The most controversial calls in NFL history

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June 3rd, 2020

In an ideal world, NFL referees would call a perfect game every time. That hasn't happened once in the league’s 100-year history.

In a Week 6 matchup in 2019, one bad call after another allowed the Green Bay Packers to pull off a 23-22 comeback win against the Detroit Lions. And in last year's playoffs, the New Orleans Saints once again saw their season end on a questionable no-call.

With the 2020 NFL season edging closer, let’s look back on some of the most controversial calls in NFL history.

Green Bay Packers vs. Dallas Cowboys, 2015 Divisional Round

In January 2015, the Dallas Cowboys hosted the Green Bay Packers in a Divisional Round matchup and trailed by five points with 4:42 remaining in the fourth quarter.

With the ball at the Packers’ 32-yard line, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo dropped back on fourth-and-2 and launched a deep pass to receiver Dez Bryant.

Bryant leaped above cornerback Sam Shields and snagged the ball at the 4-yard line, then tumbled into the end zone, as the ball slid between his arms. For a moment, the football came loose inside the 1-yard line, while Bryant extended the play for a touchdown, but he seemingly never lost control of the ball.

Upon review, NFL officials concluded that Bryant had not maintained possession and ruled Romo’s pass an incompletion. The Packers took over on offense and moved on to the NFC Championship Game.

In 2020, Bryant’s catch would have been considered a touchdown.

Green Bay Packers vs. Seattle Seahawks, 2012 regular season

The 2012 season endured a disastrous start, when a labor dispute with the NFL referees forced the league to use replacement officials from high school and college levels.

Several games were marred by poor officiating in the early part of the season, none more than the Monday Night Football contest between Green Bay and Seattle on Sept. 24.

On fourth-and-10, rookie quarterback Russell Wilson slung a Hail Mary pass to the end zone as time expired. Seahawks receiver Golden Tate and Packers defensive back M.D. Jennings both got hold of the ball and came down with it simultaneously. One ref signaled a touchdown, but the other signaled interception.

According to NFL rules, if two players maintain possession at the same time, the ball goes to the offensive player. However, Tate barely had his hand on the ball, yet the official review declared the pass a Tate reception and handed Seattle a 14-12 victory.

Three days later, the referee lockout ended. As for the final ruling, the league eventually admitted offensive pass interference should have been called on Tate, who pushed cornerback Sam Shields.

The play has been dubbed the “Fail Mary” and the “Inaccurate Reception.”

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Detroit Lions, 1998 regular season

Phil Luckett has experienced his share of controversy as an NFL referee. His first high-profile encounter occurred during a Thanksgiving Day game in Detroit.

With the game headed to overtime, Luckett performed the coin toss, and Steelers running back Jerome Bettis made the call as team captain. The coin landed on tails, and Luckett awarded the toss to Detroit, as Bettis became visibly exasperated. The Steelers star insisted he called tails while the coin was in the air, but Luckett argued Bettis called heads first, then changed his answer.

Based on NFL rules, a team’s first call is the one the referee must use, and Luckett argued that Bettis attempted to deceive him. Detroit got the ball and scored a field goal on its first possession to end the game.

The coin toss rules have since been changed. The team captain now chooses heads or tails before the coin is in the air, and the referee verifies the captain’s choice before the toss.

Following that incident, Luckett was part of the crew that botched Vinny Testaverde’s touchdown ruling, which came before instant replay existed. He also refereed the Music City Miracle, and he was the league supervisor assigned to the "Fail Mary."

New Orleans Saints vs. Los Angeles Rams, 2019 NFC Championship Game

During the 2018 regular season, Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints looked primed for a Super Bowl championship. But first they needed to get past the Rams, a young offensive powerhouse led by second-year coach Sean McVay.

With the score tied, 20-20, in the closing minutes of the NFC Championship Game, Brees took the snap on third-and-10 and threw to Tommylee Lewis near the first-down marker. Rams defender Nickell Robey-Coleman blatantly shoved Lewis before the ball arrived, but no penalty was called.  

There was no question Robey-Coleman committed pass interference, which would have resulted in a first down. Since the Saints couldn’t challenge the no-call, they settled for an early field goal, when they should have been in position to score a touchdown or run the clock out for the game-clinching kick.

Instead, the Rams had enough time to tie the score and send the game into overtime, where they won 26-23. Los Angeles moved on to the Super Bowl and lost, 13-3, to the New England Patriots.

Oakland Raiders vs. New England Patriots, 2002 AFC Divisional Round

Had New Orleans advanced past the 2019 NFC Championship Game, there’s a good chance it might have defeated the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII. Many argue the Pats also may not have won Super Bowl XXXVI, had it not been for a controversial “tuck rule” that helped New England defeat the Raiders in the Divisional Round.

On a snow-swept day in mid-January, the Patriots hosted Oakland at Foxboro Stadium. In the final minutes of the fourth quarter, as the Raiders led 13-10, Tom Brady motioned for a throw, as his former Michigan teammate Charles Woodson tackled him and forced a fumble, which the Raiders recovered.

Had the fumble stood, the Raiders most likely would have run out the clock for a win. However, review determined Brady had attempted to “tuck” the ball back into his body and, thus, threw an incomplete pass, according to NFL Rule 3, Section 22, Article 2, Note 2.

From there, New England placekicker Adam Vinatieri nailed a 45-yard field goal to tie the game and sank a 23-yard kick in overtime for the win. The Pats went on to claim the first of six Super Bowl titles, as Brady and company defeated the Rams, 20-17.

If you’re a Patriots fan, you probably still hear grumbles about this call from opposing fans.

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