5 of the most controversial NFL officiating calls

That missed pass interference that likely cost the Saints a Super Bowl trip was bad. Here are five other doozies from NFL history.

5 of the most controversial NFL officiating calls

Author: Travis Pittman

Published: 4:19 AM EST January 28, 2019

Updated: 5:31 AM EST January 28, 2019

The non-call at the end of the NFC Championship Game between the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints will go down as one of the worst officiating blunders in NFL history. Not only did the officials miss the call, but the league admitted they missed two calls on that play: pass interference and a helmet-to-helmet hit. Either call would have likely set up the Saints for a chance to score and run out the clock to go to the Super Bowl.

Where it ranks on the all-time officiating errors list is debatable (no doubt Saints fans will put it No. 1). You can probably think of many others, but here are five highlights:

The Fail Mary

You couldn't even blame this call on the regular NFL officials. They had been locked out of officiating during a labor dispute.

In front of a Monday Night Football audience in 2012, Seattle Seahawks rookie quarterback Russell Wilson threw a Hail Mary into the end zone as time expired against the Green Bay Packers.

Seahawks receiver Golden Tate and Packers defensive back M.D. Jennings came down with the ball at the same time. One official called it a touchdown but another did not. After a review, it was ruled a touchdown, and the Seahawks won 14-12.

The league later said an offensive pass interference should have been called on Tate, but the catch was simultaneous and, therefore, went to the Seahawks.

Three days later, the regular officials were brought back to work.

Jerry Rice’s phantom touchdown

Saints fans remember being robbed twice in one game against the San Francisco 49ers.

In October 1989, 49ers receiver Jerry Rice caught a 60-yard touchdown from Joe Montana. But just before crossing the goal line, Rice lost the ball, and it went out the back of the endzone. It should have been a touchback, but the score stood unchanged.

There was another controversial touchdown later in the game when 49ers receiver John Taylor appeared to drop the ball at the goal line as he was trying to catch it. But the officials ruled it a touchdown and the 49ers won 24-20.

He thought the helmet was the football

This is the play that’s partly credited for resurrecting instant replay after a six-year hiatus.

In a December 1998 game between the New York Jets and Seattle Seahawks, Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde called his own number on fourth and goal at Seattle’s 5-yard-line and dove in for the game-winning touchdown.

Except he didn’t. His helmet made it over the goal line. The ball didn’t. But it was ruled a touchdown. There was no instant replay at all, so the call was final.

After the game, Seahawks head coach Dennis Erickson said he got a call from the league. They said the official thought Testaverde's helmet (which was white, by the way) was the football (which was brown, by the way). The next season, the NFL reinstalled instant replay and added the ability for coaches to challenge a ruling.

That other time Rice fumbled

Less than one month after that mistake in the Seahawks-Jets game, Jerry Rice did it again.

Remember that catch by Terrell Owens that sent the San Francisco 49ers to a Wild Card win over the Green Bay Packers in January 1999? It shouldn't have happened because Rice fumbled earlier in the drive and the Packers recovered.

But it wasn't called that way. The officials blew the whistle and ruled that Rice was down. Replay clearly showed Rice lost the ball. But since the review process wasn't instituted until the next season, there was no way to challenge it.

The drive ended with Owens' emotional touchdown and the 49ers won 30-27.

The Tuck Rule

In the middle of a blizzard, it looked like the Oakland Raiders were going to beat the New England Patriots in the 2001 AFC playoffs. The Raiders forced Tom Brady to fumble and recovered the ball. The Raiders would have been able to run out the clock for a 13-10 win. But after a review, the officials changed the call and ruled that Brady’s arm was going forward as if he was passing. That made it an incomplete pass.

It was in this moment that the world learned about NFL Rule 3, Section 22, Article 2, Note 2 (aka “The Tuck Rule”).

  • When [an offensive] player is holding the ball to pass it forward, any intentional forward movement of his arm starts a forward pass, even if the player loses possession of the ball as he is attempting to tuck it back toward his body. Also, if the player has tucked the ball into his body and then loses possession, it is a fumble.

Depending on who you ask, Brady either had already tucked the ball back to his body, making it a fumble, or he was in the process of bringing it back to his body, making it an incomplete pass.

Brady ended up leading the Patriots to game-tying field goal, and then they won it in overtime. Two weeks later, the Patriots beat the Rams for their first Super Bowl title.

Now, seventeen years later, it’s the Patriots and Rams again.

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