We remember the touchdown passes and catches. We remember the touchdown runs and the game-saving tackles. Over the previous 55 years, the Super Bowl has made heroes of so many. Namath, Bradshaw, Swann, Montana, Allen, Young, Elway, Howard, Holmes, Brady, Butler, Edelman.
But for every celebrated winner, there has been a losing team to console. And sometimes, in the rarest of dreaded moments, a mistake has become as iconic as anything done by the winning team.
Jaquiski Tartt of the San Francisco 49ers did not make his ill-fated drop in the Super Bowl. His missed chance at an interception against the Los Angeles Rams may have kept his team out of the Super Bowl, however, and will live forever in NFL infamy.
For four of the following five players, a dropped ball in the Super Bowl came to define their playing career, and only the GOAT status of Tom Brady reduces his Super Bowl flub to that of career asterisk. But it makes the list, the saddest, sorriest list in NFL history. The countdown of the five worst drops in Super Bowl history:
No. 5. Kim Bokamper, Super Bowl 17, Washington vs. Miami Dolphins
This one isn’t truly a drop, so much as it was a ball being batted away, but it’s impact on the game was so enormous, it earns a spot on the list.
The most memorable moment from this game was John Riggins’ 43-yard touchdown run on a 4th-and-1 that gave Washington a 20-17 lead in the fourth quarter, with the iconic image of Dolphins’ defender Don McNeal desperately and unsuccessfully trying to pull Riggins down before the workhorse back pulled away and was gone.
But it was back in the third quarter that the game was essentially decided. With the Dolphins still leading 17-13 and less than two minutes to go, Washington quarterback Joe Theismann dropped back from his own 18-yard line and had his pass attempt tipped straight up in the air by defensive end Kim Bokamper.
It appeared the ball was going to come right back down into the waiting arms of Bokamper, who was just steps from the end zone. But Theismann raced over and knocked the ball from Bokamper for an incomplete pass.
Given the way Washington relied so heavily on Riggins and the running game, a Bokamper touchdown to make it 24-13 with less than two minutes to go in the third would have been a knockout blow. Instead, the deficit remained four, long enough for Riggins to finally break the game open.
No. 4 Tom Brady, Super Bowl 52, New England Patriots vs. Philadelphia Eagles
As we will see below, Tom Brady cannot be expected to throw the ball and catch the ball. And if we needed proof, Brady gave it to us in this Super Bowl loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Each team, at critical junctures in the game, would run a quarterback option play.
The Eagles succeeded with tight end Trey Burton throwing a touchdown pass to quarterback Nick Foles on a 4th-and-goal from the 1 with 38 seconds left in the half. The touchdown gave the Eagles a 22-12 halftime lead.
But it was earlier that Brady, the GOAT, displayed some bad hands. Trailing 9-3 at the time, the Patriots ran a reserve that was intended as a pass play to Brady. And it nearly worked for a touchdown. On 3rd-and-5 from the Eagles’ 35, Brady handed off left to James White, who flipped to Danny Amendola coming back right across the backfield, then lofting a pass down the right side to Brady, all alone and the end zone in sight.
But the pass was a touch deep and the ball danced off Brady’s fingertips for an incompletion. It was a moment Eagles fans have cherished ever since.
“Every time I see an Eagles fan I get reminded of that play,” Brady said … in 2022.
No. 3 Wes Welker, Super Bowl 46, New England Patriots vs. New York Giants
So, what’s this about Brady can’t throw the ball and catch the ball? Well, that was the infamous, and a bit more profane, observation made by Brady’s wife, Gisele, moments after her husband’s Patriots lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl for the second time in five years.
This time, it was an amazing throw and catch by Eli Manning and Mario Manningham that pointed the Giants to ultimate victory. But they likely would have never gotten the ball back, trailing 17-15 with just over four minutes left.
The Patriots had been methodically moving the ball downfield, grinding down the clock, and forcing the Giants to already use up two of their time outs. Now, on 2-and-11 from the Giants’ 44, the 10th play of a drive closing in on six minutes, Brady tried his first deep shot of the possession, floating a pass to a wide-open Wes Welker at the Giants’ 20.
But as Welker turned toward the middle to make the catch, the ball already in the air, he realized the pass was thrown slightly to the outside. So even as the pass hit Welker directly in the hands, the torque from the rotation of his body caused the ball to squirt free for an incomplete pass.
It proved critical, as a reception would have allowed the Patriots to burn the clock down to at least the 2-minute warning, if not run the clock out entirely.
Instead, after another incompletion, keeping the clock at 3:53, the Patriots punted, Manning hit Manningham on first down and Gisele was not happy.
No. 2 Asante Samuel, Super Bowl 42, New England Patriots vs. New York Giants
You would think the Giants used up all their good fortune on the sequence that started with Manning escaping a certain sack and ended with David Tyree and a football pinned against the side of his head.
Incredibly, in the Giant’s epic upset of the previously unbeaten Patriots, there was even more good fortune to be had on the play before.
The “Helmet Play” was third down. But on 2nd-and-5 from their own 44 and 1:19 to play, Manning tried to hit Tyree on a deep sideline pass. On this occasion, Tyree broke the wrong way, allowing Patriots outstanding defensive back Asante Samuel to have a free shot for an interception.
But whether he jumped too early, or not high enough, or simply closed his hands too soon, the ball went sailing right through Samuel’s hands and into the bench for an incomplete pass. Samuel double-clutched in agony after the miss, knowing full well the game would have ended on his catch.
Instead, helmet. Upset. Once-defeated.
No. 1 Jackie Smith, Super Bowl 13, Dallas Cowboys vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
Verne Lundquist is an announcing legend with CBS. He called the famous Christian Laettner buzzer-beater from Grant Hill to knock Kentucky out of the 1992 NCAA Tournament. But his signature call came in 1986, at the Masters. It was just three words. It said everything.
“Maybe? … YES SIR!” as Jack Nicklaus’ birdie on the 17th hole pointed the 46-year-old to an iconic victory.
But before CBS, Lundquist was the voice of the Dallas Cowboys on the radio. And he offered a sympathetic window into a man’s soul in the lowest moment of his life.
Jackie Smith was a Hall of Fame tight end who played the first 14 years of his career with the St. Louis Cardinals. But in 1978, in the 15th and final year, he was the backup tight end for the NFC Champion Dallas Cowboys. And with 2:46 left in the third quarter, the Cowboys trailing the hated rival Pittsburgh Steelers 21-14, and on 3rd-and-3 from the Pittsburgh 10, the easiest touchdown catch of his life from Roger Staubach was floating right to him.
“It’s third down and 3, Dallas at the Pittsburgh 10,” Lundquist told his radio audience on Jan. 21, 1979. “Roger back to throw … has a man open in the end zone! Caught! Touchdown! DROPPED! Dropped in the end zone! Jackie Smith, all by himself! Oh, bless his heart, he’s got to be the sickest man in America. Oh, Jackie was so wide open in the end zone, it was incredible. And he could not hang on to the ball.”
He could not hold on to the ball. Somehow, incredibly, Smith was the only man standing in the end zone between the hash marks, literally in the center of the word, “Steelers,” painted black-on-yellow.
But as Staubach would say, over-and-over, the drop was all his fault. The clip of Staubach tossing his head side-to-side in disgust after the play? He was beating himself up for the pass he threw. Because Smith was so impossibly wide-open, Staubach took something off the throw to guide it in perfectly. But the drop in speed made Smith stop short, and his legs began to go out from under him as the ball made contact, causing him to let it ricochet off his chest and legs before failing helplessly to the turf.
Dallas only got a field goal. They lost by four points.
Bless his heart. A Hall of Fame career reduced to one play, a play Jackie Smith couldn’t make.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference