits at 6th in all-time rushing yards, having run for over 13,000 yards during his 11-year NFL career. As the centerpiece of the (then) San Diego Chargers offense during the 2000’s, Tomlinson’s teams won double-digit games four times in six years. That included a 14-2 record in 2006, a season in which Tomlinson ran for an NFL-high 1,1815 yards and had an NFL-record 31 combined touchdowns.
But when the Chargers got to the playoffs, opponents seemingly focused on stopping Tomlinson at all costs, limiting him to 3.6 yards per carry and six touchdowns in 10 career playoff games (only averaging 47 yards rushing per game). In 2007, Tomlinson was widely criticized by fans for not trying to play through an injury (that was diagnosed as a sprained MCL that would have hindered him greatly) as seemingly sulking on the sidelines during the game.
During the early-to-mid 1990’s, quarterback Warren Moon emerged as one of the NFL’s most spectacular passers, throwing for more than 4,200 yards four times in six seasons, with more than 30 touchdown passes two times in that span.
But whether it was with the Oilers or the Minnesota Vikings, Moon couldn’t replicate that production in the playoffs, going 3-7 in 10 playoff games. Perhaps the biggest failure came in the 1993 AFC Wild Card game, when Moon and the Oilers squandered a 35-3 halftime lead to the Buffalo Bills, resulting in the biggest comeback in NFL history.
The maestro of the vaunted K-Gun offense run by the Buffalo Bills in the early 1990’s, Jim Kelly famously quarterbacked his team to four-straight Super Bowl appearances… and, of course, four straight Super Bowl losses. While Kelly deserves credit for helping his team reach such heights four years in a row, it’s hard to argue against calling him a “choker,” considering he threw 28 interceptions in 17 postseason starts.
Even one of the greatest moments in Buffalo’s postseason history — their 35-point comeback against the Houston Oilers in the 1993 AFC Wild Card game — came at the hands of backup quarterback Frank Reich.
Dan Fouts is often overlooked in the conversation of “most prolific quarterbacks of all time,” mostly because of his shortcomings in the postseason. Playing in the “Air Coryell” offense of head coach Don Coryell, Fouts lead the NFL in passing four straight seasons (from 1979 to 1982), and became the first player in NFL history to throw for 4,000 yards three years in a row.
In 1979 and 1980, Fouts and the San Diego Chargers either had the best record in the AFC or were tied for the best record in the AFC, but never made it to the Super Bowl. In the seven postseason games in which Fouts played, he threw 16 interceptions.
It’s not any surprise that quarterback Andy Dalton makes many Cincinnati Bengals fans want to rip their hair out. “The Red Rifle” is one of those quarterbacks who can lead teams to wins in the regular season and put up stats that look good in the box score, but never seems to be good enough to shine when the lights are at their brightest.
Despite leading Cincinnati to the playoffs five straight years (and two AFC North division titles), Dalton is 0-4 in the playoffs, completing less than 56% of this passes in those games, throwing only one touchdown versus six interceptions.
Despite being the source of much consternation among fans of the Philadelphia Eagles, quarterback Donovan McNabb was one of the most productive players in team history, becoming the fourth quarterback in NFL history to accumulate more than 30,000 passing yards, 200 touchdown passes, 3,000 rushing yards, and 20 rushing touchdowns over the course of his career.
And even though McNabb led the Eagles to five-straight playoff appearances between 2000 and 2004, the Eagles fell short of reaching the Super Bowl four of those five seasons, and was accused of “choking” — and even vomiting on the field — by teammate Terrell Owens, in Super Bowl XXXIX against the New England Patriots.
Alex Smith is like that classic “just good enough” girlfriend. He’s an athletic, intelligent, hard-working quarterback that will “manage” teams successfully into winning in the neighborhood of 10 games every year. But he’s never going to be the “elite bombshell” that everyone is going to notice and remember.
Smith has had a winning record as the starting quarterback of his team ever year since 2011, but after leading both the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs to the playoffs in five combined seasons, he has a 2-5 record in the postseason. In typical Alex Smith fashion, he’s thrown only two interceptions in those seven games, but averaged less than seven yards per attempt.
Carson Palmer was the #1 overall pick of the 2003 NFL Draft, and a guy who was able to take the formerly woebegone Cincinnati Bengals back to the postseason. But despite a resume that includes a second-team All-Pro selection, three Pro Bowl selections, and leading the NFL in touchdown passes (in 2005), Palmer has come up short in the handful of times he made it to the playoffs.
While he blew out his knee in Cincinnati’s 2005 playoff appearance, he and the Bengals again lost when they returned to the playoffs in 2009. And, as the quarterback of the 13-3 Arizona Cardinals in 2015, Palmer had a miserable outing in the NFC Championship game, throwing four interceptions in Arizona’s playoff loss to the Carolina Panthers.
Very few people will disagree with the idea that Matt Ryan is the best quarterback in the history of the Atlanta Falcons franchise. Over the first 10 years of his NFL career, Ryan has led the Falcons to six seasons playoff appearances, six seasons with double-digit wins, and three division titles. But despite all of that success, Ryan and the Falcons have a history of being sent home earlier than predicted from the postseason (aka “choking”).
In 2010 and 2012, the Falcons were the #1 overall seed in the NFC, but never advanced past the NFC Championship game. In 2016, the season in which Ryan won the NFL’s MVP award after throwing a career-high 38 touchdown passes and 4,944 yards, the Falcons made their first-ever Super Bowl appearance, but infamously blew a 28-3 lead in the third quarter to the New England Patriots, losing said Super Bowl.
The first-ever draft pick of the expansion Carolina Panthers franchise, quarterback Kerry Collins led the Panthers to the NFC Championship game in the franchise’s second year of existence, where they eventually lost the (far superior and eventual Super Bowl champion) Green Bay Packers.
Collins re-emerged as a starting quarterback with the New York Giants after a rough patch of his career, leading the team to Super Bowl XXXV, but getting suffocated by the legendary 2000 Baltimore Ravens defense (throwing four interceptions in that Super Bowl). In 2008, Collins led the Tennessee Titans to a 13-3 record, but Tennessee was a one-and-done in the ensuing playoffs under Collins.
The original great dual-threat quarterback in NFL history, Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection and the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player in 1975. Tarkenton and the great “Purple People Eaters” defenses of 1970’s Minnesota Vikings made it to the Super Bowl three times between 1972 and 1977, but lost all three appearances.
In all three games, Tarkenton threw more interceptions than touchdowns, and threw for 205 yards or less. As a result, the Vikings scored a grand total of 27 points combined in those three appearances.
The most dynamic dual-threat quarterback the NFL had seen since the days of Fran Tarkenton, quarterback Randall Cunningham oversaw a Philadelphia Eagles offense that helped the team win double-digit games each year between 1988 and 1992 (though he missed much of the 1991 season due to injury). However, though the Eagles qualified for the postseason in four of those five years, they never made it past the Divisional Round; he went 0-3 in his first three playoff starts.
Cunningham’s playoff shortcomings reached their apex after the 1998 season, after he and the record-breaking Minnesota Vikings offense couldn’t take the final step in reaching the Super Bowl, when they were famously upset by the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship game.
The big, strapping Drew Bledsoe was the #1 overall pick of the 1993 NFL Draft, and the rock upon which the resurrection of the moribund New England Patriots would be built. Bledsoe not only led the Patriots to the playoffs in his second year as a starter, but the Super Bowl in his fourth year.
And yet, while Bledsoe made the playoffs three times in his first five seasons in the league, he either went one-and-done in two of those three playoff appearances, and lost to Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXI. Bledsoe would go on to play in only one more postseason game, which would come in 2001 when he came in as a relief quarterback for Tom Brady.
Plan and simple, the biggest reason Phillip Rivers doesn’t get mentioned among the great quarterbacks of this century is almost exclusively because of his shortcomings in the postseason. Despite having more wins as a starter, more touchdown passes, and more passing yards than fellow 2004 NFL Draft selection Eli Manning, people always rank Manning ahead of Rivers solely on the basis of Manning’s two Super Bowl wins.
In contrast, Rivers has a 4-5 record in postseason games, throwing nine interceptions in the nine games he’s played. Despite the fact that he even played in one game with a torn ACL, he’s always viewed as someone who can’t win the big game for his team.
Unquestionably one of the five greatest running backs of all time (if not higher), Barry Sanders is near the top of the list of “greatest NFL players to never play in the Super Bowl.” Despite averaging just under 100 yards rushing in every single regular season game he played in, Sanders and his Detroit Lions always seemed to find a way to come up short in the postseason, especially with teams keying on stopping him and forcing the Lions’ generally below-average quarterbacks to beat them instead.
In the six postseason games in which Sanders played, he averaged less than 65 yards rushing (including one game where he had 13 carries for -1 yards), and had a grand total of only one rushing or receiving touchdown.
The go-to punchline for people who want to make fun of the shortcomings of the Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs. Tony Romo had the combination of being an excellent passer and a virtual escape artist in the pocket, being named to four Pro Bowl teams and one All-Pro team (second team in 2014( over the course of his career.
But Romo’s legacy among the pantheon of great Cowboys’ quarterbacks is always tarnished by the fact that he only won two games out of six in the playoffs for Dallas. Few people will ever forget him fumbling what would’ve been the game-tying extra point against the Seattle Seahawks in the 2006 NFC Wild Card game, or the fourth-quarter interception in the 2007 NFC Divisional playoffs against the New York Giants.
The end of John Elway’s career ended up erasing a ton of postseason shortcomings that Elway had for the majority of his career as the starting quarterback of the Denver Broncos. Considered the most heralded quarterback prospect to ever come out of college, Elway ripped the hearts out of certain opponents (like the Cleveland Browns), but came up short in the Super Bowl three times in four years.
In Super Bowl XXIV, Elway and the Broncos were on the wrong end of a 55-10 loss, the most lopsided margin of defeat in Super Bowl history. Even with his two eventual Super Bowl wins, many argue that Elway benefitted from a stout defense combined with a Hall of Fame running back (Terrell Davis); those critics will point to the fact that Elway finished with 21 interceptions in 21 postseason games.