Commentary

'Tuck Rule Game' changed destinies

Emotions still run high about one of the most controversial playoff games in NFL history

Originally Published: January 13, 2012
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Jon Ritchie, the thoughtful former Oakland Raiders fullback -- no, it is not an oxymoron -- saunters into the television studio for an interview he has been dreading.

"I just found out I didn't have to do this," says Ritchie, an ESPN analyst. "I didn't know that. But I already said yes, so …" … So, here he is, bracing for a cathartic 20-minute therapy session regarding the famous "Tuck Rule" divisional playoff game against the New England Patriots. It's hard to believe, but it happened 10 years ago, on Jan. 19, 2002.

"It was the worst loss I'd ever experienced," Ritchie says at one point. "You know, I'd just as soon never talk about it again."

But three days later, in a hallway at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., he feels compelled to talk some more. He was worried that he had come across as too bitter.

"I was conflicted," Ritchie says. "As a player, you want to tell it like it was. As an analyst, you want to be a little more detached. I really didn't know how to navigate those questions."

He isn't the only one. ESPN recently interviewed a number of the participants in the game. A decade has passed, but emotions remain remarkably close to the surface.

It was the last game at Foxboro Stadium. A fresh snowfall and the first prime-time NFL playoff kickoff made for a dramatic setting. But this wildly exceeded expectations. According to Patriots owner Robert Kraft, it was the best game in the stadium's 31-year history.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady famously fumbled -- or did he?

Here, in the words of those who were on the field that night, is a narrative of that historic game:

Tom Brady, Patriots quarterback: "I remember getting caught in traffic two and a half hours before the game and having to call our security guy to have a police escort to come get me to the game. I remember being out there in warm-ups and just watching these perfect snowflakes drop."

Tim Brown, Raiders wide receiver: "I think when we got the forecast everybody was saying, 'Oh, the weather was going to be too bad, the Raiders won't be able to go out there and play a decent game.' I think we sort of took umbrage to that, and you really wanted to go out and prove to people it didn't matter what the weather was."

Troy Brown, Patriots receiver: "It was a night playoff game in New England and we know the people here in New England can get a little bit rowdy. It was really a chance for us to kind of make a name for ourselves against a team with players like Jerry Rice and Tim Brown and Rich Gannon."

Trailing 13-3 with fewer than eight minutes to play, Brady scores the first rushing touchdown of his career, from 6 yards.

Troy Brown: "I saw [Brady] get up and spike the ball, then I saw him fall over. He looked [like] the young, clumsy quarterback that he was at that time."

The Raiders run a total of 13 plays in two possessions, but can't run out the clock. The Patriots, still trailing 13-10, take over on their own 46 with 2:06 left.

Eric Allen, Raiders cornerback: "I'm an older guy, so on breaks whenever there was some downtime I would never go to the huddle, I would basically hang out on the sideline. So here's this young quarterback that comes over and he's speaking with Charlie Weis, the offensive coordinator at the time, and he says, 'We're going to go 3 by 1, we're going to throw the slant backside.' So I dashed to the huddle myself and I set the play up. Basically I say, 'Hey, they're going to go 3 by 1, so linebacker make sure you're in that first window.'"

Tim Brown: "I was watching him the whole way, just because that's Charles Woodson and I'm a fan too. If he gets the chance to strip a ball, that's what he is going to do."

Tom BradyMatt Campbell/AFP/Getty ImagesCharles Woodson looked as if he made a game-saving play; Tom Brady thought he had made a grave error.

Eric Allen: "[Brady] runs a slant, he's going to throw it in the first window, he sees the linebacker and he pulls the ball back to pump it."

Troy Brown: "Watching the pressure come in on Tom, and you want to scream out, 'Watch out, Tom!'"

Walt Coleman, game referee: "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."

Tom Brady: "When Charles hit me on that play and I dropped the ball, I thought, 'Oh, man this is not looking good.'"

Walt Coleman: "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."

Tedy Bruschi, Patriots linebacker: "I thought it was over and I started walking out there. I thought that our season was coming to an end."

Eric Allen: "I'm just standing on the sideline, talking and just thinking about the trip back, about the next opponent. The whole team was on to the next game."

Walt Coleman: "Oakland was going to run the clock out and win the game, so we had the ball set up, ready for Oakland to kneel down when my replay buzzer went off."

Jon Ritchie: "Was it TV? What is this timeout all about? I don't think anyone at that point in the offensive huddle knew what was going on. I know I didn't."

Walt Coleman: "So when I put my headset on, my replay guy, who was Rex Stewart, said, 'Walt, this is a big play.' And I thought, 'Yep, already figured that out.'"

Eric Allen: "It's not black and white. When you make the call from upstairs you have to get into Tom Brady's head and say, 'Was it his intention to throw the ball?' What was his thought process?"

Tim Brown: "We almost felt bad for Walt because we knew that if there were some kind of way they were going to overturn this thing versus the Raiders, it was going to happen."

Walt Coleman: "The shot he gave me was from the front, which gave me a clear look at exactly what happened on the play. And what it showed is Brady's arm's coming forward. And Woodson hits him and the ball falls out of his hand. And that's clearly an incomplete forward pass. It was easy."

Jon Ritchie: "So, you're telling me to leave the field, even though it's our ball? Who's got the authority to do that. And why? I need some sort of explanation."

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaHad the play been ruled a fumble, the Raiders would have been able to run out the clock.

NFL Rule 3, Section 22, Article 2, Note 2: When 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.

Tim Brown: "Oh. They found the 'Tuck Rule.' How about that?"

Troy Brown: "No matter what his intent was with the ball, his arm was going forward, therefore it was an incomplete pass. We'll take it a thousand times more."

Jon Ritchie: "Thousands and thousands of pictures of Tom Brady with both hands on the ball as Charles is stripping the ball would indicate to me that he had no intent on throwing that thing. I don't think any of us got the proper explanation that night. So there was a lot of anger."

Charles Woodson, Raiders cornerback, postgame interview: "It's some bull----, it's some bull----. That's exactly how I feel, I feel like it was a bull---- call. It never should have been overturned."

Walt Coleman: "It was pretty clear right off the bat that I was wrong, that I had messed up the call. The system worked. Replay worked.

"It's not what Walt Coleman did, it's what the New England Patriots did after they had the opportunity to run more plays. I mean, I just made the play correct."

Tim Brown: "That was [head coach] Jon Gruden's last game with the Raiders. And I don't know if it was, if it was a Freudian slip or not, but in the locker room he said, 'They are never going to allow you guys to win here.'"

Damien Woody, Patriots guard: "Just looking at their facial expressions, you just saw guys that were deflated. They just didn't know how to take the call. You knew from that point forward we were going to win that football game, just off their body language."

Eric Allen: "Looking back on it now, I'm not sure if there was anyone that was able to gather the team together and direct our focus back to, 'Here's where we are, here's what we have to do to get the result we want.'"

Tom Brady: "It was really a very fortunate call, and the Raiders fans still let me hear about that call. But we took advantage of it and made the plays to win the game."

Brady completes a 13-yard pass to David Patten and, after two incomplete passes, runs for 1 yard to the Oakland 28. Patriots place-kicker Adam Vinatieri lines up the game-tying 45-yard field goal with less than a minute left in regulation.

Adam Vinatieri: "You think, 'Oh, my gosh, we've got a chance to tie this thing.' But it's a 45-yarder and there's three, four inches of snow on the field -- with the game on the line. You had pretty much everything working against you, degree-of-difficulty-wise. For me, it was not thinking of all the external things. It was, 'You've got to kick a ball better than you've ever kicked it. It's got to be above the line of scrimmage, and it's got to be straight.'"

Tedy Bruschi: "When his foot hit that ball, I saw a snow explosion like off of the ground, like just a 'poof!' of snow. The wind, the snow, so many things that made that probably the most difficult clutch kick in the history of the NFL."

Adam VinatieriEzra Shaw/Getty Images Vinatieri's 23-yard game winner set the Patriots on the road toward a dynasty.

Adam Vinatieri: "My thought was if you fall down, the ball is going to shoot right into your offensive line and the game's going to be over. You've almost got to take little steps like you're running on ice. You can't come in real hard at the heel or you're going to fall down. I took little short, choppy steps, which means you're not going to get the power you usually do. It took forever, minutes versus seconds, to get there. But it snuck over the crossbar, maybe 46, 47 yards -- not much more than that."

The Patriots win the overtime coin flip and drive from their 34-yard line to the Oakland 5 in 14 plays.

Damien Woody: "We went up to Adam, we asked him, 'Where are you going to be kicking the ball from?' He pointed out the spot and we just started clearing a path for him."

Adam Vinatieri: "My holder and I are trying to kick as much snow out of the way as possible and the offensive linemen were sweeping and sweeping. Oakland calls a timeout to ice the kicker. I think it helped us out. We cleared a pretty decent spot. At least my footing was better for that one. Game winners in playoff games are never easy. They have a whole different feel. But after making the best kick of my life, I felt like I just couldn't miss that night. That one went right down the middle and it was over. That was fun."

Vinatieri, 8:29 into overtime, kicks a 23-yard field goal to win the game 16-13.

Tim Brown: "It was one of the quietest locker rooms I have ever been in, because guys really felt as if they got robbed."

Jon Ritchie: "It's easy to blame one call, but the bottom line is we should have played better. Offensively, we failed to convert on a short-yardage play that could have put the game away. Defensively, we could have done more when they had the ball. We left plays on the field."

Tom Brady: "It's six inches that could win or lose a game, so it's hard to say 'What if this? What if that?' But it feels good knowing that we, in 2001 … that was a hell of a year for us."

Eric Allen: "A lot of us Raider guys think that still, when [the Patriots] line up and play, and even today, they have some of our magic."

Greg Garber covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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