Will the Super Bowl be remembered as the greatest choke of all time?
Radio talk hosts will compare this collapse against the Warriors 3-1 implosion but the conversation has to be focused on games not seasons or series. Reason being, the choke isn’t about what happens over time, it is the response of the player or team at the moment of crises….the crises being when momentum turns.
With that in mind, here are a few dramatic collapses that are equivalent:
Exhibit A - Jean van de Velde in 1999 British Open (Had three shot lead on the last hole of the “Open”. Only to triple bogey and ultimately lose the title)
Exhibit B - Jana Novotna in 1993 Wimbledon (Blew a 5-1 lead in decisive third set of Wimbledon Final, double faulting numerous times in the process.)
Exhibit C - Northern Iowa vs Texas A&M in 2016 NCAA Tournament (Sure there are many more memorable choke jobs by top seeded teams like Depaul missing free throws and losing to St. Josephs in 1981. But how can you squander a 12 point lead in the last 40 seconds of a game like the Panthers did last year? You can, if you get really, really nervous.)
Every single one of the examples had one thing in common, at the moment of crises, these athletes and teams froze as their lead evaporated and the game tightened.
As Matthew Syed from BBC Sports states, "The neurophysiology of choking is triggered when we get so anxious that we seize conscious control over a task that should be executed automatically.“
The choke is therefore to hard watch when you see players in individual sports lose their focus and confidence. However, it is excrutiating to witness when teams go in to a collective shell. Players get silent, hoping others make the play for them. Coaches may participate in this too by becoming either too conservative or inappropriately aggressive.
In Super Bowl LI, it all came together. The Falcons players and coaches lost their nerve.
Atlanta failed to close the door on the Super Bowl when they had a 28-9 lead and the ball inside New England’s 40 yard line. As momentum turned, running backs whiffed on normal pass blocking assignments, the quarterback took unacceptable sacks and the defense failed to pressure Tom Brady.
Indeed, this performance is the worst “choke” of all time.
Perhaps the Falcons stopped playing their opponent and instead, played the score. But the moment Atlanta lost their nerve was when they had the ball on the Patriots 20 yard line after Julio Jones remarkable catch. Atlanta “choked” by attempting to trick New England’s defense as they ran wide and threw down field. Those were tactics will be debated for generations. The Falcons’ Offensive Coordinator single handily took his team out of field goal range in the final minutes when running the ball three times up the middle would have run the clock down and set up a chip shot field goal that would have provided his team an insurmountable lead.
Atlanta will always say they didn’t “lose their aggressiveness.” That may help their healing but they can’t say they didn’t lose their nerve. Under any normal circumstance, they would have conducted themselves differently inside the Patriots red zone with under 4 minutes remaining and having an 8 point cushion.
The athletes and teams in those examples never really recovered. Now, what happens to the Atlanta Falcons?
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