The Worst Plays in NFL History

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You’ve seen Brandon Marshall’s blunder from last weekend by now. Marshall’s bizarre lateral attempt flummoxed even those Jets fans most seasoned in Jetsery. Marshall, to his credit, was honest about his mistake after the game, calling it “probably [the] worst play in NFL history.”

I mean, it’s certainly not a good play. After watching it a few times, I think I can figure out what was happening. Marshall was falling down, saw tight end Jeff Cumberland out of the corner of his eye, and made the move to lateral before he could see the defenders trailing him. The problem, of course, is that Marshall was lateraling to a 260-pound tight end 60 yards from the end zone. The upside wasn’t especially high, and the downside … well, you saw the downside.

The worst play in history, though? I know Marshall was using hyperbole, but there has to have been an uglier moment in on-field NFL history than a lateral gone wrong. There’s one obvious moment from recent Jets history that stands out, of course. Ask most people about the worst play in NFL history and they will probably bring up the Butt Fumble, which might have single-handedly brought Mark Sanchez’s Jets career to its end:

I’m also going to say this isn’t the worst play in NFL history. Again, nobody is suggesting it was good. But a lot of what makes the Butt Fumble so ridiculous is the context. It was a nationally televised Thanksgiving game that everybody was watching. It involved Sanchez, who was already the subject of some public ridicule, and the Jets, who, well, them too. And it was immediately christened with the perfect name, which makes it easy to recite when we think about the worst thing ever.

The play itself is pretty bad, but it’s not like Sanchez made a conscious decision to slide into Brandon Moore’s1 butt. Sanchez was going to slide at the end of a busted play just as Moore was pushed backward; it was a remarkable confluence of particularly awful events, which is fun, but I think we can do better.

So, I went on Twitter and asked for your suggestions on this very topic. I had a few ideas of my own, of course, but your memories brought up numerous moments of absolute disaster I’d either forgotten about or never seen before. A lot of suggestions were like “every 49ers play,” which is fine, but not really the answer to this question.

The Logic

This isn’t a quantitative question. If you’re asking about the worst play in NFL history in terms of damaging a franchise’s Super Bowl hopes, the answer is both very recent and very clear: It’s the Russell Wilson interception at the end of last season’s Super Bowl. Football Outsiders estimates it reduced Seattle’s chances of defending its championship from 87.4 percent to 0.4 percent. Obviously, it’s almost impossible to have a larger swing; most teams’ Super Bowl chances don’t get anywhere near 87.4 percent until the game itself, and while a team can blow that sort of advantage, it’s difficult to do it on one play. Indeed, before the interception, the biggest single-play swing was Scott Norwood’s missed field goal in Super Bowl XXV, and even that was only a 45 percent drop.

Instead, when we think about the worst play in NFL history, it’s less about the quantitative impact and more about the intent and qualitative aesthetics of what went down. It’s about efforts combining to produce a play of professional football that looks as little like professional football as possible. Futility is important, but farce is even more important. And if it turns a win into a loss, that’s just a bonus.

The Candidates

Let’s start with a classic, and one of the more frequently referenced candidates: Miami kicker Garo Yepremian’s attempt to complete a pass after a blocked field goal attempt in Super Bowl VII:

This is our Platonic ideal for the worst play ever. It happened in the Super Bowl. It’s a clearly panicked player who is being forced into attempting something he is clearly not qualified to do. He reacts by exhibiting about the same level of ability as you or me while attempting a pass against angry NFL defenders. And the punishment is swift and stark: Yepremian’s interception is returned for a touchdown. The best part is that this is the only memorable misstep for the NFL’s only undefeated team, the 1972 Dolphins; whenever a member of that team gives a pithy quote about how perfect they were, they should have to answer for Garo’s Gaffe.

There is also a beautiful history of quarterbacks making desperately stupid passes. One of my picks was this infinitely gorgeous pass by Blaine Gabbert, who inexplicably responded to a pending sack in the red zone by throwing the ball 6 yards backward and out of bounds. This was nine games into Gabbert’s career, and it was almost definitely the moment when it became clear this wasn’t going well.

There’s an even better version of the Gabbert play, though, and it requires us to go back to November 7, 2004, when Aaron Brooks decided to show the Chargers what he could do. Many of you nominated this one, but @btepper24 was first:

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This is better because it seems fully controlled. Brooks was under some duress, but it wasn’t like he was in the grasp of a defender and tried to just get the ball out. There has to have been at least some part of Brooks that genuinely thought his best idea was to throw the ball backward 10 yards to a receiver, albeit one who turned out to not actually be there. It’s also great because the Vine fades to black without revealing what happened next. Mike McCarthy was this team’s offensive coordinator, so I assume it involved a field goal.2

Sam Metivier recommends a 2014 Week 1 pass attempt from Josh McCown that does a pretty great job of capturing last year’s Bucs in one play:

And in the interest of taking a modern star down a peg, as many of you suggested, remember that Brandon Weeden wasn’t always this good:

I love how casual Weeden is about this pick. I understand he is infinitely better than any of us will ever be at quarterback, and that’s fine. And I hate the argument that you have to “earn” the right to try something wacky at quarterback or flip your bat. But my dude isn’t really all that great at completing passes the traditional way, and he’s trying to flip a ball with his wrist nearly from the hashmark to the sideline. It’s actually incredible he was able to get that much on the pass to begin with.

Not everything a quarterback does to screw things up has to be a pass. There’s what Jamie Gray called the Sagecopter, when Sage Rosenfels tried to ice a late lead over the Colts by Elwaying his way into a first down and subsequently fumbled the ball away to drive an Indy comeback:

One of the most popular responses was that time Dan Orlovsky simply scrambled his way out of the end zone for a safety. Watch Jared Allen point frantically like the referee isn’t going to realize that Orlovsky has both of his feet out of the end zone:

Or there was that time Philip Rivers was kneeling to set up what would have been a game-winning field goal against the Chiefs on Monday Night Football in 2011 and fumbled the snap away. That was the year Tim Tebow’s Broncos won the division on a tiebreaker at 8-8, so it’s fair to say this was probably the power of Tebow striking when we all least expected:

Kneeldowns are dangerous, but one of the most famous gaffes in league history came when a team simply couldn’t kneel down. The Miracle at the Meadowlands, another crowd favorite, had the Giants up 17-12 with 31 seconds to go on the division rival Eagles, who had no way of stopping the clock. In an era when coaches were loath to run the clock out without executing meaningful plays (send Andy Reid back there), Giants quarterback Joe Pisarcik attempted to execute a handoff3 to running back Larry Csonka, only to nearly fumble the snap before botching the exchange:

The weirdest part of the Miracle at the Meadowlands is that Herm Edwards is the one who recovered the fumble and returned it for a touchdown. As someone who was born in 1984, I can’t fathom Edwards being anything but a coach. It’s like imagining your parents flirting as teenagers. Herm Edwards was always a coach.

The Eagles were on the right side of another oft-nominated famous disaster. If there was a team award for worst play in NFL history, it might go to the Packers for their inability to stop the Eagles on fourth-and-26:

It’s pretty incredible that one play simultaneously buttressed the clutch reputations of Andy Reid, Donovan McNabb, and Freddie Mitchell all at the same time. I’m not sure Reid’s current quarterback, Alex Smith, threw passes a combined 26 yards downfield on Monday night.

The flip side, of course, is that the more recent vintages of the Eagles seem to feature heavily as worst-play candidates. There was that time, as @SteveTSRA mentioned, that Reid tried to hide Riley Cooper on the ground in the end zone:

This was called back as an illegal forward pass; the attempted lateral, again, was longer than any pass in the current Andy Reid playbook or any pass Sam Bradford would ever attempt. And in another moment from that Dream Team Eagles season, as proof that Marshall’s lateral wasn’t the worst play in league history, there was that one time Ronnie Brown decided to lateral on the goal line:

Reid challenged the fumble, which might deserve its own worst-play-ever status.

The Top Five

As good — or bad — as those candidates were, I think they pale in comparison to these top five. They’re the worst of the worst for reasons I will explain below.

5. Darius Reynaud’s safety to start the 2013 season. Most of the awful decisions and mistakes you’ve seen were made under duress, with stress and the threat of violence causing players to perform well below expectations. It’s no surprise Yepremian couldn’t throw a pass even a yard forward when he had multiple Washington linebackers weighing down on him.

That fact makes Reynaud’s safety even more impressive. Orlovsky ran out of the back of the end zone for a safety, but that was under pressure from a monstrous defensive end in Allen. Reynaud stepped forward out of the end zone to receive a kickoff and then stepped back into the end zone to kneel for a totally unforced safety. And this gets bonus points for being literally the first play of the season for the Titans as the opening kickoff of Week 1. Season-ticket holders should have been allowed a no-questions-asked refund after that. And the Titans still won that game!

4. John Carney’s missed extra point after the River City Relay. This is all context, of course. The 7-7 Saints were seven seconds away from being eliminated from the postseason in Jacksonville and promptly delivered one of the greatest single plays in history, a three-lateral march down the field to make the score 20-19, pending an academic extra point from Carney, who had missed one extra point in the prior eight years. And you can probably guess how that went down:

3. The swinging gate from Washington under Jim Zorn. To be fair, this doesn’t look all that different from what Kirk Cousins does at times:

There’s not anything inherently wrong with the idea of doing a swinging-gate-esque play as part of your special-teams fake packages; there’s just something very flawed about a play in which Washington motions most of its offensive weaponry out to the left side before the two guys left in the middle of the formation allow each of the three down linemen to run free. Hunter Smith should have received hazard pay for that one.

2. Dwayne Rudd’s game-extending helmet toss. This is a Hall of Famer for me. Although the graphics from the clip make the game seem like it’s from 1993, this is actually from the 2002 season opener. The Browns were up 39-37 on the Chiefs with seconds to go and the Chiefs basically down to a Hail Mary to try to win the game. Cleveland got pressure on quarterback Trent Green and forced him into what appeared to be a sack with no time left on the clock, only for Rudd to celebrate prematurely:

First, I love how Chiefs tackle John Tait runs the same way that I imagine I do in my head: like a particularly fast mall-walking grandma. Even more exciting, notice what you see to the left side of the picture. That’s Rudd firing his helmet yards away to celebrate the victory. He tossed his helmet in the same way Von Miller thrusts his hips after sacks, with every single ounce of his body being put into the celebration. That’s Rudd’s helmet toss. And, of course, the Chiefs promptly kicked a game-winning field goal on the very next play.

1. Jim Marshall running 66 yards the wrong way with a fumble for a safety. The no. 1 play, though, is still a classic. Wrong Way Marshall recovering a fumble and taking it to … the other house is football lore.

The Butt Fumble was a fraction of a second of a mistake. Bad kicks and passes are one thing. Running for several seconds in the wrong direction and taking it all the way into your own end zone for a safety is still the one to beat.

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell