The 10 biggest mistakes in NFL history

The infamous “Fail Mary” play that ended the Seahawks-Packers game in Week 3 of the 2012 season put an exclamation point on the NFL’s replacement official era. 

It didn’t take long this season for the NFL to generate big-picture concerns about its decision to repopulate the Los Angeles region with two franchises. As the Chargers play in a 27,000-seat soccer stadium in front of mostly visiting fans and the Rams endure the league’s worst attendance decline in decades, the question arose: Has the NFL made one of its worst decisions in history?

My answer: No. Not even close. At least not yet.

It will take years to evaluate this gambit. (You can call that second-guessing, but I’ll go with “the benefit of hindsight.”) Not until both the Rams and Chargers settle into their new stadium, scheduled to open in 2020, can we know whether the moves have paid off.

Fortunately, the NFL has a 97-year history to cull for those who like the idea of exposing (and learning from) mistakes. I’ve compiled 10 below — with an important caveat. The NFL built itself into the country’s most popular and profitable sports league, despite some of its recent turmoil, by making many multiples of good decisions versus its bad ones.

With that said, let’s get to it:


Replacement officials

In the spring of 2012, the NFL hatched a deeply flawed plan to maximize leverage while negotiating a labor agreement with the NFL Referees Association. Owners threatened to lock out and replace game officials if a deal couldn’t be reached in time for the preseason. The NFLRA stood firm, and the league office selected replacements from a hastily assembled list.

Most NCAA Division I officials spurned the NFL’s offers, unwilling to be used as pawns in a union fight. So the league played the entire preseason, and the first two weeks of the regular season, with officials from levels as low as high school and from little-known associations (including the Lingerie League).

It ended in disaster — the chaotic and botched “Fail Mary” call that decided a Monday night game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks. The lockout was halted three days later. The league had played its fans for fools, risking the integrity of outcomes in an effort to win a labor battle.

“We’re sorry to have put our fans through that,” commissioner Roger Goodell said at the time.

Playing after the JFK assassination

President John Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963. It was a Friday. Two days remained before the NFL’s games for that week. Amid the national grief, commissioner Pete Rozelle, 37 at the time, had a quick and seemingly irrelevant choice. Should the games go on? Or should they be postponed out of respect for the tragedy?

Rozelle called Kennedy press secretary Pierre Salinger, a personal friend. In a 1994 interview with the New York Times, Rozelle said Salinger recommended that the NFL play.

Football had been Kennedy’s favorite sport, but criticism was swift. Legendary New York columnist Red Smith termed it an “exercise in tasteless stupidity.” Some of the games kicked off less than an hour after Kennedy’s accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was shot himself by Jack Ruby. The stadiums were reported to be eerily silent. Rozelle later said it was “the worst decision I ever made.”

Closing NFL Europe and squeezing the offseason

NFL Europe was shuttered in 2007. It was losing millions of dollars per year, and owners didn’t see enough returns on either of its dual goals: international outreach and player development. They switched emphasis on the former, scheduling more NFL teams to play in London, but ignored the latter.

At the very least, NFL Europe had been a decent breeding ground for quarterback depth. The failure to replace it with a domestic version, and the 2011 decision to limit offseason workouts, has put the league in an undeniable bind. Teams were left more reliant on college football to produce their labor force at a time when college spread schemes, and the defenses designed to stop them, were moving away from conventional NFL paradigms.

Quality of play hasn’t suffered from an objective standpoint, but players at some positions — offensive line, most notably — are entering the league with no experience playing the way that NFL coaches need them to. The NFL is at the mercy of college coaches whose jobs are to win at their level, not produce NFL stars. That structure can’t be healthy in the long term.

Turning a blind eye to long-term health

There is a long history of football’s organizers glossing over the game’s inherent violence until external pressure forces changes — even predating the NFL.

It started in 1905, when President Teddy Roosevelt intervened to persuade college administrators to address that year’s 18 reported deaths in a meaningful way. In the 1950s and 1960s, concerns about late hits and dirty play forced rules to make players down immediately by contact (1955) and to prohibit rampant grabbing of the facemask (1962). And most of us know the concussion story.

Recent rule changes and financial investments were driven by outside researchers, media reports and even congressional pressure. Even now, some NFL owners dispute a direct connection between football and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). As a result, the NFL will spend the next years and decades repairing a well-earned reputation for distance from its employees’ well-being.

Initial rejection of Warren Moon

It took one of the greatest quarterbacks in pro football history six years to get his first NFL job. It’s not hard to figure out why. When Moon left the University of Washington in 1978, only seven of the league’s teams had started an African-American quarterback. In the previous decades, countless qualified candidates had been asked to switch positions. (As a Minnesotan, I always think of former Gophers Sandy Stephens and Tony Dungy.)

Moon refused. Instead, he signed with the Canadian Football League, where he played for six seasons with the Edmonton Eskimos — winning five Grey Cups — before NFL teams finally expressed interest. He joined the Houston Oilers in 1984 and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006.

To be clear, the NFL’s racial attitudes were in step with American culture, even in the post-civil rights era. But it is impossible to overcalculate the extent to which the league discarded talent in service of social safety. The rejection of Warren Moon is the most egregious example, only because we ultimately saw how well he could play.

Stripping Pottsville of 1925 championship

The Pottsville Maroons of Pennsylvania were the class of the 1925 season, finishing 9-2 and defeating the Chicago Cardinals in what was considered the NFL championship game. That’s when things got interesting.

As ESPN’s David Fleming tells the story, Pottsville’s owners received permission to play a post-championship exhibition game against Notre Dame in Philadelphia. (In those days, amateur football was considered superior to the pro game.) Pottsville won 9-7, a huge victory for the NFL. But afterward, the Frankford Yellow Jackets (who would become the Eagles) accused Pottsville of invading their geographic territory. The NFL agreed, rescinding its permission and stripping Pottsville of the championship.

This move has remained a pock in NFL lore for nearly a century. After the league rejected a reinstatement bid in 2003, former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell wrote an angry letter that called owners “cowardly barons” and added: “I am closing with the wish that every NFL franchise except for the Eagles and the Steelers lose large quantities of money.”

Entering the PI business

Goodell’s “law and order” tenure began reasonably enough. His goal was to present a law-abiding league to the public. But that goal has not always been supported by the investigative infrastructure to pull it off. The NFL often finds itself in grievances or in federal court to defend its discipline — the ongoing litigation involving Dallas Cowboys tailback Ezekiel Elliott is the latest example. What’s more, those efforts seeped into internal probes in a way that created as many stories as it addressed.

Think about the self-inflicted mistakes the NFL has made while investigating allegations of impropriety. It sowed mistrust by destroying the evidence it used to penalize the New England Patriots in the 2007 Spygate episode. Its Bountygate examination of the New Orleans Saints was roiled by errors, and the player discipline was ultimately vacated by former commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Meanwhile, the league consumed nearly two years in an effort to punish Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for underinflating footballs — despite ample evidence that the deflation could have been caused by the weather.

Overall, the NFL has spent enormous resources and equity pursuing and defending disproportionate offenses. It has created the public perception of a business at war with itself on issues that seem secondary to the health of the league.

The “Heidi game”

Imagine a time when America’s broadcasters prioritized their Sunday night movie schedules more than the outcomes of NFL games. Well, kids, it used to go that way.

The most famous instance came in 1968, when NBC switched from a JetsRaiders game to the children’s movie “Heidi” as soon as the clock struck 7 p.m. ET. At the time of the switchover, the Jets led 32-29 with 1 minute, five seconds remaining. No one saw the Raiders drive the field for a winning touchdown.

NBC later issued a statement calling it a “forgivable human error” driven by the desire to maintain a scheduling commitment to kids. The resulting outcry was an eye-opener for the television industry, which soon realized the intensity with which games were viewed.

The NFL eventually asked broadcasters to televise the conclusion of games in the home markets of visiting teams, regardless of the time it delayed other programming. It was not until 1973, however, that NFL games were televised in their home markets. Until then, owners blacked them out to encourage tickets sales. This is one lesson the NFL learned quite well: Television is king.

1987 scab games

The decision to play three weeks of games with replacements during a players strike generated all sorts of folksy anecdotes and stories.

Remember the “Rhinestone Cowboys?”

How about an Eastern Illinois quarterback who joined the Chicago Bears and later coached the Saints to a Super Bowl title?

But in the bigger picture, attempting to pass off “no-names, has-beens and never-would-be’s” was an egregious perversion of the service provider construct. The NFL intentionally put something less than its best product on the field. Of all the objections that fans might have had at the time, never before could they have argued that NFL teams weren’t trying to win.

The decision also damaged the league’s future leverage with players in labor standoffs. The games were so bad that no one could reasonably fear this tactic ever being employed again.

Super Bowl XLV seating fiasco

In the hours leading up to kickoff at Dallas’ AT&T Stadium, about 1,250 ticketed fans learned they did not have seats. A last-minute inspection had deemed the seats, part of a temporary stanchion that was intended to add 15,000 fans to the stadium capacity, were unsafe. Many of the displaced were re-seated, but about 400 were forced to watch from a standing-room position.

I don’t think this debacle doomed the republic, but it serves as a perfect metaphor for what the profit-obsessed revenue behemoth it has become in recent decades. It wasn’t enough for the NFL to draw 80,000 fans — the stadium’s official capacity for football — to the 2011 Super Bowl. It wanted more — at prices that started at $600 per ticket at face value that year. And it got there. Attendance for the game was 103,219 — at the inconvenience of only 1,250 of them.

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