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The 7 Worst Decisions in Super Bowl History

Eric Thompson

by Eric Thompson in News

Nov 1, 2015 · 5:55 AM PST

There were countless great moments provided by the most recent Super Bowl: the crazy catches, the last-second INT, the halftime shark. But perhaps the most fun was the fallout. For weeks afterwards, everyone had an opinion on Pete Carroll’s play calling at the New England goal-line, and 99.9-percent of those opinions were that he was a complete moron. While I agree that giving Marshawn Lynch the ball would’ve been cool (especially since I had bet on him as Super Bowl MVP), I wasn’t a fan of the hyperbole that it was “the worst call in Super Bowl history.”

The fact is, we’re approaching the 50th rendition of the big game. There have been plenty of mind-boggling moments and head-scratching decisions made over the years, showing that no one is immune to making a bad choice on the biggest stage in North America. To prove it, we shall now count down the worst decisions ever made by coaches, players, and even refs in the Super Bowl.

(Check out our other lists in honor of the Super Bowl’s 50th anniversary here: The 7 Most Surprising Super Bowl Performances of All-Time and The 7 Worst Super Bowl QB Matchups of All-Time.) 

7. Super Bowl XLI: Colts kick it to Hester

(Photo Credit: Mike Morbeck, via Wikimedia Commons)

The 2006 Chicago Bears did not have a great offense. They made the Super Bowl largely thanks to a superb defense and a rookie kick returner who had just celebrated a record breaking season. Devin Hester was the biggest threat to score on the entire Bears team, and the only way he would get a chance to make plays was if teams elected to kick him the ball. So that became the question all week leading up to the big game: would the Colts kick it to the dynamic returner?

Given their place on this list, you probably know what Tony Dungy and his 30th-ranked kickoff coverage decided to do. After getting burned by a then-quickest score in Super Bowl history, Indy did the smart thing and squib kicked the ball the rest of the game. And thanks to Rex Grossman being the opposing team’s quarterback, the Colts still pulled out a victory, giving Peyton Manning his only ring and saving Dungy the shame of being higher on this list.

6. Super Bowl XL: Bill Leavy blows the game, then admits to it

Referees are always going to be a target of misplaced anger. For the losing fan base, it’s so much easier to blame the ref for your team’s shortcomings than admit that they just weren’t good enough. But in the Seahawks’ first trip to the Super Bowl, their fans seemed to have a legitimate case to be angry. Much of the world outside Pittsburgh thought that the Seahawks were getting hosed, as they racked up 70 yards in questionable penalties.

To make matters worse, a very tight Ben Roethlisberger touchdown went against them as well.

The NFL spent the weeks after the game defending each decision it made, and that should have been the end of it. But then, in a 2010 interview, head official Bill Leavy admitted to “kicking two calls in the fourth quarter.”

Doesn’t Leavy know that, when you’re a part of the NFL, your job is to deny, deny, deny? Leavy’s admission didn’t change the result of the game, it just made a whole bunch of Seahawk fans feel ripped off all over again.

5. Super Bowl XXXIX: Eagles can’t control the clock

Andy Reid has worked tirelessly over his 16-year head coaching career to develop a reputation as a man who can’t manage the clock; but Super Bowl 39 was truly his masterpiece, a Sistine Chapel of chronographic incompetency. The sheer lack of urgency his Eagles showed when trailing by ten in the fourth quarter was stunning, and actually had broadcasters Troy Aikman and Cris Collinsworth legitimately outraged at how slow they were moving.

LEHIGH, Pa.,- Andy Reid, Philadelphia Eagles' coach, takes a moment to pose with Senior Master Sgt. James Mcgarvey, 512th Security Forces Squadron operations manager, after the Eagles' training camp, Aug. 3. Sergeant Mcgarvey was one of three reservists from Dover Air Force base, Del. to attend the training camp, which showed the Eagles' players and staff members' appreciation military members and their service. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Moses Ross)
(Photo Credit: SRA Moses Ross, via Wikimedia Commons)

Philadelphia never went into a no-huddle offense, and actually kept trying to run the ball (despite amassing just 45 rushing yards on the day). By the time Greg Lewis caught a TD to close the game to three, there was only 1:48 left in the game and the Eagles chances were pretty much shot.

To this day, there are still rumors that Donovan McNabb was throwing up during that drive and that’s what slowed the Eagles down. But I prefer to believe Reid was sent by the heavens to torment Philadelphia sports fans, and his 13 years of late-game futility and heart-breaking losses never stung more than on that day.

4. Super Bowl VII: Garo tries to throw 

Leading the Washington Redskins 14-0 late in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl 7, the 1972 Dolphins were just under three minutes away from finishing their season a perfect 17-0. Coach Don Shula sent in kicker Garo Yepremian to kick a 42-yard field goal. The kick would have made it a fitting 17-0, matching the score to the team’s record. But the Redskins managed to block the kick. Disappointing for sure, but the Dolphins still could’ve recorded the first shutout in Super Bowl history had their kicker from Cyprus not made a terrible decision.

Not growing up around American football, many aspects of the game were new to Yepremian when he first joined the NFL and it’s very evident throwing the ball was one of those things. After the blocked field goal bounced back to Garo, he attempted (probably) the first pass of his career. He was actually just trying to throw the ball out of bounds, but the comedy of errors ended with the Redskins scoring a touchdown.

While the Dolphins still ended up winning, “Garo’s Gaffe” in a way ruined the Dolphins’ legacy. It’s virtually the only highlight anyone born after 1972 has ever seen of the NFL’s only perfect team.

3. Super Bowl XXXII: Packers concede game-winning touchdown

(Photo Credit: kyleburning, via Flickr Creative Commons)

I’m not sure who coined the cliche “defense wins championships,” but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess it wasn’t Mike Holmgren. Tied at 24 in Super Bowl 32, the Denver Broncos faced a second-and-goal situation from the Green Bay one-yard-line. With two timeouts and 1:47 left on the clock, Holmgren advised his defense to simply let the Broncos score. Terrell Davis had gashed the Packers all day, but the insanity of instructing his team to not even try to stop him earns Holmgren a spot on this list.

Worst case scenario: the Broncos score a touchdown anyways and you have slightly less time to work with, but still at least one timeout. But then there’s also the chance of holding them to a field goal, and asking Brett Favre to drive you roughly 45 yards in 1:30, a very do-able task. There was also the slim possibility of getting a turnover. But those scenarios were taken off the table as Gilbert Brown allowed himself to get shoved out of the way.

Holmgren later said he thought it was first-and-goal for the Broncos, which makes his terrible decision all the more hilarious.

In a brilliant coaching strategy of his own, Mike Shanahan instructed his defense to not let Green Bay score, and Denver hung on to win their first title in franchise history.

2. Super Bowl XLIX: Seahawks don’t feed Lynch 

Even with recency bias working in its favor, I’m still not ready to dub Carroll’s play-call the worst decision ever. But maaaannn was that bad! “Beast Mode” had another great day toting the rock in Super Bowl 49 and had carried the ball down to the 1-yard-line with a minute remaining. With one timeout left, the clock was not Seattle’s enemy. Everyone in America expected a Lynch run; so Carroll tried to outsmart America.

He called for a pick play that referees were (and still are) terrible at identifying, but Malcolm Butler made the play of his life and the rest is history. What would have been the harm in running the ball with Lynch on second down? And third down? And fourth? The numbers dictated that Lynch hadn’t been great from that close, but it was also clear that Seattle didn’t want to give New England the ball with any time left to work with. Getting stuffed once or twice couldn’t have hurt.

Of course, Carroll was somewhat vindicated in Week 1 this year; needing a yard to stay alive in overtime against the Rams, Lynch got the ball … and got stuffed.

1. Super Bowl XVIII: Redskins burned by “Rocket Screen”

There is a Football Coaching for Dummies book (because they have a book for everything). Though I’ve never read it, I bet there is a whole chapter on when it’s okay to throw the football and when it’s not. Some cases, like #2 on this list, may never have a definitive answer. Others do, like when you’re on your own 12-yard-line with 12 seconds left before halftime!

(Photo Credit: Keith Allison, via Wikimedia Commons)

Too bad for Joe Gibbs, books like this didn’t exist back in 1984. Trailing the L.A. Raiders 14-3 in Super Bowl 18, Gibbs called “Rocket Screen” late in the second quarter – a time when non-dumb teams are kneeling on the ball to get to halftime. But clearly Gibbs was confident this genius play could gain him the 88 yards necessary to score.

I mean, the play had worked well when Washington ran it against the Raiders earlier that year. Perhaps that’s why linebacker Jack Squirek was able to sniff out the screen pass so quickly and pick it off to put the game out of reach before the halftime performers could even take up a reasonable amount of your time (instead of the half-hour of shenanigans we get now, said the curmudgeonly young writer).

Remember the beating Andy Reid took for throwing before halftime in Week 2 this year? This call was a million times worse and on the game’s biggest stage! So stop claiming Carroll’s play call was the worst decision of all-time. Because that’s disrespectful to Joe Gibbs, King of the Idiots!

(Photo Credit: Kelly Bailey [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.)

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