For better or worse, so often does a Super Bowl, the entire season, and the fate of a pair of worn out and determined teams come down to a singular player on a singular play. It seems that everything across some five months and 21 weeks of games, from eight divisions and 32 teams fighting through a regular season, can be boiled down to a handful of massively tense and important plays that will forever live in infamy.
Now, surely everything doesn’t actually come down to one play. Each snap is predicated on what happened before, and everything that takes place in a game is a product of that past. That is all philosophical and theoretical though; and while that’s a bit of fun to think about the butterfly effect and the series of maybes that lead to a fumble or a missed field goal. It’s some great fun to pin the blame on the execution of a single professional.
That’s because football comes down to each and every play. It’s a stop-and-start game; it’s not fluid like hockey or basketball, to a lesser degree. So when teams are in these incredibly dramatic situations, with a chance to win or lose, a chance to make the big play or let down himself, his team, and his fans, it makes for a great watch and plenty to talk about afterward. The player is the goat, and it’s not always, and in fact rarely, fair, but such is how sports are boiled down.
So for now, let’s leave aside some discussion of team and personnel and strategy. Inspired from the conclusion of Super Bowl 49, here are the biggest goats in the NFL’s Championship History
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15 Eugene Robinson, Super Bowl XXXIII
The poster child for Super Bowl week irresponsibility, Robinson was famously arrested on a charge of soliciting a "lady of the night,"on the night before the big game in Miami. That it was so close to the game certainly caused a distraction for the Falcons, who lost to the Denver Broncos 34-19. Robinson still played in the game, and he let up an 80-yard touchdown pass to Rod Smith in route to the loss. Robinson was the very definition of a goat, as he caused a massive distraction to his team.
14 Leon Lett, Super Bowl XXVII
It’s rare you’re a goat on the winning team, but Lett deserves to be on the list just as a reminder to any showboater who can’t help but celebrate a touchdown a bit too early. It seems to happen every season, where someone unfamiliar with scoring (usually a rookie WR) starts strutting before the end zone. Lett is the most famous case, having recovered a fumble against the Bills, showing the ball in celebration a bit too soon. Buffalo’s Don Beebe did not give up on the play, kicking out the ball into the end zone for a touchdown. It was the lone bright spot in the Bills 52-17 losing effort.
13 Freddie Mitchell, Super Bowl XXXIX
The loud-mouthed wide receiver who dubbed himself ‘FredEx’ (because he always delivers) failed to show up in the big game. During Super Bowl XXXIX, Mitchell was virtually nonexistent, catching one pass against Rodney Harrison, who he had jawed at all week. Conversely, Harrison caught two passes, picking off Donovan McNabb twice, and the Patriots held on late, winning 24-21. Following an aftermath that focused on the Eagles two-minute drill, Mitchell was cut from the team, but not before being just as boisterous and defending his words and actions.
12 Rich Gannon, Super Bowl XXXVII
The NFL’s MVP that year, Rich Gannon turned in one of the worst QB performances in Super Bowl history. The QB for the league’s number one offense was going up against Jon Gruden and Tampa Bay’s top ranked defense for the first time in Super Bowl history. While he had two TDs, he also had five picks, three of which went for scores. The dominant defense of the Buccaneers also recorded five sacks, building a 34-2 lead in the third before winning 48-21.
11 Kerry Collins, Super Bowl XXXV
Here’s another big game meltdown by a QB who had a great season. One game after throwing for five TDs and 381 yards, Kerry Collins laid a big egg in the spotlight. He tied a then Super Bowl record with four interceptions, passing for just 112 while throwing 24 incompletions. Still, the Giants defense kept the team in the game – for a while. A third quarter pick-six put the Ravens up 17-0 and they wouldn’t relent; the Giants would not score an offensive touchdown in the 34-7 loss.
10 Asante Samuel, Super Bowl XLII
One play before arguably the most memorable catch in the history of the Super Bowl, cornerback Asante Samuel had a chance to seal a victory for the Patriots. While the David Tyree catch will forever be ingrained in football lore, Samuel had a chance to prevent that play from ever happening. Eli Manning hit Samuel in the hands with pass intended for Tyree that would have ended the game. Samuel dropped it, and the play was simply an incomplete pass. Manning would cap the drive with a TD pass to Plaxico Burress, and the Giants would win 17-14.
9 Neil O’Donnell, Super Bowl XXX
O’Donnell is notoriously credited for being on the throwing end of two egregiously bad tosses in Super Bowl history. Unlike the previous two gunslingers listed, O’Donnell was competing in a game that stayed close throughout. A pair of passes from the Steelers QB ended up in the hands off Dallas cornerback Larry Brown, both of which were returned over 30 yards and into Pittsburgh territory. Both led to Emmitt Smith touchdowns, and those 14 points would play big, as the Steelers fell 27-17. Brown would be the first cornerback named Super Bowl MVP.
8 Earl Morrall, Super Bowl III
This was a tough spot for Morrall: he was replacing an injured Johnny Unitas on a talented team at the start of the year, but Morrall exceeded expectations, winning the MVP and taking the Colts to the Super Bowl. At the time of the big game, however, Unitas was healthy, but he didn’t start. He did end up playing, because Morrall was awful, throwing for 6-for-17 for 71 yards and three interceptions. Unitas came off the bench in the third, throwing for more yards and engineering the Colts only scoring play. Unfortunately it was too late, they lost 16-7.
7 Jackie Smith, Super Bowl XIII
Smith’s inclusion on this list is polarizing, because he certainly didn’t directly lead to a loss, and in fact much happened following his fateful play that isn’t his fault. However, because Smith was such a great tight end, and because he came out of retirement to play with another team (Dallas), and well, because of what happened, Smith is a pariah for their loss to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XIII. In the third quarter, Smith was hit in the hands in the end zone on a throw by Staubach, and dropped the ball. The seven points turned to three, and that four point difference would be found in the result, with the Cowboys losing 35-31.
6 Thurman Thomas, Super Bowl XXVIII
Spoiler alert: this won’t be the last Buffalo Bill on this list. In Buffalo’s fourth straight Super Bowl appearance, following three losses, they were leading at halftime 13-6 against the Cowboys. Sure, there was plenty of time in the game for anything to happen, but it all but ended early in the third. Thomas fumbled for the second time, and the ball was returned for a score. It was a deflating play and the Bills would never recover from that moment, losing 30-13.
5 Joe Gibbs/Joe Theismann, Super Bowl XVIII
While this game turned out to be a blowout, there is very clearly one play that swung momentum and the rest of that game. Trailing 14-3, Washington had the ball on their 12-yard line with 12 seconds to go in the first half. Instead of kneeling, they ran a now infamous play called ‘Rocket Screen.’ Joe Theismann, under the direction of Coach Gibbs, attempted a screen that the Raiders were waiting for. Linebacker Jack Squirek picked it off, scored, and never looked back. Gibbs had beaten the Raiders earlier in the season with the same play, and not only did he think he could fool them again, but he decided to do it at the most dangerous and unnecessary time.
4 Wes Welker, Super Bowl XLVI
The Pats have now won four Super Bowls, so it’s okay to pick on them for the two they didn’t win. Realistically, they were two plays away from winning all six, though then again, they were about three plays from losing five. Regardless, for all the great performances Wes Welker put in with the Patriots, his final moment was one to forget. Miscommunication with Tom Brady on a play that was argued by both sides back and forth on who was to blame, saw an open Welker fail to real in a first down pass deep in Giants territory. The Pats were winning by two with four minutes left, and the completion would have likely sealed the game as the G-men didn’t have any timeouts. Welker would be let go after the season.
3 John Kasay, Super Bowl XXXVIII
In one of the most thrilling Super Bowls of all time, a defensive first quarter struggle between the New England Patriots and the Carolina Panthers led to an explosive second half full of big plays up and down the field. Well, the opening two quarters weren’t entirely a struggle: the only 24 points of the half were scored in the final 3 minutes. That gave way to a scoreless third and then 37 points in the fourth. Following a third down TD pass from Tom Brady to Mike Vrabel, and a two-point conversation by Kevin Faulk, Jake Delhomme hit Ricky Proehl for the game tying touchdown with a minute left. Unfortunately, Jon Kasey sent the ensuing kickoff out of bounds, and Tom Brady easily moved the ball within range to win on a kick by Adam Vinatieri.
2 Scott Norwood, Super Bowl XXV
A 47-yard field goal attempt in Super Bowl XXV gave the words ‘Wide Right’ a meaning that never needs to be explained to football fans. Nevermind what happened before in the game, never mind the degree of difficulty. If the kick is through, it’s a Bills win. It wasn’t, and so the New York Giants rejoiced and the Buffalo Bills had their first taste of defeat. What’s even worse for Norwood, it was the first of four straight Super Bowl losses for Buffalo, and never were they close to victory.
1 Pete Carroll/Darrell Bevell, Super Bowl XLIX
Nothing is more egregious, more inexcusable, than the play call made by those in charge for the Seahawks with a chance to win the game. With second and goal from the one, with 26 seconds and one time out, Seattle barely pretended like they were going to hand off the ball to the league’s most powerful, tackle-breaking back who was just three feet away from a Super Bowl ring and MVP. Instead, Carroll, who has assumed responsibly for a call made by OC Darrell Bevell, lined up Russell Wilson in shotgun and had him throw a no-read pass to a player who had caught 18 passes in his three-year career on a medium-to-high risk play that required several players to execute perfectly. Well, it didn’t quite work out, leaving the entire world wondering: did you forget you had Marshawn Lynch?
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