When Peyton Manning's Colts meet Tom Brady's Patriots this Sunday in the AFC Championship Game, Manning will be trying to reach his first Super Bowl. That would be an essential step toward keeping him from someday joining the following list of "Best Players to Never Win a Championship." At age 30, of course, Manning should have more chances to salvage his big-game reputation a la John Elway. Then again, that's probably what these guys once thought. (We've restricted the list to retired athletes only, so please save the inevitable emails about Barry Bonds, A-Rod, Mark Martin, etc.)
1. Dan Marino: This is the comparison that likely makes Peyton go all herky-jerky in his sleep like he's calling an audible. Prolific gunner Marino holds most of the major NFL passing records that Manning will almost certainly own someday (though Brett Favre may borrow some of them first). Marino reached Super Bowl XIX in his second season (1984), where his Dolphins lost 38-16 to Joe Montana and the 49ers. Marino never reached the big game again despite throwing tons of touchdowns to guys named Mark. Montana, of course, was the Joe Cool quarterback whose stats weren't quite as gaudy as Marino's but boasted all the rings (four). Hmmm, sound like a current pair of quarterbacks? Honorable mention QBs without a ring: Jim Kelly, Fran Tarkenton, Dan Fouts, Warren Moon and Y.A. Tittle.
2. Ted Williams: The Splendid Splinter might have been the greatest hitter who ever lived but he couldn't solve Boston's Curse of the Bambino. (Remember that?) His best chance at a ring came in 1946, when the AL MVP led the Red Sox into the World Series against the Cardinals. Alas, Williams was hit by a pitch on the right elbow in an exhibition game against an AL All-Star team that was played while the Cardinals and Dodgers staged a three-game playoff to settle a tie in the NL. Bothered by the injury, Williams hit just .200 (5 for 25; all five hits were singles) with one RBI as the Red Sox lost the Series in seven games. Honorable Red Sox mention goes to Carl Yastrzemski, another great Red Sox left fielder who played in the dark days between 1918-2004. Yaz's seven-game Series defeats came in 1967 and 1975.
3. Ty Cobb: Though his name is often cited when discussing whether moral failings should affect who makes the Hall of Fame -- come on, they let Ty Cobb in! -- he doesn't instantly leap to mind for a list like this. That should change, because while the Georgia Peach is on the short list of Best Players Ever, his many awards (including 14 batting titles) don't include a world championship. Cobb's Tigers reached the Series each year from 1907-09 before failing short each time, the first two times to the Cubs (so you know it was a long time ago) and then to the Pirates. Cobb's postseason performance was decidedly mediocre, as his .262 Series average was more than 100 points below his record .366 regular-season mark.
4. Karl Malone/John Stockton: Yes, they're two separate people but they make this list as a combo, just as they were for 18 seasons and a record 1,412 regular-season games with the Jazz. Stockton is the NBA's alltime career leader in assists and steals while Malone ranks second in points and sixth in rebounds. They twice worked the pick-and-roll all the way to the NBA Finals but were dispatched each time by Michael Jordan and the Bulls, in '97 and '98. When Stockton retired after the '02-03 season, Malone tried to win his ring with the star-studded Lakers, along with fellow oldster-without-a-ring Gary Payton. But Shaq, Kobe and company were upset by the Pistons in the Finals. Payton went on to win his ring last season with the Heat; no such luck for this duo.
5. Ernie Banks: Like Williams, Mr. Cub had the misfortune to carry the banner for one of the most star-crossed franchises in sports. Banks redefined the shortstop position, hit 512 home runs, won back-to-back MVP awards and was always ready to "play two," yet he never played a single postseason game. The Cubs' average finish during his career (1953-71) was sixth place, 24 games out. The closest they came to October baseball was 1969, when they were run down by the Miracle Mets. Honorable mention for other hard-luck, one-team-only baseball players: Tony Gwynn, Robin Yount, Don Mattingly, Ryne Sandberg (minus 13 games with the Phillies).
6. Barry Sanders: Arguably the most exciting running back of all time, Sanders abruptly walked away from the game at age 30, thus passing up a chance to put the rushing record into the stratosphere. Sanders gained his 15,269 career yards (still third on the all-time list) at a brisk 5.0 yards-per-carry pace. Still, his Lions went 1-5 in the postseason, with his only win coming in his first playoff game, after the 1991 season. That victory (over Dallas) put Detroit in the NFC Championship Game, where it was waxed 41-10 by the Redskins. Sanders would never come that close again -- and this was even before Matt Millen. The honorable mention roll call of ring-less RBs is also stellar: O.J. Simpson, Earl Campbell, Eric Dickerson, Gale Sayers, Thurman Thomas.
7. Elgin Baylor: One of the NBA's great forwards -- his 27.4 points and 13.5 rebounds a game rank fourth and ninth, respectively, all time -- had some lousy timing. The dynastic Celtics won the championship during 10 of his first 11 seasons in the league, beating Baylor's Lakers in the finals seven times. He finally retired nine games into the 1971-'72 season due to chronic knee injuries. Naturally, the Lakers went on to win the championship that year. Ouch.
8. Charles Barkley: The Round Mound of Rebound edges Patrick Ewing for this slot because his per-game scoring (22.1 to 21.0) and rebounding (11.7 to 9.8) averages were a notch higher; plus he won an MVP. Barkley came closest when his Suns reached the NBA Finals after the '92-93 season, where like Malone and Stockton he was denied by Jordan and the Bulls. Ewing nearly won a title while Jordan was off playing baseball the next season, only to see the Rockets' Hakeem Olajuwon work his way off this list instead (as John Starks kept misfiring in Game 7). Ewing's Knicks returned to the Finals in '99, but the big man was injured and didn't play as the Spurs won in five games. Honorable mention no-ring NBAers: Reggie Miller, Pete Maravich, Dominique Wilkins, Nate Thurmond, Calvin Murphy, George Gervin, Dave Bing, Alex English.
9. Marcel Dionne: The great center's name is all over the NHL record books, currently ranking fourth all time in goals (731) and fifth in points (1,771). Don't look for him among the playoff record-holders, though, since during his 19 NHL seasons (1971-89) his teams never advanced past the second round. Bad luck didn't necessarily run in the Dionne family; younger brother (by 19 years) Gilbert won a Stanley Cup with the Canadiens during his six-season NHL stint. Hockey honorable mention: Mike Gartner, Rod Gilbert, Brad Park.
10. Dick Butkus: Few defenders have been more feared than the Bears middle linebacker, who made the Pro Bowl after each of his first eight seasons. Unfortunately for Butkus, his fellow Monsters of the Midway had more bark than bite. Like fellow Chicago legend Banks, Butkus never played a postseason game. The Bears' 9-5 record during Butkus's rookie year of 1965 was the best during his nine seasons there, but even that wasn't good enough for the playoffs. Honorable mention for other ring-less guys who would ring your bell: Deacon Jones, Alan Page, Bruce Smith.