The 10 Greatest Sports Comebacks that Never Happened
I hated watching every second of the Penguins Game 7 loss to the Montreal Habs. And I hated myself for not being able to turn away, but a small voice in my head kept saying: “What if they come back? What if the Penguins stage one of the greatest comebacks in the history of sports? And I turned it off? I’d never forgive myself.”
(Following the 2002 season, the Steelers played the Cleveland Browns in the Wildcard round of the playoffs. My buddy the Deadhead was at the game. With the Steelers down 24-7 in the third quarter, he left in disgust. And then, from the parking lot of Heinz Field, he heard the stadium nearly explode with cheers as Tommy Maddox, of all freaking people, lead one of the greatest comebacks in franchise history. I’ve never let him live that one down.)
I started to think about the Penguins coming back — the alleged, hypothetical, completely imaginary comeback — and what it might have meant. I decided to make a list of the greatest comebacks that never happened. But I needed rules.
First, I limited myself to the pros. There are too many college teams and divisions, conference championships, bowl games, March Madness and on and on. Too much. I was dizzy. And I eliminated the solo sports like golf and tennis, although I think one could do a humdinger of a list with those. I gave myself an arbitrary cut off point of 1974.
Then, I decided that the games would have to be important games – playoffs or championships, no random mid-June game when the Pirates are getting their asses kicked.
The list is a little football heavy, but I think that’s due to the single elimination nature of the NFL playoffs, versus the best of seven series of the NHL, NBA and MLB. Without further ado, the ten greatest comebacks that never happened.
1. Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVI v. Washington Redskins. (Wash. 37 – Buff. 24.)
I went back and fourth on this pick. A Bills loss, it seems to me, is crucial to the list. The problem was, which one? I settled on this one because, if there were any justice in this world, Jim Kelly would never lose to Mark Rypien. Like, never. That just never happens. To say nothing of the relief of splitting up the four year Buffalo reign of futility.
2. San Diego Chargers. 1981 AFC Championship Game v. Cincinnati Bengals. (Cinc. 27 – SD 7.)
Heading into the 4th quarter, the Chargers were down 20-7, but worse, they were frozen stiff, icicles dangled from Dan Fouts’ beard, and players looked like they very much wanted to go back to the warmth and comfort of San Diego. But what if Fouts had mounted a comeback? They needed just two touchdowns and two successful extra points, chump change for Air Coryell under ordinary circumstances. The notion of a southern Cali team engineering a comeback in sub-zero temperatures with the wind whipping through Riverfront Stadium at like 30 miles per hour? Legendary.
3. Chicago Cubs. 2003 NLCS v. the Florida Marlins (Fla 4 games, Cubs 3 games.)
Yes, these are the Bartman Cubs. But that was Game 6 of the series. What if the Cubs weren’t the Cubs, which is to say, if they were able to shrug off the disappointment of Game 6 to win Game 7? What if Kerry Woods hadn’t given up seven runs in five innings of Game 7? What if the Cubs hitters were able to actually score some runs off Josh Beckett? But that’s so unlikely that it might have caused the entire solar system to collapse in on itself.
4. New York Rangers. 1974 Eastern Conference Finals v. Philadelphia Flyers. (Philly 4 games, Rangers 3 games.)
So much would have changed. The Broad Street Bullies would have had their own eyes blackened, which has to be viewed as an absolute good. And the Rangers may have gone on to win the Cup in 1975, which would have spared the world of the melodrama and preening of Messier’s Rangers 20 years later. That, too, must be viewed as an absolute good.
5. Cleveland Browns. 1987 AFC Championship Game v. the Denver Broncos – The Fumble. (Denv. 38, Cleve. 33)
Everybody remembers Byner’s fumble with about a minute left. What is often forgotten was that the Browns had, in fact, mounted one of the great comebacks in NFL history up to that point. Down 21-3 at halftime, Kosar scored four second half touchdowns. And this at Mile High Stadium, the toughest stadium for a visiting team in the 1980’s. What would the sports landscape look like had Byner held on and scored? A Byner TD would have tied the game, so the Browns would have had to have won in the waning seconds (unlikely) or overtime (more likely.) Such a comeback would no doubt be considered one of the 10 greatest in NFL history, given all the circumstances but, instead, Browns fans are waiting for their first trip to the Super Bowl 23 years later.
6. Boston Red Sox. 1986 World Series v. the N.Y. Mets. (NYM 4 games, Bos 3 games.)
No list is complete without the Buckner Sawks. Like the 2003 Cubs, the 1986 Sox were unable to pull their shit together enough to win in the 7th game after the debacle of Game 6. If they had, the Big Papi 2004 Sox wouldn’t have been such a cause celebre, Dan Shaunessy wouldn’t have written “The Curse of the Bambino,” and Dennis Leary’s career might have been cut short. I can almost hear angels singing when I think about it.
7. Oakland Raiders. 2002 Divisional Playoff Game v. New England Patriots. The Tuck Rule. (NE 36, Oak. 33)
The tuck rule, it happened. It remains an abomination of all logic and reason (if it looks like a fumble, then it IS a fumble), but it did happen. But what if, after the heinousity that was the Tuck, Gruden had decided to try to mount a drive with the remaining 27 seconds? Just what if the Raiders had managed to kick a last second field goal instead of playing for overtime? The world just might have been spared the birth of the “nobody respected us” meme courtesy of this New England Patriots squad.
8. Dallas Mavericks. 2007 First Round Playoffs v. Golden State Warriors. (G.S 4 games, Dal. 3 games.)
Dallas entered the playoffs with the sixth best regular season record in NBA history; Golden State got into the playoffs by the skin of their teeth. Can these Mavs be considered anything but choking dogs, as Tony Kornheiser likes to say? After going down 3 games to 1, why couldn’t the Mavs come back to win three of the last four? Instead, they played dead, or should I say, played like they were already dead, in Game 6, depriving the world of one of the great comebacks in recent NBA memory.
9. Buffalo Sabres. 1999 Stanley Cup Finals v. Dallas Stars. (Dal 4 games, Buff. 2 games.)
What if the the Sabres had come back to win Game 5? What if they had put three goals behind Ed Belfour in the 3rd period of that game? Game 6’s controversial No Goal would not have mattered. At least, not much. Had the Sabres mounted a come back in Game 5, perhaps they would have shaken the OT loss in Game 6 and won the series. Oh, who am I kidding, this is Buffalo we’re talking about. They probably just would have lost Game 7. (See the 1986 Sawks and 2003 Cubs, above.)
10. Cleveland Cavaliers. Last night.
Beyond that fact that no professional Cleveland franchise has won a championship in over 50 years, what will this mean for the future of the Cavs, Cleveland’s best chance for a championship? They are nothing without Lebron. That much is clear from the Celtics man-handling of the Cavs in 6 games. Some thought that Lebron would stay had he won a championship, that he would want to keep the team together and try to repeat. But the loss? Will it push him out the door? Cleveland may have just seen the last of the best athlete they’ve had in decades.