Referees may have the toughest job in all of sports. The position is highly criticized and rarely praised. They have to bear the weight of an entire city or fan base, and one bad call could lead to total destruction of his or her life. But the fact of the matter is that a referee is not going to please everyone, and one team’s loss is another team’s win.
In the age of technology, a referee’s reasoning that he or she is only human does not carry much weight. The NFL has repeatedly failed to correct the current video replay system. This is what needs to be criticized. Numerous possibly game-deciding calls have already been missed this season, and fans have reached a boiling point. Even the NFL’s Vice President of Officiating, Dean Blandino, admits that there have been numerous high-profile mistakes this year. He told USA Today Sports:
We’ve had some mistakes that have happened in high-profile games and it’s drawn a lot of attention and that’s created a narrative that officiating isn’t as good as its been. Those high-profile mistakes, we own up to them. We’ve got to correct those issues, but in our view, it’s not much different than what we’ve had in years past.
He’s right. Here are the five worst calls in NFL history.
5. Jay Cutler’s “Non-Fumble” (2008)
In the 2008 AFC West showdown between the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers, the Broncos found themselves down by a touchdown in the final two minutes of the game. Denver drove all the way to the Chargers’ goal line and faced a second-and-goal at the one-yard line. In classic Jay Cutler fashion, he dropped back to pass, rolled right, and the ball slipped out of his hand before completing the passing motion. In other words: His arm was not moving forward.
But before the Chargers linebacker, Tim Dobbins, recovered the “fumble,” referee Ed Hochuli inadvertently blew his whistle and ruled it an incomplete pass. Since Hochuli blew his whistle before the ball was recovered, the fumble recovery could not be reviewed. The Broncos went on to score and converted the two-point conversion, winning the game 39-38.
4. The “Holy Roller” (1978)
On September 10, 1978, the Oakland Raiders were trailing the San Diego Chargers 20-14 with only 10 seconds remaining in the game. Even John Madden didn’t think his Raiders could walk away from this game victorious. As Kenny Stabler was sacked by Chargers linebacker, Woodrow Lowe, Stabler intentionally fumbled the ball forward.
Raiders running back, Pete Banaszak, managed to push the ball even further down the field to teammate Dave Casper, who batted the ball across the goal-line and jumped on top of it in the end zone for a touchdown. The Raiders were not penalized for intentionally batting the ball forward, and they won the game 21-20. The poor Chargers finished on the losing end of a bad call once again. Banaszak and Casper both admitted to advancing the ball illegally later on.
3. The “Music City Miracle” (2000)
Many people remember the Tennessee Titans’ infamous “Music City Miracle” in 2000. It was the AFC wild card showdown between the Titans and Buffalo Bills. The Titans fell behind 16-15 after a 41-yard field goal from Bills kicker, Steve Christie, with 16 seconds remaining in the game. The ensuing kickoff from Christie was fielded by Titans’ fullback, Lorenzo Neal. Neal handed the ball to tight end Frank Wycheck, who threw a low fadeaway pass across the field to Tennessee wide receiver, Kevin Dyson.
With a convoy of blockers in front of him, Dyson took it 75 yards to the house, giving the Titans the controversial AFC wild card win and eventual Super Bowl XXXIV appearance. The only problem is that the Titans should not have made it to the Super Bowl that year. Wycheck’s “lateral pass” to Dyson was clearly an illegal forward pass, but referee Phil Luckett and his crew decided otherwise — and the rest is history.
2. Franco Harris’s “Immaculate Reception” (1972)
The “Immaculate Reception” is one of the most famous plays in NFL history. On December 23, 1972, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders faced off in the AFC divisional playoff game. The Steelers were trailing the Raiders 7-6 with 22 seconds left in the game, facing a fourth-and-10 situation. Hall of fame QB, Terry Bradshaw, fired a pass to running back, John Fuqua, which was deflected into the hands of Steelers fullback, Franco Harris. Harris caught the deflection with his fingertips and ran 60 yards for the touchdown. The Steelers won the game 13-7.
Unfortunately for the Raiders, video replay was not a thing in 1972 — and the video footage was out of frame during Harris’s catch, so it was difficult to determine if the ball hit the ground or not. The “catch” was not the only controversial part of this play, however. The NFL had a rule at the time (removed in 1978) that if one offensive player was the first to tip a pass, it couldn’t legally be caught by another offensive player. Visual evidence can’t determine if the ball was deflected first by Raiders defender Jack Tatum or Steelers running back, John Fuqua. The mystery of this play makes it one of the more famous moments in NFL history.
1. The “Fail Mary” (2012)
The most recent of the top five worst calls in NFL history comes in at No. 1 on this list. You may remember that this game happened during the NFL referee lockout, and replacement refs were used for this Monday night matchup between the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers. The epic showdown between two of the NFL’s better teams came down to the final seconds. Russell Wilson rolled right, spun around back to his left, and fired a 40-yard prayer into the end zone as time expired.
Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate and Packers defender M.D. Jennings both got their hands on the football while in the air and came to the ground with a simultaneous possession. One of the refs ruled the play as an interception and the other official ruled it as a touchdown. Before the ball was caught by both players, Tate shoved Packers defender Sam Shields, but an offensive pass interference penalty was not called. The replacement refs reviewed the play and decided to rule the catch as a Seattle touchdown. The Seahawks won the game 14-12.
All statistics courtesy of NFL.com.