The 11 Gutsiest Play Calls in NFL History
An NFL coach always walks a delicate line between smart and stupid. That's especially true when a tough choice is made.
And as unfair as it might be, the intelligence of play calls are judged primarily on the outcome.
The 17 gutsy decisions that made this list are a mixture of pure genius and pure craziness.
All were play calls that were against the grain and balked at conservatism. Most played a part in changing the course of pro football history.
11. Bradshaw to Stallworth
The underdog Los Angeles Rams gave the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers all they could handle in Super Bowl XIV.
After L.A. had a two-point lead after three quarters, the Steelers surged ahead with a 73-yard scoring strike from Terry Bradshaw to John Stallworth.
Pittsburgh got the ball back inside their own 30 with a little more than five minutes remaining thanks to a key interception by linebacker Jack Lambert. This was the Steelers' chance to churn out yards and run out the clock.
The Steelers faced a 3rd-and-7, still stuck in their territory. Instead of using the ground game to eat up more time, Chuck Noll wanted Bradshaw to go deep again.
Stallworth hauled in a 45-yard reception just beyond the outstretched effort of defensive back Rod Perry and was tackled at the Rams 22. The catch help set up Franco Harris' TD run, which sealed a 31-19 triumph and Pittsburgh's fourth Lombardi Trophy.
The third down, Bradshaw-to-Stallworth connection occurs at the 2:31 mark of the video.
10. Redskins Gamble and Lose
The Washington Redskins offense produced the most points in a single season in 1983. It had just three to show for itself as halftime approached in Super Bowl XVIII versus the Los Angeles Raiders.
Pinned at their own 12-yard-line with 12 seconds to go in the first half, it seemed apparent that the obvious decision would be to run out the clock and head for the locker room down by 11.
Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, though, had quarterback Joe Theismann run a screen pass. The throw was intended for running back Joe Washington.
However, Raiders linebacker Jack Squirek anticipated it beautifully. Squirek made the interception and landed quickly in the end zone for a devastating touchdown.
Los Angeles crushed favored Washington, 38-9. The critical interception starts at 8:33 of the video.
9. Run on 4th-and-1...Again
After a loss to the Redskins, the Cowboys looked to bounce back at Veterans Stadium against the Philadelphia Eagles.
A nip-and-tuck affair saw the two teams tied at 17 nearing the two-minute mark in the final quarter.
Dallas had a 4th-and-1 at their own 29. Head coach Barry Switzer opted to go for it with a running play to Emmitt Smith. The Eagles' D halted Smith's advance and began to celebrate.
But the two-minute warning allegedly was called before the play started.
After seeing what occurred on the nullified rushing attempt, one would think that Barry Switzer would scoff at going for it again and punt the ball instead.
On the contrary.
Switzer not only went for it again, he called the exact same play. And it had the same effectiveness, as Smith was stonewalled for no gain.
The Eagles took over possession and kicked the winning field goal moments later.
8. Parcells' Fake Punt
The greatness of Bill Parcells was created by turning former losing teams into winners as well as making decisions that the average coach doesn't have the gall to make.
One of the most prominent of these gutsy calls came in Super Bowl XXI, as his New York Giants were facing the Denver Broncos.
At halftime, the Giants trailed 10-9. They received the kickoff but failed to generate any significant yardage in the first three plays of their opening possession in the second half.
On 4th-and-1, Parcells called a fake punt option. It sent punter Sean Landeta off into one flank and placed backup QB Jeff Rutledge behind center. Rutledge plunged ahead for the first down on a sneak.
The Giants and regular quarterback Phil Simms—on his way to a 22-of-25 passing performance—marched down to the end zone. New York never looked back, winning 39-20.
The fake punt and eventual first down starts at 2:30 on the video.
7. Belichick Does Not Play for OT
The St. Louis Rams were heavy favorites to hoist their second Lombardi Trophy in three years when they faced the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI.
However, after the Patriots took a 17-3 lead in the third period, it was the Rams who were in an unfavorable position.
Kurt Warner and St. Louis tied it at 17 apiece with just under two minutes left.
Most felt that the Patriots would merely settle for a tie after regulation and take their chances in overtime.
If Bill Belichick opted for the safe route, a star may not have been born on that night.
Tom Brady managed to get New England in position for Adam Vinatieri's field goal as time expired, and the Patriots had their first Super Bowl title.
6. Parcells' Fake Punt...Part II
Bill Parcells was at it again four years later, this time in the NFC Championship Game.
The San Francisco 49ers led 13-9 in the fourth quarter and were eying a trip to a third straight Super Bowl.
New York had the ball near midfield, but it appeared they would punt it away when a 4th-and-2 came up. The snap though, went to linebacker Gary Reasons, who raced through the middle for a 30-yard gain that placed the Giants inside the Niner 25.
Big Blue cashed in on the conversion with a field goal by Matt Bahr.
After the Giants defense stifled San Francisco yet again, Bahr was on target with another field goal as time expired, giving New York a 15-13 win that propelled them to a victory in Super Bowl XXV.
5. Belichick Burned on 4th-and-2
A significant comeback by the Indianapolis Colts during a Sunday night affair was overshadowed by a decision by Bill Belichick that helped give them the victory.
The Pats were clinging to a 34-28 lead with 2:08 left and were at their own 28-yard line, faced with a 4th-and-2 situation.
In a ballsy roll of the dice, Belichick entrusted Tom Brady to make the play that would gain the first down and seal the win. The play was a short pass completion to running back Kevin Faulk.
If Faulk lands a few feet further, Belichick's genius is further enhanced in the public eye. However, he was stopped short, and Belichick is knocked down a peg.
The Colts used the short field to their advantage, scoring a touchdown with 13 seconds to go and winning 35-34.
The 4th-and-2 play starts at 3:20 on the video.
4. Cowher's Surprise Onside Kick
The Pittsburgh Steelers offense struggled during Super Bowl XXX versus the Dallas Cowboys at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe.
A field goal cut the Cowboy lead to 20-10 nearing the mid-point of the fourth quarter, and head coach Bill Cowher knew his team needed a jolt of energy.
In an attempt to do just that, he called for a surprise onside kick.It was executed to perfection, as Deon Figures snatched the loose ball at the Steeler 47-yard line.
From there, Neil O'Donnell and the offense produced its best drive of the game. The end result was a one-yard touchdown run by Bam Morris, which cut the deficit to just three points.
The Steelers ultimately fell to the Cowboys, 27-17. However, that doesn't diminish the guile of this call by Cowher that temporarily gave his ball club some much-needed momentum.
3. Red Right 88
The 1980 Browns were known as the "Kardiac Kids," and they were giving their fans another heart-stopping finish in a bitterly cold AFC Divisional Playoff.
Cleveland was down 14-12, but quarterback Brian Sipe and company were driving on the Oakland Raiders defense. With under two minutes to play, the Browns were 13 yards away from pay dirt.
However, feeling that even a short field goal would be too difficult in the rough conditions, head coach Sam Rutigliano decided to go for six. He called "Red Right 88."
The pass play was directed toward tight end Ozzie Newsome in the end zone. But Raider Mike Davis stepped in to make the dramatic interception.
Oakland kept on winning through Super Bowl XV. The Browns misery continues.
The pass play starts at the 6:30 mark of the video.
2. Payton's Play Works to Perfection
Down 10-6 to start the second half of Super Bowl XLIV, the New Orleans Saints' Thomas Morstead was set to kick the ball off to the Indianapolis Colts.
But Saints head coach Sean Payton stunned his opponent—and the millions watching on television—with an onside kick.
The ball bounced out of the grasp of Indy's Hank Basket and was free for the taking. After a long scrum that had to be broken up by officials, the pigskin's recovery was credited to the Saints' Jonathan Casillas.
With that, New Orleans and quarterback Drew Brees drove down on a 58-yard drive that resulted in a 16-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Thomas. The Saints took their first lead of the contest and went on to win 31-17
1. Bart Starr's Ice Bowl Sneak
In the infamous "Ice Bowl," also known as the 1967 NFL Championship, the Green Bay Packers had possession at their own 32-yard line with just under five minutes to go and behind 17-14 to the Dallas Cowboys.
Then, Green Bay quarterback Bart Starr led his team on a drive that put them on the precipice of a third straight league title.
Unfortunately for them, two hand-offs to running back Donnie Anderson on the slippery surface failed to gain traction and yardage. Starr called the Packers' last timeout with 16 seconds remaining to confer with head coach Vince Lombardi.
The call was for a quarterback sneak up the middle, risking the possibility of the clock expiring should the play fail to execute and forgoing the chance of a field goal to tie the game.
Starr and the Packers offensive line did Lombardi proud, and the play resulted in a game-winning touchdown.
The QB sneak by Starr starts 7:40 into the video.