The New England Patriots are back in the Super Bowl. Again. If they defeat the New York Giants it won't just bring sweet revenge for the Giants ruining New England's almost-perfect 2007 season. New England will forever be known as one of the greatest NFL dynasties, with four Super Bowls victories in 11 seasons. Bill Belichick would become the second head coach with four rings; Tom Brady would join Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana as the only quarterbacks to lead their teams to four Super Bowl wins.
Whether or not the Patriots succeed in these achieving these milestones, the Patriots' saga could have unraveled in far less dynastic fashion if a certain incomplete pass was called a fumble.
On Jan. 19, 2002, in the closing minutes of an AFC Divisional Round game that was played in near whiteout conditions, Oakland Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson hit Brady from behind. Brady let go of the ball, and Greg Biekert recovered the fumble. Cut and dry ... until Walt Coleman announced after review that, since the quarterback's arm was moving forward, it was an incomplete pass. In reality, Coleman's ruling was later clarified: the "Tuck Rule," a piece of NFL legislation that went into effect in 1999:
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.
The Patriots kept the ball, and a short time later Adam Vinatieri tied the game on a 45-yard field goal. Another short Vinatieri field goal in overtime later and New England's playoff theft was complete.
The "Tuck Rule Game" wasn't the first time a team felt like the game was taken away from them by the officials. But it may be the one game and decision that's stuck longest with the team and fans who were negatively affected.
The wound's still open. Say the words "tuck" and "rule" to a Raiders fan and the same complaints and anger bubble up like chronic acid reflux. It's tough to blame them, since even some Patriots fans admit that the Raiders got screwed. Is this fixation with a 10-year-old call healthy? No, but health and football often travel separate paths.
Is "Forward Progress" the new "Tuck Rule"?
San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh joined the Raiders as their quarterbacks coach the very next season, 2002, joining a team that was on its way to better things (earning a trip to the Super Bowl against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jon Gruden, Oakland's head coach the year before). Harbaugh also joined a franchise still steaming over the "Tuck Rule." The fact that the Patriots went on to win their first Super Bowl against the St. Louis Rams a few weeks after that Divisional Round game made the pain even worse. Many would argue that the Raiders have never fully recovered.
Fast forward 10 years. Both Harbaugh coaching brothers suffer deflating Championship Game losses. John's Ravens lost to the Patriots after Billy Cundiff missed a potential game-tying field goal ... after Lee Evans had a potential game-winning touchdown catch knocked away. It was a borderline play, but deemed not worthy of review.
Jim Harbaugh's opportunistic 49ers thought they finally got their first takeaway on Sunday evening when NaVorro Bowman separated Ahmad Bradshaw from the football deep in Giants territory. However, the play was whistled dead. Forward progress had been maximized, ruled Ed Hochuli.
-Q: What do you think about the Bradshaw play and the forward-progress call?
-HARBAUGH: In my opinion, that was a fumble. And I’m sure the league will defend it and the officials will defend it. But to me the play was continuing.
There was still struggling going on by Bradshaw. So feel like that was a fumble.
We had a game against the Giants, the first time we played them, and Donte Whitner stripped the ball, where the hit’s made at the 6, and then he rips the ball out at the 9 going backwards, yeah, didn’t like that it wasn’t a fumble, but felt like that was forward progress, etc.
This one, I did not agree with. Felt like it was a fumble. Felt like it was… this is like analogous with the Tuck Rule.
If we didn't know it already, Monday's press conference marked was the day "Tuck Rule" officially became the brand name describing any team feels like a vital game was taken away via questionable means -- not just the Raiders. Many Raiders fans probably cringed at the thought of their misery repackaged for use by the 49ers, but it begs the question: would be better for everyone involved if another team can share their rulebook-related pain?
Perhaps, but if the Giants win Super Bowl XLVI, and Harbaugh tries to keep harping on the Bradshaw call and 49ers fans create a "Forward Progress Game" wiki page in the style of this one, that will not be tolerated. As much as the Raiders and their fans hate the "Tuck Rule" and all it stands for, it's their cross to bear. No one else's.