A new NFL season is just around the corner, and that means an exciting 17-plus weeks of needle-threading passes, incredible catches, and ankle-breaking runs. But the NFL is not purely a display of brute strength and freakish athleticism, it is also a game of strategy orchestrated, in part, by the coaching staffs on the sidelines. We’ve seen time and time again how brilliant decisions and adjustments made in the moment can prove critical to a team’s success or failure. However, for every perfectly timed play action pass or expertly called timeout to ice a kicker we’ve also witnessed some coaching decisions that leave us all scratching our heads wondering “what was he thinking?” We’ve all second-guessed the decision to run the ball in the aftermath of a fumble, or felt the heartbreak of missing the first down after going for it on fourth and inches in a key moment of the game, but those are tough calls that could break in either direction.
The following play calls were so mystifying that it’s hard to understand their justification, and coaches were often left scrambling to explain their decisions in post-game press conferences. This collection of bad decisions are ranked both on the level of the bad judgment as well as the importance of the game and the timing of the call. That is to say, judgments were made based on the specifics of each situation. Going for it on fourth down inside your opponent’s 40 yard line, for example, is certainly not as idiotic as making the same call on one’s own 30. Naturally, certain decisions seem worse than others depending on your investment in a particular team or game, but others transcend team allegiance and rise to the level of universal stupidity. Here are some of the most idiotic play calls in NFL history.
15. Ditka’s denial
Less an idiotic call and more simply one that disappointed fans, this play takes the bottom of the list for robbing an NFL great of an important milestone. Up 37-3 in Superbowl XX, Bears coach Mike Ditka elected to give William “Refrigerator” Perry the goal line carry for a touchdown, denying Walter Payton the opportunity for a Super Bowl rushing touchdown. After everything that Payton had done throughout his career, fans were devastated that he was denied this easy touchdown opportunity, and Ditka later remarked that he regretted the call.
14. Dream season falls short
Coach Bill Parcells had the opportunity to kick off an incredible comeback season for the New York Jets by leading them to the playoffs after a dismal 1-15 record the previous year. All they needed was a win over the Detroit Lions. Down 13-10 with the ball on the Detroit 9 yard line, the Jets were almost guaranteed at least a game-tying field goal. That is, until Parcells opted for an option pass by running back Leon Johnson. The pass was, shockingly, picked off and the Jets fell a win short of advancing to the postseason.
13. Untimely challenge
Here’s a good example of why coaches should be experts on the rules of the game. In a Thanksgiving Day game against the Texans, Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz threw the red challenge flag on a Houston touchdown run, thinking the runner had been down by contact. Unfortunately, at the time, scoring plays were automatically reviewed, but calling a challenge on a score incurred a penalty, which meant that the play could not be reviewed. The touchdown stood and the Lions fell to the Texans in overtime.
12. Late night out
Mark this down as one of the most bizarre back-stories for a stupid coaching decision. Preparing to take on the Denver Broncos in Superbowl XXXIII, Atlanta Falcons cornerback Eugene Robinson was feeling a bit restless and lonely the night before the game. The obvious solution? Cruise the streets of Miami for a little bit of “professional companionship.” Robinson ended up getting caught up in a police sting busting solicitors of prostitutes and spent the night in jail. Aware of this fact, Falcons coach Dan Reeves still opted to start Robinson whose shaky defense helped Elway’s Broncos roll to a 34-19 victory.
11. Buffalo benching
Miracle worker Doug Flutie had revived some of that Boston College magic in the twilight of his career when he led the Buffalo Bills to several late-game wins en route to a wildcard spot and a matchup against the Tennessee Titans in January, 2000. With a move that stumped the football world, Bills coach Wade Phillips decided to bench Flutie for this playoff matchup in favor of Rob Johnson. Johnson ended up 10-22 with no touchdowns, was sacked six times, and the Bills fell to the Titans 22-16 in a thrilling game capped off by a 75-yard kickoff return for the winning touchdown. This is, perhaps, a good lesson in not changing horses midstream.
10. Icing your own kicker
In an odd twist of fate, one of the dumbest calls involves a coach icing his own kicker. With 8 seconds remaining in a 2011 matchup, the Cowboys’ Dan Bailey had a 49-yard field goal attempt to break a tied game. The kick went up and sailed through the uprights, but wait, a sideline timeout was called just before the snap…by Dallas coach Jason Garrett. Bailey attempted the kick again, missed, and the Cardinals went on to win in overtime.
9. Rex robs the Ravens
Speaking of poorly chosen timeouts, Rex Ryan is no stranger to the unnecessary timeout blunder. With his Ravens leading New England 24-20, Ryan had a chance to break up the Pats bid for a perfect season long before (week 13) the Giants eventually succeeded. The Patriots had to go for it on 4th and one with less than two minutes to play but were stopped by the stingy Baltimore defense. Alas, the refs nullified the play due to a sideline timeout call by…you guessed it, Rex Ryan. The Patriots converted their second fourth down attempt and went on to drive for the game-winning touchdown.
8. Gibbs double dips
In an emotionally charged home game, the first since the tragic death of Skins free safety Sean Taylor, The Redskins needed a defensive stop to seal a two-point victory. The Bills lined up for a 51-yard field goal and Skins coach Joe Gibbs called a timeout. No major issues here, since coaches often call timeouts in an attempt to “ice” the kicker. However, Gibbs followed up by calling ANOTHER timeout, which was against the rules, incurred a 15-yard penalty, and set up the 36-yard field goal to give the Bills a 17-16 victory.
7. Red Right 88
The curse of Cleveland sports teams has a long and storied tradition. With no major sports championships since the Brown won in 1964, the city has watched time and again as their franchises have fallen short. Questionable coaching decisions certainly haven’t helped. In a 1981 AFC divisional playoff game against the Oakland Raiders, the Browns, down by two points at home, had the ball in field goal range with only a minute to play. Browns coach Sam Rutigliano called a pass play that was intercepted, sealing the win for Oakland.
6. Holmgren lets Terrell Davis score
With the game tied late in Superbowl XXXII, Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren oddly opted for his defense to make no effort to stop Denver running back Terrell Davis from scoring on a goal line run with 1:45 remaining. It was second down and Holmgren still had two timeouts, giving them plenty of time to hold Denver to a field goal and attempt a drive for a game-tying field goal. Instead, he chose to take the full 100 seconds but give up seven points instead of three. Holmgren later admitted that he had mistaken the down, thinking it was first and goal instead of second down. If only there were signs on the field with large numbers on them displaying the down…
5. Even Bellichick makes mistakes
November 2009, Patriots at Colts. Up 34-28 with 2:08 to play, Bellichick decides to go for it on 4th and 2 on their own 28 yard line. Tom Brady attempted a swing pass to running back Kevin Faulk and he was stopped short of the first down. Bellichik may have been scared of a Peyton Manning game-winning drive, but giving him less than half the field is almost guaranteed points. The Colts drove the whopping 29 yards and scored the game-winning touchdown. That win gave the Colts the winning percentage edge over the Patriots, which meant home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Colts would advance to the Superbowl that year.
4. Mornhinweg’s coin toss gaffe
November 2002, the Lions and Bears played a close game that went to overtime. The Lions won the coin toss and head coach Mornhinweg opted to take the wind direction instead of receiving the ball. This, of course, was still when overtime was sudden death, so the Bears marched down and kicked the 40-yard field goal to win. It appears that the wind was not a big enough factor to make field goals impossible. This poor decision may explain why Mornhinweg only served two seasons as the Lions head coach, though perhaps it was also his 5-27 record.
3. Cowboys go for it… twice
In a division matchup in 1995, the game was tied at 17 with time winding down to the 2-minute warning. The Cowboys had the ball on their own 29 facing a 4th and one. Cowboys coach Barry Switzer decided to go for it, handing the ball off to Emmitt Smith who ran the ball but was stopped short. Luckily for the Cowboys, the refs determined that the clock stopped for the two-minute warning just before the ball was snapped, nullifying the play.
So Switzer obviously learned from his mistake and decided to punt the ball, right? Wrong. He went for it again, handed off to Smith again, and was stopped short AGAIN. The Eagles went on to kick the game-winning field goal. This could easily go down as the worst call given that it was actually two bad calls in one key moment of a game, but it fell short because it ultimately had less dire implications. The Cowboys still went on to win their third Super Bowl in four seasons.
2. Miracle at the Meadowlands
In a 1978 division game, the New York Giants had a 17-12 lead and could have kneeled to run out the clock. Instead, they chose to literally run out the clock, but the handoff was botched and Eagles cornerback Herm Edwards returned it for a game-winning touchdown. Even the announcers had already put this game to bed, as they were busy thanking the various production staff as part of the customer wrap up dialogue as Giants quarterback Joe Pisarcik turned the ball over and the Eagles scored. The loss cemented any chance the Giants had of making the playoffs.
1. Pete Carroll’s pass
The top blunder on this list seems a no-brainer, particularly given how fresh it is in the minds of football fans everywhere. It occurred, after all, in the last NFL game we all watched. Analysts are still debating Pete Carroll’s decision to pass at the goal line in Super Bowl XLIX. With 2nd and goal from the 1-yard line and 26 seconds left, Carroll opted for a pass play instead of handing the ball off to Marshawn Lynch, who had rushed for 102 yards and had been unstoppable on that final drive. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson rolled and passed to Ricardo Lockette but was intercepted by Malcolm Butler to seal the win for the Patriots.
Carroll is, of course, not new to the world of poor coaching decisions, having now lost both the Super Bowl and the BCS National Championship due to questionable decision making down the stretch. His best bet now is to hop that someone else makes an even worse decision sometime soon so that this game becomes a slightly more distant memory.
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