Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Tuck Rule Game: 10 years later

Life turns on a billion tiny hinges. All our decisions, breakthroughs, setbacks, those are the little hinges. But sometimes, much more rarely, things turn on a big hinge. And 10 years ago this weekend, one infamous play turned the fate of a franchise, the sports identity of a city, the lives of players... heck, maybe even the marital status of a supermodel.

Saturday, Jan. 19, 2002. In the final game at old Foxboro Stadium, near Boston, the New England Patriots faced the Oakland Raiders for a spot in the AFC title game. It was a furious snowstorm, the kind where you can hardly see the yardlines, the kind of conditions you loved to play football in as a kid. Big, fluffy snowflakes whirred threw the air, giving the game a surreal backdrop.

Led by coach Jon Gruden and quarterback Rich Gannon, the Raiders led 7-0 at the half. Jerry Rice, perhaps the greatest player in NFL history, caught four passes for 48 yards in the game. In the third quarter, New England cut it to 7-3, but then Sebastian Janikowski, who this season tied an NFL record with a 63-yard field goal, stretched the Oakland lead to 13-3 by booming home field goals of 38 and 45 yards. Seabass cares not for your snow.

Things looked bleak for the Patriots heading into the fourth quarter. Boston, a city with a rich sports history, had somehow become a city bereft of champions. The Red Sox were famously cursed, and they over 80 years and counting of agonizing failures. The Bruins, an Original Six NHL franchise, had reached 30 years without raising Lord Stanley's Cup. The Celtics, the most successful franchise in NBA history, had fallen on hard times and had a 15-year title drought that seemed like an eternity following the rate that the Celtics had won them previously.

After a Shane Lechler punt (he's still with the Raiders, probably the best punter in the league), New England had the ball at its own 34, 12:29 to go, down 13-3 and desperate. The Pats had been pretty conservative, but now they had to let fly.

The Patriots' quarterback was a fairly unproven kid named Tom Brady. He'd mostly been a backup in college at Michigan, was drafted in the sixth round, and only got the starting job when franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe suffered a vicious injury on a hit by Mo Lewis the previous September. Brady had watched 49ers games at Candlestick Park as a kid, and was a big Joe Montana fan growing up. Montana had been a legend in the postseason, and a four-year-old Brady had been in the stands for the 1981 NFC title game when Dwight Clark hauled in "The Catch" from Montana, the play that launched the 49ers dynasty of the 80s and 90s. This was Brady's first playoff start.

Brady was brilliant on that drive that started with desperation at the 34. He kept completing pass after pass in the snow. And it all seemed like fate. On one, receiver David Patten fell down as Brady threw, but got up in time to make the catch. On another, the ball popped out of Patten's hands as he was hit, but tight end Jermaine Wiggins plucked the ball out of the air for the catch. Brady completed nine straight passes for 60 yards to drive the Pats to the six-yard line. There he dropped back, then scrambled forward, pump-faking time after time, diving into the end zone for a touchdown run. Brady attempted to spike the ball in celebration and fell forward. The men dressed as Revolutionary War soldiers fired music. The crowd roared. (Clip: drive starts at 3:30, TD run at 8:50) With the extra point it was now a 13-10 Oakland lead.

The Patriots defense dug in around midfield on the ensuing Raiders' drive. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, wearing red, foreshadowing his future as the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, was demonstrative on the sideline, waving his arms and yelling when his defense forced the punt.

But the ensuing Patriots drive was noteworthy only for announcer Phil Simms yelling, "What are you?!? ...I just got hit by a snowball, and I see the guy who did it." Simms then good-naturedly suggested the person had intended to hit his broadcast partner, then Greg Gumbel, but had missed and hit him. Back on the field, with three timeouts left and facing fourth-and-10, New England punted.

The Patriots defense dug in again, forcing the three-and-out they had to have, twice tacking the Oakland ballcarrier within a foot or two of the first-down line. During New England's last timeout, right before Oakland punted, Patriots coach Bill Belichick walked about on the sideline, talking to offensive coordinatore Charlie Weis, Brady, other players, an official. This was only Belichick's second playoff game; he'd lost his first as the Browns' head coach. He carried a regular season record of 52-60 on the sideline with him that day, not yet the hoodie-wearing genius we all know today.

New England's Troy Brown ran the punt all the way back near midfield, but fumbled at the end of his return. Larry Izzo pounced on it for the Patriots; another disaster narrowly averted. With 2:06 to go, the Patriots started their drive at their own 46, down 13-10. A completion and a Brady mad dash of a scramble picked up a first down at the Oakland 42 with 1:50 to play.

Then, the giant hinge turned.

As Brady dropped back to pass, his college teammate, cornerback Charles Woodson, the 1997 Heisman winner, blitzed off the edge to Brady's right. Brady was looking left, and he started to throw but then began to pull the ball back to his body. At that instant, Woodson hit him, and the ball fell to the snow-covered field below. Oakland recovered. Game over...

But wait. 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."

Both Gumbel and Simms thought the play would stand, but Referee Walt Coleman reviewed the play and said Brady's arm was going forward and that it was an incomplete pass. With new life, Brady completed a pass to Patten. The Patriots couldn't get any closer though, and kicker Adam Vinatieri trotted out to try a 45-yard field goal to tie the game with less than a minute to play. Vinatieri had missed four of his last five field goals between 40 and 49 yards.

But today was different. Vinatieri drove the kick through the snow, history and eventually the uprights, tying the game at 13. (Clip: tuck play at 3:35, field goal at 8:42) Overtime. The crowd at old Foxboro was beside itself. The ultra-intense Gruden looked stunned for just a second, then resumed his usual pacing.

New England won the coin toss. Much like his drive to pull New England within three, Brady was masterful in the sudden-death overtime. Again he completed pass after pass, nibbling off chunks of yardage. On fourth-and-four from the Oakland 28, the Patriots eschewed a field goal, driving into the wind, and instead went for it. Brady dropped back quickly and threw a laser to Patten, who caught it in the left flat on his knees for a first down. It was Brady's eight straight completion in overtime. Gruden paced. The crowd's anticipation grew. The Patriots ran the ball a few times, inching closer. Brady centered the ball in the middle of the field. Vinatieri booted home a 23-yard field goal for the win. (Clip: the overtime drive, fourth-down conversion at 4:50)

The crowd's cheering and music reverberated throughout the old stadium, which had just seen its last of thousands of NFL plays. One Patriots player made snow angels. Teammates lifted Vinatieri on their shoulders, carrying him off the field. New England 16, Oakland 13.

* * *

Brady completed 32 of 52 passes in the heavy snow for 312 yards. The Patriots would go on to beat the Steelers in the AFC title game and the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. It was the first of three Super Bowls in four seasons, and launched New England on a decade (and counting) of dominance in the NFL in an era where free agency and competitive balance had supposedly made dynasties a thing of the past. It was also the first of seven Boston sports titles over a nine-year, four-month span.

Belichick has become a legendary coach, Brady a legendary quarterback and Vinatieri one of the most clutch kickers in NFL postseason history. Gruden would get his Super Bowl ring the very next season as coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, beating the Raiders. Woodson would talk in later years about how he frequently thought about the tuck rule play, perhaps jokingly (or not jokingly) saying his old college teammate "stole my ring." Last February, as a Green Bay Packer, Woodson finally got his Super Bowl ring.

It's impossible to know, but I sometimes wonder how the Patriots dynasty would've been different or the same had that tuck rule play not been overturned. No, this isn't an I'm-too-obsessed-with-football thing (although we could probably identify those), but it's more of a life and history thing. Tipping points, as Malcolm Gladwell writes about. Those hinges on which life turns.

If the Patriots don't get the call overturned, if their defense doesn't dig in, if they don't make any of a series of must-make plays, how is the NFL different? How is the Chiefs' coaching and general manager situation different? Does Brady still eventually marry supermodel Gisele Bundchen? Does he ever meet her?

But the worthwhile answer is, of course, what happened is what happened. Brady completed all nine of his passes on a drive to pull New England within three. The tuck rule play was overturned upon review. Vinatieri made the 45-yarder in the snow. Brady completed all eight of his overtime passes. Vinatieri made another field goal. The Patriots kept winning. Brady did marry Gisele. Named their first kid Benjamin, too. Classy name.

Stories like this are one of the reasons why I enjoy NFL football, especially in the playoffs. It's the people and the drama that make it so compelling. And that night 10 years ago in the snow in New England, rich with storylines, drama and lives changed, was one of the NFL's greatest games.

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