Laying out the Debate: Do We Overuse the Term “Choke”?

Posted: May 3, 2012 in Bunker

Tony Kornheiser famously refers to the Washington Capitals as “Choking Dogs”, for their failures year after year in the Stanley Cup playoffs. There are tons of LeBron James jokes for his inability to “close” and his poor play in the 2011 NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks. Choking is as central to sports debates as statistics, but there is no actual measure for what defines a “choke”. Clearly when the error or failure occurs is central to when we call an event a “choke”. How big of a lead must you have before your loss is considered a choke? How much of a favorite must you be before one claim it to be choke? How do you know it’s a choke instead of team just being better? What’s the criteria for a choke.

This is what I will outline in this post.

Murphy’s Law Choke – Losing a Large Lead


One of the most popular accusations of choking is when team has a sizable lead and goes on to lose the game, match or in some cases a series. Some prominent examples of this is the 1992 AFC Wild Card game Bills vs. Oilers, 2002 NFC Wild Card game 49ers vs. Giants, 1994 NBA Playoffs Eastern Conference Finals Knicks vs. Pacers, 2004 ALCS Red Sox vs. Yankees, Greg Norman in the 1996 Masters and 2003 NLCS Marlins vs. Cubs. . First I want to point out that these are rarely considered chokes unless they are in the playoffs or a game deciding playoff position in the regular season. As I mentioned before, when the alleged choking event occurs is far more important than anything (choking must happen within the confines of what is considered an “important” game. In the case of these teams, they will not be remembered for their excellence rather the fact they fumbled away what was considered a sure win by spectators and pundits.
My rebuttal for these examples as “chokes” is that it is debatable in all of these cases whether the best team actually won. Several of these teams were considered favorites. Many considered the Boston Red Sox in 2004 a far better team than the New York Yankees and many were stunned at the ease in which the Yankees won the first three games. When the underdog loses (as predicted), should it be considered a choke given that they weren’t expected to be in the position of the victor to begin with? In the case of the 1992 Bills, the Oilers were a clear underdog [ the Bills won 3 straight Lamar Hunt trophies and although they lost all 3 Super Bowls, they were still regarded as the class of the AFC.] Making a case for the Oilers is difficult, because the expectation is that once a team holds five score lead going into the third quarter, they should be able to hold on the lead for the victory. In addition, the New York Giants loss against the 49ers cannot be considered a choke as there was a controversial call at the end of the game, which could have changed the complexion of the end of the game. [ A mistake the NFL admitted to shortly after the game] This also raises the question, does a team have to lose to choke. If it matters how one loses, shouldn’t how one wins also be considered in the matter of choking. If team B [inferior team] brings team A [superior team] game 7 after being down 0-3, isn’t that some semblance of choke even if team A wins game 7? What I also find bothersome in all of these examples is that it presupposes that teams work in a robotic manner. In a sort of “one for all and all for one” manner, which simply doesn’t happen. These team chokes don’t account for individual mistakes, defensive breakdowns and sometimes downright superior performances by superior players (in the case of Reggie Miller vs. Knicks). How can a team choke? What does that look like and what does it entail?

Brainfart Choke – Wrong Place, Wrong Time.

These chokes happen usually at the end of a game, at a point where the game is turned on a particular play. This choke is inexplicable as it takes what is either a high percentage play or a routine play and completely botches it. This choke becomes the difference between winning and losing in the eyes of most fans. Some prominent examples of this:Fred Brown’s pass to James Worthy in the 1982 NCAA Basketball National Championship Game, Chris Webber’s Timeout,  Bill Buckner in the 1986 World Series, Gary Anderson Misses a Field Goal,Kyle Williams fumbles in the 2012 NFC Championship Game and Billy Cundiff’s miss in the 2012 AFC Championship Game.

These are the plays that live in infamy. It provides the scapegoat fans need to blame a loss. One of the most impressive aspects of watching professional athletes is watching how they are able to make the most difficult physical skills look routine. As fans and pundits, we forget how difficult the routine plays get once the psychological and mental fatigue sets in. It’s hard for me to argue for some of these as chokes like the Gary Anderson missed field goal. Gary Anderson did not miss a Field Goal all year, which is unprecedented to this day. Some of this was aided by the fact he kicked in a dome for half of his game, meaning he didn’t have to deal with severe weather conditions. Other reasons, he was just a really great kicker. His miss in the championship game, a 38 yard try, was by no means a chip shot, but it was considered a makeable attempt. Does makeable = automatic? In that situation in the eyes of fans, yes. Perhaps this is what makes it a “choke”. Again this brings up the point that when it comes to choking we sometimes throw out the percentages as a whole and only really focus on the percentages of the particular situation. However, the miss did not lose the game for the Vikings, that occurred in Overtime. An overtime where Anderson’s counterpart, Morten Anderson kicked an ironically identical 38 yard field goal for the win after 3 possessions in overtime. The Vikings had chances to win the game outside of Gary Anderson, but again the need to scapegoat, pins Anderson with the “choke” label unnecessarily. Again I raise the question, would Anderson be a choke artist if the Vikings are able to put the ball in the end zone in Overtime.

In the cases of Fred Brown and Chris Webber, I believe these are absolute chokes. While one can make the argument that they are both scapegoats, both men absolutely made inexcusable mistakes at the end of a game that cost their team the game. Definitely a case of wrong place, wrong time and a freak accident, but their individual plays were so far from the norm, one can only chalk it up the fact that melted down in a time of crises.

Superior Talent/Record Choke – You have the better players and the better team, considered the favorites, how could you lose?

These are by far the worst accusations of choking that exist. When teams are heavily favored to win based on their record, fans don’t keep in mind that although a team may not have a good record, they could be favorable match up to the team with the better record. The heavily favored team has the pressure of winning, because they’re theoretically supposed to win as their superior talent has paved the way to usually astonishing record in comparison to their underdog counterparts. Some examples of this are 2011 Green Bay Packers, 1998 Minnesota Vikings, 2007 Patriots, 2009 Cleveland Cavaliers, 2007 Dallas Mavericks.

Again I think it’s much easier to fall prey to choking in the NFL playoffs and in the NCAA tournament or any one-and-done scenario. So many fluky things can occur and often fans don’t realize that the underdog often matches up really well with the favorite. In the case of the 2011 Green Bay Packers and the 2007 New England Patriots, the New York Giants played both teams closely in respective years. The gap between the Giants’ record and those respective teams were huge, however their play on the field was much closer than the records would suggest. The Giants’ strengths played well with those teams’ weaknesses. Given that fact, can it still be considered a choke?
Making the case for the Cavs and Mavericks choking is much easier as those teams were playing in series. It could just mean that those teams were fool’s gold, how does the choking narrative deal with teams that aren’t nearly as good as their records would suggest?

Some Questions to Ponder

1. When someone gets the reputation of being a choker, does it go away as soon as he performs well in a high pressured situation? If so, what does this mean for the flimsy nature of the term “choke”?

2. If a player is an 87% free throw shooter and during a game shoots 10 for 11 from the free throw stripe and then misses a free throw at the end of the game to lose, is he choke even though he shot his average from the free throw line?

3. What do we make of the team who defeats the “choke”, what credit do they get?

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  1. […] Laying out the Debate: Do We Overuse the Term “Choke”? […]

  2. […] limelight and, well, intelligent Valentine assumed control of a franchise in tumult.  The Red Sox choked in the final months of the season to miss the playoffs, fired Terry Francona who brought home two […]

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