Photo of Jordan Simal
Look, we?re all people.
We all make mistakes.
But when you have one job, you need to do it.
The NFL is celebrating its 100th birthday this season and has provided some of the most incredible moments, games and athletes in the history of sports. However, it has also been badgered by outrageous, irresponsible and just plain bad calls for years. Decades even.
Despite how much the league has developed with technology and instant replay, referees have still proven to screw up calls over the NFL?s 100 years of action. Here, I?ve gathered the ten biggest botched plays in NFL history that still stand out to this day as some of the most controversial missed calls and no-calls throughout time in pro football.
Each play will be judged accordingly based on the initial impact the call made, impacting things such as regular-season outcomes, playoff outcomes and the overall mark it left on the NFL. We could hope the league would learn from their collective mistakes, but time has proven they haven?t.
So, until the next abhorrent call is made, this is the best ? or worst ? we?ve got to look back on.
10) The Thanksgiving Coin Controversy ? Steelers @ Lions ? 11/26/98
Football belongs at the Thanksgiving dinner table. It?s just as important as the turkey drumstick, a side of cranberry sauce, that once-a-year baked mac and cheese and the traditional slice of pumpkin pie you crave following that belt-breaking third plate of food.
Oof? anyone else suddenly hungry?
Anyways, football is the cornerstone to Thanksgiving entertainment or finding a quick way to break the awkward silence between you and your in-laws that your really hate. The feeling is mutual though, they hate you back. However, you and daddy-in-law can break the silence over one of the NFL?s three football games that play out on this cherished American holiday.
Things were a bit different back in ?98 as the league only played two games on Thanksgiving back in the day *insert crying here* but one thing that hasn?t changed is how, unfortunately, we all still have to watch the Lions play for one of the holiday?s limited games.
1998 also featured a call that still baffles fans of the sport over twenty years later. In a contest in the Pontiac Silverdome between Bill Cowher?s Pittsburgh Steelers and the Detroit Lions, Jerome Bettis called for tails on the overtime coin flip. However, head referee Phil Luckett announced to the Detroit faithful that Bettis had called heads.
The story is simple.
Bettis and the other captains present for the coin toss were appalled that they had (somehow) lost the toss and watched Detroit eventually win the game in OT. Luckett claimed that Bettis had begun to call heads before changing his decision to tails halfway through his pronunciation. To Luckett, Bettis? call sounded something like this: ?Heh-tails.?
This call is still baffling but improved sound tech over the years has actually shown that Luckett may have actually been on to something. Bettis slightly sounds like he was about to say heads, but in the end, still went for tails. Oh well.
Unlike some of the other calls in our countdown here, this call doesn?t really play that big a factor in the overall outcome of the teams in the short or long runs. Pittsburgh would go on to win two Super Bowls in the years to come and the Lions are still terrible.
Somewhere, Bobby Lane is smiling.
9) The Fail Mary ? Packers @ Seahawks ? 9/24/12
Still fresh in the mind of many NFL fans, and the biggest reason why another conflict between the league and its referees seems unlikely to ever happen again, is the fated Week 3 Monday Night matchup in 2012 between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks.
Social media was in full swing, unlike in other cases yet to come, and replacement Div. II college refs were given a promotion into the NFL they never should?ve received. A low-scoring ? but competitive ? game between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks came down to the final play in the Emerald City. With eight seconds left in the game and down 12?7 to Green Bay, Russell Wilson and the Seahawks lined up for what was undoubtedly going to be the final play of the night. Luckily, what NFL fans didn?t know yet was this was also going to be the last play called by replacement referees.
Ed Hochuli and his boys would be trending on Twitter shortly after? more on that later.
Wilson hiked the ball and threw a prayer to the endzone that was clearly intercepted by Packers safety M.D. Jennings. However, Seahawks receiver Golden Tate had enough of a grip on the ball for one of the replacement refs to call the play a touchdown for Seattle. Mike Tirico, the Monday Night broadcaster for ESPN, called it as he saw it on the screen ? one ref waved the play off as dead indicating an interception for the Packers while the other called it six points for the 12?s.
After review, the refs gave the game to the Seahawks, breaking the final straw fans had for the league?s replacement referees. Shortly after, Goodell and the refs met up to settle their feud and Hochuli, his muscles, and his men were rightfully back on the field the following week.
As for the replacement refs, they?re still not allowed to enter the state of Wisconsin to this very day. Should any of them feel ballsy enough to do so, they?ll be beer-battered, deep-fried and cast into Lake Michigan as warned by the state government.
8) The Calvin Johnson Rule ? Lions @ Bears ? 9/12/10
Writer?s Note: Being a Chicago sports fan, I didn?t want to acknowledge this one for the longest time, but now that I?ve grown up a bit and re-watched the footage over and over again? yeah, this was clearly a bad call.
The NFL has always made what a catch is way too complicated. This fact reared its ugly head in the first week of the first season of the new decade back in 2010 with an Opening Day game between NFC North rivals Detroit and Chicago. The Bears held a 19?14 lead against the Lions late in the fourth quarter at Soldier Field when Lions backup quarterback Shaun Hill threw a dime to Pro Bowl wide receiver Calvin ?Megatron? Johnson.
Johnson clearly had full possession of the football as he was brought down to the grass but propped the ball on the ground to help himself get up following the tackle. The referees would go and look at the call determining that since the ball hit the ground, long after the catch had been made, it was incomplete ? much to the chagrin of the Lions who were starting to find out what winning actually tasted like for once. Probably for the first time since Bobby Lane left and cursed the organization.
Fans too, not just in Chicago and Detroit, but all over the league were quick to jump on the play and acknowledge that it was clearly a catch and that the refs had screwed up once again. The play resulted in enough backlash that a new rule was actually created to prevent it from ever happening again.
Appropriately coined as ?The Calvin Johnson Rule,? it?s stated as such according to sportingcharts.com:
?The receiver must maintain full control of the ball even after hitting the ground. The ground cannot cause a fumble, but it can cause an incomplete pass (if the player has not made a ?football move?.)?
At the least, this was a botched call made in the first week of a new season. But the fact that a new rule had to be created shows just how detrimental its effects were.
Like Megatron?s case, some calls soon to come were also so bad that new rules would soon follow.
7) Bottlegate ? Jaguars @ Browns ? 12/16/01
Ok, now we?re starting to get serious. And by serious, I mean teams with playoff aspirations or in playoff games were affected.
In 2001, believe it or not, the Cleveland Browns actually had a semi-decent football team. They had an even .500 winning percentage and was 6?6 on the season in their Week 14 contest, needing a victory over the visiting Jacksonville Jaguars to stay alive in the AFC Playoff Race.
Down 15?10 and driving towards the endzone, Cleveland QB Tim Couch (the expansion Brown?s first-ever draft pick) threw a successful pass on fourth down to wide receiver Quincy Morgan for a first down to keep their drive (and season) alive. Couch hurried the offense up to the line of scrimmage and successfully hiked a play before the referees could look at the questionable catch through instant replay. All they did was snap the ball and spike it, but as NFL rules clearly state ? once a new play has been snapped and played, officials cannot go back and review a previous down.
However, no one let head referee Terry McAulay or his staff know.
Either that, or they just didn?t care.
Despite the rules of the league. McAulay and his crew still blew whistles following the first down spike to review the previous play against NFL regulations. Understandably so, Cleveland fans were irate at the turn of events and let the refs know by raining beer bottles onto the field during the attempted review. Cleveland coach Butch Davis and the Browns were also bitter as the refs and officials, unsuccessfully, tried to restore order to the threatening situation that they had created.
With the chance to restore order gone, McAulay announced with 48 seconds left on the clock that the game was over. This caused the chaos to only further erupt as players and officials had to step away from the sidelines to avoid being hit by projectiles. Those officials who tried running into the tunnels immediately following the call had bottles fiercely fired at them from emotionally unstable fans who tried to give the refs a piece of their mind before they disappeared into the bowels of the stadium.
Cleveland would finish the season with a 7?9 record and not reach the playoffs while Tim Couch was out of the league by 2004. As absurd as all of this seems, it was just another day in the grand scheme of things for the Cleveland Browns organization. If Johnny Manziel were the quarterback back then, one may assume the fans were just trying to help hydrate their signal-caller to help him finish the game. But rather, it has become a day in league history that the NFL has tried to help fans forget ever happened.
6) Ok, Seriously? That was a Catch ? Cowboys @ Packers ? 1/11/15
The Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys are two of the league?s most storied franchises. Back in the 2014 NFC Divisional Playoffs, a battle between Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo was playing out in one of the best playoff games of not just the season, but the decade. In the fourth quarter, Dallas found themselves down 21?26 to the Pack in Lambeau facing a pivotal fourth down.
Cowboys fans? if you know the story already, feel free to skip to #5. This one hurts.
After the snap, Romo went for it all, throwing a gorgeous pass to wide receiver Dez Bryant on the sideline in tight coverage from Packers safety Sam Shields. Bryant maintained possession of the ball, with his hands under it, as he reached out for the goal line. The Cowboys? sideline was ecstatic as many fans, both in the stadium and watching at home, thought it would be Dallas? ball at the Green Bay 1-yard line.
With the game coming down to the wire and the ball having moved slightly after Bryant hit the turf, the play was challenged and reviewed by the referees. On a clip from NFL Network?s Sound FX, Packers linebacker Clay Matthews can even be heard asking if the ball is going to be spotted at the goal line or if Bryant had punched it in. Even the opposition thought it was a catch.
Surprisingly, the refs said that Bryant did not maintain control of the ball as he fell to the ground and Green Bay would go on to win the game after neither team managed to score anymore points following the missed call. Bryant claimed that the ball moved after he hit the ground because he was trying to reach for the goal line and the Cowboys, disappointedly, ended their season.
To add insult to injury, three years later the NFL actually came out and announced that they had missed the call and that Bryant had caught it. Whether it?s a case of ?better late than never? or ?too late, too little? is up to the fan to decide here ? but Romo, Bryant and the Cowboys were screwed out of a chance to play Russell Wilson and the Seahawks in the NFC Championship game a week later.
Green Bay?s resulting karma from the missed call was immediate in the Pacific Northwest one week later. But, that?s a story for another day.
5) Roughing the Passer?! ? Patriots @ Chiefs ? 1/20/19
Why does this one not come off as surprising?
It?s ironic that Tom Brady called out the NFL for its overabundance of bad calls in Thursday?s Titans v. Jaguars game in South Florida, but he doesn?t call out the league after this one.
Why would he? It benefited him.
Wasn?t the first time, either. More on that later.
Anyways, in the NFL Playoffs it isn?t unusual to see the referees be more lenient on penalties. If there was any time more appropriate in the entire football season to just let the guys go out and play, it?d be hard to find one. The AFC Championship game in particular is a stage where you let the Chiefs and the Patriots just slug it out and fight for their right to go to the Super Bowl.
The refs went 50/50 with this motive.
In the third quarter at Arrowhead Stadium with 7:53 to go, Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes snapped the ball and was hit after a throw by Patriots defensive lineman Trey Flowers. There was appropriately no call made.
However, in the fourth quarter, Tom Brady stepped back to throw and was ?hit? as he was throwing the ball by Kansas City defensive lineman Chris Jones. Jones was flagged.
Writer?s Note: I?m leaving source and video links after all of these botched calls for a reason, people.
Brady wasn?t even hit on this play. His left shoulder pad was basically just slapped by Jones who was still trying to sack the then 41-year-old quarterback. Brady hadn?t even thrown the ball and Jones didn?t get a full body hit on him, but it can be argued that because it was Tom Brady, Chris Jones had to be flagged by the refs.
At the least, refs, if you?re going to make bad calls, don?t make them one-sided.
Chiefs fans still wonder why Mahomes didn?t get a call in his favor. Actually, every NFL fan with common sense is still wondering why.
Maybe if Patrick is lucky, the league will admit they messed up three years from now to clear the air.
Dez Bryant has to be so grateful as he takes the bench this year that the league did so with him. Patrick will be, too.
4) Literally All of Super Bowl XL ? Steelers @ Seahawks ? 2/5/06
Speaking of rigging a ball game, has anyone besides every Seahawks fan gone back and re-analyzed Super Bowl XL? Seeing how this was going to be the last game for head coach Bill Cowher and running back Jerome Bettis ? two NFL icons ? is it a little far-fetched to think the league maybe wanted to help the two ride off into the sunset with a perfect ending? Because if the league didn?t discuss it, it can be argued that the referees did.
It?s not just The Salt who?s calling BS on this game, dear reader. Many in the NFL community, various sources like NFL Network and Bleacher Report, and fans have called out the league on this game.
There are numerous calls that were suspiciously made, but they all have one thing in common ? they all were in favor of the Pittsburgh Steelers. This isn?t to take away anything from Coach, The Bus or a rookie Ben Roethlisberger, but it?s blatantly obvious when you watch the tape that so many calls shouldn?t have been made against Mike Holmgren?s Seattle Seahawks.
Bleacher Report even? well, reported? that Mike Pereira (the NFL?s prior Supervisor of Officiating) took an immediate vacation following the game to Costa Rica. Was it to get as far away as possible from the States following a possibly rigged game? That?s for you, dear reader, to decide.
Some of the calls that raise some serious eyebrows over this game are as follows ? the first questionable call went against Seahawks WR Darrell Jackson who was called for offensive pass interference in the endzone after catching a touchdown from QB Matt Hasselbeck. The call was made because he lightly shoved away Pittsburgh safety Chris Hope.
Writer?s Note: And when I say lightly shoved, I mean I?ve seen puppy dogs more aggressive when playing with each other than Jackson was on this play.
The shove looked more like the body naturally moving and responding to the change of direction as Jackson tried getting his footing right before going after Hasselbeck?s pass. Either way, the touchdown was called back and the Hawks kicked a field goal.
Another poor call was Ben Roethlisberger?s attempt to cross the plain near the end of the first half. Roethlisberger attempted to cross the goal line for the Steelers; his helmet crossed but it?s arguable that the ball didn?t. Regardless, the play was called a touchdown for the Steelers, who took a 7?3 lead going into halftime.
Other questionable calls include Seahawks offensive lineman Sean Locklear getting called for holding on a play where Steelers linebacker Clark Haggans wasn?t called for being offsides. Hasselbeck was also later called for a 15-yard low-block penalty after he was intercepted by Pittsburgh cornerback Ike Taylor.
Any kind of momentum Seattle had going for them in the game was abruptly halted by suspicious penalties all game long. The Steelers would go on to win their fifth Super Bowl 21?10.
One last thing?
The game was held in Detroit, Michigan ? Jerome Bettis? hometown. During the two weeks leading up to the game, he was given the key to the city. The Wednesday before the game was also dubbed ?Jerome Bettis Day? by the entire state of Michigan.
Boy? you sure wouldn?t want the Steelers to lose following all that notoriety and celebration over the face of their franchise now? would you?
3) The Tuck Rule ? Raiders @ Patriots ? 1/19/02
Remember earlier when it was said that Tom Brady has benefited from bad calls in the past?
Let?s go back to the first time he ever did, shall we?
The setting should still be fresh in the mind of Pats fans, who have to go on the defensive every time these three words are muttered ? The. Tuck. Rule.
Otherwise known as the most questionable call of the 2001 NFL Season, some have argued that the Patriots dynasty was built on the back of this bad call. To this, the writer responds with the following: Y?all are telling me that the Patriots wouldn?t have won Super Bowls XXXVIII and XXXIX regardless of the 2001 season?
Shut up Eagles fans, you know you still would?ve lost. Y?all kind of deserve it for booing Donovan McNabb on stage back in the day when he was drafted.
And by the way, why would you plan the victory celebration in advance when playing the Patriots of all teams? The Patriots? C?mon man.
Anyways, the Tuck Rule (introduced to the league in 1999) is described as follows in the now-outdated NFL rule book:
?NFL Rule 3, Section 22, Article 2, Note 2. When a Team A player is holding the ball to pass it forward, any intentional forward movement of his hand starts a forward pass, even if the player loses possession of the ball as he is attempting to tuck it back toward his body. Also, if the player has tucked the ball into his body and then loses possession, it is a fumble.?
Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson hit Brady, amazingly without getting flagged, and knocked out the ball as Brady was bringing it down in a passing motion. Brady admitted to NFL Films that he was ?pissed,? thinking he just lost the game for New England with a fumble. The Raiders, led by a younger Jon Gruden, also thought the game was a lock? but then that?s when one of the most historically bad calls in NFL history was made.
What was the justification for this call? Even Mike Pereira (same guy from him bad call #4) didn?t know, stating that what distinguished a forward pass wasn?t even clear at that point. Apparently, Brady had already pumped the ball forward before holding it in a non-throwing motion in front of his chest. This was enough for the NFL to deem that it was still New England?s ball as ?Brady was not trying to throw it when the ball came loose.?
Right, so that?s a fumble, yes? No? What the hell? Everyone?s confused.
This is a rule that made absolutely no sense and if footage of this fated game was watched back in 2001 or is stilled watched today ? it?s clearly a fumble. To sum it up, it wasn?t a fumble when Tom Brady fumbled it because he was holding the ball a certain way before he fumbled that nullified the fumble.
If you?re still waiting for a logical reason as to why this rule was ever made, don?t hold your breath.
You?ll never get one.
Either way, the rest is history. The Pats would win it all that season and Charles Woodson was robbed of a game-winning fumble.
?The Tuck Rule? was also voted out of the NFL rule book twelve years later in 2013 by a 29?1 vote.
The Patriots were one of two teams that withheld from the voting.
2) Renfro Robbed ? Oilers @ Steelers ? 1/6/80
This was the most difficult decision to make when writing this Top 10 piece. Choosing which call was worse between The Tuck Rule and Renfro?s botched touchdown was difficult at first? until you realize that Brady?s call only handed the Raiders a playoff loss. The repercussions for Houston?s bad call are far worse ? they left town.
Seriously, this was a call so bad that it indirectly contributed to the Oilers leaving Houston for Tennessee sixteen years later. Owner Bud Adams had been threatening to move the team out of The Lone Star State throughout the late 80s, but a Super Bowl berth in the 1979 season may have prevented him from doing so.
This was also a call so bad that it led to the birth of instant replay.
Yeah, it was really that bad.
Luckily this isn?t so complex or confusing to explain as Brady?s previously slotted saving grace, which makes it all the more disappointing.
Simply put, the Houston Oilers and the Pittsburgh Steelers hated each other back in the 70s and 80s. The rivalry continued, when down late in the fourth quarter, Houston QB Dan Pastorini threw a dime into the far-right corner of the endzone to WR Mike Renfro. Renfro successfully hauled in the pass and tapped both feet down in the endzone before going out of bounds? but the referees deemed that he was never in-bounds to begin with.
As the broadcasters were saying at the time, the refs did not have access to instant replay that they did, but they still called the pass incomplete, nonetheless. Houston would lose the 1979 AFC Championship game and move to Tennessee in less than two decades.
Additionally, the NFL?s initial Instant Replay system ? now a critical part of every game ? was first used six years later. This play, undoubtedly, being one of the biggest reasons why it was brought into the league.
Houston would be without a football team from 1996 to 2002 before the Texans were later introduced to the league as the NFL?s 32nd pro team through expansion. One can?t help but seriously wonder what would?ve happened had the call gone in favor of the Oilers as it should have.
Houston lost the game 27?13 but the touchdown could?ve sparked and led them to a victory and eventual birth in Super Bowl XIII against their state-rival ? the Dallas Cowboys. Even an appearance in the Super Bowl may have been enough to convince Bud Adams to keep the team in Houston. The heartbreak suffered by Houston faithful may have also been slightly less severe.
- You Already Know ? Rams @ Saints ? 1/20/19
What else was #1 going to be? There is no clearer missed call than this.
This was hands-down? the worst no-call in NFL history.
How bad was it? The fact that all of America actually could agree on one thing as a country should be your first sign that? wow, somebody messed up.
Seriously, this blown call by the refs led to a new pass interference review rule going into the league?s centennial season, all of New Orleans boycotting watching last year?s Super Bowl and one of the ugliest aftertastes experienced by a fan following the affair.
Regardless of whether one was a Saints fan or not, people felt for New Orleans after that game. Twitter, Facebook, NFL Network, ESPN, Fox Sports and EVERY major media and/or sports outlet was letting the NFL hear this one. The scary thing is that this call was so obvious and so ?in your face? in regards to being a blatant foul that the referees wouldn?t have overturned this call even with the new pass interference review change that came as a result of this travesty.
We all know how it ended.
Jared Goff and the Rams would win the game with a field goal in OT and then go on to lay a goose egg in the game?s biggest stage just two weeks later in the Super Bowl.
Writer?s Note: Maybe? I don?t know? it was because the better team wasn?t representing the NFC that week.
The Saints took their second consecutive season-ending heartbreak and left the Superdome in a choir of boos and beyond angry New Orleans fans ready to call up their voodoo neighbors to make hex dolls of that week?s officiating crew. There?s no other way to say this, but this call is hands-down #1 for one glaring reason ? the entire nation knew that the Saints got cheated and the refs had zero excuse to back up their mistake? but the mistake was made, anyways.
The Patriots had The Tuck Rule guidelines to defend their bad call and the referees had no instant replay to fix their mistake with the Oilers? but the crew calling the Rams v. Saints game had every resource possible to fix the bad call and didn?t anyway.
It doesn?t matter who your team is. Even Ram fans are in on this.
If you?re a true football fan, and you saw this play happen? it hurt.
Undoubtedly, this no-call is the worst botchery of officiating ever displayed by the league that owns your Sunday. It still will be even when the NFL celebrates it?s 125th, 150th, and 200th birthdays.