Few things are as frustrating to NFL fans than the officials making a bad call against your team. Especially in the playoffs. To cover all of the controversial calls in the NFL playoffs would likely require dozens of blog posts. Here we cover a few, round-by-round, from NFL Wildcard games through the Super Bowl.
2014 NFC Wildcard – PUF Gate
Disputes followed the Dallas Cowboys victory over the Detroit Lions in the 2014 NFC Wildcard. Fans from both teams pointed to missed penalties, Ndamukong Suh’s overturned suspension, and the dubious Picked-Up-Flag Gate (PUF Gate). We’ll examine PUF Gate first, then delve into other famous “no-calls” and “blown calls” in NFL playoff history.
When officials nullified the pass interference penalty on Anthony Hitchens in the Cowboys/Lions affair, Matthew Stafford screamed, “How does that get overturned?!!?” The on-field mics that caught Stafford’s displeasure gave us clues to the answer. As a fan, getting to hear the on-field audio is a tremendous treat. I love that they mic players during games.
Cowboy defensive back Orlando Scandrick simply walked up to the official and said, “Hey, every single penalty tonight’s been on us.” And the ref picked up the flag. It appears that the official might have been headed over to pick up the flag before Scandrick’s comment. We’ll guess that it took more convincing than Scandrick’s plea, but the question is, “Who convinced whom that the call should be overturned?”
Stafford got an explanation from an official on the sideline. Refs ruled that Hitchens didn’t touch the Lions Brandon Pettigrew before the ball arrived, and therefore no foul. Even Michael Strahan took offense and narrated the replay on Fox’s post-game show. Replays showed Hitchens grabbing Pettigrew’s jersey, a clear defensive holding call that was missed.Embed from Getty Images
Lions Cowboys 2014 NFC Wildcard – Bigger Than One Play
Football’s bigger than one play. The Lions didn’t help themselves by following the chaos with a 10-yard punt. The Cowboys scored the game-winning touchdown on the ensuing possession, even making a fourth down in the process.
The NFL admitted to numerous missed calls in the game and confirmed the pass interference penalty should have stood. Writing in objective journalism mode, I’ll add that the league also admitted missing a bunch of penalties that should have been against the Lions.
The NFL rarely acknowledges mistakes publicly, so it’s interesting to me that the league officially notated a myriad of officiating blunders. Below are a few other playoff plays that countless fans have declared “blunders.”
1965 NFL WESTERN DIVISION PLAYOFF
The Packers and Colts faced off at Lambeau Field to determine who would play the Cleveland Browns in the 1965 NFL Championship. Johnny Unitas suffered a season-ending injury a few games before, and Bart Starr got knocked out of this game very early, tackling Colts linebacker Don Shinnick. It ended up being Tom Matte quarterbacking the Colts and Zeke Bratkowski leading the Packers.
Green Bay lined up for a game-tying field goal late in the fourth. Don Chandler, who Vince Lombardi acquired specifically for situations like this, shanked the ball to a point where the nets behind the goal posts might not have caught it. But this was 1965, the goal posts were on the goal line, and the uprights didn’t stretch much higher than the crossbar. The ball maybe went directly over the upright, and in believing so, the refs called it good. The game went into overtime (the NFL’s second-ever overtime game), and the Packers won 13-10.
Colt Tony Lorick describes his team’s frustration in the book The Game before the Money: “It seemed like it went high and over to the outside. We were clapping because it was no good.”
Packer Carroll Dale pointed out that we’ve all seen kicks that we thought looked good or no good, but the refs call it correctly from a different perspective. Bratkowski trumps everyone with his semi-famous comment: “I got a ring on my finger that says that kick was good.”
NFL rules state that kicks that go over any part of the upright are considered good.
Whether official Jim Tunney made the correct call or not, the game led to the NFL raising the height of the uprights by 10 feet for 1966. Colts head coach Don Shula called it the “Baltimore Extension.”
1998 NFC DIVISIONAL PLAYOFFS
The Packers, however, aren’t always treated so well by the officials. The winning slant pattern for touchdown grab by Terrell Owens became legendary, but not so legendary is a clear fumble by Jerry Rice a few plays earlier. The Packers recovered the fumble, which would have pretty much ended the game in the Packers’ favor, but officials ruled Rice was down. The play would likely have been overturned by replay, but unluckily for Green Bay, the NFL decided to forgo replay reviews for one season.
My guess is that Rice got the Ted Williams treatment; the referees couldn’t imagine Rice fumbling in the fourth quarter, so they gave him the same benefit of the doubt umps gave Williams on balls and strikes. It’s even hard for me to believe Rice would fumble, and I vividly remember watching that game live on television. Had replay been in effect for that season, it’s my opinion that the play would have been ruled a fumble and the Packers would have likely ran out the clock on the 49ers season.Embed from Getty Images
1972 AFC DIVISIONAL PLAYOFFS
The Immaculate Reception. Is there a more famous play in NFL history? Furthermore, is there a more controversial play in NFL history? No one can even say with certainty that Franco Harris actually caught the ball. Add to it a bizarre rule that a ball couldn’t bounce off an offensive player into the hands of a teammate, and now you’ve got double the controversy. This play is so confusing that many fans believe it happened in an AFC Championship rather than the Divisional Playoffs. And, surprisingly to many, this win didn’t lead to a Steeler championship. The Dolphins beat them in the AFC Championship.
Raider Jack Tatum always claimed that the ball bounced off Steeler Frenchy Fuqua. Fuqua started to discuss the play with the media before a teammate stopped him mid-sentence. Art Rooney always said to “Keep it Immaculate,” and speak cryptically of the play to build its lore.
The camera angles will always keep it “Immaculate.” It’s almost as if Arnold Zapruder were the camera man. The film leaves whether the ball touched the ground a mystery, just like the Zapruder Films leaves to mystery if there was a gunman behind the fence on the Grassy Knoll. Football’s a lot more fun to debate, however.
1975 NFC DIVISIONAL PLAYOFFS
If there is a more famous and more controversial play in NFL history, it might be the touchdown pass from Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson to win the 1975 NFC Divisional Playoff between the Cowboys and Vikings, known as the Hail Mary. Nate Wright, Paul Krause, and generations of Vikings fans (including those born after 1975) will always contend Pearson committed offensive pass interference. Unsurprisingly, Cowboy fans shrug and say, “Hey, it’s football,” or “The defender fell down.” Impossible to argue with those statements because it is football, and the defender did fall down. Whether or not he was pushed down is another question entirely. Pearson spoke with me about the play in an interview for the Texas Sports Hall of Fame.
An earlier 4th and 16 play that coincidentally starred both Wright and Pearson added to the plot, and many question whether Pearson legally caught that ball as well. I covered the game play-by-play in two earlier posts – the first half here and the storied second half here.
Perhaps the biggest unsung play of the game was when Cowboys defensive back Charlie Waters tackled Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton on a third-down rollout late in the fourth quarter. Waters stopped Tarkenton short of the first down, which forced the Vikings to punt. The Cowboys scored the famous game-winning touchdown on the ensuing possession.
Waters spoke about how he read the play before it happened on an episode of the Texas Sports Hall of Fame Podcast. Cowboys tight end Billy Joe DuPree also shared memories of the game on the podcast.
1979 AFC CHAMPIONSHIP
Elvin Bethea tells us that this is where all the talk about using replay started. On a crucial play that would have tied the game going into the fourth quarter, Mike Renfro appeared to catch a Dan Pastorini pass. Now, whether he landed both feet in bounds is the question, and the officials took a record amount of time discussing before making ANY sort of call. If this play truly is the seed of replay, there was no ruling on the field to stand. Or overturn.
Finally, the refs called it incomplete. Possibly because it had happened so long ago that they couldn’t remember it. We’ll give you some time to decide in this video. Also, you can hear Renfro, and many of his teammates recall this play and the entire Luv Ya Blue era in the DVD, We Were the Oilers: The Luv Ya Blue Era!
The referee who made the final call was Jim Tunney. He coincidentally called the Packers field goal against the Colts in the 1965 Western Division Playoff good. He spoke about both calls as well as his life in the NFL on The Game Before the Money Podcast.
1977 AFC CHAMPIONSHIP
The surprising Broncos were near the goal line at home in Mile High Stadium and threatening to score. The ball ended up on the ground, the Raiders falling on top of it. Bronco Rob Lytle never fumbled, however. At least, that was the decision on the field. The Broncos punched it in the end zone, wound up winning by a field goal, and moved on to Super Bowl 12.
Controversy ensued. Sort of. John Madden said, “Controversy? What Controversy? That was a fumble!”Embed from Getty Images
Many Raider fans still curse the no-fumble call, but when I discussed the play with Raider Otis Sistrunk, he appears to have moved on, choosing to focus on happier Raider moments. “I don’t remember that play that well. I just know we lost against Denver when we should have beaten them….When you lose, you don’t remember much. I even forgot what the score was.” You can read more stories from Sistrunk in the book The Game Before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL, available at Amazon.
SUPER BOWL 13 – NFL’S Biggest Stars
Super Bowl 13 remains one of my favorite NFL memories, and I wouldn’t call myself a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. The game had everything for an 8-year-old child at the time. The biggest stars stood on that grand stage – Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach, Joe Greene, Tony Dorsett, L.C. Greenwood, Billy Joe DuPree, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, Rayfield Wright, John Stallworth – the list is amazing.
Many say this game decided who would rightfully claim the “Team of the Decade” title. Most analysts predicted a defensive struggle, but it turned out to be a high-scoring, tremendously exciting affair – just as John Brodie predicted in the pre-game show.
Super Bowl 13 produced so many memorable moments. Bradshaw fumbling, and the Cowboys returning it for a touchdown. Rocky Bleier making a spectacular touchdown catch at the end of the first half. Cowboy Jackie Smith sitting all by himself in the end zone, only to drop a crucial score. The Steelers building a lead, and the fervent Cowboy comeback which included recovering an onside kick mishandled by a young Tony Dungy. The Steelers prevailed 35-31, but it was one of those games that it’s sad that somebody had to lose.Embed from Getty Images
SUPER BOWL 13 – Controversial Pass Interference
In the middle of the madness was a pass interference call against the Cowboys. Benny Barnes got tagged with a flag covering Lynn Swann, giving the Steelers a valuable first down and putting them in striking distance for a score. Swann later did just that, putting the Steelers up by their biggest lead of the day.
The pass interference stirred immediate controversy, and many Cowboy fans still blame their loss on referee Fred Swearingen’s call. They contend Swann actually pushed Barnes down and should have been the one flagged. Others say it should’ve been a no-call. Tom Landry was blunt about it, “I don’t think it was a good call.” Barnes stated that he came close to punching Swearingen and questioned his impartiality, “Maybe he was for Pittsburgh,” Barnes said. Cowboy linebacker Thomas Henderson incredulously asked, “Who is that guy?” in classic Hollywood fashion.
Lynn Swann simply said, “My hands are clean.”
I’ll add that his clean hands sport four Super Bowl rings. Zeke Bratkowski would likely say that’s all the visual evidence you need. For the record, no evidence was ever produced to support Barnes’ questioning of official Fred Swearingen’s impartialness. The comment may have been spur of the moment frustration.
This is nowhere near a complete list (I hear you Seahawks and Saints fans!). Like The Best Running Backs I Remember and My Favorite Gamers, the list is based solely on my fading memory. Indeed, I started watching football at the end of the 1976 season, so I only saw the games from 1977 AFC Championship on.
Remember IBM’s “You Make the Call?” What calls in NFL playoff history would you have made differently?
Hear Football Legends on The Game Before the Money Podcast:
Looking for a great NFL history book? Check out The Game Before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL available at — Amazon.com – Barnes and Noble – University of Nebraska Press
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