What Kyle Williams and Billy Cundiff Can Learn From Mitch Williams

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After their dreadful failures at the end of Sunday’s games, Billy Cundiff of the Ravens and Kyle Williams of the 49ers will join the ranks of Scott Norwood, Bill Buckner and Ralph Branca, as goats who fans will think “lost the game for the team.” Of course, football is a team sport, and the Niners offense going 1-12 on third downs had as much to do with their defeat as the two fumbles by Williams, but that’s not the way the goat thing works.

Needless to say, Philadelphia has had its share of sports goats over the years. Whether fairly or unfairly, their performances in clutch situations gave them the reputation as chokers. Here, five guys who came up small in big situations.

5. Wally Henry. Wally Henry returned punts and kickoffs for the Eagles for six years, and even made the Pro Bowl in 1979, but it was his performance in the playoffs against the Giants in 1981 that earned his spot in infamy. The Eagles were a year removed from their Super Bowl appearance, and were looking to return. The Giants were 9-7, and in the playoffs for the first time since 1963.

The Eagles defense held the Giants on their first possession, and the G-Men were forced to punt. Wally Henry muffed it at the 26-yard line; it was recovered by Beasley Reece (yep, that Beasley Reece), and a few plays later the Giants hit paydirt to go up 6-0. After another Giants score made it 13-0, Henry fumbled the ensuing kickoff in the end zone, and the underdogs had a 20-0 first-quarter lead. The Eagles defense stiffened, allowing only a single score for the remainder of the game, and the Birds offense got moving, making a valiant second-half comeback. But the two muffed kicks had led to 13 easy Giants points, and the Eagles lost 27-21.

4. Gene Mauch. The 1964 Phillies seemed to have the pennant sewn up, sporting a six-and-a-half-game lead with but 12 games to play. And then one of the most spectacular collapses in baseball history took place. The Phillies lost game … after game … after game. While there was plenty of blame to go around, it was manager Gene Mauch who bore the brunt of it. After all, it was Mauch who leaned too heavily on his two stud pitchers, Chris Short and Jim Bunning, starting them each three times in nine days (all of which were losses.) The Phillies lost 10 straight, and by the time they recovered to win their last two, it was too late. The Cardinals won the pennant. Mauch would manage in the majors until 1987, and never make it to the World Series.

3. Terry Murray. There is one thing you never do while your team is choking. You never, ever utter the word “choke.” Flyers coach Terry Murray broke that rule in 1997, to disastrous effect.

The Flyers entered the 1997 Stanley Cup as heavy favorites, but the lightly regarded Red Wings came in and skated circles around the Flyers in Game 1, winning 4-2. Before Game 2, Murray announced that he was changing goalies, and going with Garth Snow. It didn’t work, as the Flyers lost again. He then re-inserted Hextall in what looked to be a desperate move. Again, it failed, and the Flyers were down three games. It was at that point Murray uttered his immortal line: “Basically, it is a choking situation for our team right now.” He added that he had discussed choking with a sports psychologist, and that it was “not detrimental or a negative situation for your hockey club. You identify and work through it.” Whether it was intended as a diss or was just some new-age nonsense, it outraged the players, fans and front office. After the Flyers were swept in Game 4, Murray was promptly fired.

2. Mike Michel. The Eagles starting kicker went down late in the 1978 season, but Dick Vermeil decided that he could get a punter, Mike Michel, to do his placekicking. The result: Michel missed three out of 12 extra points (including one that lost them the game in a 28-27 loss to the Vikings), and Vermeil was too scared to use him for field goals, so he didn’t attempt one all year.

In the first round of the playoffs, the Eagles took on the Falcons. Sure enough, Michel missed another extra point. Sure enough, the Birds found themselves down one with 13 seconds left and a fourth down at the 16-yard line. Vermeil decided that was a good time for Michel to attempt his first-ever pro field goal. It missed by inches, and Eagles season was over. So was Michel’s career. Although he was a punter, he never kicked in the NFL again. (I’ve written about this game more extensively at my sports site, phillysportshistory.com[1].) Michel didn’t deserve to be the goat. It was Vermeil who had entrusted his kicking game to a punter, and put him in a position he hadn’t asked for, but it was Michel who wore the horns.

1. Mitch Williams. Needless to say, Mitch is #1—but not just because of the gopher ball to Joe Carter. That was merely a bad pitch. It was his meltdown in Game 4 that was a real killer. He entered the game with the Phillies leading 14-10 in the eighth inning, one out, and men on second and third. He proceeded to meltdown, allowing five men to score, and the Phils lost the game 15-14. He cemented his status as a Philly goat with the meatball to Carter in Game 6.

But a funny thing happened on the way to immortal goathood for Mitch Williams. Philly fans, supposedly the harshest, least fair in the country, decided (after a several-year “cooling-off period”) to not let Mitch’s entire legacy be defined by one play. The 1993 season, one of the most magical in Phillies history thanks in large part to Mitch Williams, eventually became, in the minds of Philly fans, a thrill ride that came up a little short instead of a one-pitch disaster.

Most of the credit for his acceptance in Philadelphia goes to Williams himself. His post-game quote was something that both Williams and Cundiff could probably learn from. In fact, it’s something we all could.

“Don’t come to my locker and expect excuses. I don’t make excuses. I blew two games in the World Series. I feel terrible for letting my teammates down. But sulking doesn’t bring the ball back over the fence. Life’s a bitch. I could be digging ditches. But I’m not.”

The great Jayson Stark wrote after the game, “This pitch, this gopher ball, this World Series, is going to hang over him like a thundercloud as long as he remains on earth.” Stark was wrong. After his playing career, Mitch went from a bartender to a minor-league manager to a host on CSN to a job with the MLB Network. Today you’re more likely to hear people commending his on-air persona than people talk about a pitch he threw almost 20 years ago. He refused to let his life be defined by one mistake. Let’s hope that Kyle Williams and Billy Cundiff can do the same.

Endnotes:
  1. I’ve written about this game more extensively at my sports site, phillysportshistory.com: http://phillysportshistory.com/2011/09/13/eagles-kicked-out-of-playoffs-by-falcons-in-1978/

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