In recent weeks, Keith has made the argument that sports very often hinges on luck, even more than practice and preparation. Whether or not it comes down to luck, I argue that, particularly in the NFL, it comes down to one play or a short sequence of plays that decisively swings momentum—“the big mo.” My analogy for analyzing NFL momentum shifts in this two-part series is, if you will, animalistic. I’ll start by looking at the five biggest “goats” and then next time the five “GOATs”. Later this year, I’ll do the same for the NBA as the playoffs start to heat up.
This week, I unveil what I believe to be the five big chokes, goats, worst plays, whatever you want to call them, that ended up costing teams games. The decisiveness of the play, the level of stupidity or mistake-making, and the magnitude of the game are all taken into account. A Week 1 goat, no matter how dramatic, won’t make the list. The referees who blew the Seattle-Green Bay game in 2012 don’t make the list—that was a Week 3 game that did not have a ton of bearing on the season. To paraphrase Shaq, I make my picks count. Here they are, accompanied by video and a little bit of analysis. Let me know what you think—agree, disagree, does it bring back bad memories of your team blowing a big one?
He meant well, but Norwood is unquestionably the biggest goat in NFL history. The Bills had rallied from an early deficit to get within a field goal. Coach Marv Levy felt he had to bring Norwood for a 47-yard field goal with eight seconds remaining. According to the recent ESPN 30 for 30 documentary The Four Falls of Buffalo, however, Norwood had never made a field goal from that length on a grass field, and the game was being played on the grass in Tampa Stadium. The Bills could have conceivably tried a quick sideline out-of-bounds play to pick up a few more yards, but instead they opted for what in retrospect seems to have been an equally self-defeating strategy. During warmups, Norwood’s kick attempts were consistently wide left. This time he pushed the kick right, and the kick went, as Al Michaels said on the ABC telecast, “wide right.” Although Buffalo got to the next three Super Bowls, this proved to be their chance to win football’s biggest prize.
#2: Pete Carroll calls pass instead of run (Super Bowl XLIX, Feb. 1, 2015: Patriots 28, Seahawks 24)
One of the great Super Bowls of all time ended with one of the worst play calls of all time. On second down near the Patriots goal line, with 30 seconds and one timeout left, Seattle inexplicably went for a pass play instead of handing it off to Marshawn Lynch, then one of the league’s elite rushers. Malcolm Butler stepped in front of Russell Wilson’s short throw to seal the Patriots victory and end any talk of a Seahawks dynasty. At least Seattle had already bagged a Super Bowl the year before, saving them, in my mind, from the #1 spot.
#3: Jeremy Hill, Vonteze Burfict and Adam “Pacman” Jones hand Pittsburgh a playoff win (AFC Wild Card, Jan. 9, 2016: Steelers 18, Bengals 16)
It was close between this one and the Norwood play for #1, but I picked this the #3 goat because it was “just” a wild-card game. The storyline is probably still fresh, but to repeat: The Bengals had rallied all the way back from a 15-0 fourth-quarter deficit to take a 16-15 lead, trying to win their first playoff game since 1990, with a backup quarterback. Steelers backup QB Landry Jones tossed an interception inside of 2 minutes, enabling Cincinnati to all but run out the clock. But Jeremy Hill fumbled on the next play, giving Pittsburgh faint life. A Ben Roethlisberger drive was struggling to get into field goal range when linebacker Vonteze Burfict gooned Antonio Brown on an unnecessarily rough hit well after the play had ended. Cornerback Adam Jones compounded the problem by contacting a game official and earning another 15-yard penalty to give Pittsburgh a 35-yard FG for the win. Cincinnati fans will say Steelers assistant Joey Porter should have also been flagged, but he wasn’t, and Jones was lucky not to be ejected for shoving the referee in the resulting scrum. CBS announcer Jim Nantz, clearly disgusted by the whole affair, called Burfict’s action “disgraceful” and termed it a “headhunting penalty,” adding “you just shake your head and you can’t believe it.” Phil Simms put a bow on it by adding: “This has got to go down as one of the worst defeats ever imposed on yourself with the penalties.”
#4: Kicker Gary Anderson misses for the first time all season (NFC Championship, Jan. 17, 1999: Falcons 30, Vikings 27 in OT)
The Vikings and the Falcons both had great seasons that year, but Minnesota in particular steamrolled to a 15-1 campaign and just blew out teams with an offense that presaged the St. Louis Rams’ Greatest Show on Turf and Peyton Manning’s great Colts and Broncos teams, so it was a stunner that the game was even tight late. Vikings veteran kicker Gary Anderson had not missed a field goal or an extra point all season, so the game seemed in the bag when he was called forth to extend a 27-20 Vikings lead with 2 minutes remaining. But Anderson missed a 38-yard home-field kick, breathing new life into the Falcons, who tied the score and sent the game into overtime, where they ultimately won. Across the country, Denver Broncos fans breathed a sigh of relief, and their team ended up blowing Atlanta out in the Super Bowl. Except for a nearly-as-painful 2009 NFC title game loss to New Orleans, the Vikings have never been close to the Super Bowl since then.
#5: Tie—Tony Romo, Blair Walsh blow can’t-miss chances to beat the Seahawks in the playoffs (NFC Wild Card, Jan. 6, 2007: Seahawks 21, Cowboys 20; NFC Wild Card, Jan. 10, 2016: Seahawks 10, Vikings 9)
These remarkably identical, mind-blowing finishes extended bad Seahawks seasons, while putting Tony Romo and Blair Walsh into the goat category from which they’ll probably never escape. In 2007 the Cowboys had the clock at 1:19 to go to kick a 19-yard (!) field goal to put the Seahawks in a bad—if not completely impossible—position, but Romo, in for the Cowboys’ injured holder, botched the snap. He admittedly ran and almost scored the winning TD, but was tackled by Seattle’s Jordan Babineaux just short of the goal line. Almost a decade later, Blair Walsh of Minnesota had the Seahawks even more on the ropes, with a FG to win from 27 yards out and under a minute to play, and no timeouts left for Seattle. Oddly, Walsh’s holder decided to turn the ball so that he kicked the laces. This was apparently something Walsh was used to doing throughout his career, but was later suspected to be part of this kick’s problem. In the third-coldest game in NFL history, the brick of a ball went way left and somewhere, Gary Anderson just sighed; a Vikings kicker choked it away again.
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Honorable mentions: New Orleans’ John Carney misses an extra point at the end of a 2003 regular season game against Jacksonville--following a successful hook-and-lateral, no less--to end the Saints’ flickering playoff hopes (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m4ZBT3BWaj4). Bill Belichick deferred possession to the Jets in an overtime game earlier this season, leading to the Patriots’ defeat and costing them home-field advantage in the playoffs (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ovb_jGwAAq8). Vikings DE Jim Marshall recovers a fumble and runs into the wrong end zone (but at least it was an October game) back in 1964 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9J4cm9PEWk). Joe Pisarcik, Giants QB, has a 17-12 lead with under a minute left, yet runs a play against the Eagles even though they no timeouts—a fumble ensues and Herm Edwards runs “The Miracle at the Meadowlands” back for a TD on Nov. 19, 1978 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xlmUw2zcc8Q)
Tune back in the future for the 5 GOATs of all-time in the NFL—my picks for the all-time greatest plays in league history.