Controversial officiating is a constant topic of conversation in the NFL. Each Sunday seemingly brings another episode where the referees affect the outcome of a pivotal match. It’s insane that these incidents still happen in an era with advanced technology that allows instant replays. But this is the world that we live in.
Fans and teams see obvious calls that were somehow the referees just miss. There are some horrendous officiating mistakes that have gone down in NFL history. At their worst, they have even cost teams championship games and made them unwatchable for fans. Check out the worst refereeing mistakes in NFL history in our list below via Stadium Talk.
25. Cole Kmet’s ‘Taunting Penalty’
This one went down in 2021. The Chicago Bears met the New Orleans Saints in the Super Wild Card round of the playoffs when the referees cited tight end Kmet for ‘taunting.’ As fans know, this is basically unsportsmanlike conduct and results in a 15-yard penalty. After Kmet caught a one-yard pass at the sideline, he spoke to one of the Saints’ players and the referee overreacted. But the problem was that this also affected the result.
First of all, Kmet didn’t say or do anything worthy of a 15-yard penalty. At the end of the day, this is a competitive game with soaring testosterone levels. Nobody likes it when the referees act like school teachers. Furthermore, it was decisive because the Saints went into halftime with a 7-3 lead. Overofficiating can be as bad as missing a call. Kmet and the Bears didn’t deserve that.
Some games instantly enter NFL lore. The “Snowplow Game” between the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins was definitely one of them. A massive snowstorm overwhelmed Foxborough, Massachusetts, but the NFL is for grown men, so naturally, the game went ahead. Meanwhile, fans filled the stadium despite the ridiculous conditions that saw the game enter the fourth quarter with the score tied 0-0.
The conditions were so bad that neither team managed an incisive play. But finally, the Patriots had an opportunity to seal the victory. John Smith scored a 33-yard field goal after a snowplow cleared a section of the field. However, the Dolphins cried foul over this but the referees allowed it. This was definitely very controversial at the time because the Patriots received an unfair advantage.
In week 14 of the 01/02 season, the Jacksonville Jaguars were out of playoff contention but the Cleveland Browns knew that their destiny was in their own hands. After a controversial Browns’ touchdown, head official Terry McAuley called his referees together to check it out. However, the problem was that the Browns had already run another play so this infuriated the crowd.
Actually, this is probably the understatement of the century. The fans were furious with the referees for making the wrong call and unleashed their fury. They threw down bottles, cans, food, and whatever else they could get their hands on. While their actions were inexcusable, the referees incited them through poor communication and the wrong decision.
The Pittsburgh Steelers led 17-10 against the Houston Oilers in the 1980 AFC Championship Game. Then the Oilers’ QB Dan Pastorini found Mike Refro with the game-tying touchdown or so it appeared. However, the closest official failed to signal a touchdown. In fact, he didn’t do anything at all. Bear in mind that this was long before instant replay so teams required referees to be on the ball.
In the end, they decided not to award the touchdown and effectively robbed the Oilers. They said that Renfro caught the pass without both feet inbounds which was the incorrect call. Houston coach Bum Phillips fumed at the referees but they made their decision. From that point on, the Steelers had too much momentum and the Oilers just couldn’t catch them.
‘Missed Pass Interference’ was a regular theme in 2019, but this wasn’t even the most controversial. The Houston Texans played the Baltimore Ravens when Marlon Humphreys effectively mugged DeAndre Hopkins. To be fair, Hopkins is one of the best wideouts in the game and Humphreys was helpless against him. But the fact that officials allowed this to pass by without action was ridiculous.
I know you probably don’t care, but because they did not reverse this obvious pass interference (in a game I don’t even care who wins) I’m turning the game off and getting caught up on my DVR recordings. I’ll watch the highlights on SportsCenter tonight (which I’m anchoring) pic.twitter.com/9VnVvwh9rv
Humphrey committed two blatant fouls when he went up against superstar receiver Hopkins. First of all, he grabbed Hopkins’ arm before the ball arrived. Then he pulled on the Texans’ star’s jersey. Despite this, the officials allowed the game to continue. Humphrey could have kidnapped Hopkins into the trunk of his car and drove off without the officials penalizing him or the Ravens.
The New England Patriots played the Kansas City Chiefs in 2020 and lost the game. However, there was one major officiating mistake that left viewers wondering why Bill Belichick didn’t issue a challenge. In short, he couldn’t. It looked like the Pats forced Patrick Mahomes to commit a turnover. But the officials saw it differently and ruled the play a sack.
This cost the Patriots their field position and of course, momentum. Furthermore, the Patriots were unable to challenge the decision because the referees called forward progress. This confused many viewers because they didn’t understand this rule. It made it all the more frustrating for them. In fairness, the Patriots weren’t amazing anyway, but they had some sense of moral high-ground.
Patriots’ fans of a certain vintage still bridle when they hear the name, Ben Dreith. New England played the Oakland Raiders in 1976 in the playoffs, when they still wore their classic red uniforms. This was one of the most exciting Pats’ rosters in years and analysts believed that they could go all the way. However, the referee had other ideas. Dreith made one of the most appalling decisions in NFL history.
An appalling roughing the passer call against Ray Hamilton effectively handed the Raiders the 24-21 victory. They scored a touchdown immediately after the referee’s comedy decision to end the Patriots’ dreams for another season. Some calls haunt franchises. This was definitely one of them because a golden generation of players was unable to achieve their dreams.
The Buffalo Bills met the Indianapolis Colts on an emotional Super Wild Card Weekend. After all, it was their first postseason win in 25 years. In the end, they even won the game 27-24 after a battle of attrition. But it could have been different after a shocking officiating call in the fourth quarter. The Bills were so close to a heartbreaking end to their biggest day in a generation.
In #INDvsBUF, the ruling on the field is that the runner was down by contact. The was no clear and obvious visual evidence to overturn the ruling, so it stands. pic.twitter.com/1QmUW2Sjcj
After catching a 17-yard pass at the Bills’ 46-yard line, the Colts’ Zach Pascal fell over. He fumbled and the Bills collected the ball. But the officials ruled that he went down by contact and gave the Colts the chance to steal the game. Luckily for the Bills, they stood firm in the face of a Hail Mary pass, but the referees put the game in doubt. The game should never have been on the edge of a knife
In 1978, NFL fans witnessed one of the most controversial plays ever. The San Diego Chargers played the Oakland Raiders in California when quarterback Ken Stabler ignited an audacious and divisive move. There were 20 seconds left in the game and the Raiders trailed 20-14 when Woodrow Lowe pressured Stabler. That’s when Stabler either fumbled or threw the ball forward on purpose.
Then two Raiders’ teammates knocked the ball further forward and Dave Casper fell on it to seal the touchdown. The referees had no problem with it and instantly gave the score. At the time, accidental fumbles forward were allowed, but not deliberate throws. The chief referee believed that the former occurred, but later, Stabler admitted his throw was entirely deliberate.
The Detroit Lions and the Minnesota Vikings met in a meaningless Week 16 game in 2021 with nothing but pride at stake. While their seasons were already over, the players proved that they still cared about the result. A game-changing occurred with the Vikings on fourth-down, in Lions’ territory. Tracy Walker sacked Kirk Cousins but the referees confused everybody by intervening.
Football is and always will be a contact sport. However, Walker wasn’t excessive or late with his contact. In sum, it was a perfectly reasonable tackle. But the referees still cited him for roughing the passer. The lesser magnitude of this game means that it is not far down this list, but it still remains one of the most laughable officiating calls of recent times. No wonder the Lions were furious.
The most recent instance of referees possibly costing a team a game is a blatant one. The Detroit Lions certainly deserve a large amount of blame for settling for five field goals against their rival Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football in Week 6 of the 2019 regular season. But the fact remains that the referees robbed them. Many are calling for some kind of officiating overhaul, yet the NFL is unlikely to actually do anything substantial.
The referees called Detroit pass rusher Trey Flowers not once, but twice for illegal hands to the face in the fourth quarter. Replays showed Flowers held onto the inside of the shoulder pads of Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari, allowing Green Bay to extend their drive and score a touchdown. They later won the game on a last-second field goal. It’s just a terrible look for the NFL as a whole and was the talk of the sports world in October 2019.
This call ultimately led to a shift in NFL history when instant replay was instituted the following year. The New York Jets trailed the Seattle Seahawks 31-26 in a high-scoring affair. Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde drove New York down the field to the point they were five yards away from a game-winning score. Against the odds, Testaverde rushed in for the clinching score, although it was incredibly close.
Some officials believed that Testaverde had scored while others thought that he was just shy of the line. Ultimately it was ruled a touchdown and the Jets won the game. However, Replays proved that New York did not, in fact, score the game-winning touchdown. At the time, there was no use of instant replay for officials. The next year, there was, because so many people were frustrated with these dumb calls.
The 2018 AFC Championship game was a thrilling affair that came down to the wire in overtime. The New England Patriots outlasted the Kansas City Chiefs and went on to win their sixth Super Bowl. However, it was still marred by several questionable calls. A phantom roughing the passer call on Chiefs defensive lineman Chris Jones allowed Tom Brady and the Pats to keep their drive alive when it was essentially stalled.
The inevitable replays showed that Jones hardly grazed Brady’s helmet as he attempted to interrupt the superstar’s throwing motion. It was an example of good and aggressive defense for the most part. Fans cried that this impacted who went to the Super Bowl last year. Of course, many also cried the referees were biased towards New England. But that would never be true, right?
A lot of games have a badly missed call. It happens multiple times per week these days, it seems. But this was a game that could still be the worst all-time by NFL officials. The fact it took place in the Super Bowl obviously makes it infinitely worse. Cries come every day that officials are biased towards one team or another. However, Super Bowl XL took this to the next level with some of the most ridiculous decisions ever.
The calls made favored the Pittsburgh Steelers in seemingly every way possible. The Steelers got help from an offensive pass interference and holding flag, but there was worse. Officials called Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck for a block in the back, a penalty hardly ever seen on a player at his position. And again, all of this happened in the Super Bowl. It was far from the league’s brightest moment.
In a sick way, this non-call led to an even more egregious officiating call the following week. The Dallas Cowboys were playing the Detroit Lions in the 2014 NFC Wild Card round. Detroit hung on to a three-point lead in the fourth quarter and was tasked with a third-and-short situation. It seemed the game was nearly over when officials flagged Dallas linebacker Anthony Hitchens for clearly interfering with Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew.
However, controversy arose when Head Linesman Jerry Bergman picked up the flag for whatever reason. He claimed that he could not see the blatant arm grab Hitchens committed. This was because he wasn’t in the correct position to see the true details of the play in question. Regardless, Dallas went on to win the game with a late touchdown, which set them up for heartbreak at the hands of the referees the following week.
Johnson appeared to have a win for his Lions when he caught an amazing touchdown against the Chicago Bears with less than a minute left in Week 1 of the 2010 regular season. But after he clearly caught the ball in the end zone, he rolled over and the ball went out of his grasp on the ground. A second referee overruled the touchdown and an uproar ensued. They said that Johnson didn’t ‘complete the process’ by holding onto the ball as he fell to the ground.
The controversy was heightened by the fact that a runner simply needs to break the plane of the end zone with the ball to score a touchdown. But a receiver seemingly needed to complete three of four more rules-based tasks to score on a catch. This led to the so-called ‘Calvin Johnson’ rule that was once again enforced without much consistency.
This Thanksgiving game could go down as one of the most foolish referee errors in NFL history. And it didn’t even come on a call involving a penalty. When the Detroit Lions played the Pittsburgh Steelers in a holiday game that year, the action went to overtime. That extra period begins with a coin toss, and Steelers running back Jerome Bettis was tasked with making the call. He chose tails but the referee, Phil Luckett, somehow heard heads.
Detroit won the toss despite the wrong call. They eventually won the game because of a field goal. Then, the furious Steelers fans felt that the referees robbed them of the game. This was a mess and an embarrassing example of a referee error. The Lions didn’t win another game for the rest of the 1998 season. But they were gifted this one thanks to the referee and a coin toss.
The 1999 Tennessee Titans were a feel-good story who nearly won the Super Bowl over the vaunted St. Louis Rams’ ‘Greatest Show On Turf.’ But in reality, their Cinderella run should have ended far before it ever did. The Titans were down by one point against the Bills and needed a miracle to win the game with only 18 seconds remaining. They got it when tight end Frank Wycheck threw a ‘lateral’ to wide receiver Kevin Dyson, who sped 75 yards to the end zone.
However, the pass was clearly a forward one, making it illegal. Although instant replay had been re-instituted before the 1999 NFL season, video deemed it inconclusive to prove Wycheck’s pass was a forward one. It was ruled a lateral and the referees presiding over the game said the call of a touchdown stands. To this day, many fans and NFL media members decry the result as a horribly blown call.
The St. Louis Rams’ Cinderella run to a Super Bowl championship following the 1999 season almost never was. While the Rams offense quarterbacked by Kurt Warner was one of the most high-flying aerial attacks in NFL history that year, their NFC championship game against Tampa Bay was not. The final score was 11-6 and the Rams went on to the Super Bowl.
But many believe they should not have. This was another instance of what constitutes a catch in the NFL and what does not. Tampa Bay wideout Burt Emanuel clearly had his hands under the ball during a pivotal fourth-quarter reception, but the tip of the ball did touch the ground. That’s allowed as long as the receiver remains in control of the ball. But officials ruled he did not. The pass was deemed an incompletion and Tampa Bay never got the opportunity to potentially score a game-winning touchdown.
Heading into the 2012 NFL regular season, there was a dispute over pay between the league and officials. So the NFL had no choice but to hire replacement referees from places like the Arena League and Division III of college football. The replacement referees caused a ridiculous outcome to a regular-season game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks. Seattle was down 12-7 with next to no time left and needed a miracle.
Then-rookie quarterback Russell Wilson heaved a Hail Mary into the end zone. It appeared that the Green Bay defender had intercepted the pass even though the Seattle receiver had a hand on the ball. Green Bay possessed the ball. But one ref called it a touchdown while the other ruled it an interception. The touchdown stood and Seattle somehow won the game. The call was deservedly dubbed the ‘Fail Mary.’ Needless to say, the NFL ended the referee lockout two days later.
Rice is the best wide receiver in the history of the NFL and arguably the greatest player of all-time according to many. But it looked like he had lost the game and gotten the 49ers eliminated from the playoffs during the 1998 NFC Wild Card round. With San Francisco trailing Green Bay late in the fourth quarter, Rice caught a pass over the middle of the field and appeared to fumble. Green Bay recovered. But the referees presiding over the game somehow ruled Rice down by contact.
The missed call led to a play that changed NFL history. San Francisco quarterback Steve Young threw an infamous touchdown to up-and-coming star Terrell Owens, allowing them to advance in the playoffs. Rice is and always will be one of the greats. But the fact remains the refs bailed him out in this one. This play will go down in history as one of the worst missed calls in football.
This one is and always will be one of the most infamous plays in NFL history. And for good reason, because it featured a huge miss by the refs. The story went that Steelers running back Franco Harris caught a tipped ball right as it hit the ground and ran it in for a game-winning score over the Oakland Raiders. There was bound to be controversy on this one, and the NFL was years away from having instant replay to aid their cause.
But it wasn’t actually Harris’ catch that was in question. No, it was whom the ball had deflected off. At the time, the NFL had a rule in place that said an offensive receiver couldn’t by the first player to touch a ball that had ricocheted off another offensive player. Replays of the insane play showed it hit Steeler Frenchy Fuqua and that Harris’ reception would have never been legal.
Like Calvin Johnson’s infamous non-touchdown on this list, this play came down to another case of egregious referee error when a receiver fell to the ground. In the pivotal waning moments of the 2014 NFC playoff game between Green Bay and Dallas, Cowboys wideout Dez Bryant appeared to have an impressive catch. The fourth-down play seemingly set Dallas up with a first down on the Green Bay one-yard line.
But of course, the ball came loose when Bryant hit the ground and Green Bay challenged the ruling. So a lengthy review ensued, and we all know what happened. The referees ruled the catch as incomplete and Dallas eventually lost the game. However, Bryant’s elbow also hit the ground, which means the play was over and he had made the catch. But the referees ruled he did not complete the entire process, the rule that plagued any and all controversial catches in the NFL at the time.
This blatantly missed call will live on in NFL history as one of the top ways referees negatively impacted a pivotal playoff game. The Oakland Raiders came to snowy Massachusetts to take on the New England Patriots in the 2001 Divisional Round. They appeared to have the game won when they forced young, rising quarterback Tom Brady to fumble in the fourth quarter.
But for some reason, the referees ruled the fumble an incomplete pass because of the rarely-seen ‘Tuck Rule.’ Of course, the Patriots went on to keep the ball, drive down the field, and score to win the game. The result led to the launching of the greatest dynasty in NFL history, as the Patriots have won a jaw-dropping six Super Bowls since. It’s impossible to know if all of that would have happened if the correct call would have been made here.
As we mentioned, it’s incredibly difficult to find a play that trumps the ‘Tuck Rule’ as the most blatant example of referee error in the NFL. It may be a bit of recency bias, but a play from the 2019 NFC Championship game has done it. The story goes that Los Angeles Rams defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman got away with one of the most violent instances of missed pass interference in NFL history. Late in the game, he blasted New Orleans receiver Tommylee Lewis while not even going for the ball.
But the referees missed it. The call would have set the Saints up deep in Rams’ territory and almost assuredly given them a win with a trip to the Super Bowl to follow. Instead, the Saints had to settle for a field goal and the game went to overtime. After the game, the referees admitted that they obviously missed the call. This call was so bad that the NFL instituted instant replay for pass interference the next season.