The worst decisions in Super Bowl history
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Elliott Kalb / Special to
Posted: 59 days ago
NFL head coaches get second-guessed all the time. In the divisional round of the playoffs, Eagles coach Andy Reid made a decision with less than two minutes remaining to punt the ball rather than keep his offense on the field for a 4th-and-15 play.

He may never live that down. Some of the best coaches in history are responsible for some of the worst calls. Now, as we approach Super Bowl XLI, let's look at the 10 worst decisions in Super Bowl history.

1. Super Bowl III: Don Shula stays too long with quarterback Earl Morrall.
Shula, head coach of the Baltimore Colts, made the worst mistake in Super Bowl history. Although the great quarterback Johnny Unitas was out for most of the season with an injured elbow, he was — according to Shula's words at the time — 80 percent healthy. The coach elected to start the 34-year old Morrall over a disappointed Unitas. That was a debatable decision. But after Morrall threw three interceptions in the second quarter — one on a flea-flicker where Morrall didn't even throw in the direction of a wide-open Jimmy Orr — Shula made the most curious decision of his long and distinguished career. He started Morrall in the second half, despite being shut out in the first half. Morrall lasted one series in the second half, overthrowing his receiver on first down, completing a pass for no yards on second down, and getting sacked on third down — before being pulled. Unitas came in the game and led the Colts on their lone touchdown drive, but it was too little, too late. Shula would learn his lesson, however. Four years later, he started Bob Griese in Super Bowl VII, despite Morrall quarterbacking the Dolphins to 11 consecutive victories following a Griese injury.

2. Super Bowl VII: George Allen passes up onside kick
Allen was one of the best NFL coaches of all time, but his decision at the end of Super Bowl VII might have cost his "Over the Hill Gang" a championship. The Redskins trailed the Dolphins 14-0 late, but with just over two minutes remaining in the game, Miami's Garo Yepremian's had his 42-yard field goal attempt blocked. Garo recovered the ball, but then fumbled it laughingly into a 49-yard fumble return touchdown for the Redskins' Mike Bass. Allen, with his team trailing 14-7, could have ordered an onside kickoff. He would explain later that his team had all their timeouts remaining, and couldn't run the risk of giving Miami good field position. However, the Redskins' one chance seemed to be to strike while the iron was finally hot. If Washington could have recovered the onside kickoff, they would have had more than two minutes remaining and all their timeouts to score the game-tying touchdown. It was one of the worst decisions in Super Bowl history, as the Dolphins ran for a first down that clinched their undefeated season.

3. Super Bowl X: Chuck Noll left too much time for Dallas.
Noll went 4-4 as a head coach in the Super Bowl, but he almost blew one big time with a coaching decision that somehow came out okay. Here was the situation at the end of the game: The Steelers had a 21-17 lead, and took over on offense with 1:48 remaining in the game. Franco Harris lost two yards on first down. Dallas called timeout. Franco ran for two yards. Dallas called timeout. Rocky Bleier ran for 1 yard. Dallas called its last timeout with 1:28 left. The line of scrimmage was the Dallas 41. Noll opted to keep his offense on the field for a fourth down run. Bleier gained two yards, and the Cowboys took over on downs, with 1:22 remaining. Noll left Roger Staubach a short field and more than enough time to win the Super Bowl. After the game, Steelers linebacker Andy Russell said, "I couldn't figure it out. But don't ask me to second-guess the fellow. I won't do that." Staubach was intercepted, and the Steelers held on.

4. Super Bowl XXXIX: Andy Reid took too much time in 4th quarter comeback.
The Philadelphia Eagles had a window of opportunity for their first Super Bowl win. After losing three consecutive NFC championship games, the Eagles defeated the Falcons in the title game following the 2004 season. Terrell Owens was positively inspiring in this game, the highlight of his career. He caught nine passes for 122 yards in his first game back from a wicked injury. Andy Reid's Eagles trailed the Patriots by two scores, 24-14, with 5:40 left in the game. And then the Eagles became their own worst enemies, needing 13 plays to drive 79 yards. A tired Donovan McNabb was allowed to remain in the game, in what I label one of the worst coaching decisions in Super Bowl history. The Eagles were battling the Patriots and time. It was up to head coach Reid to give his team the best chance to win. Because McNabb used up precious time getting to the line of scrimmage on the penultimate possession, the Eagles didn't get the ball back with a chance to tie until there were only 46 seconds remaining in the game. It was too little, too late.

5. Super Bowl XXV: Marv Levy sent Scott Norwood out for 47-yard field goal attempt with :08 left.

Scott Norwood's "wide right" kick is one of the most infamous moments in Super Bowl history. But was Norwood really to blame for the miss? (George Rose / Getty Images)

In the divisional round of this year's playoffs, Chargers head coach Marty Schottenheimer was criticized for sending Nate Kaeding out to attempt a 54-yard field goal with eight seconds left on the clock. He had passed up an earlier 48-yard attempt, and 54 yards seemed to be out of Kaeding's range. Besides, he had time to run one play to get a few yards closer. At least Schottenheimer can use the excuse that he had an inexperienced quarterback, and it would have been too risky to run a play that needed to get out of bounds. In Super Bowl XXV, Bills coach Marv Levy was in a similar situation. His kicker, Scott Norwood, was only accurate about 70% of the time — and that's from all distances, and without the pressure of the Super Bowl riding on his shoulders. His attempt from 47 yards was pushing it. Besides, Buffalo had eight seconds left, and an experienced, Hall-of-Fame bound quarterback Jim Kelly to operate one more play. Could the Bills have made the attempt five or six yards closer for Norwood, by using one more play? We'll never know.

6. Super Bowl II: John Rauch didn't prepare for left-footed punter.
The AFL champion Oakland Raiders were 14-point underdogs to the NFL champion Packers, but the Raiders forced the Packers to punt in the final minute of the first half, down 13-7. Not only would the Raiders take over around midfield, but they would have time to set up a George Blanda field goal that would make the game even closer entering the half. Donny Anderson, the Packers' left-footed punter, booted the ball and the Raiders' Rodger Bird fumbled the fair catch. It was the Packers that scored a field goal before the half ended. Essentially, that was the game. Sometimes, the worst coaching decisions in Super Bowl history are made on the practice fields.

7. Super Bowl XXXVIII: John Fox chased two-point conversions too early.
Three years ago, the Carolina Panthers nearly stunned the New England Patriots. DeShaun Foster scored a touchdown on a 33-yard run to cut the Patriots' lead to 21-16 with 12:39 remaining. Fox made a decision to go for the two-point conversion. It failed. He could have cut the lead to 21-17, but chose not to. This meant that after Carolina's next possession — and next touchdown — Fox had to gamble on the two-point conversion again. Again, it failed. Instead of being up 24-21, the Panthers were only up one point. The Patriots scored a touchdown and a two-point conversion on their next possession, but wouldn't have gone for the two points if Fox hadn't chased the earlier two-point conversions. Adam Vinatieri wound up kicking a game-winning field goal with four seconds remaining. The pressure could have been much greater on Vinatieri, had the Patriots trailed by one or two points, instead of being tied. The greatest clutch kicker of all time probably would have nailed the 41-yarder regardless. Still, Fox chased the two-point conversions a little early.

8. Super Bowl XX: Raymond Berry started Tony Eason and not Steve Grogan.
The Chicago Bears were clearly the best team in the NFL, and they were going to win the Super Bowl, even if Joe Montana had been sent to the Patriots to make the big game competitive. Still, Grogan started six games that year, and had a higher passer rating (84.1) than Eason (67.5). Eason had begun the season as the starter for New England, but then got hurt and lost his job to Grogan, only to regain it when Grogan, in turn, was injured. Eason didn't complete a single pass, and was replaced by Grogan, with the score 20-3. Some people might have said Berry's bad decision was to come out throwing, and go against what the Patriots had done best all year. But no one ran against those Bears.

9. Super Bowl XXI: Dan Reeves didn't press the accelerator.
The Denver Broncos were eight-point underdogs to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXI, but led at halftime, 10-9, and could have led by much more. As great as Phil Simms was in this game (22-25, 268 yards, 3 TD), for much of the game John Elway was even better — especially considering Elway was going against Lawrence Taylor, Harry Carson, and schemes devised by defensive coordinator Bill Belichick. The Broncos led 10-7, early in the second quarter. They had the ball, 1st-and-goal, from the 1-yard line. Elway was stopped by Taylor on first down. Carson stopped running back Gerald Willhite on second down. Denver ran Sammy Winder on third down, and he was stopped. Reeves sent Rick Karlis to attempt a 23-yard field goal, which he missed. If I'm Dan Reeves, I'm not running into the strength of the Giants three straight times, and kicking a field goal. I'm at least thinking of using four downs to score a touchdown, and get up 17-7. Reeves wasn't the coach to do that. Perhaps Parcells or Belichick on the other sideline would have done so.

10. Super Bowl XXXVII: Meet the new boss, Bill Callahan, same plays as the old boss.
The Oakland Raiders made it to the Super Bowl with Bill Callahan, who had replaced Jon Gruden. The only trouble was, they made the Super Bowl against Gruden's new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs seemed to know the Raiders' plays, as if the plays and audibles weren't even changed from the year before. The Bucs defense intercepted five passes. Callahan had a chance to totally confuse and double-cross the Bucs. It didn't happen.

Elliott Kalb can be reached at

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