After a three-year hiatus, the Cleveland Browns returned to the NFL for the 1999 season.
By 2001, the team was slowly showing signs of improvement.
Two wins in ‘99 begat three in 2000.
As the Browns entered their bye after Week 6 in 2001, they were sitting pretty at 4-2.
However, after the bye, the team promptly dropped four out of their next six.
Entering a home game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 14, Cleveland was faced with a difficult task.
— Dave (@DaveBThyName29) December 16, 2021
In order to get into the playoffs, they would most likely need to win the rest of their games.
Jacksonville, who was a division rival at the time, seemed like the perfect team to begin the Browns’ winning streak.
After all, both teams had met in Week 3 and Cleveland emerged with a 23-14 win.
When they met for the second time in ‘01, the Jags had only produced four wins against eight losses.
Surely Cleveland could beat Jacksonville again to gain momentum toward the postseason.
Sloppy Game Leads to a Questionable Call
During the first quarter of the game, the Jaguars looked like the far superior team.
After a touchdown by receiver Jimmy Smith (the PAT failed) and a field goal by Mike Hollis, Jacksonville was up 9-0.
Then, both teams proceeded to lay goose eggs in the second quarter and it was still 9-0 at the half.
Late in the third quarter, Browns defensive back Anthony Henry stepped in front of a Mark Brunell pass and returned it 97 yards for a score.
With the extra point, it was 9-7, Jacksonville.
In the final quarter, both teams traded field goals to put the score at 15-10, Jags.
Cleveland had under three minutes to drive the length of the field and score a touchdown.
Quarterback Tim Couch deftly maneuvered the team into the Jags red zone and faced a 4th and 2 at the 12-yard line with 1:08 remaining.
Couch took the snap and found Browns receiver Quincy Morgan for an apparent three-yard gain and a game saving first down.
As Morgan fell to the ground, the ball moved in his arms.
20 years since Bottlegate. Maybe the fans were trying to pelt Quincy Morgan for having Crisco hands. pic.twitter.com/w19M552Txp
— Tony Mazur (@TonyMazur) December 16, 2021
However, the officials ruled it a completed catch and Cleveland had new life with 1:03 on the clock.
On first down, Couch dropped back to pass, pumped the ball twice, found no one open and promptly spiked the ball into the ground to stop the clock.
The officials huddled together and speculation was that the zebras would call Couch for intentional grounding.
Instead, referee Terry McAulay announced to the crowd that the replay booth had signaled him before the play had begun to review the fourth down play.
Quizzical looks were shared throughout the stadium.
Most NFL fans know that league rules are specific in that a play cannot be reviewed once another play has commenced.
That had just occurred, but McAulay assured the coaches on both teams that he was signaled before the start of the Browns’ first down play.
A short time later, the replay booth relayed their decision to McAulay.
December 16, 2001: Bottlegate.
With the Browns down 5 to Jacksonville and just over 1:00 legt, the refs review the Browns 4th Down spot, already after another play had been run, and all hell breaks loose in Cleveland pic.twitter.com/PyutW9mvgo
— This Day In Sports Clips (@TDISportsClips) December 16, 2021
Morgan had not caught the ball cleanly and, therefore, the pass was incomplete.
The result was a turnover-on-downs and Jacksonville ball.
That’s when all heck broke loose.
The Jaguars bench immediately went wild, knowing they just had to kneel down to win the game.
Cleveland’s bench was in an uproar and head coach Butch Davis tore into the officials.
Suddenly, players began noticing objects filling the air.
It was a trickle, then a cascade of bottles along with full-throated expletives and rage on behalf of Browns fans.
In a short-sighted move, Miller Brewing Company, a team sponsor, had recently introduced new plastic bottles and proudly offered them at the Browns concession stands.
Instead of the typical plastic cups fluttering in the breeze, the heavier plastic bottles rained down on the field.
As the debris throwing continued, both teams migrated toward the middle of the field to avoid the projectiles.
Finally, after several minutes, McAulay signaled an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against the crowd and announced that the game was over.
There were still 48 seconds on the play clock.
Both teams headed toward their locker rooms with the officials and Jacksonville players dodging bottles along the way.
— HOMAGE (@HOMAGE) December 16, 2019
An NFL First
McAulay’s decision was a first in the history of the NFL and it didn’t sit well with the league office.
Then Commissioner Paul Tagliabue contacted McAulay and told him that he had no authority to stop a game.
Furthermore, both teams had to return to the field to play the remaining 48 seconds.
Both teams were informed and several players had to quickly towel off from their shower and get back into their gear.
Eventually, both squads returned to the field.
Brunell kneeled down twice and the game was officially over.
— John Skrtic (@SkrticX) October 19, 2020
In interviews after the game, McAulay was asked about the incident.
He stuck to his in-game statement that the replay booth had signaled him before the play where Couch spiked the ball.
After the Jacksonville game, the Browns lost two of their three remaining games, rendering the Jaguars’ game result inconsequential.
The following season, the Browns made the playoffs for the first time since 1994.
However, it would be 18 years before they would again qualify for the postseason.
As a result of the Bottlegate debacle, most stadiums, including Cleveland, banned the sale of beer in plastic bottles to prevent future issues.