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February 07, 2005

Don Banks's Top Super Bowl Blunders

New England's Bill Belichick and Philadelphia's Andy Reid are two of the premier head coaches in the NFL. But even geniuses can make mistakes on the game's grandest stage. Here now, the most dubious Super Bowl coaching moves of all time.

1. Don Shula, Baltimore, Super Bowl III

Everybody remembers the Jets' quarterback story--Joe Namath's backing up his victory guarantee with a 16-7 win. But had Shula handled his own quarterback situation better, the game might have turned out differently. Johnny Unitas (right) is considered one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, but he wasn't the Colts' starter. Shula gave that assignment to veteran Earl Morrall, who had rather improbably won the NFL's MVP award after replacing Unitas, who missed most of the season with an injured elbow. But Morrall was awful in the biggest game of his career, completing just six of 17 passes for 71 yards and throwing three first-half interceptions against the Jets.

Shula didn't put in his Hall of Famer until there were fewer than four minutes remaining in the third quarter and the Jets had built a 13-0 lead. By then Morrall had led seven scoreless Colts drives, and the Jets had seized the momentum.

2. Mike Holmgren, Green Bay, Super Bowl XXXII

Is it ever wise to allow your opponent to score the go-ahead touchdown? Holmgren thought so, and he ordered his defense to let Denver running back Terrell Davis waltz in from the one-yard line with 1:45 remaining, giving the Broncos their margin of victory in a 31-24 upset of the Packers.

The debate over the strategy only intensified when it was revealed that Holmgren mistakenly believed the play came on first down, rather than second-and-goal. But the coach's thinking was obvious: With a good chance that Denver would get that final yard and take a seven-point lead over his Packers anyway, why not prevent them from milking the clock in the process?

The Packers got the ball at their 30 with 1:39 to play and two timeouts remaining. They made it as far as the Denver 31 before the drive stalled, and the Broncos and John Elway finally had their long-awaited Super Bowl title.

3. Mike Ditka, Chicago, Super Bowl XX

It's still painful to acknowledge: William (the Refrigerator) Perry scored a Super Bowl rushing touchdown, but future Hall of Famer Walter Payton did not. Instead of giving the ball to the man who was the NFL's alltime leading rusher at the time, Ditka allowed Perry, a 318-pound defensive tackle and sometime blocking back best known for his cute nickname, to score on a third-quarter one-yard touchdown run, his only carry of the game. In that same 46-10 rout of New England, Bears fullback Matt Suhey had an 11-yard rushing touchdown, and Chicago quarterback Jim McMahon punched in a couple of TDs, scoring on runs of two and one yards. Payton, meanwhile, never sniffed the end zone and finished with just 61 yards on 22 carries.

• For the rest of Don Banks's top five Super Bowl gaffes, plus coverage of Super Bowl XXXIX, go to SI.com/nfl.

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COLOR PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR. (UNITAS)

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