It could be argued, and strongly, that NFL head coaches have one of the loneliest jobs in sports. They’re responsible for all of the key game-related decisions and if things go wrong, it’s their head on a plate. However, the reality is that even at the highest level, there are some strange plays and poor moments of judgment.
So today, we’ll take a look at 30 of the most controversial, ridiculous, and purely dumb decisions made by NFL coaches. Of course, some of these coaches were one and done in terms of seasons coached because they were too inept, but there are some Super Bowl winners on the list as well. Check out the list below via Complex.
30. Matt Patricia
There really isn’t anything good to say about Patricia’s tenure in charge of the Detroit Lions. The team wallowed in despair under his tutelage with few upsides. Patricia is a good coordinator but was a terrible head coach. Their loss to the Minnesota Vikings in 2020 flaunted all of his inept traits. He ordered a stretch run on 3rd-and-1 from the one-yard line with Adrian Peterson, who is getting up there in age at this stage. It obviously didn’t work.
The Lions and former Patriots staffer Bob Quinn fired playoff coach Jim Caldwell to hire Patricia, who trashed their goodwill with a brutal win-loss record over three painful seasons. His entire run as head coach was essentially a horrific coaching decision. It all culminated in an atrocious Thanksgiving Day loss to the also terrible Houston Texans, after which Detroit ownership had seen enough. This showed how inept coaching can be even at the highest level.
Schwartz spent five seasons as the Detroit Lions’ head coach, his only time in the hot seat as the top dog. The Lions made the postseason in Schwartz’s second year in charge but didn’t do much else to please their fans during his tenure. Furthermore, he became notorious for the occasional tactical gaffe, with one of the worst coming in 2012 against the Houston Texans after a blatant illegal touchdown.
After Justin Forsett’s knee hit the ground early, it was clear that the officials would overturn the touchdown. But Schwartz threw down his challenge flag anyway. However, the rules state that illegally throwing down a challenge flag results in a 15-yard penalty. Furthermore, the play immediately becomes unreviewable. As a result, the illegal touchdown stood and it was all Schwartz’s fault.
The Cleveland Browns have experienced a lot of heartbreak through the ages with many bad decisions on and off the field. However, the phrase ‘Red Right 88′ sends shivers down the spines of even the most hardened Ohio natives. Browns’ head coach Rutigliano called this infamous play at the end of a 1980 playoff game against the Oakland Raiders. It ultimately cost them a place in the AFC Championship Game.
With seconds left, Rutigliano called for Brian Sipe to throw a pass from the 13. A field goal would have won the game, but the coach didn’t have faith in his kicker. But the Raiders picked off Brian Sipe and cruelly took with them Browns’ hopes of postseason glory. In this case, the safe option was obviously the right one. But Rutigliano failed to make the correct call, and the Browns paid the price.
Switzer proved that winning a Super Bowl doesn’t make somebody a great coach after he inherited Jimmy Johnson’s brilliant winners. They did win the Vince Lombardi Trophy in his second year in charge, but it was all downhill from there. In his first season, Switzer showed that he didn’t share the same tactical brilliance as his predecessor in a game against the Philadelphia Eagles with two terrible decisions.
With two minutes left, the Cowboys sat on their own 29-yard line. Switzer told his offense to attack on 4th-and-1 with the game tied. He put his faith in Emmitt Smith, but the Eagles stopped the running back. The referees even gave Switzer a second opportunity to make the right call. But he didn’t, and Philly sacked Smith again. Three plays later they scored the winning field goal.
Ditka was heavily responsible for one of the worst trades in NFL history in 1999 as head coach of New Orleans. The Saints traded all six of their 1999 draft choices as well as their first and third-round picks in 2000 for Washington’s Ricky Williams. Ditka pleaded with GM Charley Casserly to make the deal happen as he loved Williams after an unbelievable showing for the University of Texas.
Needless to say, this turned out to be one of the worst decisions ever. The Saints fired Ditka after a 3-13 season with minimal contribution from Williams. Furthermore, the whole scenario was more like a circus than a professional sports environment. At one point Williams wore a wedding dress and posed with a suited Ditka for a picture. This was just bizarre and the trade haunted Ditka for perpetuity.
David Woodley was inconsistent for a significant chunk of his Dolphins’ career. Though he played well on his day, those days simply weren’t enough for the liking of Miami fans. This also meant that Shula regularly turned to veteran backup Don Strock when Woodley just wasn’t showing enough. The Dolphins met the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XVII, where Woodley started hot but didn’t keep that success up throughout the whole game.
After a game where went nine-for-21 for 87 yards with three interceptions, Shula could easily have dropped him. They were fortunate to make the Super Bowl, but he stayed loyal to his starter. However, he could and should have replaced him with Strock earlier in the game. With less than two minutes left on the clock, Strock fired the Dolphins back into the game but it was too little too late.
Power clearly corrupted O’Brien during his joint tenure as Houston Texans’ GM and head coach. It’s rarely a good idea to entrust both positions to an individual in the modern game because the scale of both jobs are so big. Furthermore, O’Brien answered to himself on a day-to-day basis, which wasn’t healthy. One of most O’Brien’s most striking decisions was to trade star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals.
Hopkins was one of if not the best wideouts in the entire league. Meanwhile, O’Brien had one of the league’s top quarterbacks in DeShaun Watson. O’Brien had a poor relationship with Hopkins but the choice to trade him for David Johnson and a second-round pick was pure insanity. Needless to say, O’Brien’s ineptitude resulted in the Texans firing him after four straight losses early in 2020.
Petrino took over the Atlanta Falcons’ head coach job in 2007 before one of their most disastrous campaigns in recent memory. First, quarterback Michael Vick went to jail because of his dogfighting scandal. The Falcons were rubbish without their star quarterback and compiled a 3-10 record with three games left in the regular season. Petrino jumped ship and took the Arkansas Razorbacks’ job.
Just the previous day he promised the owner that he would definitely stay on as Atlanta coach. As well as lying to Arthur Blank he made one of the most cowardly decisions in NFL history. Instead of speaking to his players, he left non-personalized four-line messages in each other their lockers before running off into the shadows. This was incredibly pathetic because he could have and should have been man enough to speak to them.
Reid coached the Philadelphia Eagles for 14 seasons and made his fair share of good and bad decisions throughout that time period. Of course, he’s one of the most respected coaches in the game in 2020, but it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the Super Bowl winner. Reid didn’t ruin his own reputation but he definitely tarnished Juan Castillo’s by giving him the defensive coordinator job in 2011.
Nobody expected this because Castillo hadn’t coached defense since his time at Texas A&M in 1989. The former offensive line coach experienced a nightmare season and the Eagles fired him in 2012. But at the end of the day, it was Reid’s call to give Castillo the job in the first place. Castillo is still in football as offensive line coach for the Chicago Bears but may struggle to find another coordinator job anytime soon.
A New York Giants’ icon and NFL Hall of Famer, Parcells is one of the league’s all-time great head coaches. But even the very best are capable of making implausible decisions from time to time. His moment of poor judgment while in charge of the New York Jets in 1997. To be fair, the toxic nature of that franchise is enough to bring anybody down, so it’s difficult to blame him too much.
The Jets were behind with seconds left on the clock against the Detroit Lions. They were at the Lions’ nine-yard line with the opportunity to kick a field goal and send the game to overtime. But instead, Parcells ordered a halfback pass. Of course, the Lions intercepted it and ended the Jets’ postseason dreams. One kick could have changed the entire course of history.
Dan Snyder stripped Zorn of playcalling duties, which says a lot. In 2009, Zorn ordered one of the most bizarre trick play attempts ever. Trick plays are only great if a team can pull them off correctly. But when they don’t, coaches catch a lot of heat, especially in the social media era. This was a fake field goal attempt which still sounds wacky even though it was over a decade ago.
Some fans suggested that Zorn instigated the play as a way of getting his own back at Snyder, who was set to replace him with Mike Shanahan anyway. Seven Redskins ran over to the left side of the play and instantly everybody knew what was happening. There was even laughter in the press box because it was so obvious. Anyway, the Giants intercepted Hunter Smith’s fake attempt and sealed this moment’s place in history.
The story of Robert Griffin III is one of the most tragic quarterback tales of them all. The former Baylor star had a magnificent rookie season and even made the Pro Bowl. But he never played in it because of a devastating injury that effectively compromised his entire career. Furthermore, Shanahan had significant responsibility for Griffin’s injury.
Griffin tweaked his knee in week 14 in 2013 but came back for the postseason. When he felt it again, the Offensive Rookie of the Year should have left the field. But Shanahan didn’t protect his rookie QB and kept him in. Then Griffin tore his ACL and LCL and totally wrecked his future as a starter. His form never recovered and he ended up bouncing around the league as a backup.
The Chicago Bears endured two miserable seasons with Fox in charge of their fortune. In short, he challenged his own team into a turnover. Bears’ fans immediately called for his head after the boneheaded move which had to be seen to be believed. It looked like Benny Cunningham scored a touchdown but the referees rightfully ruled him out on the one-yard line.
However, Fox, in his wisdom, decided to challenge it. He had nothing to go on because Cunningham actually lost the ball forward into the endzone. As a result, the officials ruled it a touchback and gave the Packers possession of the football. He shouldn’t have called the challenge and instead told his team to get onto the line quickly to run a play. What a disgraceful call by the coach this was.
Pagano is unfortunate enough to feature twice on this list but he deserves it for a couple of inept plays that nobody will ever forget. We made it clear that trick plays must work or they’re doomed to look incredibly stupid. The Colts led the Patriots by just a single point when Pagano made one of his daftest decisions. He ordered his team to go for a shocking fake punt attempt.
There are two reasons why this play failed. First, it was inherently dumb and the Patriots immediately shut it down. But then, to add salt into Pagano and the Colts’ wounds, several of their players were in illegal positions. Even if it had worked, the referees still would have ruled it out. It was a farcical enterprise and should never have been conceived in the first place.
First of all, let’s acknowledge the fact that Mark Sanchez wasn’t the reincarnated Johnny Unitas. However, the New York Jets needed him as their starter in 2013 but he wasn’t available. Why? The short answer is because Ryan broke him. It happened during a preseason game when Ryan made one of the strangest decisions possible and paid the price for it.
Usually, the coaching staff are very aware of their players’ fitness levels and manage them carefully during the preseason. But for some reason, Ryan left Sanchez in late into the game. His carelessness affected the Jets’ entire season because Sanchez tore his rotator cuff. As a result, Jets’ fans enjoyed the displays of Geno Smith for a season. They truly have suffered, haven’t they?
Smith’s obsession with Rex Grossman during his tenure as head coach of the Chicago Bears was borderline creepy. Grossman did nothing of note to validate his coach’s faith. In fact, he arguably cost Smith his best opportunity of winning a Super Bowl. The Bears played the Colts on that fateful night in Miami but squandered a chance to beat their opponents. Smith’s decision to keep Grossman in was a key factor.
They made the final, but Grossman didn’t have a great individual season and only played two more games as the Bear’s starter after this. He literally threw the game away in the fourth quarter with one of the laziest passes ever seen in the event. Furthermore, his overall effectiveness to that point was minimal with just 44 yards through three quarters of play. But Smith was too stubborn to take him out.
When a bad call happens during the regular season, it’s not that bad. A team can pick themselves up and move on. But all of a coach’s decisions in Super Bowls must be perfect. Otherwise, it will probably result in defeat. Some teams have never even reached a Super Bowl in their history so it is not an opportunity to waste. Unfortunately, Gibbs killed the Washington Redskins’ chances of winning against the L.A. Raiders in 1983.
The Redskins had an unbelievable offense all season but it didn’t click against the Raiders, who led 14-3 with just 12 seconds in the first quarter. Washington had the ball on their own 12-yard line. The safe option was to take a knee but instead, Gibbs called a risky screen pass. The Raiders intercepted it and scored a touchdown, putting the game beyond Washington.
Gase’s time in charge of the New York Jets was horrific from beginning to end. He made countless bad decisions and despite boasting about his scoring credentials, the Jets had the worst offensive record in the NFL in 2020. It’s not easy to pick a single bad moment because that’s like trying to find something dirty in a sewer. But one of the bleakest came in a blowout against the Miami Dolphins.
Miami led 24-0 at the end of the third quarter but the Jets had a fourth down inside their opponent’s territory. However, instead of ordering his team to keep the attack going, he sent out his kicking team for a 55-yarder. However, Sam Ficken never achieved a kick beyond 54 yards and didn’t make it this time. He smashed it wide left and Gase received a lot of abuse for pathetic decision.
The Cincinnati Bengals have done almost nothing exciting for most of their existence. But they did make Super Bowl XVI against the San Francisco 49ers. However, Gregg didn’t have the tactical chops to outwit the opposition and they failed to upset the Niners. After falling 20-0 behind in the first quarter, the Bengals slowly grew into the game and got scores on the board. They were nine feet from San Francisco’s endzone when Gregg failed in his duties.
He told his QB to offload to fullback Pete Johnson and repeated this multiple times. But each time, the Niners sniffed it out. Gregg’s lack of flexibility and know-how prevented the Bengals from reducing the deficit. It also potentially cost them a win on the biggest stage of them all. These decisions matter.
Marlon Mack scored a 21-yard touchdown for the Colts against the Rams in 2017. The Colts were down 10-0 in the first quarter when Scott Tolzein hit Mack with the pass and the running back scored. One of his feet stayed in bounds but officials ruled him out. That was fine because there was a video review available and they could overrule the decision. But then Pagano made one of the most boneheaded decisions of the season.
Instead of waiting for the replay, he pushed his team to the line of scrimmage where they duly messed everything up. In the end, they scored a field goal bringing the score to 10-3 instead of 10-7. Pagano’s attempt at brilliant tactical innovation resulted in his team’s capitulation. Finally, the Rams scored another 27 unanswered points while Tolzein had an appalling game.
When a quarterback takes a knee it’s one of the most iconic images in football. Victory formations symbolize a job well done. However, in 1978, Bob Gibson demanded that his players continued to play because he hated this practice. New York Giants’ head coach John McVey entrusted his offensive coordinator to call plays. But this literally cost his team a win against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The bullying Gibson terrified his players. He ordered Joe Pisarcik to offload to Larry Csonka and his quarterback didn’t question. But Pisarcik fumbled the ball with devastating consequences. Philly star Herm Edwards picked up the ball and ran for the winning touchdown. Gibson’s moment of hubris resulted in his making one of the dumbest decisions ever seen on a football field.
Belichick arguably cost his team a Super Bowl against the Indianapolis Colts because he was too cautious. But that isn’t why he is on this list. After all, the Patriots’ coach is a record-breaking, six-time Super Bowl winner. It’s difficult to criticize him on the field when it comes to results. However, he stained his reputation with the ‘Spygate’ scandal. Furthermore, he threw Tom Brady under the bus with ‘Deflategate’.
Belichick arranged for one of his video assistants to tape the New York Jets’ defense signals before their game. When the Jets discovered this, it resulted in a major outcry. Meanwhile, in ‘DeflateGate,’ Belichick failed to defend or protect his legendary star quarterback from the media. Instead, he actively told the media that they should talk to Brady instead of bothering him. This was the strangest of decisions considering Brady’s importance to the team.
Mornhinweg lasted two seasons in charge of the hapless Detroit Lions. They went 2-14 in their first year under his leadership and 3-13 in the second. This should provide an indication of how terrible he was in the hot seat. Furthermore, he was directly responsible for some of their losses. One clear and notorious example occurred at the end of a game against the Chicago Bears.
Mornhinweg won the overtime coin toss and chose the direction to defend instead of the ball. Of course, everybody knows that taking the ball is almost always the right course of action. However, Mornhinweg pointed to the wind direction, placing more value on that than possession. It was almost poetic that the Bears won the game by way of a 40-yard field goal.
Eugene Robinson had the night of his life before the Super Bowl in 1999. After winning the Bart Starr Award for outstanding character, he celebrated by trying to find a prostitute. But he ended up soliciting an undercover police officer instead of an actual lady of the night. As a result, he enjoyed the hospitality of Miami P.D. for the night. There were probably better ways to prepare for the biggest game of his life.
Meanwhile, Coach Reeves knew all about this situation but started Robinson anyway. It was perplexing because he was clearly not in the condition – physically or mentally – to make a positive impact on the game. Indeed, that proved to be the case. The Broncos destroyed the Falcons in a 34-19 blowout. It was embarrassing for everybody involved. In the end, Reeves handed back his Bart Starr award.
One of the most idiotic and clumsy decisions on this list, this one was frankly ridiculous. The Dallas Cowboys played the Arizona Cardinals with just seven seconds left in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys had the opportunity to win the game from a field goal. Dan Bailey promptly kicked the ball between the posts. But the problem was that it didn’t count because Garrett took that exact moment to call a timeout.
What he was thinking, nobody knows. As well as canceling out Bailey’s score, Garrett also rattled his kicker. Bailey missed his second attempt at the field goal which sent the game into overtime. This proved costly because, of course, the Cardinals ended up winning. One lapse in concentration and poor judgment cost his team the win. Nobody forgets these kinds of cringe-inducing moments.
The 1999 NFC Championship game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Atlanta Falcons was a dramatic affair. With just 30 seconds left on the clock, the teams were level at 27-27. The Vikings were third-and-three on their own 30-yard line with two timeouts still available while the Falcons had none. But then Coach Green made the wrong call. He told his quarterback to take a knee and send the game to overtime.
Looking back, this was one of the most painful decisions in Vikings’ history. An exciting attacking unit with the likes of Randy Moss and Randall Cunningham, who knows how far they could have gone? They could have forced the ball closer and potentially found space for a winning field goal. However, the Falcons capitalized on Green’s error of judgment and scored first in overtime.
Phillips made Doug Flutie the Bills’ starting quarterback for the 1999 season. The unassuming signal-caller played well throughout the year, leading the team to an 11-5 record. Nobody even considered the possibility that he wouldn’t start Buffalo’s first postseason game against the Tenessee Titans. But Phillips put Rob Johnson in for Flutie in one of the most notorious decisions of all-time.
Later, Phillips claimed that owner Ralph Wilson forced him to start Johnson. However, it didn’t work. Johnson went 10-for-22 for 131 yards and no touchdowns while the Titans sacked him six times. The Bills didn’t even score until the third quarter. Then, the Titans pulled off the ‘Music City Miracle,’ by scoring a 75-yard touchdown with seconds left on the clock. It was a terrible day at the office for Phillips and co.
The Atlanta Falcons’ 2017 Super Bowl meltdown is the stuff of infamy. However, that’s not why Quinn makes this list because it was more a team meltdown. Instead, it relates to a 2015 regular-season game against the San Francisco 49ers. The Falcons trailed the Niners 17-13 and found themselves on the one-yard line on fourth down. Then Quinn made the fatal call to send out his kicking team.
This was plain stupidity because even by scoring the Falcons still trailed. But they basically gave the ball to the Niners to hold for a remaining couple of minutes on the clock. If they went for a touchdown they may not have gotten it, but the reaction to this would have been very different. In the end, many news sources called it one of the worst coaching decisions in NFL history.
Carroll probably wakes up in a cold sweat at night as a result of one of the worst decisions in Super Bowl history. The Seahawks played the New England Patriots in Super Bowl IX and were just a yard from victory. The coach had a choice to make. They could keep the ball grounded and unleash the juggernaut that was Marshawn Lynch or they could do something much riskier.
To the disbelief of millions of viewers, Carroll went with the latter option. Then came Malcolm Butler’s famous interception of Russell Wilson’s pass to Ricardo Lockette. The Patriots won the game 28-24 after Carroll’s infamous call. Later, he defended the attempted play by revealing statistics that showed Lynch’s relative ineffectiveness from similar positions throughout the regular season. But it was too late for that.
Peterson unleashed moral carnage in 2020 when he made one of the most controversial coaching decisions on this list. In sum, he blatantly tried to tank to improve his team’s draft prospects. First, he started rookie QB prospect Jalen Hurts before replacing him with third-stringer Nate Sudfield. Washington sacked Sudfield twice and the hapless signal-caller committed two turnovers in the final game of the regular season.
The New York Giants reacted furiously because they missed out on the postseason after the Eagles effectively threw the game. However, Peterson’s biggest risk was unsettling his roster with his dubious decision. If the Eagles won, they would have dropped from sixth to ninth pick. Technically, they didn’t do anything wrong, but the ramifications of this clear effort to lose will live on because the NFL could change rules for the future. Pederson was then fired after this decision was the last straw for him.