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The 5 Most Questionable Calls in NFL History

The 5 Most Questionable Calls in NFL History
Andy Lyons/Ezra Shaw/Rick Stewart, Getty Images

By now, even non-football fans have heard about the officiating debacle in last night’s showdown between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks (just check your Facebook feed). Facing a 12-7 deficit with just seconds left to play, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson rolled out of the pocket and threw a desperation heave into the end zone, resulting in a game-clinching interception for the Packers.

Except it wasn’t. Instead, the NFL’s much-maligned replacement officials inexplicably ruled the play a touchdown for the Seahawks, ignoring an obvious offensive pass-interference penalty and cementing the phrase “simultaneous catch” into the lexicon of poor sports officiating.

This screw-up will, hopefully, lead to the return of the real refs—but let’s not forget that they too have made their share of awful calls over the years. Here’s a look at some of the NFL’s most controversial officiating decisions:

The Thanksgiving Coin Flip

This particular officiating blunder had more to do with basic listening skills than football knowledge. The 1998 Thanksgiving game between the Detroit Lions and Pittsburgh Steelers had yielded a 16-16 score in regulation, forcing the game to overtime. Each team’s captains lined up at midfield for what is normally the most mundane of football activities: the coin toss. Steelers running back Jerome Bettis can clearly be heard calling tails, which would have given Pittsburgh possession of the football to start the extra period. Instead, official Phil Luckett insisted that Bettis had called heads, resulting in possession for Detroit. Detroit won the game on the opening drive, and Luckett’s hearing would never be trusted again.

The Bert Emanuel Rule

The 1999 NFC championship game was coming down to the wire, with a late touchdown pass by Kurt Warner giving the Rams a late 11-6 lead over the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay quarterback Shaun King quickly went to work, driving the Buccaneers down the length of the field for a potential go-ahead score. With less than a minute remaining, King appeared to hit a streaking Bert Emanuel for a crucial completion, placing the Bucs in prime scoring position. Instead, the officials ruled that Emanuel had failed to secure the ball, resulting in an incomplete pass and eventual Tampa Bay loss. The missed call was so controversial that it led to the establishing of the “Bert Emanuel rule,” a complete overhaul of the manner in which borderline catches are judged.

The Music City Miracle

The January 2000 “Music City Miracle” play was as unlikely as it was controversial. The Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills had engaged in an incredible wild-card matchup, complete with several late-game lead changes. Steve Christie’s 41-yard field goal with 16 seconds on the clock appeared to ensure a playoff win for the Bills, so long as they could hold off the Titans on one final kickoff.

On the ensuing return, Titans fullback Lorenzo Neal caught the ball and immediately handed it to tight end Frank Wycheck. Wycheck sprinted to his right, turned back around and launched a cross-field lateral to receiver Kevin Dyson, who grabbed it and took it to the end zone for an electrifying 75-yard touchdown. An official review appeared to show that Wycheck’s lateral had been illegal, but referee Phil Luckett (remember him?) decided to uphold the ruling on the field. The Titans won the game, and Bills fans received yet another dose of playoff heartbreak.

The Tuck Rule

When the New England Patriots met the Oakland Raiders in a snow-swept 2001 divisional playoff game, Tom Brady was still a relatively unknown commodity. The Raiders held a 13-10 fourth-quarter lead and were attempting to withstand a late charge by the Michigan alum. With less than two minutes remaining, Oakland cornerback Charles Woodson appeared to force a game-clinching fumble by Brady, which might have ended the Brady legend before it ever began. Instead, the game’s officials ruled the play an incomplete pass, citing an obscure NFL statute. The “tuck rule” played a crucial role in the Patriots’ eventual win and directly enabled Brady’s rise to stardom.

The Immaculate Reception

Forget the NFL—Franco Harris’s “Immaculate Reception” may be the most debated play in the history of sports. On the final play of the 1972 AFC divisional playoff game, Terry Bradshaw’s pass to Steelers halfback John Fuqua appeared to have been broken up by Raiders safety Jack Tatum. Instead, Franco Harris darted out of the backfield and snatched the ball just before it hit the ground. He then streaked into the end zone as time expired.

The play was an immediate source of controversy: If Tatum had been the last player to touch the ball, Harris’s reception was legal; if Fuqua had touched it last, the ball would be ruled dead and the game would end in a Raiders victory. Not only that, but no one can be sure if the Harris actually managed to grab the ball before it hit the ground—the replay cuts off just before it can be determined. The officials eventually ruled in favor of the Steelers, but the questionable call is debated by scorned fans to this day.

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