The Worst Calls In NFL History

football | 1/24/19

There isn’t anything more exciting than football, especially come playoff time. Unfortunately, the one thing that can ruin all of the fun is a controversial call by the referees. The 2018 NFC Championship Game between the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints is a prime example.

Rams defender Nickell Robey-Coleman collided with Tommylee Lewis on a pass from Drew Brees late in the game. Robey-Coleman was not flagged on the play, but there should have been one. Nobody expects the officiating to be perfect, but whatever the issue it may be, sometimes a team just get screwed out of a game.

The replacement official apocalypse of 2012 was known for one of the most controversial plays in league history.

Was He Out Of Bounds?

George Gojkovich/Getty Images

The Houston Oiler receiver was denied a chance at football history. This came when his game-tying touchdown catch was waved off by side judge Donald Orr. From Orr’s perspective, he believed Renfro didn’t get both of his feet down inbounds.

Because of this, the Oilers ultimately lost to the Steelers, 27-13, in what could have been Houston’s first trip to the Super Bowl. However, the league’s instant replay rule was still six years away from this questionable incident.

The Snowplow Game Of 1982

Bettmann/Getty Images

The result was one of the more comical of the controversial moments in the NFL. With less than five minutes to play with the score still 0-0, the Patriots drove into position for a 33-yard field goal attempt.

Then, Patriots coach Ron Meyer ordered snowplow operator Mark Henderson, a convicted burglar on a work release program, to clear away the snow-covered turf so John Smith could kick off a clean spot. Smith made the kick, the Patriots won 3-0, and an infuriated Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula was left to sulk in the snow.

1998 Thanksgiving Day Coin Flip

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Referee Phil Luckett asked Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis if he wanted heads or tails. Bettis called “tails” but Luckett said the running back called “heads.” The overtime coin flip landed as tails and the Detroit Lions took possession of the ball.

Detroit too advantage, and drove down the field on their way to settling for a field goal and a Lions a 19-16 victory on Thanksgiving Day. The worst moment was that Luckett’s coin-flip moment was on national television.

Despite the next game not having playoff implications, the call had big implications for one team who ultimately lost.

Jerry Rice Didn’t Fumble

Harry How/Allsport/Getty Images

With under a minute to go in the 1999 NFC Wild Card Game, San Francisco marched down the field into Green Bay territory. The future Hall of Fame receiver hauled in a pass, but fumbled while being tackled to the ground.

However, referee Gerald Austin ruled that Rice was down by contact, keeping the 49ers season alive. However, replays showed otherwise. Then, Terrell Owens caught a 25-yard touchdown pass which is known as “The Catch II.”

Duke Johnson’s “Fumble”

Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty Images

The Cleveland Browns felt certain that Duke Johnson recovered his fumble on a day that so them turn the ball over three times in the final quarter. The ball bounced back to the running back, who stood up from the pile holding the ball in the air.

Officials, meanwhile, huddled up, and line judge Sarah Thomas said she saw a Washington player with the ball on the ground before Johnson got up with it. Thus, the ball and the victory went to the Redskins.

This Would Happen To The Jets

Al Bello/Getty Images

Austin Seferian-Jenkins thought he scored a touchdown, but not after review. Following the review, the referees came back with a confusing ruling — no touchdown and it was the Patriots ball.

Officials overturned the play. They said that Austin Sefarian-Jenkins fumbled the ball before crossing the goal line. He then failed to recover the ball before going out of bounds. The call had big implications since the Jets would hold the Patriots again. Plus, if the touchdown stood, the Jets would have only needed a field goal to tie the game.

What was so bad about Super Bowl XL? Bill Levy has the answer to that shortly.

The Tuck Rule

Robert Klein/Getty Images

With under two minutes left, Tom Brady dropped the ball after being hit by Charles Woodson in the AFC Championship Game. Walt Coleman ruled that Brady had thrown an incomplete pass because he had started “tucking his arm”.

The Patriots kept the ball and drove down the field for a game-tying field goal. New England would win the game in overtime, and the Raiders went on to be the example of NFL Rule 3, Section 22, Article 2, Note 2 known as the “Tuck Rule.”

Hochuli Blows Play Dead

Rich Gabrielson /Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images

The Denver Broncos were at the San Diego Chargers one-yard line in the final minute of the game. Jay Cutler dropped back to pass, but the ball slipped from his hand with a Chargers player recovering it.

However, referee Ed Hochuli ruled the play as an incomplete pass and instant replay said differently. It showed that a fumble call should have been made, but the Broncos retained the ball at the 10. Because of when the whistle had called the play dead, possession could not be changed.

The Missed Calls Of Super Bowl XL

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

This particular Super Bowl was one of the worst officiated games. The officiating crew, led by Bill Levy, caught heat from fans after a holding call. That wasn’t the only mystery, as there was also a questionable offensive pass interference call as well as a blocked call on Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.

Every call in this game seemed to go against Mike Holmgren and the Seahawks. What’s even worse is that Leavy admitted he missed calls well after the game was finished.

The play which became known as the ‘Bert Emanuel Rule’ is up next.

2002 NFC Wild Card Game

Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

The controversy between the 49ers and Giants arose during a botched Giants field goal attempt. Holder Matt Alan tried to pick up the bobbled snap and throw a pass to Rich Seubert.

The guard would be knocked down before the pass, setting up for a pass interference call. However, the referees thought otherwise and called a penalty on the Giants for an illegal man downfield. The next day, the NFL announced the officials blew the call, even after they knew Seubert was an eligible receiver.

Pass Interference?

Sarah Glenn/Getty Images

A week for Dallas got screwed over, they were gifted with a call that gave them the win. Detroit was holding onto a slim lead with a third and one inside Dallas territory. Cowboys linebacker, Anthony Hitchen, interfered with tight end Brandon Pettigrew, grabbing his arm prior to the ball getting there.

The referee threw a flag, but the call was overruled by head linesman Jerry Bergman. He claimed there was no grab due to where he was standing. Dallas not only won the game, but got away with this one.

The Bert Emanuel Rule


In the 1999 NFC Championship Game, Tampa Bay was looking at a go-ahead score. Quarterback Shaun King hooked up with wide receiver Bert Emanuel for a diving catch deep into the Rams endzone.

Even though Emmanuel clearly had both hands under the ball when he rolled over it, officials said the ball’s nose touched the ground, and ruled it as an incomplete pass. In the aftermath, debates about the play resulted in a rule change that clarified what was considered a valid reception.

Coming up, the catch controversy was on full display in 2014 for one unfortunate Cowboys receiver.

The Call That Didn’t Happen

Chris Graythen / Getty Images

Sometimes, when a referee doesn’t make a call that they should’ve, it affects the game just as much. Anyone neutral to football would’ve been shocked to see there was no pass-interference call.

As the Saints were driving to the red zone on third down, the refs missed a PI call that would’ve changed the game. The Saints should’ve been awarded a first down which would’ve put them in position to win it all. The Rams ended up winning in overtime.

Next: what did Roger Goodell say about the call?

Goodell Breaks His Silence On No Call

Missed Call saints
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

“We understand the frustration of the fans,” Roger Goodell said. “Talked to coach (Sean) Payton, the team, the players. We understand the frustration that they feel right now, and we certainly want to address that.”

Goodell didn’t have a response fans wanted to hear during his press conference. Stevie Wonder could have seen that missed call, so perhaps the game is officiated by robots. “The game is not officiated by robots,” Goodell said. “It’s not going to be.” Perhaps a machine would not have missed this call and the Saints could have been playing in the Super Bowl.

The Immaculate Reception

GettyImages-107963503 (1)
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

One of the most amazing, yet controversial moments in NFL history came in the 1972 AFC Divisional round that saw the Steelers and Raiders duke it out. With Pittsburgh trailing with 22 seconds left, Terry Bradshaw’s pass that was intended for Frenchy Fuqa was knocked away in a collision with Raiders’ Jack Tatum.

But, Franco Harris was in the right place to retrieve the ball and run for the insanely improbable winning score. The catch was technically a double offensive touch, which was illegal at the time.

The Holy Roller

Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The San Diego Chargers were down 20-14 with ten seconds left in the game. Oakland quarterback Ken Stabler was about to be sacked when he fumbled the football. Running back Pete Banaszak was the closest to the so-called fumble, and pushed the ball ahead of him toward tight end Dave Casper.

Banaszak’s teammate knocked the football across the goal line then jumped on the ball to score a touchdown, giving the Raiders the lead. Referees stood by their call, ruling the Raiders didn’t knock the ball forward.

Dez Caught It

Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

This was a controversial call that’s still discussed today. During the NFC Divisional Game between the Packers and Cowboys, Dez Bryant was the center of attention. The wide receiver maintained possession throughout the process of going to the ground after the catch. Cowboys fans and many other fans disagreed with the referees ruling of an incomplete catch.

Unfortunately for Cowboys fans, the refs insisted that Bryant didn’t maintain possession of the ball. Almost four years after the incident, the NFL came to a unanimous agreement that the controversial catch should have been ruled complete.

Another controversial catch like Bryant’s was a botched call, leading to a new rule.

Music City Miracle

Allen Kee/Getty Images

Controversy arose during a kickoff return from the Buffalo Bills. While the team was holding onto a 16-15 lead, Tennessee Titans tight end, Frank Wycheck, threw a lateral pass down the field to Kevin Dyson.

Soon, Dyson was running down the field for a 75-yard winning touchdown. The officials argued that Wycheck’s pass was legal, awarding the Titans the touchdown as well as the victory. The Bills had to wait almost 20 years until their next playoff appearance in 2018.

The Jets Scoring A Non-Touchdown Touchdown


In the fourth quarter between the Jets and Seahawks, only a touchdown would win it for New York. Vinny Testaverde tried a quarterback sneak, and he actually made it in for a touchdown. One referee thought he was in while the other one thought he was short.

Ultimately, the Jets got the home field call, and it was ruled a game-winning touchdown. However, the television replay showed that Vinny didn’t make it past the goal line, and should have never been awarded a touchdown.

The Calvin Johnson Rule

Kena Krutsinger/Getty Images

Calvin Johnson made an incredible catch against the Chicago Bears. As the receiver pivoted to the ground, he put the ball on the ground and it got away from him. This was well after Johnson had hit the ground, but that didn’t stop the initial touchdown call from being overruled by another referee.

Their excuse was that “Megatron” didn’t complete the process of the catch. The botched call led to a new rule, clarifying what a catch is, known as the “Calvin Johnson Rule.”

The Replacement Refs

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

With the clock ticking down and only one play left, Russell Wilson threw a hail Mary pass in a desperate attempt to beat the Packers. Golden Tate and a Green Bay defender came down with the ball..

The Packers M.D. Jennings appeared to have made an interception. Tate then wrestled possession away from him on the turf. One referee called touchdown, and the controversial ruling stood after review. The score stood and Seattle won 14-12.

It Was The Colts Ball…

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Indianapolis opted for a strange kick off return while trailing New England in the third quarter of this game. Colts formation caused chaos among Patriots defenders, but the team wisely kept five men hovering around wideout Griff Whalen.

The move to outsmart the Patriots backfired on Indy. New England would obviously go on to win the game. Besides, if the refs didn’t blow that call, the Colts likely wouldn’t have run the dumbest fake play football has ever witnessed.

The Golden Rule

Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions went from an apparent game-winning touchdown by Golden Tate to a call reversal that handed them a loss. With 12 seconds left, Tate looked to have scored a touchdown which would’ve lifted the Lions to a 32-30 win over the Falcons.

There was eight seconds left after the apparent touchdown. After further review, the refs said that he was a half-yard short. With the ten-second time run-off, the game was over and the Lions ended up losing 30-26.

Case Keenum’s Unsportsmanlike Call

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Case Keenum was flagged for taunting the Lions during a 2017 Thanksgiving game. We should probably use the term “taunting” very loosely.

Keenum took a sack from Ezekiel Ansah near the end of the third quarter. He got up and lightly tossed the ball in Ansah’s direction. It was third down, so after the taunting call, Keenum’s Viking’s were forced to punt. The call was somewhat inconsequential, but the call was a head-scratcher.

Ruined The Chiefs’ Playoff Chances, Then Retired

Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty Images

Referee Jeff Triplette hadn’t worked an NFL playoff game in three seasons and it’s easy to see why. He was abysmal when he got the call to do the Chiefs-Titans matchup in the 2018 wildcard game.

Thanks to Triplette’s premature whistle-blowing on two plays that should’ve been ruled sacks, this game has been dubbed the “Forward Progress Game.” Instead of ruling them fumbles, Triplette ruled Marcus Mariota down because his forward progress was stopped. Triplette retired the next day.

The Zach Miller TD Reversal

Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

After the Chicago Bears tight end suffered a life-changing knee injury, he learned some even worse news. The gruesome injury occurred during a game his Bears were playing the New Orleans Saints.

Originally, the play that saw Miller almost lose his leg was counted as a touchdown. Then, it was reversed on the field and called no-touchdown. It was literally adding insult to injury. Not long after the injury, the NFL proposed new rules and Miller learned that his catch in the end-zone would’ve been a definitive TD with these new rules.

NFL refs aren’t the only ones who make boneheaded calls that drastically change the outcome of the game.

Chuck Knoblauch’s Phantom Tag

Sporting News via Getty Images

Chuck Knoblauch was quite the ball player. He remains the only first baseman to make a tag on a close play at first without even making a tag. It was like magic.

During game four of the 1999 ALCS, the Yankees infielder tried to make a tag on the Red Sox’ Jose Offerman. Photos of the play clearly show that he missed the tag but umpire Tim Tschida thought otherwise. He said the tag was made, and everyone’s vision of the play was off. No, Tim, it wasn’t.

Brett Hull In The Crease?

brett hull
Ronald Martinez/ALLSPORT

During Game Six of the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals between the Dallas Stars and Buffalo Sabres, Brett Hull had a skate in the goalie crease but still scored a goal. That rule has since been taken out, but it was very controversial at the time.

The goal came in overtime of what was the decisive sixth game which sent the opposing Buffalo Sabres packing with a very bitter taste in their mouth, and rightly so. If the goal was called off, who knows where that series would’ve gone.

You Messed It Up, Don

don dekringer

Don Denkinger was a very respected umpire in the MLB. But, he made a huge mistake during the 1985 World Series which pitted the St.Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City Royals against each other.

In the ninth inning of game six, the Cardinals led by a run. In a pivotal play, Denkinger called Royals’ player Jorge Orta safe at first when he was clearly out. The Royals would go on to score two runs in the ninth and win the game. They would win in game seven thanks to Don’s missed call.

Jim Joyce Had A Bad Gaffe Too

jim joyce
Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Don Denkinger wasn’t the only umpire to make a horrible call that stirred up controversy. Jim Joyce ruined a perfect game from then-Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga.

Even though the runner was clearly safe at first, Joyce called him out. If Joyce would’ve got that call correct, Galarraga would’ve been in the history books. After the game, Joyce was visibly shaken up and admitted that he got it wrong. He apologized many times for the call and felt horrible about it.

The 1972 Olympic Basketball Game

usa basketball
Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images

The U.S basketball team came from behind in the 1972 final at the Summer Olympics in what should’ve been a very beautiful story.

The end of the game turned into a huge mess. It ended with Doug Collins shooting free throws with a buzzer in his ear. The Russians were given a few too many sketchy calls that allowed time to be stopped for them. More than 40 years later, the U.S players still refuse to say the silver is theirs.

Kent Hrbek Smash

Sporting News via Getty Images

If you want to remember a Bush League play that went unpunished, look no further than Kent Hrbek. He visibly took Ron Grant off first base by force. Hrbek tagged Grant after he was pulled off the base and umpire Dave Coble called him out.

What happened was blatantly obvious to anyone who was watching. Except the refs, we guess. Fans were shocked that Grant was allowed to get physically tossed off the base and tagged out.

Thierry Henry

TF-Images/Getty Images

Soccer has remained one of the professional sports that refuses to have instant replay for the referees. Thierry Henry had an egregious handball that cost a nation a trip to the World Cup.

Henry even admitted that it was a handball after the game. He said, “I will be honest, it was a handball. But, I’m not the ref. I played it. The ref allowed it.” It might be time for a rule change.

Deigo’s Handball

Mark Leech/Offside/Getty Images

Going back to the 1986 World Cup, Diego Maradona got away with the handball of all handballs. Argentina was facing off against England, and somehow his goal still counted. It’s safe to say that if Maradona wanted to grab a drink in England, the bartender wouldn’t let him drink it with his hands.

Argentina would win the game 2-1 because of the controversial goal. God has been credited with a great deal of that victory.

Roy Jones Jr. Was Robbed

Rich Schultz/Getty Images for NUVOtv

To say that Roy Jones Jr. beat Park Si-Hun would be an understatement. Jones Jr. demolished the Korean boxer in the Olympic final. The American boxer outpunched Parh 86 to 32.

Despite this, when the final bell rang out and all the judges scorecards came in, the Korean fighting was named the winner. This decision remains one of, if not the worst decision in Olympic history. Jones Jr. was clearly robbed of a gold medal.

Manny Vs. Timothy

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

In the end, the Manny Pacquiao vs. Timothy Bradley fight, it was obvious who the winner was. Pac-Man was the clear victor, and it didn’t take a whole lot of boxing knowledge to figure that out.

Duane Ford and C.J. Ross, two of the judges for the fight, gave a visibly surprised Bradley the victory. It’s stats like Manny landing 190 power punches to Bradley’s 108 that suggest the fight wasn’t even close. Those judges missed the mark.

With Only 2 Seconds To Spare

meldrick taylor
Al Bello / Getty Images

After both Meldrick Taylor and Julio Cesar Chavez hammered each other during the 1990 light welterweight championship bout for 11 rounds, the scorecards had Taylor in front going into the 12th round. Chavez landed a series of jabs on Taylor and one of them dropped him to his knees.

Veteran referee Richard Steele called the fight immediately with two seconds left on the clock. To audiences, it appeared he had quick counted to eight before Taylor could regain his footing. If he didn’t call the bout, Taylor might have won.

Fifth And Goal

Denver Post / Getty Images

People love getting angry over a blown, and that’s exactly what happened during this college football game when the University of Colorado was given five down instead of four on one drive.

Those five downs were amplified when the mistake was made on a drive that ended up giving Colorado a game-winning score in front of an angry Missouri crowd. Apparently, the refs had never worked together until that game, which is not a very good excuse.

Eric Gregg’s Massive Strike Zone

ivan hernandez
Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Livan Hernandez rang up 15 strikeouts thanks to Gregg’s oversized strike zone in Game Five of the 1997 NLCS. Pitches nearly a foot outside were called strikes. The Marlins beat the Braves in six games.

Sure, pitching in a pitcher-friendly stadium helps. Having good stuff that day helps, but nothing helps more than having an umpire who is willing to call strikes that are basically thrown outside of the entire stadium.

Yanks Get Lifted By 12-Year-Old

new york yankees (1)
Doug Pensinger / Getty Images

In Game One of the 1996 ALCS, 12-year-old fan Jeffrey Maier reached over the right-field fence and grabbed Derek Jeter’s fly ball before Baltimore’s Tony Tarasco could snatch it.

Umpire Rich Garcia opted not to call fan interference even though it was CLEARLY fan interference. The eighth-inning “home run” tied the game and the Yankees ended up winning that game 5-4 in the 11th inning. The Yankees went onto win the series 4-1.

Tim Welke’s Brutal Call

Jon Durr/Getty Images

Tim Welke’s call was so bad you can’t even be mad about it. It’s actually comedic. Todd Helton was positioned so far off of first base on this play there’s no way he could have beaten Jerry Hairston Jr. to the bag. When Welke called the runner out, even Helton was shocked.

Helton basically had a full body-length in-between him and first base yet he still got the call. Helton was so surprised he got the call he actually couldn’t keep a straight face.