With its opening-round playoff collapse, the Lightning skidded its way into the most notorious annals of sports history. Few teams or individuals have reached the grand stage of their respective sport so impressively, only to stumble off it so embarrassingly. Nationally, this first-round exit — after a 62-win regular season — enters the argument of greatest choke jobs ever.
Locally, there is no debate. The Lightning top the list. Tampa Bay’s descent from being the best team in the NHL to a four-game sweep makes its 2018-19 season the most epic sports meltdown our area has experienced.
But it’s not the only one.
The others? Well, we’ve recalled a few here. Before pondering, keep the nature of this list in mind. These are teams that have fallen drastically short of the expectations they fostered.
Sure, the 2009 Rays failed to make the playoffs a year after the franchise reached the World Series, but they still had a winning record. The 2017-18 Lightning failed to show up in the last two games against the Capitals in the conference finals, but at least it made the conference finals.
The teams on this list were far, far more disappointing…
2. Chucky’s last stand
The 2008 Bucs entered December with a 9-3 mark and home-field playoff advantage firmly in their grasp. What followed was the greatest collapse in franchise history. The defense, which hadn’t surrendered more than 27 points in a game to that point, allowed 31 or more in three of the next four contests. The Bucs lost all four, lowlighted by a 31-24 home loss to Oakland in the regular season finale when they blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead (and playoff berth). Less than three weeks later, Coach Jon Gruden and GM Bruce Allen were fired.
3. BCS, then bust
Thanks to victories against two ranked foes (Auburn, West Virginia), the 6-0 Bulls found themselves at No. 2 when the initial Bowl Championship Series (BCS) standings were released four days before it went to Rutgers for a Thursday night contest on Oct. 18, 2007. But Scarlet Knights tailback Ray Rice (181 rushing yards), and a controversial offensive pass-interference call on Amarri Jackson in the waning moments, sent USF plummeting back to earth. The defeat started a three-game skid, and USF wound up in the Sun Bowl.
4. No ’79 sequel
Following the Bucs’ improbable run to the NCF title game in 1979, expectations for the franchise reached a previously uncharted stratosphere entering the ’80 season. They soared even higher after Tampa Bay won its first two games, including a 10-9 thriller against the Los Angeles Rams in a nationally televised title game rematch on a Thursday night. Then, the wheels came off. Injuries mounted, and opponents gradually began exploiting a 3-4 defense vulnerable to the pass. The Bucs lost seven of their last eight, finishing 5-10-1.
5. Whole year of hard knocks
The Bucs hype machine was in overdrive entering 2017. HBO’s Hard Knocks had even come along to chronicle the preseason exploits of a team featuring a franchise quarterback (Jameis Winston) entering Year 3, a newly-acquired speed merchant (DeSean Jackson) and a rookie tight end (O.J. Howard) bustling with promise. In a special section previewing the ’17 season, five Times reporters picked the Bucs to finish 9-7 or better. By early November, they were mired in a five-game skid en route to a 5-11 finish.
6. From undefeated to unsightly
Few will argue the 2018 USF football team’s 7-0 start was more than a little deceiving. Of the six Division I-A teams it played in that stretch, only one reached a bowl game. Moreover, the Bulls were tied or trailing entering the fourth quarter of four of those contests. Nonetheless, the collapse that followed remains staggering. The run defense vanished, the run-heavy offense stagnated, and inner strife arose. A 38-20 “home” loss to Marshall in the Gasparilla Bowl capped a six-game skid to end the season, and Coach Charlie Strong cleaned house soon thereafter.
7. The ‘Hit Show’ misses
Following their second straight 90-loss season, the Rays (then Devil Rays) hiked their payroll and added beef to their 2000 batting order in an effort to break through in Year 3. They traded inaugural All-Star right-hander Rolando Arrojo (to whom they had given a $7 million signing bonus) for Vinny Castilla, and signed Greg Vaughn to a four-year, $34 million deal to complement aging sluggers Jose Canseco and Fred McGriff. Marketed as the “Hit Show,” it ultimately whiffed. Injuries to Canseco and Castilla limited them to 15 combined homers, and the team won only 69 games, the same amount they won in ’99. Times reporter Marc Topkin arguably penned it best when he wrote that “‘The Hit Show’ took on an added letter on the middle word when it failed miserably.”