Next season’s NFL playoffs will mark the 10th anniversary of the infamous “Tuck Rule” game between the Raiders & Patriots.
That 2002 AFC Divisional Playoff game was defined by a potential sack-fumble of Tom Brady in the final 2 minutes that would’ve changed the game in Oakland’s favor. The call on the field was a fumble recovered by the Raiders, only to be reversed upon review. The Patriots, down 13-3 entering the 4th quarter & trailing 13-10 when that critical play occurred, used this break to make a late FG to force OT.
Thanks to the NFL rules in force at the time (unchanged until the 2011 playoffs), the Patriots won the OT coin toss and kicked a FG without the Raiders’ offense ever getting a chance to counter.
It was Jon Gruden’s last game as a Raiders coach – Oakland owner Al Davis traded him shortly thereafter to Tampa Bay, where Gruden won the Super Bowl the very next year. To capture the title, he beat his former Raiders team.
Here’s some history on the “Tuck Rule,” followed by some analysis of the controversial final call by the refs.
The “Tuck Rule” has been on the books since 1999, & basically states that if a QB is making a passing motion & the ball falls to the ground, it’s incomplete. If the QB is still in the process of trying to tuck the ball into his body or stops his throwing motion & the ball manages to go backwards/forwards before it hits the ground, it’s merely an incomplete pass, not a fumble.
Once the QB has clearly tucked the ball ”into his body,” then from that point onward a loss of possession of the ball would be a fumble. This is of course, an exception to the general rule about forward passes (being incomplete) versus situations where the ball flies backward off the QB when he is making no effort to tuck the ball (being a fumble).
In that game, the refs made the initial call on the field in a snowstorm & from a distance, & initially gave the ball to the Raiders. The refs initial impression was that Brady tucked the ball “into his body,” had possession in his body, & then fumbled it. Upon review, it was decided that Brady made a throwing motion & then was in the process of tucking the ball into his body when the ball hit the ground, which resulted in an “incomplete pass,” not a fumble.
When announcing the overturning of the initial fumble call, upon further review the ref stated that possession remained with NE. The ref also mistakenly said the ball was going forward rather than backward (it was going backward). Still, according to the rule above, as long as an effort to tuck is in the process of being made, it is not a fumble & whether the ball was going forward or backward is irrelevant.
The refs call to overturn & subsequent explanation ignores the most important aspect of the play: Charles Woodson’s strip of the ball.
Even if Brady intended to tuck the ball down rather than throw it, Raiders CB Charles Woodson cleanly stripped the ball from Brady after Brady reestablished control. In other words, Brady intended to hold onto the ball & was in the process of tucking it when Woodson stripped it out of Brady’s hands.
When Brady was bringing the ball down, he had control of it – it did not just happen to slip out of his hands. If Brady has control of the ball when he’s brining it down, it’s a fumble. If the ball just happens to slip out of Brady’s untouched hands while he’s attempting to throw or bring it down to fake a throw/tuck, it’s an incomplete pass rather than a fumble.
The problem with the Tuck Rule is that it appears intended to be applied when the ball slips away from the QB’s hands prior to contact. It does not appear to address what happens when there is contact – suggesting the Tuck Rule does not apply when the QB is hit. In that case, it’s the defensive player’s hit/strip/swipe that causes the fumble, and so the event is a fumble rather than an incomplete pass no matter how you look at it.
It has been the NFL’s policy to make rule changes after a season is over, & the Raiders Bruce Allen did complain after the fact. Allen felt that the way the rule was written, the fumble call should have stuck. In concert with the idea that there must be enough compelling video evidence to overturn the call on the field, I believe Allen’s contention was that the Tuck Rule does not clearly indicate how it is to be applied in the event of the ball going backwards (balls flying backwards are, as mentioned above, usually ruled as fumbles).
Also, I believe he had the opinion that the “in the process of tucking” vs. “officially tucked” aspect of the rule was not clearly explained (when is the tucking process definitively complete?), thus creating a contextual ambiguity about the entire rule.
This is very similar to legislative disputes about certain laws when they are being drafted as bills, with certain Congressman wanting to use particular words to create wiggle room in the language of a bill. Those Congressman intentionally want that slight ambiguity in the bill to account for potential situations they haven’t even thought of yet, while other Congressman want the language of the bill more precise because they’re happy to sacrifice agility for clarity.
While it certainly appears that the fumble call should not have been overturned as a tuck & therefore an incomplete pass, there is still a significant faction of fans (most of them Patriots supporters) who think the play was not a fumble.
What’s clear is that the call changed NFL history: The Pats went on to stun the Steelers in Pittsburgh 24-17, then shocked the world by beating the heavily-favored Rams 20-17 in Super Bowl XXXVI.
If the Raiders win that game, would Jon Gruden still have been traded? The Raiders obviously had a great team – they came back next year with basically the same team & made it to Super Bowl XXXVII.
As for the Patriots, this cemented Brady as an emerging star & gave the Patriots the confidence & swagger they needed to win the next 2 Super Bowls (the ’04 & ’05 title games) following Gruden’s win with Tampa Bay.