1.1999 NFC Championship, Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. St. Louis Rams

With less than a minute left in the 4th quarter and down by just 6 points, The Bucs’ Shaun King passed to Bert Emanuel for a first down on the 11-yard line. Or so he thought. 

After a failed attempt to add video review to football in 1986-1992, instant replay was finally back with updated rules. This included one where the booth can review any play in the last 2 minutes of the game. In this case, the replay ref called for a review of the pass, believing the ball had been grounded. While the ball had come close to the turf, it was clear that Bert Emanual had full control of the ball at the time. So when the pass completion was reversed, not just the Bucs were shocked. 

This call was so controversial that the rule defining what constitutes a catch was altered to clarify that if the receiver has control of the ball, the pass is complete even if it touches the turf.

2. 2001 Cleveland Browns vs. Jacksonville Jaguars 

Also known as “bottlegate”, this particular overturned play was nothing but chaos. To set the stage, if the Browns had any hope of making the playoffs, they needed a win. They were down by 5 with a minute left in the game and had already driven the ball all the way to the Jaguar’s 12-yard line. With a short but shaky pass to Quincy Morgan, the Browns had snagged themselves a first down and a very real chance of winning the game. 

The Browns rushed to the next play in which their QB, Tim Couch, pumped the ball twice and spiked it. When refs called a halt to play, fans assumed it was for intentional grounding, but the damage was far worse. When the announcement came, it was to reverse Morgan’s catch from the earlier play that had landed the Browns their first down. Apparently, the review booth had been trying to reach the field refs for some time.

To put it lightly, the devoted Brown fans did not take this well. The refs (and players) began to be pelted with still-full beer bottles. When the stands had finally started to calm down, a ref declared unsportsmanlike conduct against the stadium and ended the game prematurely. The crowd went into an uproar again. After 20 minutes of rampaging fans, the NFL head office made the players retake the field for a more official end to the game.

3. 2014 NFC Playoff Game, Dallas Cowboys vs. Green Bay Packers

What makes this non-catch so talked about is how incredible the catch itself was. Dallas was trailing by 5, and it was 4th down on the 32-yard line. Tony Romo passes the ball long to Dez Brown, who leaps in the air, grasps the ball, manages to stay on his feet while landing, even taking a few steps, and then hits the ground. If that sounds like a lot for a 7-second play, that’s because it is. Dez Brown arguably completed what is needed to have “control of the ball” with his forward steps (although there was a separate debate about whether stumbling is the same thing). 

So why was the pass ruled incomplete after 4 minutes of deliberation? When his arm hit the ground, the ball was jarred loose. If the ball is loose, that means he must not have had control of the ball, or at least, that’s how the rule defined a catch/non-catch at the time. It took 3 years, but eventually, the NFL did rewrite the rule, removing the “surviving the ground” clause that made that spectacular grab a non-catch.

4. 2017 Steelers vs Patriots

This call is another example of the “surviving the ground” clause crushing fans’ dreams before it was removed. In 2017, with under 30 seconds left in the game, the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger passed to Jesse James in what was dubbed “the play that never happened”. The catch gave them a game-winning touchdown until it was overturned minutes later.

Unlike Dez Brown’s catch in 2014, there were no forward steps with this catch, but there were “football-like moves.” Jesse James jumped for the ball. Then, while falling back to earth, he a) turned to face the endzone and b) reached the ball across the endzone line. The ball popped loose and clearly touched the ground, but only after his knee was already down. Nevertheless, the refs ruled he hadn’t completed the process of falling, so he hadn’t “survived the ground.” This play might have been one of the final straws that led to updated rules since the rule was altered less than a year later.

Flash forward to 2022, where I’d like to give an honorable mention to the Patriots vs. Minnesota game. In similar circumstances, Hunter Henry’s has a touchdown reversed against the Patriots 4 years after the rule had changed. Whether you want to call it karmic justice or you’re a Patriots’ fan, it’s clear that even without the “survive the ground” clause, the NFL’s definition of a catch is left with plenty of room for interpretation.

So, when is a catch, not a catch? The only indisputable answer is ‘whenever the refs say so.’

5. 2023 Super Bowl LVII, Kansas City Chiefs vs. Philadelphia Eagles

In a game riddled with controversial calls like Dallas Goedert’s catch that was a catch and Miles Sander’s non-catch that meant it couldn’t count as a fumble (sorry, Chiefs), we are going to talk about an overturned pass from the first half that signaled the beginning of the end for the Eagles (or at least a loss of momentum).

In the 2nd quarter, with under 2 minutes on the clock, Jason Hurts went long to DeVonta Smith. Smith had an amazing one-handed grab, took a couple of steps. Then he was promptly tackled out of bounds where the ball came in contact with the ground. The question was, did he have control when it hit. The footage was unclear. While the play was initially ruled a complete pass, everyone waited with bated breath for the review, and waited.. And waited.

For an initial call to be overturned, there has to be obvious proof. So, a lot of fans had an issue with the time spent reviewing the play. It took enough time for a few replays of the pass, a commercial, and then even more replays. Maybe someone had to track down their reading glasses? Adding to the contention was a Devonta Smith catch from a previous game in the season against the 49ers. It was ruled in the Eagles’ favor, and some felt that one should have been reversed.

If you have another controversial reversed call, leave us a comment!