24 Embarrassing Super Bowl Coaching Fiascos

A display of Super Bowl rings at The NFL Experience for Super Bowl XLV in Dallas, Texas.

When you make a catastrophic coaching blunder in Week 3, only die-hard NFL fans remember within a year. When your blunder happens in the most-watched sporting event in America, even casuals know that you've blown it. This means that 24 coaches will, despite their accomplishments, have to live down these erroneous decisions for the rest of history.

1. The Seahawks Pass It From the One

Pete Carroll reacts when Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is intercepted in the end zone by New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler.
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The most infamous, shocking, and calamitous coaching decision in Super Bowl history belongs to the Seattle Seahawks' Pete Carroll. With the clock winding down in one of the most back-and-forth Super Bowls of its era, the Seahawks had the ball at the Patriots' one-yard-line down four points. 

Rather than running Pro-Bowl back Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks tossed an ill-fated slant pass that Patriots' cornerback Malcolm Butler intercepted. All of the Pacific Northwest mourned, and Carroll's legacy forever suffered as a consequence. 

2. The Falcons Refuse To Run

Kyle Shanahan on the sidelines in 2019.
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The numbers 28-3 invoke symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among die-hard Atlanta Falcons fans. When a team leads by 25 points in the third quarter, they must mess up disastrously to lose the game. If only Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan had stuck to a run-heavy game plan, he (and the rest of the Falcons) would likely have earned a ring as the victors of Super Bowl 51 rather than the Patriots.

3. Mike Ditka Fails To Pay Payton

Mike Ditka at SuperBowl XX/20.
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Walter Payton is unanimously hailed as one of a handful of all-time great running backs. Perhaps no player looms larger in Chicago Bears history, which is why head coach Mike Ditka's failure to get Payton a touchdown in Super Bowl 20 is so perplexing.

Payton felt slighted as Ditka handed a short touchdown carry to William “Refrigerator” Perry rather than Payton. To his credit, Ditka refers to the failure to get Payton a touchdown as his greatest coaching regret, but it's too little too late.

4. Andy Reid Fumbles the Clock Away

Andy Reid
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Head coach Andy Reid has earned multiple Super Bowl rings as the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. However, Reid's previous tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles was marred by clock management issues, and none is more glaring than his mismanagement in Super Bowl 39 against the Patriots.

It's difficult to look at multiple clock-related blunders by Reid and wonder if the results may have been different had he taken more time management classes during his youth. A general lack of urgency when time was precious led the Eagles to leave valuable points on the board, ultimately losing the game 24-21.

5. Ken Whisenhunt Passes on Points

Super Bowl XLIII – Arizona Cardinals versus Pittsburgh Steelers.
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In any NFL game, it is considered a strange decision for a team to punt on the opponent's 36-yard line when down by a significant margin. When you're losing the Super Bowl by six points with about three minutes left, punting is a high-risk decision (or ultra-conservative, depending on your perspective).

While head coach Ken Whisenhunt's decision to punt did lead to a safety, that outcome was anything but guaranteed. The Steelers ultimately won the game 27-23, and we have to wonder what would have happened if Whisenhunt had been more aggressive.

6. The Patriots Fail To Take the Points

Mike Shanahan and Bill Bellichick at the Patriots training camp in 2009.
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In Super Bowl 42, the New England Patriots were aiming for a ring and a perfect season. Yet, on fourth and 13 from the New York Giants' 32-yard line, future Hall of Fame coach Bill Belichick inexplicably chose to go for it rather than kicking a reasonable field goal to extend a four-point lead. 

The Patriots failed to convert, and the Giants proceeded to one of the most stunning upsets in Super Bowl history.

7. Kyle Shanahan's Hubris Costs Him Another Ring

Kyle Shanahan on the field with his hand over his heart, presumably for the national anthem.
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Kyle Shanahan and critical Super Bowl decision-making have paired like oil and water. Shanahan's San Francisco 49ers led Patrick Mahomes' Kansas City Chiefs 20-10 with less than seven minutes left in the fourth quarter. 

Critics allege that, had Shanahan remained devoutly committed to the running game, the Chiefs would not have been able to score 21 unanswered points and claim the Super Bowl 54 title.

8. Bill Belichick Benches His Best Cornerback in Super Bowl 52

Zach Ertz of the Philadelphia Eagles struggles to maintain possession of the football after scoring the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl LII.
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Bill Belichick is nothing if not mysterious, but even gamesmanship could not explain his choice to bench starting cornerback Malcolm Butler in Super Bowl 52 against the Philadelphia Eagles. Remember that Butler was the hero of Super Bowl 49, not to mention the best man to cover the Eagles' speedy wideouts.

While one former Patriot claims to still be puzzled by Belichick's motives, one report claims that defensive coordinator Matt Patricia chose to bench Butler after a practice tiff. If you know about Patricia, such self-sabotaging pettiness is on-brand.

9. Mike Holmgren Lets the Broncos Walk Into the Endzone

Mike Holmgren in a 1998 Packers game.
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Super Bowl 32 in 1998 pitted two iconic franchises and quarterbacks against each other. Mike Holmgren's Green Bay Packers (led by Brett Favre) were tied with John Elway's Denver Broncos. The Broncos held the ball at the Packers' one-yard line with less than two minutes remaining. 

Rather than attempting to stuff the Broncos, coach Holmgren ordered the defense to let the Broncos score, apparently deciding that a touchdown was inevitable. The Packers would fail to score on their comeback driving, leading critics to eviscerate Holmgren's concession as one motivated by fear.

10. The Bengals Run Repeatedly Into a Brick Wall

Still frame screenshot from Super Bowl 16 in 1989.
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Usually, when your team has first and goal from the opponent's three-yard line, a touchdown is a foregone conclusion—not if your team is the Cincinnati Bengals, though. 

Facing the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl 16, the Bengals had the chance to pull within a touchdown with more than a quarter left. Instead, the Bengals ran it, ran it again, passed it unsuccessfully, and ran it a third time to no effect. While a ferocious Niners defense should get credit, critics have rightfully lambasted the predictability of offensive coordinator Forrest Gregg's failed playcalling.

11. Joe Gibbs' Aggressiveness Seals the Redskins Loss

Head Coach Joe Gibbs, who coached the Redskins from 1981-1992 and then again from 2004-2007.
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Sometimes, a football coach's directive is damage control. With Joe Gibbs' Washington Redskins trailing the Los Angeles Raiders in Super Bowl 18 by 11 points with 12 seconds left in the first half, the only move by the Redskins was to take a knee. Yet, Gibbs inexplicably green-lit a screen pass (the infamous Rocket Screen) that Raiders linebacker Jack Squirek intercepted and converted into a touchdown.

That made the score an out-of-reach 21-3 at the half, which would become 38-9 Raiders by game's end.

12. Bill Parcells Tests Desmond Howard

Air Force Academy football coach Bill Parcells poses with mascot Mach 1 the falcon.
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Green Bay Packers kick returner Desmond Howard won the Heisman Trophy and developed a reputation for danger in the NFL ranks. Bill Parcells's underdog New England Patriots had crept within six points of the Packers late in the third quarter of Super Bowl 31, with momentum on their side. Yet, the legendary Patriots coach made a critical error in kicking off to Howard, who returned the boot 99 yards to dash the Patriots' momentum and seal the 35-21 victory. 

13. Marv Levy's Conservatism Leads to Wide Right

Buffalo bills wide right
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The Buffalo Bills' four consecutive Super Bowl losses between 1991 and 1994 remain the epitome of NFL heartache. While field goal kicker Scott Norwood catches the brunt of blame for the Bills' loss in Super Bowl 25 against the New York Giants (the notorious “wide right” call), head coach Marv Levy's pre-kick tactics were questionable at best.

Running the ball before the kick took unnecessary time off the clock, leaving Norwood with a difficult-but-not-impossible 47-yard look. The kick, of course, sailed right of the goal post, handing the Giants a 20-19 victory.

14. Shula Picks the Wrong Quarterback

Don Shula
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Miami Dolphins head coach Don Shula is considered the greatest Super Bowl coach not named Bill Belichick, with six appearances in his storied career. However, Shula only won two of his six Super Bowl appearances, and the Dolphins' loss to the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl 17 falls on Shula's shoulders.

The greatest criticism comes from Shula's decision to start David Woodley, who had struggled as the leader of an anemic offense for most of the season, which proved critical. Woodley was predictably underwhelming, and Dolphins fans still wonder what could have been if Shula had chosen to start backup Don Strock, who had engaged in spot duties throughout the season.

15. Callahan Scraps the Game Plan Right Before the Super Bowl

Joe Montana and Jerry Rice photographed together talking at Super Bowl 50.
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You don't often hear players claiming that their coach intentionally sabotaged their Super Bowl game, but that's what former Oakland Raiders receiver Jerry Rice alleges of head coach Bill Callahan. Rice (and other teammates) claim that Callahan scrapped the practiced game plan just two days before the big game, leading to a blowout at the hands of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl 37.

While the reasoning is convoluted, it's hard to argue that Callahan's tactics were, at best, ineffective.

16. Harbaugh Chooses Kaepernick's Arm Over His Legs

The NFL logo for Super Bowl 47 is seen on the field, in New Orleans, February 3, 2013.
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Super Bowl 47 between the brothers Harbaugh was eventful, with a mid-game blackout adding intrigue to an exciting game between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens. After scoring 17 unanswered points, the 49ers had cut the Ravens' lead to five points with two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.

Critics have argued that Jim Harbaugh's decision to throw multiple times with run-first quarterback Colin Kaepernick was a mistake, as the Niners failed to convert and ultimately lost the Har-bowl.

17. Mike Martz Ignores His MVP Running Back

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue and retired football great and NFL Hall-of-Famer Marshall Faulk, talk about USDA’s role in the NFL’s Fuel Up to Play 60 program.
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Former St. Louis Rams head coach Mike Martz engineered the Greatest Show on Turf, but he failed to convert the show into a victory in Super Bowl 36 against the New England Patriots. Martz had a former MVP in running back Marshall Faulk but inexplicably underutilized the running back despite being heavy favorites against the Pats. 

Rams fans reportedly asked Martz in public, time and again, why he hadn't involved Faulk more heavily in the game plan. Martz's response—”You don't score points running the ball”—likely still tastes sour in fans' mouths.

18. The Colts Attempt a Risky Kick

Drew Brees
Image Credit: Michael Holzworth/Wiki Commons.

Super Bowl 44 was a high-powered offensive showdown between Drew Brees' New Orleans Saints and Peyton Manning's Indianapolis Colts. It seemed as if neither offense would be stopped and that the slightest error could decide the game. 

While Peyton Manning's critical interception at the hands of Saints cornerback Tracy Porter led SportsCenter highlights, a key decision by Colts coach Jim Caldwell would be critical in the game's outcome. Leading 17-16, Caldwell chose to let backup (and aging veteran) kicker Matt Stover attempt a 51-yard field goal that missed. This was a key momentum shift in a stalemate of a chess match, ultimately contributing to the Saints' 31-17 victory.

19. Mike Tomlin Punts on 4th and 1

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin during the 2007 home opener.
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There is no more common coaching error than punting when one should go for it on fourth down. This error is especially egregious when the Super Bowl is on the line, as the Super Bowl Gods favor the bold.

In the first quarter of Super Bowl 45 between the Packers and Steelers, Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin faced a 4th and one from his team's 44-yard line, nearly at half field. He punted, and the Steelers ultimately lost 31-25. Tomlin should not get a pass because it was the first quarter. The coach simply chose the uber-conservative path and paid the price of becoming a Super Bowl loser.

20. Lovie Smith Is Loyal to a Fault

From Week 11 of the NFL Season featuring the Washington Commanders at the Houston Texans from NRG Stadium, Houston, Texas, November 20, 2022.
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Lovie Smith did a commendable job as Chicago Bears head coach, but nobody would qualify him as a master strategist. As the Bears rolled into Super Bowl 41 against Peyton Manning's Indianapolis Colts, merely competent quarterback play could be enough to secure the victory.

Yet, despite being a first-round pick in 2003, Bears turnover machine/quarterback Rex Grossman had proven himself thoroughly incompetent by the time the 2007 Super Bowl arrived. A post-Super Bowl eulogy titled “Lovie Smith and Rex Grossman: I Can't Quit You” sums up fans' agony about Smith refusing to substitute backup quarterbacks Brian Griese or Kyle Orton to give their team a chance. The Colts beat the Bears convincingly, 29-17.

21. Tony Dungy Kicks to Devin Hester

Tony Dungy talking to his team.
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Despite ultimately winning the game, Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy made one of the most mind-numbing decisions in kicking to All-Pro (and future Hall of Fame) returner Devin Hester of the Chicago Bears. Hester returned the opening kick 92 yards for a touchdown, though his team's nonexistent quarterback play would ultimately hand the Colts a 29-17 victory in Super Bowl 41.

Dungy has revealed that a refusal to be afraid, inspired by the story of David and Goliath, inspired the ill-fated kickoff.

22. Tom Landry Plays It Too Safe

Tom Landry
Image Credit: By Big Cowboy Kev at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wiki Commons.

Tom Landry is one of the most accomplished head coaches in NFL history, but his critics chalk two Super Bowl losses to the Steelers in the 1970s up to strategic conservatism. By their count, Landry punted six times in those two games when going for it could have been justifiable. Punting is no path to Super Bowl glory.

23. Lovie Smith Gives the Ball Away Trailing by Two

Lovie Smith at training camp in 2009.
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Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith's decision to start turnover-prone quarterback Rex Grossman may have been enough to lose Super Bowl 41, but his in-game decision-making sealed the loss. Specifically, Smith chose to punt on fourth and one from his team's own 45-yard line with around four minutes left in the first half. This decision immediately reduced the Bears' odds of beating the Indianapolis Colts from 45% to 41%, and the Bears ultimately lost.

24. Jim Lee Howell Punts the Greatest Game Ever Played

American Football Holding, Sports, Super Bowl
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The 1958 NFL Championship Game has been called “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” pitting the Baltimore Colts against the New York Giants. The Colts prevailed by a score of 23-17, and Giants head coach Jim Lee Howell punted twice on fourth and one (including on his team's last two possessions). That is losing football, plain and simple. 

Author: Sam Mire

Title: Popular Culture and Film Writer

Expertise: Film and Television, Life Advice, Comedic Writing, Movies, DIY Handiwork, Books, Current Events and Popular Culture


Sam Mire is a freelance writer with over seven years' experience writing about entertainment, global events, American law, and sports. With a Journalism degree from the University of South Florida, Sam focuses on popular culture, film and television, and general life advice in his role for Wealth of Geeks.