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Monday, February 12, 2007

Best Player Never to Win a Major

We've heard this before. It's a term used in the world of professional golf, and it's used to describe the best player out there not to have won a major championship, i.e., any of the U.S. or British Opens, the Masters or the PGA. For years Phil Mickelson had the moniker.

I'm sure he hated it.

It's a cruel monitor, really, one that implies that the player has great talent and lofty expectations and cannot win the big one. Yes, there's some underlying truth, because before Phil developed his killer instict and won a few majors he was more known for being overweight, out of shape and too prone to hitting trick shots as opposed to seizing titles that were there for the taking. Now that Phil Mickelson has shed that moniker, it's either that I haven't followed golf that much since, that the title really isn't in use much any more, or that there is little consensus in the professional golfing world as to who should hold it.

In all of pro sports, Peyton Manning just shed that moniker too. He was the anointed one. Coming out of high school in Louisiana, great things and national championship were predicted for him while he was at Tennessee. The great stats did happen, but the Vols didn't win a national title during the Peyton years (they did with Tee Martin a year after Manning left Knoxville). When Manning joined the Colts, more great things were predicted. Yes, he did amass great stats, but he didn't play great in the big games and was viewed a flop when compared to the Pats' Tom Brady, a sixth-round pick.

Until this season.

Now Peyton Manning no longer is the best player not to win a major.

So who is?

Think about golf, tennis, hockey, basketball, baseball and football. And think about the moniker too. Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and John Stockton were great NBA players who never won the title. Does that mean they were failures, or that there were guys like Shaq and Kobe and Michael and Scottie who stood in their way? Donovan McNabb has had some great seasons, so should that moniker apply to him? Or, has he been so injury-prone the past three seasons that to cast him with that designation would be unfair because he isn't likely to finish a season?

I don't particularly like the moniker, and I don't really have an answer. I don't follow hockey closely enough, and it's hard to put a baseball player in the limelight because he's just one guy in a lineup of nine. Quarterbacks and star hoopsters are fairer game, if only because they have more control over the outcome of a season than even a cleanup hitter (and while #1 starters can control a game's outcome, they only get the ball once every five games).

I'd like your thoughts on this, especially within football, basketball and baseball. I suppose that as recently as last night on SportsCenter LeBron James painted a target between his broad shoulders by both stating that he expects to win an NBA title and that he wants to be an internationally recognized figure like Muhammad Ali. Best player not to win a title? LeBron is up there -- and he's solicited the heat, to boot.

Still, it's not really fair. For example, in professional football, much has to go right beyond the play of a great player to win a title. You could have a great team, but if too many starters get banged up and you limp into the post-season with a waiver-wire quality defensive backfield, you probably won't win the title, no matter how good your skill position players are on offense. In baseball, Curt Schilling is amazing because he's won World Series with two teams and was heroic in so doing, but is Barry Bonds (sans the steroid scandal, for purposes of argument) a candidate because he couldn't win a seemingly perenially undermanned Giants team to a World Series? And, in basketball, is Allen Iverson an all-time great player or is he one of those worthy of the moniker because he couldn't win his 76ers to a title over the Shaq-Kobe-Phil Lakers six years ago and because, well, the teams on which he played were average?

It's stuff like this that gets us talking during the cold-weather months and the time in between the Super Bowl and March Madness (which I relish the concept of "pitchers and catchers reporting", baseball is a far way off from the focus of most sports fans). Whether it's right that we focus so much on this is another story, but it was the story leading up to the Super Bowl.

And that made me wonder whether that story was simply a fixation on the Manning family as opposed to comparing great NFL quarterbacks. After all, Dan Marino, Dan Fouts and Fran Tarkenton never won Super Bowls. Does that mean that they're not up there with the Bradshaws, Montanas, Elways and Bradys of the world? Probably. But does it mean in the case of the first two that those two weren't among the top five passers in the game, ever (I personally like Fouts better than Marino, but Marino arguably is the best pure passer the game has seen)? No. Somehow, the fact that, among others, Marino, Fouts and Tarkenton never won Super Bowls (same for Jim Kelly, who played on the losing team four years in a row, and note that I didn't write that Kelly lost four in a row because that wouldn't be fair) hasn't been held against them the way Manning's failure to win a Super Bowl was held against him.

Score it, 1 for the Manning family and it's legend and 0 for the concept of a great quarterback not getting to win the big one, except, I'm sure that the Manning family would have preferred to be on the losing end of this particular score. I suppose it's the case of the person of whom we expected so much (and who had a hype machine to match, whether he sought it out or not) not delivering that made people publicly question whether Peyton Manning was a champion. Manning, to his great credit, answered those critics in the post-season.

So who's next?

Or does it really matter?

Do we really care?

You have to wonder whether this focus on the individual is antithetical to the concept of team.

I think it is.


Anonymous Phil the Brit said...


Great post. From this side of the Atlantic, the American desire to separate the sheep from the goats - the winners from the losers - is endlessly fascinating.

On the golf question, the no-major tag is one Colin Montgomerie carries from our media like a millstone (but, hey, his Ryder Cup record we love).

In football, and thinking about this a little last night, I'm actually surprised at how well Super Bowl success maps to QB greatness. Most of the QBs that have won the big one have been great ones. It beats the hell out of the Heisman and Billy Beane's crapshoot that is the baseball playoffs, doesn't it?

Another point that struck me was the difference in judgement applied between quarterbacks and running backs. Was Earl Campbell a loser? Eric Dickerson? Is the jury still out on LaDanian Tomlinson until he wins the big one?

Even Sweetness had to wait for Jim McMahon to arrive and Buddy Ryan's wrecking crew to come together to get his solitary ring. For Dan Marino, the supporting cast never did show up.

Maybe this is simply a reflection of the old saw that college ball is an RB's game (still true?), whilst pro football success is determined by the quality of the QB.

Whatever it is, it seems deeply unhealthy to me to belittle the efforts of so many great players, the memories of whom should inspire smiles, not frowns.

3:44 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

When I first remember hearing about "The best player never..." it was about Ernie Banks never getting to a WS. And it seemed more of a crime of Fate as opposed to the player lacking something.

And the player has been in contention for a title for a few years.

I guess when it took over in golf, it became more of an insult. Or because of the nature of Free Agency, players or teams can recover from mistakes.

Barry Bonds, ARod, etc chose to go to big bucks instead of less money/better team.

Manning signs a huge contract, Brady leaves money on the table.

Iverson (like Reggie Miller) never had a championship caliber team around him. It was Iverson and 7 role players. Two win an NBA championship, you need a super-star and a star (two superstars are better).

James is only 22, it's not fair to call him the best player to never win a title. He's good, he's still learning the game, he's too young and he's not the best player in the game today. We have Jason Kidd, Dirk, Steve Nash, Iverson just off the top of my head.

4:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

SportsProf, this is a great piece on players that still, or wont ever have a title under their belts. I read a lot of your posts and this one is really good.

I have been reading your blog for some time now and have really enjoyed it. Your perspective on sports definitely adds a breathe of fresh air from some of the main stream media.

I am currently a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder. With the recent surge in online blogging, self expression has become easy and accessible. Many people are still catching on to the trend and I am actually writing to you because I want to help people get involved.

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The magazine will be free and circulate around the CU campus. If we were to use one of your pieces, we would sight the author and include your website so students could read more about what you have to say. It would also increase the traffic to your site. The articles would not be changed in any way because, unless we like it the way it is, we wouldn't use it.

Please let me know if you have any questions at all. You can email me at I would love to answer any questions you might have.

Simon Berger

5:21 PM  
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