|Before January 19, 2001 everybody thought this was a fumble. (Getty Images)|
By Ryan Wilson
It's been exactly 10 years since two organizations, with vastly different histories up till that point, saw their fates changed forever. The Patriots were hosting the Raiders in an AFC Divisional matchup. With 2:24 left in a game played in blizzard-like conditions, and with Oakland leading 13-10, cornerback Charles Woodson stripped quarterback Tom Brady, the Raiders recovered, and they appeared headed to the conference championship.
Except that the tuck rule -- a term no one had heard of to that point -- saved Brady and the Patriots, and, you could argue, altered the future of both organizations. New England would go on to win this game, the Super Bowl, and two more before 2005. The Raiders, meanwhile, lost Jon Gruden to the Buccaneers a few weeks later and wouldn't win more than five games for the next seven seasons.
Time supposedly heals all wounds but whoever uttered those words couldn't have been a sports fan. Ask Raiders fans or former players about the immaculate reception and you can see the blood rush to their face. Bring up the tuck rule and they'll have their hands around your neck as you try not to lose consciousness.
Depending on your perspective, this was either "fun" or some "bulls---."
"We were robbed, and I still get sick thinking about it," Woodson, now a Packer, said when the Raiders played Green Bay last month.
He was slightly more emotional during his post-game comments at the time (and understandably so): "It's some bulls---, it's some bulls---," Woodson said according to ESPN.com. "That's exactly how I feel, I feel like it was a bulls--- call. It never should have been overturned."
He makes a decent point. Up till that moment, nobody knew what a "tuck rule" was. Even Mike Periera, the former head of officials (a job he held on this fateful night, too) who now works for Fox Sports admits that the rule is a cop out for what everybody knows is a fumble.
"A pass should only be ruled incomplete if the ball comes loose in the actual act of passing the ball," he said. "If it comes loose in the tucking motion, then it should be a fumble."
Now we reflexively shout "tuck rule" anytime a quarterback fakes a throw, resets, and loses the ball after getting smacked by a defender. Even though common sense says it's clearly a fumble. It's the football version of the "I know it when I see it" explanation for what is and isn't obscene.
Last October, when the Patriots faced the Raiders, Brady, no doubt fighting back uncontrollable laughter at his good fortune, admitted that "We got a few breaks and situationally, we made some plays."
You don't say. Richard Seymour, who was with the Patriots at the time but now plays for the Raiders, couldn't contain a smile but wasn't interested in talking in specifics.
"I was on the opposite side of it, so I don't have a comment on it…" he said according to the San Francisco Chronicle, a grin now about to swallow his face. "What's funny is that me and (Steve) Wisniewski, Coach Wisniewski, we were lined up against each other that whole game."
In his book published in 2004, "Do You Love Football?!: Winning with Heart, Passion, and Not Much Sleep," Gruden addressed what happened in Foxboro on January 19, 2002. After referee Walt Coleman invoked the tuck rule Gruden wrote that:
"We had one timeout left, but I wasn't going to use it. As a result, the Patriots had to send out … Adam Vinatieri to try a 43-yard field goal. I didn't want to try and 'ice' (him) because I didn't want to give the Patriots' ground crew time for the same thing that had happened in that same stadium in 1982, when a work-release convict used a snowplow to clear a spot for John Smith to kick the winning field goal in New England's 3-0 victory over Miami."
New England didn't need the help of the Massachusetts Dept. of Correction against Oakland.
Gruden continued: "Vinatieri was kicking the ball literally out of five inches of snow, into the wind. He made it, sending the game into overtime. In overtime, Vinatieri kicked another field goal out of all that snow."
Vinatieri's recollection of those final few moments: "My holder and I are trying to kick as much snow out of the way as possible and the offensive linemen were sweeping and sweeping. Oakland calls a timeout to ice the kicker. I think it helped us out. We cleared a pretty decent spot. At least my footing was better for that one. Game winners in playoff games are never easy. They have a whole different feel. But after making the best kick of my life, I felt like I just couldn't miss that night. That one went right down the middle and it was over. That was fun."
That was the last time Gruden coached the Raiders. "… If my recalling of this game is matter-of-fact," he said in his book, "it's because it kills me to recall this sequence of plays."
Doesn't sound like that much fun.
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