We were robbed! Most memorable officiating controversies for all 32 NFL teams

20. January 2021

NFL Nation

Exactly two years after the Rams’ infamous lack of interference defensive passes in the 2018 NFL season, the Rams-Saints game takes place. This is one of the last mass trials, but it is far from the only one. Rightly or wrongly, fans of every NFL team over the years have experienced at least one call or lack of call that still irks them. Neglected penalties, questionable flags, questionable broadcast booth decisions…. we’ve seen it all.

As we prepare for this weekend’s conference championship games, our NFL reporters have picked one such controversy for each team. What refereeing error – or perceived error – still irks fans of the 32 teams?



City of Music Miracle, 8. January 2000. The Titans’ defeat in the AFC Joker was highlighted by a lateral touchdown pass from Frank Wycheck to Kevin Dyson that led to the game-winning return touchdown. The rebroadcast provided no conclusive evidence that the call was cancelled, and a computer analyst hired by NFL Films believed it was correct, but Buffalo fans to this day believe the side pass was actually a forward pass. The game marked the beginning of a 17-year drought for the Bills and now adds to a string of disappointing sporting events in Buffalo. — Marcel Louis-Jacques

Snowplow game, 12. December 1982. The Patriots defeated the Dolphins with a goal from Mark Henderson, the Patriots’ snowplow operator, who backed away from his job of clearing field markers and instead allowed New England to take cover and kick the ball. The 33-yard field goal was good and led the Patriots to a 3-0 regular season victory on a short field goal.

Don Shula protested the appeal under the NFL’s unfairness law, claiming it gave the Patriots a competitive advantage. Commissioner Pete Rozelle said there’s nothing he can do because there are no rules against it, even though the NFL has banned the use of a snowplow during games since this season. That year, both teams reached the qualifiers, where the Dolphins got their revenge with a 28-13 victory to advance to Super Bowl XVII. — Cameron Wolfe

Don Shula got angry when a worker plowed the turf for the Patriots’ goal attempt. AP Photo/Mike Cullen

Hamilton hits the passer, 18. December 1976. The Patriots led 21-17 with 1:24 remaining in the divisional round of the AFC Playoffs in Oakland. The Raiders’ offense, led by Ken Stabler, faced a third and 18 from their own 28-yard line, and when the pass broke, the Patriots were one long play away from victory…or so they thought. Referee Ben Wright called the Patriots defensive tackle, Ray Sugar Bear Hamilton, for a questionable free kick that gave the Raiders new life. The Raiders took the field and scored the winning touchdown. — Mike Reiss

Escape from Motown, 21. December 1997. The Jets, who needed a win to secure a playoff spot, scored a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter but were intercepted by Leon Johnson on a halfback pass. The Lions’ corner, Bryant Westbrook, picked up the ball in the end zone, but a replay showed it was out of bounds. At the time, there were no immediate reviews of the broadcasts, and the Jets lost 13-10 and missed the playoffs in Bill Parcells’ first season as coach. — Rich Cimini


Replacement tip, 10. January 2015. In the AFC Divisional Playoffs, the Ravens were hampered by the Patriots who used deceptive and non-compliant play with receivers, resulting in a 35-31 loss. The controversy centered on the fact that the Patriots running back, Shane Vereen, tested the referees as an ineligible receiver on a drive, but still lined up as a wide receiver outside the tackle zone. Then New England lined up on the left and tackled Michael Hoomanawanui to make some passes. The Ravens weren’t sure who they would be up against, and the Patriots scored on the shot to cut Baltimore’s lead to 14 points in the second half.

Two months later, the NFL adopted a rule stating that an offensive player with an authorized number – 1-49 or 80-89 – cannot plead ineligibility and line up outside the tackle zone. — Jamison Hensley

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Pacman’s punishment, nine. January 2016. Adam Pacman Jones’ unsportsmanlike conduct during the infamous 2016 AFC Tour still stings. The call came after Cincinnati’s Vontaze Burfict was called for a 15-yard penalty for taking Steelers’ receiver Antonio Brown. Jones’ extra 15-yard penalty, for reasons that were unclear at the time, put the Steelers in a position to attempt a 35-yard field goal in the pouring rain. Of course, the Steelers took the opportunity to score the winning goal with 14 seconds left. Additionally, the Steelers were not penalized for having coach Joey Porter’s assistant on the field, which is against league rules. — Ben Baby

Bottle holder, 16. December 2001. Hoping to qualify for the Week 14 Playoffs, the Browns faced a 4th and 2 from the Jacksonville 12-yard line with 1:08 minutes remaining. Cleveland quarterback Tim Couch has found Quincy Morgan for a possible first down. But after Couch’s spike stopped the clock, the officials came in and said they would go back and see if Morgan had caught the ball.

During the broadcast, it rained down from the stands in the field, which continued even after the officials reversed the decision. Twenty minutes later, the players returned from tunnel security and the game was over. At the impromptu press conference that followed, Browns president Carmen Politix pointed out that the bottles were plastic. They don’t pack much of a punch. — Jake Trotter

Coin for Thanksgiving Day, 26. November 1998. At 4 p.m. after regulation time on Thanksgiving day, the Steelers and Lions were at midfield for overtime. Jerome Bettis appeared to flip a coin when he tossed the coin, but Judge Phil Luckett heard him say heads. Luckett lifted the coin and announced that Bettis had picked the head and the coin had landed on the tail. The Lions received the ball and ran for 42 yards in three minutes to win in sudden-death format.

After the game, Luckett told reporters that Bettis had called the line, which Bettis vehemently denied. Later, a video broadcast from KDKA showed Bettis telling coach Bill Cowher that he gave him a from behind. The controversy changed the way the NFL conducted the draw by asking players to make their choices for the draw. — Brooke Pryor.


Hopkins is out of line, 21. November 2016. In the opening game of Monday Night Football in Mexico City against the Raiders, quarterback Brock Osweiler threw a pass to DeAndre Hopkins. The whistle was blown when the official stated he was out of bounds for a touchdown, although replays seem to show Hopkins was in bounds. Houston’s shot finally stalled and the Texans had to settle for a field goal in the Raiders’ 27-20 loss.

Later in the game, there were two more questionable calls. In the fourth quarter, at a score of 20-20, Lamar Miller ran for a first down on third-and-2, but was judged to be short. The Texans then went ahead on the fourth try, and running back Hunt for Akeem came up again for the first try. The chase was considered short and head coach Bill O’Brien contested the spot and lost. Five games later, the Raiders scored the winning touchdown. After the game, O’Brien said we have all these cameras and we can’t get good footage. -Sarah Bar Shop

Horrible job. Terrible. 18. October 1998. Former hoops coach Jim Mora said this after his team lost to Steve Young, Jerry Rice and the 49ers 34-31. The Colts took a 21-0 lead before the 49ers resumed play with the help of officials. The Colts had two interceptions cancelled due to penalties. In another room, officials decided that 49ers receiver, J.J. Stokes, was out of bounds for the touchdown, but changed the decision after discussing it. The refereeing was so bad that the NFL then issued a statement that the referees had made mistakes on that play. — Mike Wells

Miles Jack didn’t fall, 21 years old. January 2018. The Jaguars led the Patriots 20-10 early in the fourth quarter of the game for the AFC title when the Patriots used a passing play in which receiver Danny Amendola threw a pass to tackle Dion Lewis. But Jack hit Lewis for a 22-yard gain and ripped the ball out of his hands as they fell to the ground. Jack finished the ball, got up and ran into the end zone, but the officials blew the whistle and stopped what should have been a touchdown.

After reviewing the play, the referee decided that Jack had not made contact and the Jaguars took over at their own 33-yard line. The Jaguars forced three turnarounds and the Patriots responded with the first of two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Had the officials not taken Jack out of the game earlier, the Jaguars would have taken a 27-10 lead and the game would have been changed. The Patriots won 24 to 20. — Mike DiRocco.

Myles Jack is credited with a clumsy fumble recovery, but not the ensuing return for a touchdown that could have allowed the Jaguars to overtake the Patriots. AP Photo/David J. Hughes. Phillip

TD Steve McNair should have counted, 12. November 2001. The Titans got the ball on the Ravens’ one-yard line on Monday night to make it 16-10 when McNair dove into the end zone behind Bruce Matthews’ center for what should have been a touchdown. But the touchdown was taken off the board because the Ravens’ linebacker, Peter Boulware, was whistled offside and the play was scored before he came into contact with an offensive Titan. Both teams played on the whistle, and Tennessee thought they had scored a touchdown. With three seconds on the clock, McNair attempted another shot on goal, but Sam Adams, Corey Harris and Ray Lewis stopped the race just short of the goal line to secure the win as time ran out. — Turron Davenport


Elway-to-Kay Rules Incomplete, 25. January 1987. At the end of the first half of Super Bowl XXI, the Broncos gave the Giants a 10-7 lead with the ball at their own 13-yard line. In the second and 12th position, John Elway hit Clarence Kay for 28 yards and a first down attempt. However, officials in the field acknowledged that the pass was incomplete and reviewed the rebroadcast available in what is believed to be the first rebroadcast used during the Super Bowl. However, this proved inconclusive and the requirement for completeness was upheld. Pat Summerall and John Madden of CBS thought the pass was a wrap. And a few minutes later, after play resumed, CBS aired a replay showing that Kay caught the ball.

But it’s too late. The Giants sacked Elway for a safety on the play after he threw to Kay to score 10-9. Broncos’ striker Rich Karlis missed a 34-yard goal on the final play of the first half, and the Broncos were unable to recover from a mistake in the second half, leading to the Giants’ 30-point, 39-20 victory. -Jeff Legwold

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Gonzalez is without a touchdown, 4. January 1998. To this day, Tony Gonzalez – who is not the most impartial observer – will push for a third strike into the end zone in the third quarter of a divisional game. Gonzalez has a strong case, but he was shut out and the chiefs had not called on him in the days leading up to the instant replay. So they were satisfied with a field goal, but the four extra points would have been useful. The Chiefs lost 14 to 10. The Broncos won the Super Bowl, a fate the Chiefs might have waited for when Gonzalez scored a touchdown. — Adam Thacher.

St. John’s Scroll, 10. September 1978. The Chargers led by six points with ten seconds left, but the Raiders got the ball at the Chargers’ 14-yard line and had one last chance to win the game. Quarterback Ken Stabler, a mugger, gets fired and desperately quits football. Pete Banaszak, who came running back, failed to catch the ball and instead hit it forward. In the end zone, Dave Kasper broke short on him before falling on him, giving the Raiders an improbable victory.

The offense’s clumsiness was allowed at the time – although the play prompted the NFL to implement a new rule that only an awkward player could advance the ball after a two-minute warning – but the clumsiness was deliberately denied. Referee Gerry Markbreit decided behind the scenes that he could not decipher the attempt to push the ball forward. The Chargers finished the season 9-7, one game behind the Broncos in the AFC West. — Alden Gonzalez

Tuck rule, 19. January 2002. After initially grounding the decision when Charles Woodson’s blitzer pushed the ball away from Tom Brady with 1:50 remaining in the divisional playoffs with the Raiders leading 13-10, the decision was changed to an incomplete pass after reviewing video footage. But most believe he did not show enough evidence to overturn the initial call, as seen in some footage of Brady with both hands on the ball at the time of the shot. New England found new life, scored the winning goal and won it in overtime.

In March 2013, the Tuck rule was repealed by a vote of 29 to 1 (Washington and New England abstained). Tom Brady owes me his house, Woodson laughed at the news. I’m the reason he married the woman he married. I’m the cause of many of them. That’s all I’m saying. Because they cancelled the call. Tom, come on, admit it. It was hype. All is lost. — Paul Gutierrez


#DezCaughtIt, 11. January 2015. When a coin has its own hashtag, you know you’ve been hired. In the playoff phase of the division, Dez Bryant completed a spectacular four-point pass at the Green Bay goal line to Tony Romo to give the Cowboys the lead at the end of the fourth quarter. Instead, the match was cancelled by replay as Bryant failed to complete the catch – despite working several phases and dragging himself to the goal line.

Under the current rules, Bryant’s receipt would have been valid. Who knows if the defense could have stopped Aaron Rodgers on that last shot if Dallas had taken the lead, but the Cowboys would probably want to know. — Todd Archer

Dez Bryant’s catch in the divisional round will be in today’s NFL. Rob Carr/Getty Images

A play by Trey Junkin, 5. January 2003. The NFL admitted they missed the call-up pass in the final playoff game, in which the Giants took a 24-point lead over the 49ers. The game started with a bad Junkin move that forced Matt Allen to scramble and pass down the field in the first. Offensive lineman Rich Seubert, the good tackler in this game, was hit most often before the ball hit its target. No penalty flag for this infraction. The game is over. Giants lose. A penalty would have given the Giants a point and another chance to score the winning goal. Instead, they lost 39-38. — Jordan Ranan

Stay away from the bottle, 9. December 2018. Malcolm Jenkins’ offer of safety came after a controversial decision at the start of the Eagles’ game with the Cowboys, who played in Dallas’ favor and helped decide the division. Jenkins’ hit on Jordan Lewis knocked Kamu Grudger-Hill off the mound. But the referees gave possession to the Cowboys and deprived the Eagles of a big boost. It was a pretty awful call, Jenkins said. So if you’re looking in New York, stay away from the bottle. — Tim McManus.

The phantom catcher of 16-year-old Mel Gray. November 1975. Washington and the Cardinals of St. Louis. Louis went out on a 6-2 score. Washington had plenty of time to make another legal play with a touchdown pass to St. John’s. Louis at the 7-yard line. Quarterback Jim Hart threw a pass, but the ball bounced back quickly and after Gray hit the ground, he broke away from his helmet. One official reported that he wasn’t ready yet, but after a few seconds of chaos, another official reported a landing.

The Cardinals won in overtime to win the division, while Washington missed the playoffs by two games – but they also went into their last loss to Philadelphia knowing they were already out of the division. Two senators then questioned Commissioner Pete Roselle about the play during a hearing on the anti-black bill. The season ticket holder even took legal action, which was quickly dismissed. — John Keim.


He crossed the line on the 5th. November 1989. With Chicago visiting and a 13-6 lead with 32 seconds left in the game, Green Bay quarterback Don Majkowski evaded the Bears’ defense, Trace Armstrong, and rushed out of the pocket where he threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Sterling Sharpe. However, the referee ruled that Majkowski had crossed the line of scrimmage before the ball left his hand and called for a penalty kick. As the Bears have noted, teachers have begun to review the game. After a four-minute delay, the broadcaster decided that – even without clear video evidence – Majkowski had crossed the line and awarded the Packers a touchdown (and victory). — Jeff Dickerson

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Flag up, 4. January 2015. From Calvin Johnson’s catch to Calvin Johnson’s ball out of the end zone to Trey Flowers’ ghost hand game against Green Bay, there have been many selections here in the last decade. The call that resonates to this day, however, is the interference flag on an intercepted pass to defender Anthony Hitchens on the Lions’ wild play against Dallas.

The Lions led 20-17 and drove when the flag was thrown, then resumed a third try. Instead of putting Detroit on the field, the Lions punished, gave up a touchdown and lost 24-20, continuing their losing streak in the playoffs. It was garbage, former Lions quarterback Darryl Tapp said at the time. The league then apologized for the missed call, but it didn’t matter much because Detroit was eliminated from the playoffs. — Michael Rothstein

Miss Mary, 24. September 2012. You know it’s bad when a play has its own title. With replacement referees on duty in Seattle due to a labor dispute between the NFL and its referees, the Hail Mary first reached out to the Packers’ M.D. Jennings before the Seahawks’ receiver, Golden Tate, tried to get him off the field. This caused a lot of confusion before the officials finally decided it was a touchdown for Seattle, winning the game 14-12. Two days later, the usual jurors returned. Years later, almost everyone involved with the Packers thinks it was an interception. — Rob Demovsky

Original Hail Mary, 28. December 1975. With 24 seconds left in the divisional playoffs, the Vikings led 14-10 in Dallas when Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach said a prayer to Drew Pearson in the end zone. Pearson admitted years later that he had used his outside arm to apply inside pressure on Nate Wright [the Viking cornerback] in what many thought was an intentional blocking move to disrupt offensive passes.

Pearson caught the ball on his hip and ran into the end zone to give the Cowboys a 17-14 lead over an NFC opponent. The show ended Minnesota’s two consecutive Super Bowl appearances and caused such outrage at Metropolitan Stadium that a fan threw a bottle of whiskey at the official Armenian Terzian, who was briefly knocked unconscious. — Courtney Cronin


Roddy found the 20. January 2013. In the 2012 NFC Championship game against San Francisco, receiver Roddy White said he was held up/replaced by NaVorro Bowman on a 4-4 play from the 49ers 10-yard line with just over a minute left in the game. Matt Ryan’s pass was incomplete, and the 49ers advanced to the Super Bowl with a 28-24 shutout. I complained, but that’s over now, Mr. White said. When you get to that point, when they drop these things, it’s a done deal. I’ve seen some bad calls, but there was so much at stake. — The staff of ESPN…

Bobble Colcheri, 7. February 2016. The Panthers lost 3-0 in the first quarter of Super Bowl L to Denver when the league’s MVP, Cam Newton, hit Jerrijo Cotchery in the middle of first and 10 from the Carolina 15-yard line. Scotchery dropped the ball, but it didn’t hit the ground. The game was reviewed and the referee ruled that the decision made on the field was an incomplete pass, even though the restart clearly showed that the ball had not hit the ground.

Two games later, Denver’s Von Miller scored a touchdown on a stripper sack to make it 10-0 and lead the Broncos to a 24-10 win. To this day, players and coaches believe this has prevented the Panthers from having a legitimate chance to play in the Super Bowl after a 15-1 start to the regular season. — David Newton

The play that changed the pass interference, 20. January 2019. No wonder. This may be the most famous referee gaffe in NFL history. It has led to a radical change in the offseason rules for one year, so pass interference can be reviewed in a repeat of the 2019 season. In the NFC Championship Game between the Saints and Rams, the game was tied at 1:49 minutes from time when referees overlooked a blatant PI call against Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman (who admitted he intentionally hit receiver Tommily Lewis to prevent him from scoring). The penalty would allow the Saints to burn out most of the time and put them in a better position for a TD. Instead, they were stopped by a field goal and the Rams came back to win in overtime. — Mike Triplett

Nickell Robey-Coleman came away with an obstruction in the Rams’ victory over the Saints. Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Emanuel Catchback, 23. January 2000. The Bucs are 11-6 with 51 seconds remaining in the NFC Championship Game against the St. Louis Rams. Second and third, Bert Emanuel made a 12-yard catch at the Rams 23-yard line, leading to a third and 11. It wasn’t until Coach Tony Dungy called a timeout that the referee decided to replay the game. We looked at each other and thought: What are you checking? Emanuel remembered. Referee Bill Carollo and official player Jerry Markbreit determined that the nose of the ball touched the ground when Emanuel fell and declared the ball incomplete.

Two failed pass attempts later, Tampa Bay’s season is over. The NFL has changed that rule for next year. It has haunted me ever since, Emanuel said. I have lived through this scenario: Maybe I’ve been throwing away our chance to go to the Super Bowl for years. — Jenna Lane.


Santonio fingers, one. February 2009. The Cardinals are 23 to 20 to 42 seconds away from ending their first Super Bowl trophy when the Steelers are ahead of the Cardinals at the 6-yard line. That’s when Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hit Santonio Holmes directly on the end zone to get as close to a touchdown as possible. The game was repeated to determine if Holmes’ two legs were touching, and the repetition confirmed the result.

The Steelers kept winning. But more than a decade later, we still wonder if Holmes’ right foot was touched or if his toes were pressed against the bottom of his left underwear. — Josh Weinfuss.

Too many contacts, three. February 2002. The Patriots effectively slowed down the biggest show on the turf, beating the Rams 20-17 at Super Bowl XXXVI, largely because their defensive backs were stealing receivers throughout the game and not scoring for them. It’s probably not a coincidence that the Rams coach, Mike Martz, was a member of the game committee in 2004 that focused on illegal contact. — Lindsay Tyree

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A couple of death flags, eight. January 1984. After a 21-point comeback in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game, the Niners were tied in the Super Bowl when Washington quarterback Joe Theismann and the offense took command at the 22-yard line and ran for the game-winning points. But not without a few controversial flags.

At 2:10 p.m., on the San Francisco 45, Theismann launches in the back to host Art Monk. A pass was made over the head of Monk and cornerback Eric Wright, but Wright was penalized for passing interference in the Niners’ 18th game. The Niners claimed the pass was not taken, but to no avail. Shortly thereafter, Ronnie Lott was demoted to third. These two controversial decisions resulted in a 24-21 victory for Washington and prevented San Francisco from reaching the Super Bowl. — Nick Wagoner

I made two calls in the fourth quarter, in the fifth. February 2006. In Super Bowl XL, there were four questionable decisions against the Seahawks (Was Darrell Jackson’s retreat into the end zone an interference on offensive passes? Did Ben Roethlisberger really cross the goal line?), inappropriate (Sean Locklear was flagged for holding Clark Haggans offside), staggering (Matt Hasselbeck was flagged for a low block when he tried to make a tackle in response to an interception).

The referee of this game, Bill Levy, came out in 2010 with a warm mea culpa : I made two decisions in the fourth quarter that affected the game, and as an official you never want to do that. He didn’t give details of the play, but there were penalties on Locklear in the final frame (canceling a Steelers one-yard lineout) and Hasselbeck (bringing Pittsburgh 15 yards closer to what should have been a spectacular touchdown). — Brady Henderson

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