It wasn’t even a possibility that we would make it through week one of the NFL season without some sort of controversy erupting. It’s how sports work. One team wins, the other team starts pointing fingers to explain why they got shafted and should have won the game. Usually, those fingers point at the officiating crew.
On Sunday, the Detroit Lions appeared to win a game on the road (why are you laughing, we’re serious, they almost won) at Chicago on a touchdown pass from current backup quarterback and future grocery bagger Shaun Hill to Lions receiver Calvin Johnson. But it wasn’t to be. After further review, the refs stuck to the letter of the law and the pass was ruled incomplete.
In the strictest sense of the rule, the call was 100% correct. Whether you agree with it or not is up to you, but one thing is for sure…there’s no reason to be surprised that a game would end on a seemingly blown call. It happens a lot, and it’s often been much much worse than what happened yesterday.
5 Green Bay Packers vs. San Francisco 49ers – 1998 NFC Wild Card Game
Being the poster child for all that is good about the NFL, it’s no surprise that Jerry Rice had more than a few sketchy calls made in his favor during his playing days. But what happened during the 1998 NFC Wild Card game was unforgivable.
On a second down play in the fourth quarter, Rice appeared to fumble the ball on a second down play. Green Bay recovered the ball and all parties involved assumed that was the ballgame. But really, it only looked like a fumble. What really happened is that he just dropped the ball prior to being down. No reason to tarnish the reputation of a legend on a technicality like that! Instead, officials ruled that Rice was down by contact (he wasn’t even close to being down), keeping San Francisco’s drive and hopes of winning the game alive.
A few plays later, Steve Young threaded a laser pass through what appeared to be half the population of Green Bay to Terrell Owens in the end zone. Owens naturally got hammered but managed to hold on to the ball for a game winning touchdown. You can probably trace Brett Favre’s refusal to retire back to that very moment.
4 Denver Broncos vs. San Diego Chargers – 2008
Jay Cutler is no stranger to controversial calls or turnovers. During a regular season game against the San Diego Chargers in 2008, those two things conspired to nearly end the career of one whistle happy NFL official.
Down by seven points with 1:17 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Broncos had moved the ball to the San Diego one yard line. Luckily for the Chargers, Cutler pulled what many in Chicago have come to know as “a Jay Cutler” by turning the ball over with the game on the line. At least that’s what every person watching at home and almost every person in the stadium thought happened. We say “almost” everyone in the stadium because, inexplicably, referee Ed Hochuli blew the play dead as soon as the ball left Cutler’s hand.
But here’s the thing…when the ball left Cutler’s hand it was moving backwards. After consulting several rule books and NFL officials (no we didn’t) the TSJ staff has determined that this, in fact, does not constitute an incomplete pass but is actually what football historians often call a “fumble.” But thanks to Hochuli’s itchy whistle finger, it was a moot point. The play was over and Denver maintained possession of the ball. Do we even need to tell you what happened next?
3 New England Patriots vs. Oakland Raiders – 2001 AFC Divisional Playoff
During a divisional playoff game between the New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders (again, we’re not joking, the Raiders made the playoffs) Pats quarterback Tom Brady was sacked by Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson and appeared to fumble the ball. The turnover was a huge break for the Raiders considering the Patriots were nearing field goal range during the fourth quarter of a 13-13 game.
Enter instant replay. Officials reviewed the play and, citing a rule that we’re pretty sure hadn’t been enforced since the days when it was illegal to drink whiskey with a goat on Thursdays within city limits, ruled that Tom Brady’s arm was moving forward at the time and therefore the result of the play was an incomplete pass and not a fumble. Never mind the fact that his arm was moving forward on account of being drilled from behind by Woodson, the ancient rule was still a rule and New England kept the ball. A few plays later, the Patriots kicked a game winning field goal and claimed victory in one of the most widely debated games of all time.
The Patriots would also go on to win the Super Bowl and then a few more after that before successfully pulling off the biggest choke in sports history by going undefeated throughout the regular season and playoffs only to lose the Super Bowl to the underdog New York Giants. What does that have to do with the tuck rule? Nothing, we just still think it’s hilarious that they blew that perfect season.
2 Seattle Seahawks vs. Pittsburgh Steelers – Super Bowl XL
It’s one thing to see a regular season game decided on a blown call. That’s bad times, but a team can usually recover. It’s much worse when a playoff game is won due to a bad call, like that New England tuck rule fiasco. But when a Super Bowl is lost due to shitty officiating? Get ready for some riots.
Somehow, Seattle Seahawks fans managed to resist the temptation to burn the state to the ground after a series of horrifically blown calls sent them home with a loss in Super Bowl XL. While there are a few to choose from, the worst of the bunch had to be a phantom offensive pass interference call in the first quarter which set the whole shitty officiating display in motion.
On a pass from the 17 yard line, Seattle’s Darrell Jackson appeared to come down with a touchdown catch over Steelers safety Chris Hope. But inexplicably, the officials called an offensive pass interference call. Did Jackson interfere with Chris Hope? Yep. Did Chris Hope interfere with Darrell Jackson back? You bet. Did any of the contact have any bearing on the play? Not in the least. Nevertheless, the points were taken off the board and Pittsburgh went on to win Lombardi Trophy.
1 Detroit Lions vs. Pittsburgh Steelers – Thanksgiving Day 1998
Look, there are just some calls that, as an NFL official, you just are not supposed to blow. Sitting high atop that list would have to be the coin flip. It’s a simple process, really. Someone calls heads or tails, you throw a coin in the air and who wins the flip depends on how the coin lands. Or at least in a perfect world it’s that simple.
When a 1998 Thanksgiving day game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Detroit Lions went into overtime, representatives from both teams met at the fifty yard line for the coin flip to determine who would have the ball first. Before the flip, referee Phil Luckett asked Steelers running back Jerome Bettis for his heads or tails call. That exchange went something like this:
Luckett: Heads or tails?
Luckett: Heads? Cool. Let’s flip.
We’re paraphrasing, but you get the idea. Bettis said tails. Everyone at home heard him say tails. Everyone at the Silverdome heard him say tails. But somehow, Phil Luckett heard “heads” instead. Naturally, the flip came up tails and the ball went to Detroit who kicked a game winning field goal on the ensuing possession.
Could Detroit have done the right thing by telling Luckett that Bettis actually called tails and Pittsburgh should have the ball? Of course they could. But did they? Of course not. Who would? But it might be something for Detroit fans to keep in mind while they’re bitching up a hot streak about yesterday’s blown call. Karma is a motherfucker, Detroit.