The Story of the Infamous
“Beer Bottle Game”
There are hundreds of incidents throughout sports history where fans got unruly following a bad decision or call by the games’ officials. When you pack a stadium full of passionate fans, the energy can reach a critical point and boil over.
Football fans are especially used to bad officiating and ugly fan reactions, but there’s one game in NFL history that really takes the cake. In this infamous game, fans reacted so badly that officials called an end to the game prematurely with 48 seconds still left on the clock – something that had never been done before in NFL history and hasn’t since.
So to kick off our brand-new blog we’ve decided to share the story of the Beer Bottle Game, a now nearly-forgotten event that took place over 18 years ago on December 16th, 2001.
The game was the Jaguars at Browns during the 14th week of the season. The Browns were in a position to win an unlikely playoff slot with a record of 6-6, but they needed to win the four remaining games in their season, including this one. The game held little importance for the Jaguars.
There were many questionable calls throughout the game, but the event that kicked off what would later be called “bottlegate” started with just 1:08 left in the game.
Cleveland was down 15-10 and was forced to attempt a 4th down conversion. Otherwise, Jacksonville would get the ball and kneel out the clock. Quarterback Tim Couch threw a short pass to receiver Quincy Morgan which was ruled complete by the officials. The pass gave Cleveland a 3-yard gain – just enough to get the first down they needed and keep them in the game. The players rushed back to the line of scrimmage and ran another play where Couch spikes the ball in order to stop the game clock at 48 seconds.
At this point, you can imagine what the energy must have been like in the stadium. Cleveland fans already have a reputation for unruly conduct, and here the playoffs are on the line and the Browns have just scored a critical first down with chances to win and the clock paused at 48 seconds – plenty of time to get the touchdown they need. Unfortunately, the officials announced that they were reviewing a play.
It looked at first like the officials were going to review the spike, possibly violating the Browns for an intentional grounding, a ruling that the announcers agreed with. During the spike, Couch appeared to do a “double-pump” with his arm. In order for a spike to not be intentional grounding, it must be performed immediately after the snap.
The intentional grounding call would have set the Browns back 10 yards and they would have lost a down but the game would have been far from over.
Instead, the officials came back and said they were reviewing the previous play – the pass to Quincy Morgan. Apparently, the officials in the replay booth had attempted to buzz the referees on the field after that play but hadn’t been able to get their attention.
The referees called the pass incomplete due to Morgan not having control over the ball. This resulted in a turnover and effectively ended the ball game for the Browns.
The Fan Reaction
The NFL rules state that a play cannot be reviewed once another play has been run. Browns fans in the stadium, feeling like they just had their postseason stolen from them, immediately began booing loudly and throwing things onto the field – mostly beer bottles.
Players and officials took shelter on the 50-yard line in order to get as far away as possible from the bottles that were now raining down on the field. One of the announcers says, “The fans have got to control themselves – people are getting hurt.”
A few fans even rushed the field, but they were all quickly apprehended by law enforcement.
Finally, fearing for their safety the referees called an end to the game and evacuated the field. Never before in NFL history had a game been ended with time still on the clock.
However, the game did eventually finish. After about 20 minutes the league office called and told the referees that they did not have the authority to end the game early and that they needed to return to the field and finish it. With many players already undressed and showering, each team mustered 11 random players to go out on the field and kneel twice to end the game.
While a few players reported getting hit, there were no serious injuries sustained during the event. The Browns’ president and the owner made statements after the game defending the fans’ actions. Owner Al Lerner stated, “It wasn’t pleasant but it wasn’t World War 3. I don’t see any terrible criticism that would be called for for the fans.”
Terry McAulay, the lead official in the game, went on to referee for another 15 years, including three Superbowl games. Browns fans will claim that he forever held a bias against their team following this incident.
Even though nobody was seriously injured, the game served as an embarrassing moment for the franchise and for the league. NFL fans all over were angry at the officials for doing such a poor job, angry at the Browns fans for their overreaction, and angry at the league for forcing players to return to the field under a barrage of beer bottles.
While it’s never appropriate to throw beer bottles at people, it’s easy to understand why Cleveland’s fans were so upset. The referees ignored one of the most obvious rules in football – a play can’t be reviewed once another play has begun. In doing so, they snatched the postseason from a team that desperately needed one.
Whether you remember the infamous game or you’d forgotten all about it, we hope you enjoyed the retelling of this controversial moment in NFL History. Check back in after to read the latest from Public Bar Live.