Tom Brady has cemented his legacy as one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, but what if the infamous “Tuck Rule” game in 2001 against the Raiders had been ruled correctly and been called a fumble?
As you all know, Brady was sacked from behind by Charles Woodson with the Raiders leading late in the fourth quarter, and Greg Biekert recovered. From there, Oakland would have run out the clock and won the game, and headed to the AFC Championship.
If you look at the play again, Brady’s arm had stopped coming forward and the ball had actually met his left hand. Yes, it’s called the “Tuck Rule,” but it was ruled an incompletion because his arm had been moving forward. It’s a fumble, plain and simple.
Let’s say the call was ruled correctly and Brady didn’t win that game. Obviously the Pats don’t beat the Steelers or the Rams or win the Super Bowl, helping kick-start the recent dynasty that has since otherwise been questioned due to cheating by the entire organization and head coach.
Odds are that Brady, despite helping lead New England to the AFC East title, would have been a second-string QB in 2002 to Drew Bledsoe, who missed all but two games due to injury, opening the door for Brady.
Bledsoe was a franchise quarterback at the time and was just turning 30. Brady only averaged 189.5 yards per game in 2001, as the Patriots didn’t want to ask their second-year QB to do too much and won games with their defense and clock management on offense.
That leaves Bledsoe as the starter on a team that only went 9-7 after the Super Bowl and probably would have been around that record anyway with either quarterback.
Brady, by this time, would have been labeled as “The QB Who Fumbled in the Playoffs,” kind of the way Tony Romo has recently been vilified for his playoff performances, and ultimately might have been picked up by another team in need of a quarterback (think Matt Cassel going to Kansas City after one good year in New England).
Bledsoe would have deteriorated, the way he did in Buffalo and Dallas, and New England might never have won any of their three Super Bowls and would be now missing a key element in trying to sustain their success.
Brady likely would have gone to a team and organization that isn’t as stable as New England’s. Looking at this list of passers in the 2002 season, let’s say that Brady ends up in Cleveland as a guy to possibly compete for a job with Tim Couch.
Do you think the Brady legend lives on if he were in Cleveland? Hell no. He wouldn’t have the coaching, the staff, the organization, the players or anything to support him. Yes, he is an elite quarterback who studies film and comes early and stays late and all that jazz, but there’s only so much one player can do without any help.
Or Detroit, perhaps, makes a play for Brady, and he’s stuck in football purgatory worse than Cleveland for the next half-decade. With Matt Millen running the show at the time, though, we couldn’t expect him to make a move as deft as that, so Detroit is probably out.
(You have to remember that before Brady won the Super Bowl, much wasn’t expected of him. He was a sixth-round pick after an up-and-down career at Michigan. Yes, he finished third in the league in yardage in 2002, but he threw a lot of picks and his yards per game average was just 235—and this is at the cusp of the offensive era of explosion that we are currently enjoying every weekend.)
Could you imagine Brady playing in the cauldron of Dallas? Every interception would be questioned, every pass second-guessed. Until you are tearing it up week in and week out, every move you make is going to be analyzed either by an overbearing owner (*cough, Jerry Jones, cough*) or every talking head and columnist.
Or dealing with the less Satanic yet still omnipresent Dan Snyder in Washington? (If you want an example of a guy with tremendous success getting a pass from most everyone, just look at this video of Brady “dancing” with a terrible ponytail. This thing was shrugged off because he’s won three Super Bowls. If it were Tony Romo, he would have been traded.)
But, looking through that list of 2002 passers, there are some stable organizations and teams that might have been a good QB away from a run through the playoffs.
Chicago, for example, was employing Jim Miller and Miami—at the time coming off an 11-5 and 9-7 years—had Jay Fiedler as its quarterback. Brady could have been built around in Baltimore or Jacksonville or Denver, and while he might not be a three-time Super Bowl champ, he would be a Pro Bowler and a top-notch quarterback.
Of course, if you look at those five franchises listed above, name one great wide receiver that has come through there in the past decade.
(Still waiting for one to pop into your head …)
OK, so there hasn’t been one. And while there have been some barely relevant wideouts in New England, Brady did have a couple years of Randy Moss and has had Wes Welker, one of the best route-runners in the NFL.
He also has had very solid receivers in Troy Brown and Deion Branch. So, maybe if Brady heads to another organization, he doesn’t put up the same kind of numbers and is known as Matt Hasselbeck-esque—a decent quarterback who can win you some games but ultimately not the solution for your franchise.
Or, perhaps Brady does beat out Bledsoe the next year and he wins his other two Super Bowls and continues his impressive run as one of the best quarterbacks ever. Or he might have languished on the bench for two or three more years and been known as a career backup—a Charlie Batch, if you will.
Because of that “incompletion,” Brady has become an epic quarterback, surrounded by a terrific system and an even better organization. While he is supremely talented and is one of the best to ever play the game, one small play might have changed all that, and he may never have gotten the chance to prove it.
Matt Hurst is the editor and founder of Throwback Attack, a sports blog based on the past. Visit it at throwbackattack.net