A look at 10 players in the four major North American professional sports leagues (OK, maybe the NHL lost major status years ago, but humor me here) who need their first championship victory the most. Players are grouped by league, but in no particular order otherwise.
Rivers has to feel sick at this point. He’s 1/3 of a great QB class that was selected within the first 11 picks of the 2004 NFL draft. The other two, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, have two Super Bowl rings each, while Rivers still waits for his first. Eli’s success has to be particularly grating for Rivers, as Eli whined (err…persuaded) his way out of San Diego and eventually became vindicated by winning two Super Bowl MVPs. Adding insult to injury, Drew Brees, the man Rivers replaced in San Diego, went on to win his own Super Bowl championship with New Orleans.
At one point, Rivers was arguably the best QB in football, putting up passer ratings above 100 in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Unfortunately, his play and the Chargers’ play have gone down steadily since then, leading people to wonder whether Rivers’ window of opportunity has closed.
When you’re the face of “America’s Team” and just signed a fat new six-year, $108 million contract extension, it goes without saying that you have an enormous pressure on your shoulders. Not only does Romo face scrutiny from the vast legion of Cowboys fans, he also faces heat from the haters who feel that Dallas is overrated, over-hyped and overexposed.It doesn’t help matters that Romo has failed spectacularly in the clutch in crucial regular season and playoff games throughout his career.
The funny thing is that Romo has accomplished a lot just to get to where he’s at. He was an undrafted free agent out of FCS Eastern Illinois who didn’t start for the Cowboys until he was 26. Hardly the resume of a typical NFL starting QB, but none of that matters now. What matters is that he’s played well enough in the NFL to create these high expectations. The Cowboys are capable of going far with their talent, but Romo has to limit the mental mistakes (namely, the deadly turnovers) that have plagued him during his career.
Similar to Rivers, Ryan had to watch as another QB in his class obtained a Super Bowl MVP award in Joe Flacco. Before 2012, the perception was that Ryan was the better QB, while Flacco was carried to more playoff success due to the Ravens’ great defense. But Flacco stepped his game up, and delivered excellent performances last season on the way to a Lombardi Trophy. Meanwhile, Ryan merely obtained his first playoff win and fell just short in the NFC title game at home against the 49ers.
Ryan will only be 28 in May, but some other key pieces on the Falcons are getting older. Roddy White is 31, Tony Gonzalez came back for one last ride at age 37, and the newly-acquired Steven Jackson is nearly 30, an advanced age for a running back. Atlanta is also in the much-tougher NFC, with teams like San Francisco and Seattle stockpiling even more talent this offseason, and New Orleans lurking in the NFC South with the return of coach Sean Payton.
Fair or unfair, Carmelo Anthony is currently in class of players such as Dominique Wilkins, David Thompson, George Gervin, Pete Maravich, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Adrian Dantley: great scorers who lacked that certain “something” to make them winners. Even worse, ‘Melo has the worst playoff winning percentage all-time of players who played in at least 50 playoff games.
I think ‘Melo in Denver was in a similar predicament as Kevin Garnett was in Minnesota. KG was a perennial first-round out with the T’Wolves until he got help in the form of Sam Cassel and Latrell Sprewell and made the Western Conference Finals in 2004. When Denver brought in Chauncey Billups in 2009, ‘Melo finally made it out of the first round and got to the WCF as well.
KG’s journey finished by teaming up with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen in Boston, finally getting that championship ring in 2008. Like KG, ‘Melo moved on from his original team and is now in a bigger market with a better supporting cast. Now maybe a supporting cast of J.R. Smith, Tyson Chandler, injured Amare Stoudemire and 40-year-old Jason Kidd isn’t quite prime Pierce and Allen, but it’s good enough to make the Knicks the 2nd-best team in the Eastern Conference. Beating the Miami Heat (and fellow draftmates LeBron, D-Wade and Bosh) will be a tall order if it comes down to that, but if ‘Melo wants to elevate his legacy, he has to find a way to get past them.
Howard has been the NBA’s best center of this era, possibly by default, but still. He was able to lead the Magic to the NBA Finals in 2009, but ultimately fell to the Lakers in five games. Since then, Howard has been flaky, wishy-washy, moody…all things that eventually led to his departure from Orlando.
Now, Howard’s under the bright lights of Los Angeles, and it’s up to him to lead the Lakers with Kobe Bryant out for the year with an Achilles injury. Beyond this postseason, it’s on Dwight to lead the Lakers franchise into the future (that is, if he wishes to remain in L.A.). With the lack of quality big men in the NBA, there’s no reason why Dwight Howard shouldn’t dominate the league as long as he can remain healthy.
A number of players have temporarily held the “best point guard in the league” title recently, but when Chris Paul is healthy, I believe he is the top guy at that position. At his best, he is borderline MVP-quality (see 2008).
His inclusion on the list may be a bit surprising since you hardly ever hear criticism of him. But CP3 has been in the league long enough, and I think highly enough of him to believe that he can make a run at the NBA Finals with his current Clippers squad*. Hell, he nearly took the Hornets to the Western Conference Finals in ’08 with a decent, but not great group of teammates.
(*disclaimer: I did pick the Grizzlies to beat the Clippers in the 1st round this year, but let’s forget that little detail, shall we?)
Verlander is probably the best pitcher in baseball today. In 2011, he became only the 3rd pitcher since 1990 to win 24 games and was the first pitcher since 1992 to win an MVP award. His teammate Miguel Cabrera won the first Triple Crown in either league since 1967 and took home AL MVP honors last season. On top of that, fellow Tiger Prince Fielder was off to a torrid start this season before a recent slump. Imagine if one team had three different MVPs in three seasons. There’s no way in hell that it would be acceptable to not come away with at least one World Series championship win.
There’s now added pressure on Verlander after he recently signed a seven-year, $180 million extension. Verlander has been criticized for some less than stellar playoff performances (by his lofty standards), especially in the 2006 and 2012 World Series. To be fair, he was a rookie in ’06, but everything adds up over time. I have faith that’ll JV will get it done next time, but we’re a long ways away from finding that out.
Ovechkin is a two-time Hart Trophy winner who has led the NHL in goals twice and scored 100+ points in four of his first five seasons. He is one of the highest-paid players in the league and one of the few recognizable faces in hockey. But not only does Ovechkin not have a Cup, he hasn’t even gotten the Capitals past the Eastern Conference Semifinals during his tenure in D.C. This, despite winning four consecutive division titles from 2008-2011 and the President’s Trophy in 2010 for most points in the NHL.
Meanwhile, his chief contemporary Sidney Crosby has led the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals appearances, defeating the Red Wings in 2009 after losing to them the year prior. Ovechkin’s play was in a state of decline in recent years, but is currently in the midst of a hot streak this March and April and has Washington at the top of their division. Is the old Ovechkin back? And how far can the Capitals go? We’ll see.
The Sedin Twins:
Twin brothers that each led the NHL in points in back-to-back years? Sounds like a great dream. Unfortunately, Henrik and Daniel’s playoff runs have mostly been nightmares, getting bounced in the 2nd round or earlier in 10 of their 11 seasons with the Vancouver Canucks. They were able to breakthrough and advance to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2011, but the Canucks flopped on their own home ice in the decisive Game 7, losing 4-0 to the Boston Bruins.
This year, Vancouver is the 3rd seed in the Western Conference as of late April, with the Sedin twins still leading the 1st line. The NHL playoffs are much more unpredictable than the other major sports. In this lockout-shortened season especially, it’s possible that the Sedins could make another serious run at the Cup.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons