SportsCenter used to have a segment called the Not Top 10. It was just like the ESPN show’s Top 10 plays, except it was the worst plays of the entire week, airing every Friday. The no. 1 most appalling play of the week would be pitted against the reigning no. 1 worst play of the previous weeks. Fans would vote on which lowlight was lower. The so-called winner was crowned as the Worst of the Worst.
When Mark Sanchez’s Butt Fumble happened 10 years ago this Tuesday, the play went undefeated on the Worst of the Worst for 40 consecutive weeks. “It was like Mike Tyson in his prime,” said Mark Summer, who was the senior coordinating producer for SportsCenter at the time. “It’s TV gold.”
Forty weeks is roughly the length of a pregnancy. In the bible, the number 40 is often used in tests, trials, and tribulations from the Almighty.
That is appropriate, since the Butt Fumble birthed a sports lowlight that can be described only as biblical.
The play is probably one of the 10 most famous American sports plays of the 21st century. That might sound absurd, but how many plays in recent history are more well-known among sports fans and non-sports-fans alike?
The Butt Fumble is a modern-art masterpiece. It is an indelible testament to a franchise’s failure. It’s the physical manifestation of the phrase “the agony of defeat.” It’s a monument to modern internet virality. It is both a symbol of Jets history and an inflection point that foreshadowed the decade to come—and still haunts the team to this day.
You know the play. It was Thanksgiving Day, November 22, 2012. The Jets were hosting the AFC East rival New England Patriots in the Meadowlands in front of nearly 80,000 fans. The Patriots and Tom Brady had just scored to take a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter, and the Jets needed to respond.
On first-and-10, Sanchez took the snap and turned to hand the ball off, but nobody was there. The play was supposed to be a handoff to the fullback, Lex Hilliard, but Sanchez spun the wrong way. Panicking, Sanchez decided to run the ball up the gut (so to speak). He collided with his guard, Brandon Moore, and fumbled.
November 22, 2012— Boston Sports Info (@bostonsportsinf) November 22, 2022
The Butt Fumble
Patriots destroy the Jets and Rex Ryan (49-19) including outscoring New York (35-3) in the 2nd Qtr alone
Jets, the gift that keeps on giving pic.twitter.com/hXIPA0GULM
The name “Butt Fumble” is not hyperbole. Moore’s butt is what jars the football loose. “Vince [Wilfork] basically forklifts the guard and knocks him back into the quarterback,” Steve Gregory, the Patriots safety who recovered the fumble, told The Ringer in a recent phone interview.
As the ball bounces, Sanchez makes a desperate lunge to try to recover it. But in a cosmic repudiation of Sanchez, the Jets, and perhaps the very concept of mercy, the ball one-hops directly to Gregory, who scoops it up and returns it for a touchdown that gave the Patriots a 21-0 second-quarter lead.
“I guess [I was] more stunned than anything,” Sanchez told the Associated Press a week after the game. “Just like a car accident. I was like, ‘Whoa. What just happened?’ Then, the ball’s gone. It was weird.”
Two years later, Sanchez played on Thanksgiving again and was asked about the play. “I ran into some guy’s butt, dropped the ball on the turf and some guy scored,” Sanchez lamented. “And on my favorite holiday. It wasn’t cool.”
Players on both teams didn’t realize how ridiculous the play truly was until they got home and saw the replays on television.
“The first time I saw it I laughed out loud to myself in a room by myself for 20 seconds,” then-Patriots QB Tom Brady said on his Sirius XM radio show earlier this year. “I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen in my life in sports.”
Incredibly, the Butt Fumble™ wasn’t even the first butt fumble in 2012. Just a month before Sanchez achieved internet infamy, Cowboys running back Felix Jones did essentially the same thing against the New York Giants, losing the ball after crashing into the backside of Dallas center Ryan Cook. That play seemed to inspire a handful of people on Twitter to use the hashtag #buttfumble a month before Sanchez’s iconic moment. (Ironically, the earliest I can find anyone using the #buttfumble is NFL Network’s Rich Eisen, who is a Jets fan but used the hashtag a full year before Sanchez’s play.)
Sanchez himself even recovered a fumble with his own butt—a rather full-circle conclusion to a full-moon story.
Earlier this season, the Dolphins had the Butt Punt vs. the Bills.
The BUTTPUNT, in extreme slow motion.— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) September 26, 2022
: The Sundays pic.twitter.com/ZDLww39O6r
But none of those other butt-related plays have had the staying power the Butt Fumble did. Sanchez’s Butt Fumble was the one that launched the genre, in part thanks to the game’s prime-time holiday broadcast window and quick thinking by NBC’s Sunday Night Football producers, who immediately recognized the magnitude of the moment. “If [the Butt Fumble] were 1:00 in the afternoon on a normal Sunday, it doesn’t get that kind of play,” NBC executive producer Fred Gaudelli said. “But because it’s in prime time on Thanksgiving night with no competition, there’s really nothing else on television, it just got the maximum audience it could get.”
Gaudelli, who also serves as executive producer for Thursday Night Football on Amazon Prime, has been producing prime-time football games for more than 30 years and worked on seven different Super Bowls. In his role, Gaudelli watches every replay from every camera angle and decides which ones go on TV. When the NFL unveiled its list of the greatest 100 moments in the league’s first 100 years, Gaudelli had been the producer for half of the plays in the top 10. But in terms of the funniest moments in the NFL’s first 100 years, Gaudelli says nothing comes close to the Butt Fumble.
“Right there, you knew it was a play that only could happen to the New York Jets,” Guadelli said. “And you knew you were going to be replaying this for the rest of the game
Improbably, the Butt Fumble was not rock bottom for the Jets on that Thanksgiving night. They fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and New England’s Julian Edelman caught the ball in midair and returned that for a touchdown too, giving the Pats return touchdowns on back-to-back plays.
Add in the Tom Brady touchdown on the drive before the Butt Fumble, and the Jets surrendered three touchdowns in 56 seconds of game time. In just five plays (not counting extra point attempts), New England turned a 7-0 lead into a 28-0 lead with nearly nine minutes remaining in the second quarter. All of this happened on Thanksgiving night. More than 18 million people were watching as Sanchez pathetically reached for the ball before flopping down.
He’s like a defeated movie character on the ground reaching for a gun that they know is out of reach but is their only option. And as soon as the ball is scooped up, Sanchez lies face to the turf in existential dread.
It wasn’t just the ball slipping away from Sanchez. In that moment, the best era of modern Jets football slipped out of the franchise’s grasp.
“I never came here to kiss Bill Belichick’s, you know, rings,” Jets head coach Rex Ryan said early in his first season as Jets coach in 2009. Ryan later told Newsday columnist Bob Glauber what he really meant to say: “As much as I respect and admire Bill Belichick, I came here to kick his ass.”
Ryan was a rabble-rouser—he even went so far as to get a suggestive tattoo of his wife wearing a Mark Sanchez jersey. But he immediately backed up his shit talking. He led the Jets to AFC-championship-game appearances in each of his first two seasons. That run included beating Belichick’s Patriots in New England in the playoffs in January 2011 (one of only three teams to beat the Pats in Foxborough in a playoff game during the Brady-Belichick era). Sanchez, New York’s young Vincent Chase–esque quarterback, had tied the record for the most road wins by a quarterback in playoff history—and he’d done it at just 24 years old.
“Those,” Glauber told The Ringer, “are the glory days for the Jets.”
The Jets went just 8-8 and did not make the playoffs in 2011, Ryan and Sanchez’s third season together. But the playoff runs in the two previous seasons gave New Yorkers reason to believe the Jets were ready to finally disrupt the Patriots’ dynasty. Entering the 2012 season, the Jets-Patriots tilt on Thanksgiving night was expected to be a legitimate battle for first place in the AFC East. But by the time the game arrived, the Jets were 4-6. It was a disappointing season to be sure, but panic had not set in for the Jets. In Ryan’s very first season, the Jets started 4-6 but finished 7-2 and made the AFC championship game. Perhaps the 2012 season could be salvaged too. But they needed to beat New England.
And then the Jets gave up three touchdowns on five plays across 56 seconds. They went into halftime down 35-3 and ended up losing 49-19. Fans were, uh, upset.
For decades, the Jets had been a joke. And then, for a fragile few years, they were competent. To that point, the Mark Sanchez–era Jets had not unraveled, which only made it all the more jarring when they came undone on national TV.
“The Butt Fumble is the ultimate symbolism,” Glauber says, “of how impossible it was for this team to vanquish Belichick.”
But the Butt Fumble goes beyond symbolism—it is the legitimate marker in the downturn of the Jets, who went from an up-and-coming franchise to the league’s laughing stock. The Jets finished 6-10 and fired general manager Mike Tannenbaum after the 2012 season, released Sanchez after the 2013 season, and fired Ryan after the 2014 season. That era of Jets football imploded with the play.
From the Butt Fumble game through their Week 11 loss to the Patriots this past Sunday, the Jets have scored the fewest points and the second-worst point margin in the NFL. (They are the only team to not have 3,000 points.) They are tied for the most turnovers and have the worst turnover margin. And they are the only team in the past decade to not make the playoffs. The team has been so uncompetitive that the Jets have not been on NBC—the NFL’s marquee showcase—since that Thanksgiving game a decade ago. The Butt Fumble is perhaps the most consequential moment in modern Jets history.
“If you’re looking for a line of demarcation,” Glauber says, “that’s it.”
Perhaps the most damning mark of them all is that in the 20 times the Jets and Patriots have played since the Butt Fumble game, the Jets are 2-18. That includes Sunday’s gut-punch loss when the Patriots scored the game-winning touchdown on a punt return with just seconds remaining. That score was the only touchdown of the game—and the first punt return touchdown by any team this season. While a win would have put the Jets into a tie for first place in the AFC East, the loss dropped them to last place. The Jets have not beaten the Patriots in 14 consecutive matchups, the longest active streak between two teams in the NFL. In this game, the Jets offense had the fourth-fewest yards in franchise history. In the second half, the Jets gained just 2 total yards, or less than 3 inches per play. (Conveniently, that is exactly 6 feet, so you could say the Jets dug their own grave.) After the game, quarterback Zach Wilson, who had minus-21 net passing yards in the second half, was asked if he felt like he had let down the defense, which allowed just three points. “No,” Wilson said. “No.”
The Butt Fumble effectively ended the Mark Sanchez era. The Sam Darnold era in New York essentially ended after the “seeing ghosts” game against New England in 2019. And Sunday’s loss may be remembered as the breaking point for Jets fans giving up on Wilson.
Perhaps the thoroughness with which New England has dominated the Jets is why the Butt Fumble is such an enduring highlight. It captures so much history in so little time. For decades, Jets fans have wanted the team to get its head out of its ass. But nobody thought they’d see it literally happen.
After the Butt Fumble won that 40th matchup on the “Worst of the Worst,” the SportsCenter team decided to retire the video from the segment. The producers were afraid that nothing would ever top it, and the Butt Fumble would air every Friday on SportsCenter forever.
So Summer and the SportsCenter producers commissioned a series of videos around the play as a send-off, including an entire Sports Science video. “We had a retirement party,” Summer says. “That’s how big the Butt Fumble was.”
ESPN may have retired the Butt Fumble, but the play still hangs over the Jets, undefeated.