The Super Bowl is football’s biggest stage, so it stands to reason that the decisions made in those games are the ones that will be picked apart for years to come. Here’s our look at the 10 worst coaching decisions made in the big game.
10. Mike Ditka giving the ball to Refrigerator Perry (Super Bowl XX)
This one didn’t have the losing consequences of some of the decisions on this list, but Ditka admits he made a mistake in giving a goal-line carry to a national curiosity rather than the Hall of Famer who had carried the Bears for more than a decade. It was the definition of a first-world problem — how many championship teams have been able to argue over who scores the touchdowns? — but the decision crushed Payton in the moments afterward.
9. Bill Parcells kicks it to Desmond Howard (Super Bowl XXXI)
The Heisman winner from Michigan had already nearly broken a couple of kick returns early in the game, but that didn’t prevent Parcells from making the decision to kick the ball to Howard a fourth time. The Patriots had just narrowed the Packers lead to 27-21 with a few minutes left to play in the third quarter. That score lasted only as long as it took Howard to take the ball 99 yards for a touchdown. Considering the two-touchdown margin of victory, the Packers might have won the game anyway, but there’s no doubt that decision led to Howard winning Super Bowl MVP with his 154 return yards instead of Brett Favre in his only Super Bowl victory.
8. Tony Dungy kicks it to Devin Hester (Super Bowl XLI)
If we’re going to criticize Parcells for kicking it to Howard, we might as well dock Dungy for kicking off to Devin Hester to start the Bears-Colts Super Bowl in 2007. The rookie returner had scored off a combined five punts and kicks that season, a total that had Dungy telling his team all week that they wouldn’t be kicking to Hester. Dungy, however, changed his mind late in the week and decided the Colts would look “scared” if they kicked away from Hester. That knee-jerk decision would give the Bears a 7-0 lead just 13 seconds into the game. Thankfully for Dungy, Peyton Manning, the Colts defense and Rex Grossman were around to let Dungy off the hook.
7. Bill Belichick benches Malcolm Butler (Super Bowl LII)
We may never know the reason why Belichick kept Butler on the sideline in Minnesota. And while further developments could change our minds, Belichick keeping his best defensive back on the bench as Nick Foles and the Eagles shredded the Patriots’ secondary goes as a big mark against the greatest coach of all time.
6. Joe Gibbs’ risky screen play (Super Bowl XVIII)
Have you ever cursed your coach when he elected to take a knee at the end of the half instead of trying for another score? Joe Gibbs might be in the back of said coach’s mind. Trailing the Los Angeles Raiders 14-3 with just 12 seconds in the first half, Gibbs called for a screen pass at Washington’s own 12-yard line. Though the play went for 67 yards earlier in the season, this result was much more disastrous as Jack Squirek picked off Joe Theismann’s pass for a pick-six and a 21-3 halftime lead. The Raiders would go on to win in a 38-9 blowout, the AFC’s last win in the Super Bowl for the next 13 years.
5. Andy Reid takes his sweet time (Super Bowl XXXIX)
He’s one of the greatest coaches to never win the Super Bowl, but Reid’s reputation for bad clock mismanagement is one of the reasons he’s on this list. Reid has had a few high-profile clock mistakes, but none of them came on a bigger stage than his first and only Super Bowl appearance as a head coach. Trailing the Patriots by 10 with 5:40 to go in the game, Reid oversaw a dawdling Eagles touchdown drive that took almost a full four minutes. The time consumption forced Philadelphia to try an unsuccessful onside kick rather than pinning the Patriots deep and trying to force a stop. Though the Eagles would get the ball back with 46 seconds left, it was at their own 4-yard line with no timeouts — a situation that Donovan McNabb was unable to create anything from.
4. Bill Belichick going for it on 4th-and-13 (Super Bowl XLII)
You might remember the 18-0 and heavily favored Patriots lost this game by a mere three points after Eli Manning went on his miracle drive with David Tyree and Plaxico Burress. What you might not remember is that in the third quarter, Belichick had a chance to extend the Pats’ 7-3 lead with a 48-yard field goal attempt by Stephen Gostkowski. He instead went for it on fourth-and-13, an attempt that failed. Belichick’s defenders point out that Gostkowski’s longest FG that season was only 45 yards, but the chances of him tacking on an extra 3 yards had to be better than converting fourth-and-13 against the Giants. Chalk this one up to simple arrogance and the Patriots refusing to acknowledge deep into the game that the Giants had them in a dogfight where every point mattered.
3. Kyle Shanahan’s entire second half of play-calling (Super Bowl LI)
Shanahan may go on to be a great head coach with the 49ers, but it won’t cause anyone in Atlanta to ever forget what happened in Houston. Then the Falcons offensive coordinator, Shanahan made several crucial mistakes, largely abandoning the run for pass plays that enabled the Patriots to come back from the famous 28-3 deficit. Though the list of missteps is long, we’ll go with the last one. With 4:40 remaining in the game, the Falcons had reached the Patriots’ 22 and still had a 28-20 lead with a win expectancy of 98.1 percent. Instead of playing it safe with three runs that would have either eaten the clock or forced New England to burn its timeouts, Shanahan called for a pass on second down. It resulted in a 12-yard sack of Matt Ryan. A holding penalty on third down completely took Atlanta out of field goal position. Instead of an 11-point lead, the Falcons put the Patriots in a position to finish their comeback.
2. Forrest Gregg calls 4 straight plays for no gain on first-and-goal (Super Bowl XVI)
As part of the Packers’ famed offensive line during the Ice Bowl, it should have come as no surprise that Gregg would like running the ball into the end zone on goal-to-go situations. But the Cincinnati coach’s insistence on running may have cost the Bengals this Super Bowl. After trailing San Francisco 20-0, Cincinnati scored a touchdown and then was poised to cut the lead further after earning a first-and-goal from the Niners’ 3. Pete Johnson got the first two carries and was stuffed. A third-down pass from Ken Anderson to Charles Alexander was sniffed out for no gain and then, on fourth down, Gregg went back to Johnson for — what else? — no gain. Though you’ll see us hammering another coach for not running the ball in the next item, Gregg’s crime here was being so predictable. The Niners had keyed on Johnson all afternoon and he was not nearly the caliber of running back mentioned next.
1. Pete Carroll doesn’t give the ball to Marshawn Lynch (Super Bowl XLIX)
Has so much ever ridden on one play in the Super Bowl? If Carroll doesn’t get cute on second-and-goal from the 1 and simply hands the ball to one of the best running backs of the era, the Seahawks likely win their second straight Super Bowl and Belichick-Brady’s Super Bowl drought reaches an even 10 years. Instead, Carroll called for Russell Wilson to throw a slant to Ricardo Lockette and, well, you and Malcolm Butler know the rest of the story. With 26 seconds left and one timeout remaining, it was a risk the Seahawks didn’t need to take. Carroll, Wilson and Seahawks fans will see that interception in their nightmares for the rest of their lives.
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