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Blowing the Call – Top Five Worst Decisions by NFL Refs

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February 1, 2024
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Football is a game of inches, talent, and sometimes, monumental referee mistakes. In the annals of the NFL, few things have sparked as much debate, anger, and let's be honest, conspiracy theories, as the top five worst referee decisions in the history of the league. Sometimes your team just biffed it, and sometimes that striped shirt needs his prescription checked.

The "Fail Mary" – Seahawks vs. Packers (2012)

Let's kick off with the infamous "Fail Mary" in the 2012 game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers. The game-ending play saw Seahawks' quarterback Russell Wilson throw a Hail Mary pass into the end zone, leading to a simultaneous catch situation between Seahawks' wide receiver Golden Tate and Packers' safety M.D. Jennings. 

While one referee signaled a touchdown, the other went for a touchback, indicating an interception. After a tense review, the touchdown call stood, giving the Seahawks a controversial win. The outrage was so intense that it helped end the NFL referee lockout, bringing back the regular officials. This play remains a quintessential example of a referee decision gone awry, changing the outcome of a game in the most dramatic fashion. I love the Packers, but even I had to say the play should just be run over to be sure.

The "Tuck Rule" Game – Raiders vs. Patriots (2001)

The "Tuck Rule" game is one of the most hotly contested calls that somehow still avoided a Raiders fan stabbing someone. During a 2001 AFC Divisional Playoff game between the Oakland Raiders and the New England Patriots, with less than two minutes left, Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady was hit and lost the ball, seemingly a fumble recovered by the Raiders.

However, the officials invoked the little-known "tuck rule," stating that even though Brady had lost the ball while trying to tuck it back into his body, it was still considered a forward pass and not a fumble. The Patriots retained possession, tied the game, and eventually won in overtime. This call not only changed the game's outcome but arguably altered the course of NFL history, propelling the Patriots into a dynasty. Given what was happening in the country at that time, there has been no end of conspiracy theories over the true reason for propelling the Patriots.

The "Bottlegate" Game – Browns vs. Jaguars (2001)

2001 was certainly the year for controversial calls. In a game between the Cleveland Browns and the Jacksonville Jaguars, a dubious referee decision led to a fan uprising known as "Bottlegate." Late in the fourth quarter, with the Browns trailing, Cleveland's quarterback Tim Couch completed a fourth-down pass for a first down. The Browns hurried to the line to snap the ball, but the referees suddenly decided to review the previous play, well after another play had been run.

The review concluded that the catch was incomplete, effectively ending the Browns' drive and causing irate fans to shower the field with plastic bottles in protest. This incident is notorious not just for the call itself, but for the chaos and safety concerns it provoked. Players may be big and armored, but angry fans are the real unknown in a stadium.

Dez Bryant's Non-Catch – Cowboys vs. Packers (2015)

My best friend is a Cowboys fan, and I am a Packers guy, but even we had difficulty accepting this one. In the 2015 NFC Divisional Playoff game between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers, Cowboys' wide receiver Dez Bryant made a spectacular catch on a fourth-and-2 play late in the fourth quarter. Bryant leaped, caught the ball, took multiple steps, and dove for the end zone, only to have the ball pop out as he hit the ground.

Initially ruled a catch, the play was reviewed and overturned, with officials stating Bryant did not maintain possession throughout the process of going to the ground. This call sparked a massive debate about what constitutes a catch in the NFL and is often cited as a prime example of the convoluted nature of the catch rule. For me, in your grip and moving is a catch, but what do I know? I only have eyes.

The "Immaculate Reception" Rule Misinterpretation – Raiders vs. Steelers (1972)

The "Immaculate Reception" is one of the most famous plays in NFL history, but it's also shrouded in controversy. In the 1972 AFC Divisional Playoff game between the Oakland Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers, with 22 seconds left, Steelers' quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw a pass that deflected off a Raider defender and was caught by Steelers' Franco Harris, who ran it in for a touchdown.

The controversy revolves around whether the ball touched Steelers' John Fuqua or Raiders' Jack Tatum last, which mattered because, at the time, NFL rules prohibited a pass from bouncing off one offensive player to another unless it was touched by a defensive player in between. The referees ruled it a touchdown, a decision that has been debated ever since. Bounce it off of whoever you want; whoever is left holding it at the end tells you a lot.

These worst referee decisions in NFL history highlight the significant impact officials have on the game. They remind us that football, like all sports, is subject to human error and interpretation. These moments have led to rule changes, intense debates, and have become ingrained in the fabric of NFL lore. They demonstrate that while players and coaches strategize and execute, sometimes the game's outcome hinges on a single whistle blow, for better or worse. You may not agree with this list, but the fact that you have your own makes my point for me.

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