Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

14 Jun 2011

ESPN: 10 Most Disappointing Playoff Teams

Our "most disappointing" lists continue with the 10 most disappointing playoff flops of the last 25 years. The rule is only teams that lost their first playoff game, so you get no 1998 Vikings. But you do get plenty of Martyball.

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 14 Jun 2011

42 comments, Last at 29 Jun 2011, 3:36pm by sjt


by swizzlesticks (not verified) :: Tue, 06/14/2011 - 12:28pm

where on earth are the 2005 colts????...The Colts finished the season 14-2, but lost their first game in the postseason to the Pittsburgh Steelers. They started the season with a 13-game winning streak and were heavily favored to go to the Super Bowl. The Colts' nemesis, the New England Patriots, lost to the Denver Broncos in the Divisional round of the playoffs. The following night the Colts were favored over the Steelers because they had easily beaten them in the two preceding years. However, the Colts were disappointed by the #6-seed Steelers upset win.

by drobviousso :: Tue, 06/14/2011 - 3:10pm

I thought that would be on there as well. In addition to what you said, it the Colts had 2 high probability plays to win (Bettis' fumble and the FG attempt) and missed on both.

by Billy B (not verified) :: Tue, 06/14/2011 - 8:55pm

FG would have tied it.

by piglets (not verified) :: Fri, 06/17/2011 - 11:23am

and the troy polamalu overturned "interception"

by Marcumzilla :: Fri, 06/17/2011 - 3:52pm

I agree. I saw the 2007 Colts and immediately thought, "Wow, my team made it twice" until I got through the whole list.

by Travis :: Tue, 06/14/2011 - 12:35pm

Teams I'd add:

2010 Patriots (Was this just an oversight? They were far more disappointing than last year's Falcons.)
2009 Chargers
2005 Colts
1993 Oilers
1987 49ers
1987 Saints

Teams I'd consider:

2009 Patriots
2008 Giants
2008 Titans
2000 Titans
1986 Bears (Flutie'd)

by poboy :: Tue, 06/14/2011 - 3:46pm

Fair enough to add those, but who would you take off, then?

by Travis :: Tue, 06/14/2011 - 4:32pm

Easily replaced:

1995 (article says 1996) Lions - didn't win division, wild card game on road, Scott Mitchell at QB.

2010 Falcons - lost as #1 seed, but were barely favored going into game, and surpassed in disappointment by that year's Patriots.

FWIW, my top 10:

1. 1996 Denver Broncos
2. 2010 New England Patriots
3. 1987 San Francisco 49ers (10-2 in non-strike games, won final 3 games by combined 124-7 score)
4. 2005 Indianapolis Colts
5. 2002 Green Bay Packers
6. 2006 San Diego Chargers
7. 1993 Houston Oilers (11-game winning streak at end of season)
8. 2009 San Diego Chargers (11-game winning streak at end of season)
9. 1995, 1997 Kansas City Chiefs
10. 1987 New Orleans Saints (10-2 in non-strike games, 9-game winning streak at end of season, first playoff game in franchise history)

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Tue, 06/14/2011 - 4:36pm

It's hard to rag on a wildcard team that loses on the road.

It's even harder when it's the Lions, who have one playoff victory in the modern era.

by tuluse :: Tue, 06/14/2011 - 4:49pm

The 2006 Chargers are probably the most disappointing playoff team I've ever seen. The events of the game might have colored my opinion though.

by bigtencrazy (not verified) :: Tue, 06/14/2011 - 10:39pm

The 2002 Packers were overwhelmed by injury. Ahman Green was out. After Driver was injured both starting wide receivers were gone with rookie Javon Walker as Favre's only option.

On defense Darren Sharper, the designated shadow of Vick, was out. I am pretty certain two other defensive starters didn't play and KGB was slowed by a calf injury.

Then the Falcons got a huge break when Sherman didn't challenge a turnover on a punt which was obviously missed by the refs.

But the gist is that Green Bay had no playmakers on offense and what speed they had on defense was gone or hobbled.

by ammek :: Fri, 06/17/2011 - 12:30pm

They weren't as good as their record either. DVOA placed them 11th at 10%, with 9.4 estimated wins. They played a very easy schedule and had a couple of good results (eg beating the Pats in NE). But they were 3-3 over the last six regular-season games, and well-beaten in all three losses.

I'd say that 1998 and 2009 were more disappointing.

by Travis :: Fri, 06/17/2011 - 2:50pm

To me, the disappointing thing about the 2002 Packers was losing to that Falcons team at home, not that they should have gone much further in the playoffs beyond that.

On defense Darren Sharper, the designated shadow of Vick, was out. I am pretty certain two other defensive starters didn't play and KGB was slowed by a calf injury.

Best I can tell, all of the 2002 Packers' normal starters besides Sharper at least started the game against the Falcons (Gamebook). Green and Driver were both injured going into the game, but played through the 1st half. (Green didn't play after halftime, and Driver re-injured himself on his 3rd quarter touchdown that made the score 24-7 Falcons.)

I have no idea how many other Packers were playing hobbled. (Or Falcons, for that matter - for one, Michael Vick had lingering thumb and shoulder injuries, but made it through the entire game.)

But they were 3-3 over the last six regular-season games, and well-beaten in all three losses.

They lost 42-17 to the Jets in Week 17, but had won their previous four games. (The Falcons had lost three of their final four, and didn't play particularly well in any of the losses.)

by Bjorn Nittmo (not verified) :: Wed, 06/15/2011 - 3:05pm

Re: Fair enough to add those, but who would you take off, then?

I'm not an Insider and so can barely see the beginning of this article, but already I see that the 1989 Giants don't belong here, especially considering the ones MT apparently left off. Giants were certainly a strong team and playing at home, but they lost to a great Rams team that, while they happened to be a wild card, might also have been the 2nd-best team in football that year. The Rams had also beaten the Giants 31-10 during the season. You can barely call this game an upset. Shocked that 2010 Patriots, 2009 Chargers, and 2005 Colts apparently aren't on this list.

by sjt (not verified) :: Wed, 06/29/2011 - 3:33pm

The 2009 Chargers were not as great as their record indicated. They were decimated with injuries all year, especially on the defensive side, and as a result their defense just wasn't that good. It was a lot of bend but don't break, with barely any pash rush and lots of rushing yards given up. Their DVOA was 11th, overall, 4th on offense but 23rd on defense, and a perfectly mediocre 16th on special teams.

During their winnings streak they won a lot of close games with the benefit of a lot of lucky breaks. Goal line stands, missed FGs, last second touchdowns or fgs to win, and when they did have a lead they would hold on by their fingernails, as they did against Oakland, Philly, and Cleveland. They also dominated a weak division that year, and still lost at home once to Denver.

They were an overachieving team which lost a clost game to a team with a better DVOA. Dissapointing, but not top 10 all time disspointing.

by dmstorm22 :: Tue, 06/14/2011 - 7:06pm

How are the 2010 Pats not on this list? They had the gaudy record (14-2, 8 straight wins to finish the season, 13-1 finish overall to the season). They had the Super Bowl pedigree (well, at least the coach and QB did). They were also playing a team that they beat 6 weeks earlier 45-3 in the same building, and then proceed to lose by scoring in all honesty 14 points (the last TD was against total prevent) after scoring over 30 for eight straight games. I would say it was Patriots homerism, but Tanier wrote the article.

Also, I agree that the 2005 Colts were way more disappointing than the 2007 Colts who had no Freeney and an injured Mathis. The 2005 Colts were the best team in teh NFL that year. The 2007 Colts avoided a likely beat-down by New England the next week.

As for other teams, the 2009 Chargers were really disappointing, especially losing to the Jets (the Jets were bigger underdogs in that game than they were against the Pats in 2010). 2008 Panthers, who everyone picked to win?

by bag (not verified) :: Wed, 06/15/2011 - 8:13am

In the beginning of the article, he stated that he was only considering "one and done" teams. So if a team won a single game in the playoffs, then it would not be on the list.

by dmstorm22 :: Wed, 06/15/2011 - 11:57am

The Pats didn't win a playoff game this year.

by Jetspete :: Wed, 06/15/2011 - 1:00pm

Also when looking at "disappointing" losses, one has to look at the game itself. Yes it was disappointing for NE fans that they lost to the jets (and i'm obviously biased), but after the first quarter the Jets really looked to be the better team. So fans wouldve left thinking, we were not as good as we thought we were. When you look at some other games, like the Chiefs/Colts, Titans/Ravens from 08, or even Ravens/Colts from 06, you see games where the home fans left thinking, how did we lose a game where we looked like the better team.

by dmstorm22 :: Wed, 06/15/2011 - 3:16pm

Then explain those Eagles losses and the Lions 58-37 loss where they definitely didn't look like the better team, or the Falcons or Packers loss being on there when they were totally outplayed. To me, being a disappointing playoff team would be a team that woefully underperforms their standard in the playoffs, and since the 2010 Pats were the #1 weighted DVOA team of all time, I would say they fit.

by sundown (not verified) :: Thu, 06/16/2011 - 1:13pm

Hard to believe the list was intended as "Disappointing teams that lost their first playoff game but were in it long enough to make you think they might win." Much more likely the author just forgot about some worthy examples.

by sjt (not verified) :: Wed, 06/29/2011 - 3:36pm

The Jets had a better DVOA that the Chargers. That Charger team overcame a lot of injuries and won a lot of close games against mediocre and bad teams that year. Their 13-3 was an overachivement given their injuries and poor defense in 2009.

by BaronFoobarstein :: Tue, 06/14/2011 - 7:18pm

No Insider, so I can't see the list. Is "1976 Pittsburgh Steelers" on the list?

by dmstorm22 :: Tue, 06/14/2011 - 7:19pm

Just last 25 years.

by t.d. :: Tue, 06/14/2011 - 8:35pm

the 1976 Steelers won a playoff game. They lost in the afc championship, after franco and bleier were injured in the first round

by Jetspete :: Wed, 06/15/2011 - 11:56am

interesting topic. For me, i would view "most disappointing" as teams who did something in the regular season that gave their fans credible belief that the team could win the Super Bowl. You added the one-and-done stipulation, which i agree is important to the list.

For me, I look at the 1997 Chiefs as the most disappointing. This team saw disappoint in 1995, fought hard and got home field. Plus that year they dismantled the supposed best team in football, San Francisco. In 95, they were beaten soundly by Dallas so fans had to have higher hopes in 1997.

I also have to look at the 2008 Titans. they thumped Pitt in week 16, lost only 2 meaningful games, and the fans had legit Super Bowl hopes. But then they suffered a franchise changing loss. Tough to say if any of the other losses were truly franchise changing

by Israel P. (not verified) :: Thu, 06/16/2011 - 11:39am

The Titans stomped on and ridiculed the Terrible Towel after beating the Steelers. That negated anything good they may have had going into the playoffs. In fact, it carried over to the following year, as well.

by bengt (not verified) :: Tue, 06/21/2011 - 10:40am

they thumped Pitt in week 16,
Again, the Steelers had a lead after the first play of the fourth quarter. Don't just look at the final result.

by Shattenjager :: Wed, 06/15/2011 - 1:48pm

The '96 Broncos looked to me all season long like the greatest team ever assembled--I've still never seen another team that made it look so easy.*

And then on January 4, it looked like they had forgotten to put the starters back in. That was the most surprising game I've ever seen.

The worst part of that season was actually before the playoffs--in week 15. I've hated Brett Favre since that day.

*I know that statistics don't back this up and so my eyes were probably playing tricks on me.

by CuseFanInSoCal :: Thu, 06/16/2011 - 10:40am

Well, they were playing the 1996 Packers, who actually were one of the greatest teams ever assembled; lots of teams got killed by them that year (still don't know how they managed to lose three games in the regular season).

by Shattenjager :: Thu, 06/16/2011 - 11:56am

Bill Musgrave started that game at quarterback and Denver had clinched home field, and yet we had to listen to weeks of "analysis" about how that game was proof that Favre is an all-time great who can win big games while Elway can't.

It doesn't so much bother me that they got killed. A team starting Bill Musgrave at QB and putting in Vaughn Hebron at RB at halftime can't expect to win games. The media's insistence that beating the Broncos' backups was proof of Favre's greatness (especially in contrast to Elway, who remember was considered an underachieving choke artist) was what was horrible about the game and made me start to hate the guy.

by sundown (not verified) :: Thu, 06/16/2011 - 1:35pm

Nobody ever called Elway a choke artist. (How could they given he was famous for The Drive and all his other 4th quarter comebacks?) People saw him as the only reason Denver had even made it to any of those Super Bowls. And given the fact they tended to give up a ton of points in blowout losses, he escaped most of the blame for losing them.

by Shattenjager :: Thu, 06/16/2011 - 6:16pm

That is completely untrue. He was given complete blame for losing them and constantly described as "unable to win the big game."

by Karl with a K (not verified) :: Thu, 06/16/2011 - 8:27pm

Complete blame? Denver gave up an average of 45 points per game in the Super Bowls they lost. The consensus opinion on him was always that Denver was going to be set if they ever got him some help.

Super Bowl XXI: NY 39 Denver 20
Elway: 22 for 37, 304 yds, 1 TD, 1 INT He was also the Broncos top rusher...with 27 yards and a TD. Willhite had 4 rushes for 19 yards, followed by Sewell with 4 yds. The Giants had the ball for over 34 minutes and had 399 yards of offense.
Consensus: Valiant effort by Elway but he had absolutetely no help on either side of the ball.

Super Bowl XXIV: 49ers 55 Denver 10
San Fran was the defending champs and heavily favored. They piled up the most points in SB history while ammassing nearly 500 yards of offense against Denver's totally overmatched D.
Consensus: Everybody knew going in San Fran was going to win that game, so nobody blamed Elway for Denver losing it.

Super Bowl XXII Washington 42 Denver 10
Elway leads them to a 10-0 lead at the end of one. Then Denver's D implodes and gives up 35 points in the second quarter. 3 of those TDs were on plays over 50 yards: Sanders catching TDs of 50 and 80 yards and Smith scoring on a 56-yard run.
Consensus: The game was over by halftime. Elway's numbers were terrible but all anybody remembered was Washington scoring all those 2nd quarter TDs against Denver's shoddy D.

by Shattenjager :: Fri, 06/17/2011 - 2:12am

I don't know where you seem to have gotten the idea that I'm saying that it's true that he wasn't good in big games--I practically worship John Elway. As far as I'm concerned, he's not even in the discussion for greatest quarterback of all time, because he's so far and away above everyone else.

The scores of the games and statistics go to what his actual performance was, not what public opinion was. I probably overstated the case by saying "complete blame," yes. However, it is completely 100% bullshit to say that "nobody" blamed him or that "nobody" called him a choke artist. I was barely alive for the Super Bowl losses, but some of my earliest memories are being taunted and picked on at school for wearing a John Elway jersey, because "He's a choke artist," "He's a loser," and "He can't win the big game."

Here's one article: http://www.askmen.com/top_10/fitness_top_ten/43_fitness_list.html
"Once upon a time, John Elway was the poster boy for pro athletes who couldn't win the "big one." His alleged championship game stage fright was so frequently and cattily discussed that even The Simpsons succumbed to the urge to roast the Bronco legend. In the classic episode "Cape Feare," Homer fantasizes about becoming John Elway ("Thanks to Elway's patented last-second magic, the final score is Denver 7, San Francisco 56!").
The critics and comedy writers tended to ignore the relative paucity of talent on the Bronco roster and Elway's long string of brilliant, come-from-behind wins, instead focusing squarely on his lousy Super Bowl stat lines."

Here's another: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1003326/index...
"Not that Elway didn't have a few career pressures on the line himself. He is the one man nobody wants at his Super Bowl party. Three appearances in the Big Bowl so far and three train wrecks. A bad blond joke. Unfortunately, Elway has this annoying habit of not taking a hint. He knows that for all his greatness—he is the NFL's winningest quarterback from 1984 to '91—nothing seems to stick in people's memories quite like the flash of a world championship ring."

Here's another: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1123117/4/ind...
"Elway started pressing and misfiring, and the interceptions came—two of them, both in the second half.
Elway completed only 10 passes in all, for 108 yards. The Bronco running game picked up 64 yards. Put it together and you've got the worst Super Bowl blowout ever. A couple of hours after the game, Elway walked hand in hand with his wife, Janet, across the Superdome field, surrounded by photographers and autograph hounds. Finally, he said wearily, 'Can't you let a guy sulk in peace?' They couldn't.
Before he stepped on the team bus, he answered a last question. 'This is going to live with me,' he said. 'I know that.'"

Here's another: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1123078/index...
"Two serious Super Bowl whippings in 1987 and '88 left some Bronco fans hoping that their team would lose against the Browns and save them the angst. 'Why don't those people go hide in their closets?' Elway said before the game. 'They're taking the easy way out. If we lose, we lose, but I'd hate to be stuck in a closet.'
. . .
People say he doesn't win the big ones, but if Mr. and Mrs. Montana had never had Little Joe, wouldn't Elway have been the quarterback of the 1980s? Even Elway admitted this was his best game of the season—he completed 20 of 36 for 385 yards and three TDs—perhaps because, as he had said earlier in the week, 'this is the biggest game of my life.'"

This article is only about Elway's "big game failures": http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1127039/1/ind...

Another article: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/148262-how-old-are-you-john-elway-def...
"Having already lost three Super Bowls, Elway had gained a stigma he could not shake: 'Can't win the big one.'"

Another article: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1015794/2/ind...
"Perhaps the most remarkable element of Elway's legacy as a champion is how much skepticism he had to overcome to achieve it. For much of his career Elway was regarded as an exceptional athlete doomed by tragic flaws. Bradshaw wasn't the only one to label Elway, a coach's son, a spoiled brat, and until 15 months ago he stood as a symbol of big-game futility."

Here's a post by Mike Tanier of all people that has some responding comments of interest: http://fifthdown.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/06/research-shows-marino-is-c...
"He won two super bowls. He was in the playoffs ten different seasons, and lost three super bowls. You can’t call him clutch, and THAT great, when his record in the big game is 2-3.
. . .
It’s funny how those who are so quick to point out that Elway has 2 SB rings are also so quick to forget what won those rings for them."

Another article with a quick blurb: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/sports_blog/2010/04/mcnabb.html
"Elway was known as a great quarterback who couldn't win the big one -- he had lost in the Super Bowl three times and also lost once in the AFC championship game."

Yet another reference: http://www.milehighreport.com/2011/1/5/1916933/can-john-elway-bring-the-...
" . . . those that said Elway would never win the 'Big One.'"

Another one: http://www.midwestsportsfans.com/2011/01/crushing-the-myth/
" . . . John Elway…a guy that notoriously “choked” over and over in the playoffs until his final two years, both past his prime, when he fortuitously rode the best running back in football and a stellar defense to two straight Super Bowls."

Another article that has a related comment in response: http://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2011/01/08/elway-takes-the-big-offi...
"Unless he is going to hire Terrell Davis to help him out, Elway will never win the big one as team President."

Another article: http://www.denverpost.com/commented/ci_17029849?source=commented-
"He walked away after winning consecutive Super Bowls, shedding forever the absurd can't-win-the-big-one tag."

Here's a message board conversation: http://forums.denverbroncos.com/archive/index.php/t-73289.html
"Oh and legend... There WAS QB controversy for a short time with Elway, ever heard of Tommy Maddox? Or did you hear all the crie of Elway couldn't win the big game and that he needs to retire? Sound familiar.
Bronco fans weren't exactly enamored with Elway in the big games before 97 and 98 as far as I know."

by Brian C (not verified) :: Fri, 06/17/2011 - 1:22pm

I read your links and they don't support your case that the media saw Elway as being a choke artist...actually they prove quite the opposite.

Let's look at your first link, the one you say is "only about Elway's big game failures"
Quoting from the article's first couple of paragraphs: "No man, not even Elway, who may be the game's best quarterback, could have overcome the 25-point halftime deficit and the punishing defense that Denver faced."
So, what you cite as an example of the media believing Elway to be a choke artist, actually absolves him of the loss and calls him the best QB in the game. Sure, it had some negatives in there, as well, but it's unmistakable the writer respected the guy. Several of your other links are similar. The midwestsportsfans link actually ridicules "choker" labels that some applied to Elway, Manning, Brady, etc. (And in so doing it expresses the CONSENSUS opinion that these guys were all great QBs.)

Were some negative things said about Elway? Of course. But those were far outweighed by the positives. The Drive was inconic from the moment it happened and you always heard about his 4th quarter comebacks. The consensus was Elway was the last guy you wanted to see on the other side of the ball late in a close game.

It appears your love of Elway made you extra-sensitive to any and all criticism, making you believe it was far more widespread than it was. That also seems to have colored your memories of that '96 Broncos-Packers game. You recall the media using that win as an excuse to make Favre sound great? Reality check: Favre was on his way of winning his second straight MVP award and the Pack lost a total of 3 games that season. Favre's greatness was already well-established sp it's doubtful any journalist was all that moved by his beating up on the Broncos' backups beyond the normal "these guys could possibly meet again in the SB" hype.

by Jerry :: Thu, 06/16/2011 - 7:10pm

People took those shots at Elway then, a lot like they do at LeBron James now.

by Karl with a K (not verified) :: Thu, 06/16/2011 - 7:40pm

Elway was never the tool that LeBron James is. Sure, there were a few taking shots at him, but the consensus was always that he was awesome in the clutch. He was known for all the 4th quarter comebacks long befor he'd won a Super Bowl. That famous SI article where they compared him to Johnny Unitas was written prior to his winning a Super Bowl, if I'm not mistaken.

by t.d. :: Fri, 06/17/2011 - 7:22am

yeah, but LeBron deserves the ridicule he gets. I suspect he isn't the only incredibly arrogant and myopic professional athlete, but undoubtedly he's the poster child for them

by Jerry :: Fri, 06/17/2011 - 6:25pm

Remember when Elway announced that he wasn't going to sign with the Baltimore Colts and got his rights traded to Denver? That was about as popular as "The Decision", if less ostentatiously performed. And the idea that Elway "couldn't win the big one" was certainly out there before he won those couple of Super Bowls. Winning and hindsight are a powerful combination; if LeBron ends up winning a championship or two, the view of him will receive similar adjustments.

by t.d. :: Sat, 06/18/2011 - 8:04am

i don't doubt that when lebron wins an nba title (not if), a bunch of front running fans will suddenly flock to his 'brand'. having said that, i don't remember a parade in denver with elway talking about all the championships he was going win after he forced the trade, nor do i remember him saying something as ill-conceived as 'all my critics will be going to work on monday while i light cigars with thousand dollar bills i earned from their money', true or not. i think elway's situation is much more comparable to eli's where the cities involved hold on to bitterness, but it isn't a national story, and outside of baltimore and cleveland, most football fans liked the guy and were rooting for him.

by Fred (not verified) :: Thu, 06/23/2011 - 6:06pm

Of all the teams listed, the 2010 Pats were the most disappointing. They were the consensus #1 team by almost all observers at season's end, had by far the best offense in the NFL, had the only unanimous MVP in NFL history, the best offensive line in the NFL, the best coach in the NFL, and the best special teams in the NFL, playing a team they had trounced only a few weeks before, playing with a second year QB, and playing at home. Second most disappointing were the 2005 Colts, who were also the best team in the NFL. It should be noted, however, that the Colts lost to the eventual Super Bowl champions.