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Decade of Controversy: Remembering the Tuck Rule, 10 Years Later

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Decade of Controversy: Remembering the Tuck Rule, 10 Years Later
The fumble that was never called

On a snowy, cold night in the small town of Foxborough, Massachusetts, over 60,000 fans crammed into creaky, rusty yet reliable Foxboro Stadium for the Divisional Playoff game between the Oakland Raiders and the New England Patriots

I was not one of the fans in the stadium on January 19, 2002, but I was cheering at my parents' house in a suburb in Rockland County, New York.  The same snow that covered the stadium was coming down in my area and was not letting up anytime soon. 

The one thing I remember most about the game is how the Raiders would not stop talking and how the Patriots had a quiet confidence about them, almost feeling like it was their turn. 

Tom Brady was the fresh-faced kid out of Michigan, going 11-3 as the starter after franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe went down with his infamous chest injury.  Rich Gannon was having an MVP-caliber season, armed with the best running game in the league and a still very productive Jerry Rice.

As the game went on I thought to myself, something crazy is going to happen...

And indeed it did. 

With 1:53 left in the final period I turned to my dad and said, "Patriots are gonna win the game." The second I turned my head back to the television, Charles Woodson had already hit Brady to cause the fumble and Greg Biekert recovered it. 

I grabbed my cell phone and called Ann Callahan, a family friend living in the heart of Boston and a huge sports fan like me.  We talked about the great season they had while CBS showed replays.  One particular viewpoint I remember was a close-up of Brady from the front as Woodson hit him when his arm was coming forward. 

It was then that I thought, "Is that a fumble?"

At that exact moment, commentators Greg Gumbel and Phil Simms along with referee Walt Coleman told everyone that the play was under review. 

No one knew it yet, but the world was about to be introduced to the NFL's dirty little secret: the Tuck Rule. 

NFL Rule 3, Section 22, Article 2, Note 2. When [an offensive] player is holding the ball to pass it forward, any intentional forward movement of his arm starts a forward pass, even if the player loses possession of the ball as he is attempting to tuck it back toward his body. Also, if the player has tucked the ball into his body and then loses possession, it is a fumble.

Nobody really knew what the rule stated until after the fact.  Coleman ruled the play as an incomplete pass and the Patriots' drive resumed.  Immediately when the ruling was made I knew there was something weird going on. 

Conspiracy theorists have and will forever argue that the NFL put another one over on the Raiders franchise, but this fact cannot be denied: Tuck Rule or not, the game was not over and Oakland still had a chance to make a play to right the wrong.

Brady calmly led New England downfield to the 28-yard line where I prayed harder than I ever had in my life up to that point.  The snow was coming down so fast and hard I had no idea Adam Vinatieri's field goal was good until Gumbel said so.  As overtime began, I had no doubt in my mind that the Patriots were headed to Pittsburgh for the AFC championship game.  

We all know what happened in overtime and the ensuing events afterwards.   New England has been the NFL's measuring stick, turning the city of Boston into a 21st century championship factory while Oakland has disappeared into obscurity. 

The Patriots are on the verge of a fourth world championship while the Raiders are planning to, once again, restore excellence to the silver and black.

So what lessons has the NFL learned since the Tuck Rule?

It can be argued that the league has somewhat gone overboard with the rules since that fateful night in 2002.  Tom Brady now has his own rule to protect quarterbacks from injury and the NFL has since borrowed and tinkered with college football's overtime and touchdown rules. 

The other question that obviously comes up is, "What if the Tuck Rule never happened?" 

No one can really provide a definitive answer to that.  There are so many variables to it.  For example, had the play been ruled as is, who is to say that Tyrone Wheatley doesn't fumble the ball or Rich Gannon is not intercepted? 

Also, there was no guarantee that had Oakland won the game, a victory over Pittsburgh was a sure thing. 

Putting it in perspective, the game launched an NFL dynasty and led to the downward spiral of a once-proud franchise. 

No one knows what the future holds, but as for the present, it cannot be denied that the Patriots took full advantage of their opportunity while Oakland is still searching for its identity.

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