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.