A decade ago, the New England Patriots were just another upstart team. During the 2001 season, they won the AFC East for the first time since 1997, led by second-year quarterback and sixth-round pick Tom Brady in the second year of Bill Belichick's tenure. Today, Brady and his coach have penetrated the popular conscious. The Patriots are the de facto AFC East champs every year, but on Jan. 19, 2002, the Patriots needed a lucky break to establish their dynasty.
Like the Civil War, the Tuck Rule Game still evokes angry partisanship as a settled matter of historical record. Read the comments on the NFL.com page for the 2001 Divisional Playoff game between the Patriots and the Oakland Raiders to get a sense of the open wound it left.
The Raiders led the Patriots 13-10, two minutes away from a trip to the AFC Championship. A nor'easter in the process of burying the East Coast paused over Foxborough Stadium, covering the field in slippery wet snow. It snowed four inches during the game. Visibility reduced to an arm's length, the refs had a hand in the form of instant replay, recently reintroduced to the league.
Brady took the snap at his own 46-yard line. Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson swoops in from the quarterback's right side and sacks him. Brady fumbles. The Raiders recover. Oakland's mayor starts thinking about the cheesy bet he'll make with Pittsburgh's mayor for the AFC Championship game.
Referee Walt Coleman explained his decision with 10 years worth of perspective in a recent piece from ESPN.
I'm about 12 yards deep and probably 10 yards away from Brady. At some point during the process, the ball disappeared from me, and so I couldn't see exactly what happened and when the ball came out of Brady's hand.
There wasn't much conversation with the other officials because everybody's looking at something different. Nobody sees the action of the quarterback except me. Based on what I saw and the information that I had, I ruled it as a fumble. If you ruled it incomplete you could not correct that with replay. That's basically just the way we were trained.
The replay assistant, Rex Stewart, challenges Coleman's ruling.
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.
That's the tuck rule. Nobody knew what in the hell the tuck rule was until that game. Now, it's burned into the mind of every armchair quarterback at your Super Bowl party.
Obviously, the fumble ruling was reversed thanks to the replay. Watching it again - it's at the 3:30 mark in this video - Brady's motions still leave just enough doubt about whether or not he aborted the pass attempt to keep the controversy alive for years to come.
Lost in the troll-ish comments across the web is the fact that the ruling was correct. The rules prevent the officials from reviewing Brady's intent. Conspiracy-minded folks will point to Charles Woodson forcing the fumble, something pointed out by Phil Simms in the video. But the letter of law favors the Patriots.
History probably wouldn't have been that much different had the call gone in Oakland's favor. The Patriots' dynasty would have been delayed by a season. Even if Oakland had won that game and gone onto the Super Bowl, Al Davis still would have found a way to take his team in the opposite direction over the coming years.
Walt Coleman's status as one of the most hated refs in all of professional sports might never have been established without such a high profile game. His shaky work as a referee continues, and you can read the collected opinions of Coleman's work here.
New England hosts the Denver Broncos and Tim Tebow on Saturday night. The forecast calls for clear skies and cold temperatures. There was controversy last week, albeit more mild, about Tebow's overtime pass to Demaryius Thomas.
Ten years after the Tuck Rule Game, any controversial call in this AFC Divisional game, regardless of which way it goes, could break the internet given the parties involved. We should be so lucky.