Five hours before kickoff of the first Saturday-night divisional playoff game in NFL history, the weather was crisp and calm in Foxborough, Massachusetts, and the sun was shining. It was January 19, 2002, and the New England Patriots were scheduled to host the Oakland Raiders for the right to advance to the AFC championship game, the first playoff start for unheralded second-year passer Tom Brady, who had stepped in for franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe after he’d been injured in September — and maintained the starting job even after Bledsoe had healed.
But then, in the late afternoon, the snow began to fall, with unrelenting flakes blanketing old Foxboro Stadium. And it didn’t stop until the course of NFL history had been forever altered in myriad ways.
The game, known as both the Snow Bowl (for that copious and unceasing precipitation) and the Tuck Rule Game (for the enduringly controversial call that ultimately swung the contest toward the Patriots, who won 16–13 in overtime), would alter the futures of both franchises. On this night, the Patriots, under Brady, head coach Bill Belichick, and owner Bob Kraft, began to blossom into a juggernaut; on this night, the Jon Gruden era in Oakland skidded to an abrupt end, setting the once-proud Raiders on the path to devolving into a laughingstock. Here, too, began the notion of football as a sport guided by technology, with referees and replay officials shifting the momentum of a game based on the minutiae of an esoteric and often confusing rule book.
“It was really, in a sense, the beginning of it all,” says longtime Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan.
Fifteen years later, the game still raises hackles among members of Raiders Nation; it is recalled with fondness by members of the Patriots who helped establish a long-downtrodden franchise into perhaps the most impressive dynasty in modern sports. It was intermittently choppy and beautiful and unfathomable, and soon joined with the Immaculate Reception — another call that went against the rebellious Raiders and owner Al Davis — as arguably the two most controversial playoff contests in NFL history.
Here is what both sides agree on: Few calls have ever had the same impact, both in the moment and beyond, as the Tuck Rule decision did. And few games have ever stuck in the institutional memories of a pair of franchises and their fan bases, as well as in the annals of football history, quite like the Snow Bowl.
Part 1: “A Little Luck. And Some Internal Bleeding.”
The Patriots entered the 2001 season at a crossroads: They’d gone 5–11 in 2000, their first season under Belichick, who had already failed in his first stint as a head coach, in Cleveland. Owner Kraft, a longtime Patriots season-ticket holder who acquired the team outright in 1994, had privately financed a new stadium to replace the outdated Foxboro Stadium, which the Patriots planned to abandon at the end of the 2001 season. In March, they’d signed Bledsoe to an unprecedented 10-year, $103 million deal, the biggest contract in NFL history at the time. And then the blueprint was suddenly and radically altered.
Note: All titles reflect positions during the 2001 NFL season.
Ken Walter (Patriots punter and holder): I was a ball boy for the Cleveland Browns when Bill was head coach in Cleveland. Don’t think I didn’t see a locker room that hated the head coach there. Guys were tuned out with him. He learned a big lesson in becoming more of a players’ coach.
Marc Edwards (Patriots fullback): We brought in maybe five or six low-tier free agents that year, myself included. They were looking for guys who were maybe not utilized right.
Antowain Smith (Patriots running back): I don’t think people realize all of the free agents that came there from other teams were castaways that had something to prove. You had a bunch of guys that came in from other teams that had cut or released them, that nobody else wanted. I think we all felt that we could still play this game.
Bob Ryan (Boston Globe columnist): This was 2001. The Patriots were never viewed in any kind of context involving any good fortune whatsoever up to this point, even though they had been to two Super Bowls. The first Super Bowl [in 1986, a loss to the Bears] was a disaster, as we know, followed up by drug allegations that tainted a lot. The second one, you know, they just lost in ’97 [to Green Bay]. And they started off 2001 at 0–2.
Edwards: We go out and lose our first game to the Bengals back when the Bengals were awful. I’m like, “Aw shit, man, this is going to be a long year.”
The Raiders, meanwhile, entered 2001 on the upswing. The year before, under Gruden, their charismatic young coach, they’d made the AFC championship for the first time since the 1990 season, losing to the Baltimore Ravens after quarterback Rich Gannon took a questionable shot from the Ravens’ Tony Siragusa. In the offseason, they signed legendary wide receiver Jerry Rice to complement veteran Tim Brown, further powering an offense capable of both running and passing. They won six of their first seven games, and Gannon was a leading candidate for Most Valuable Player.
Rich Gannon (Raiders quarterback): I know that my first year there, in ’99, we didn’t have the kind of players we needed. I think eventually we were at the point where we were getting closer to that goal of having a really good, solid team. We were in the process of that. I don’t know if we ever got there completely, but that [2001 team] was a good team.
Mike Lombardi (Raiders senior personnel executive): Look, we were really good. We had a good offensive line, we could run the ball, we had a big back in Zack Crockett, we had a great scatback in Charlie Garner, we had veteran receivers that could still play. And defensively we had some good players.
John “J.T. the Brick” Tournour (Raiders radio host): The Raiders really thought that was a Super Bowl year.
Adam Treu (Raiders offensive lineman): The sky was the limit. It was pretty obvious. I think that the captains and the leaders on the team had time to influence the younger guys. Gruden had been there, and the guys that were there understood what he was asking. He and Rich had a great relationship.
Gannon: Gruden was perfect for us. He brought a lot of energy and a lot of professionalism, attention to detail, accountability. He was a great play caller. He and I were in sync and on the same page, and I think saw the game the same way. Certainly there’s a trust factor there, and that played a big part.
Treu: To be in the huddle on the left of Steve Wisniewski and Jerry Rice, and to look to your right and see Tim Brown, and look across and see Charlie Garner and Rich Gannon — we had a lot of fun. Though Rich was so business-like. He didn’t have much fun in the huddle because he was telling us all to be quiet most of the time. He would always say, “Listen, listen,” because he’s got Gruden talking in his other ear and he’s trying to remember the play and spit it out for us. I would always say, “We’re listening, hurry up and talk.”
The 2001 football season took a pause on the Sunday after September 11. Among those in the league most deeply affected was Patriots offensive lineman Joe Andruzzi, whose three brothers were all New York City firefighters (all of whom survived the attack).
Joe Andruzzi (Patriots offensive lineman): I leaned on a lot of people. Everybody knew what was going on. I was glad they canceled the games that weekend. I was able to be with my family. And then Mr. Kraft came up the first practice the next week and asked if my brothers would be honorary captains. It just so happened we were playing the Jets, butterflies going through my stomach knowing they were going to be there, and I grabbed the [American] flags off the wall and ran out there when they called my name. Hopefully the first and last time we ever see Jets and Pats fans holding hands.
During that loss to the Jets, which dropped the Patriots to 0–2, Bledsoe took a jarring hit near the sideline from linebacker Mo Lewis in the fourth quarter. Bledsoe, thinking the injury was minor, briefly returned to the game, but was eventually replaced by his backup, Brady, a little-known sixth-round draft pick out of Michigan in 2000. Bledsoe, it turned out, had torn a blood vessel behind his rib and was suffering from internal bleeding — if his doctors hadn’t caught it, it might have killed him.
Smith: Drew Bledsoe was the face [of the franchise]. Drew was the man.
Edwards: I think kind of at that point, all the veterans are like, “Oh my gosh. We just lost our leader. We’re really screwed.”
Andruzzi: In came this scrawny little kid with a big smile on his face.
Jermaine Wiggins (Patriots tight end): We all felt extremely bad for Drew, but we all kind of felt like, “OK, Tom’s gonna come in, hold it down, and Drew would come back.”
Bledsoe was cleared to return on November 13.
Walter: I signed with New England, I think I want to say, Week 4 or 5 of that season. [Editor’s note: It was Week 6.] And they put my locker between Brady and Bledsoe. … And then Belichick made the decision to go with Brady. And I’d be lying to say that there wasn’t some tension.
Drew Bledsoe (Patriots quarterback): It’s never easy when you’re the guy and then all of a sudden somebody else has your job. That’s never an easy thing. But I always personally liked Tom, which made it a lot easier.
Wiggins: I don’t think there were many guys that were divided as far as, “Drew’s our quarterback, we want Drew.” I think the biggest thing most people felt was, “How do you lose your job to injury?” Because that’s like the unwritten rule of the NFL, or was back then. If you got hurt, when you came back, you couldn’t lose your job. Especially when you’re talking about Drew Bledsoe. And then when you saw Drew not get his job back, there were more guys that felt like, “Wow, if that could happen to Drew, I’d better never get hurt.”
Edwards: I think Brady went to the Pro Bowl that year, but his numbers were very, very pedestrian. Don’t get me wrong, he did win us a couple games. But what was kind of cool about that was everybody stepped up at the same time. We were winning games 17–16 and 24–21. It was a grind-it-out type of season.
Adam Vinatieri (Patriots kicker): We weren’t favorites. We were the scrappy team that found a way to win games. I think I kicked five game-winners that season alone.
J.R. Redmond (Patriots running back): You need a little luck. And some internal bleeding.
The Patriots finished the season 11–5 and won the AFC East for the first time since 1997. Brady threw for 2,843 yards over 15 games, with 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
Walter: By the time we got to the playoffs, Drew became an integral part of that team that people don’t talk about too much. Even before the playoffs, there were so many times when Drew would call Tom over away from the coaches and give him wisdom and tell him reads and stuff, what he had to look for. As much as he wanted to keep his mouth shut and just be pissed off, he became a huge team player.
Edwards: My first four years in the league — two in San Francisco, two in Cleveland — we’d practice, we’d shower, I’d watch the film, we’d go home, right? With that team, we’d practice, shower, watch the film, and then hang out for an hour.
Redmond: It’s a ghost town in most locker rooms after practice.
Smith: We’d actually have domino tournaments in the locker room.
Edwards: Thursday nights, 10 or 15 guys would go to this place called Outlaw BBQ. Friday night, 10 or 15 guys would go out to dinner in Boston or Providence.
Walter: I remember inviting some guys to my son’s birthday party. I had to cater the damn thing because guys are coming to me like, “What, I didn’t get an invitation?” I turn around and I’ve got 40 guys at my house for my son’s birthday.
Edwards: You’re talking the practice-squad guys, the white guys, the black guys, the veterans, the rookies. It didn’t matter. Everybody hung out.
Walter: I had a Christmas party and everybody showed up. I remember Brady stuck around and was playing pool at the house, and I had neighbors that I had to help move a foosball table into the basement. And I remember Tom going, “I’ll help you.” They still have the thing because Brady helped move it in.
Part 2: “The Snow Just Kept Coming”
The Patriots earned the no. 2 seed in the AFC and a first-round bye. The Raiders, at 10–6, won the AFC West and then defeated the Jets 38–24 to set up a divisional playoff game in Foxborough. The game would be televised by CBS at 8 p.m. ET on a Saturday, exposing the game to a “larger potential audience,” according to then–NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Both teams were prepared for each other, but not necessarily the weather.
Lombardi: At the end of the season we’d had a couple of blurps that had caused us to lose home field. And that caused us to have to go to New England.
Greg Papa (Raiders radio play-by-play announcer): One thing I remember vividly the morning of the game, is [Gruden] being surprised they weren’t playing Bledsoe. They were playing Brady. We couldn’t believe it.
Walter: I got there five hours before the game, just do my routine, take a hot shower and kind of chill. It was green grass all over, no snow on the ground. I was in the locker room and I heard a ball boy or somebody come in and say, “Man, is it coming down.”
Tom Brady (Patriots quarterback), to ESPN in 2012: 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.
Smith: I was coming from North Attleborough, which was only about 20 minutes away, but it took us — took everybody — about two and half hours to get to the stadium. Traffic was crazy. And people were scared because how Coach Belichick was, you had to be on time. So we just saw the police escort, we knew whose vehicles it was, so everybody just kinda fell in line. And it was kind of funny because the fans, they knew who it was, they’d get out of the way and just let cars fall in line so nobody would be late to the game.
Gannon: I think that storm came in late. We weren’t really preparing for it.
Lombardi: At one o’clock when we would have normally played the game, it was sunny and cold and dry. It didn’t start snowing until we got on the bus (to the stadium).
Armen Keteyian (CBS sideline reporter): Of all the sideline games I’ve done, that was the only one where it snowed from the beginning to the end of the game.
Brady, to ESPN: I remember being out there in warm-ups and just watching these perfect snowflakes drop.
Keteyian: It wasn’t a whiteout, but it was almost, like, eerie. That stadium just had no light other than what was coming from the actual lighting in the stadium. You weren’t getting a lot off the video board. And that mixed with the snow and the atmospherics to make this sort of an ethereal setting.
Gannon: I mean, it was great for television because it was a night game, the snow, the lights.
Vinatieri: In New England this time of year, you just prepare for crappy weather. If it’s not, you say, “Hey, this is awesome!”
Wiggins: As a kid like me growing up in Boston, you play in the snow. But playing tackle football in the schoolyard at the Boys & Girls Club is different than playing in the divisional round against the Oakland Raiders.
Redmond: You want to know about the personal aspect of preparing for it? All right. There’s only two things you can do: Put on a shitload of clothes and a whole lot of Vaseline.
Anonymous fan: We had been drinking quite a bit of whiskey trying to keep warm in the parking lot. We found our seats, watched a couple of series, and then went looking for food. On the way, my friend fell over in the concourse. I was helping him up and a cop detained us both. We were put in separate paddy wagons, driven to the Foxborough jail, and were eventually released when his other friends thought to check the jail at about 2 a.m. I missed the entire game, but every new arrival to the jail was an opportunity for a score update.
Keteyian: I hated wearing hats, and if I remember right, I just never wore a hat. You’re using hand warmers to warm your mouth so you can talk. Lesley Visser gave me that tip. You had them in your hand, and once they were warm you just put them up against your lips before you had to do a report. So you weren’t just going, “Uh, bluh, uh.”
Treu: The snow just kept coming. It was ankle-deep at times.
Bledsoe: I always liked playing in the snow. I was just kinda bummed I didn’t get to go out there and play.
Vinatieri: Biggest snowflakes I’ve ever seen in my life.
Edwards: I played in snow before, but not to the point where you couldn’t see in 5-yard increments.
Wiggins: I started with gloves, then I took them off. The gloves didn’t help.
Smith: It’s like you’re playing with a double-edged sword. If you take your gloves off, your hands are gonna freeze. If I leave my gloves on, they’d get wet from the snow. But I left my gloves on. If I fumbled the ball, them gloves would have come off.
Keteyian: As the night went on, it just kept snowing harder and harder. It was snowing, like, sideways.
Phil Simms (CBS broadcaster): I remember a snowball being thrown from somewhere in the middle of the stands, and I was turning to my right, looking at Greg Gumbel, and for some unbelievable reason, I saw the snowball coming at me and moved my head just a little. It nicked the side of my nose and hit the wall behind me, and it was like a grenade just went off. That was during the game! And the most amazing thing is that I didn’t curse on the air, because it was an ice ball. And I thought, “If that thing would have hit me in the face, it would have definitely knocked me out.”
Vinatieri: You could see figures on the other side of the field, but you couldn’t see who was coaching and who was playing. I thought, “Oakland’s going to come in to this snowy blizzard game and not know what to do.”
Treu: Looking back, maybe it was a factor. We had the number-one offense that year, right? [Editor’s note: They were fourth in total points and seventh in total offense.]
Treu: We kind of had our way with teams. You run a dinking and dunking West Coast offense … it was a lot of slipping and sliding.
Part 3: “You Have No Control of the Elements”
By kickoff, snow had blanketed the field. Outside the hashmarks, as Keteyian reported, it was essentially “concrete,” but the heated interior part of the field was a muddy and unpredictable mess. No one could figure out the proper cleats to wear, or how best to negotiate the elements. Soon after grounds-crew members used snowblowers to clear the yard lines, they would once again become obscured by snow. The Raiders found their bearings first, scoring on a Gannon touchdown pass to James Jett and heading to the half with a 7–0 lead.
Walter: We were messing around with shoes to wear, and luckily they had the old [heating] coils under the field so there was footing underneath the snow. And the snow was kind of fluffy. But I remember at halftime [Oakland punter] Shane Lechler and I trying to practice, and we were literally laughing out loud. Some punts we would launch, and some we’d slide forward and hit the damn thing off our shin. We’re like, “Bro, this game needs to be over.”
Wiggins: Belichick would always say, “Hey, listen, you have no control of the elements.”
Gannon: I’d give them a lot of credit in the second half. It’s always been my thought that when the weather gets bad, you throw the ball more — corners and safeties and cover guys aren’t sure where they’re going, so they’re reacting more than the receivers. And that’s exactly what the Patriots did in the second half, and I think that helped them a little bit, and we didn’t do a very good job defensively.
Still, by the start of the fourth quarter, after a Vinatieri field goal and a pair of kicks by Oakland’s Sebastian Janikowski, the Patriots trailed 13–3. Early in the fourth quarter, Brady threw an incomplete pass on a third-and-18 and the largely frozen crowd in Foxborough began to boo, perhaps longing for Bledsoe’s return. The Patriots’ win probability had sunk to 9 percent. And then, with less than 13 minutes to play, Brady engineered the greatest drive of his young career, completing all nine of his pass attempts (without a single rushing play mixed in to that point) and setting up New England at the Raiders’ 6-yard line.
Papa: I remember them jumping into the no-huddle, and Brady was awesome at it. And he kept hitting Kevin Faulk [in the game], and he kept hitting that tight end, Wiggins.
Wiggins had four catches on that drive, including one he rescued after it bounced off the arms of teammate David Patten.
Wiggins: At times I was the primary receiver, but at times it was just Brady going through his progression and finding the open guy. When a quarterback gets in rhythm and they feel confident and you show them you can make plays for them, they have a tendency to come back to you.
Redmond: Every time somebody had a chance to get the ball they made a play. David Patten, Jermaine Wiggins, Kevin Faulk, myself, Antowain Smith, Troy Brown.
Wiggins: The last play of that drive, I could see Brady looking toward my side, but he didn’t like what he saw and he gave a little pump fake and, boom, he ran it in.
Ryan: That was the game he scored his first rushing touchdown, by the way. I wrote in my column, “There was nothing dazzling about it, but it got the job done.”
Papa: He didn’t throw a touchdown pass that night.
It was 13–10 Raiders with 7:57 to play. The Patriots still had life.
Edwards: I just remember Brady kind of stumbling around in the snow. He finishes that touchdown with a falling-down spike. And you see that replayed all the time.
Smith: Oh, yeah. Face-plant right in the snow.
Walter: To this day, when I [go back and watch] Tom doing that, I always point out to my boys, “Hey, watch him fall over.” I could feel that passion and that joy in that moment. I can remember so many times where we’d be down 14–0 or 17–0 and before halftime Tom just starts going to everyone on the sideline, “We’re going to win this damn game.”
Wiggins: He’s such an emotional player. But he’s never really been the greatest when it comes to spiking the football. And he’s no Michael Vick when it comes to running the ball.
After the teams traded punts, the Raiders found themselves with the ball at their own 35 with 2:41 to play. After two Garner rushes for a total of 9 yards and two Patriots timeouts, Oakland faced third-and-1 with 2:24 on the clock. They opted to a run a signature play — though all these years later, no one can seem to agree on the name of it.
Lombardi: On first-and-10 we ran the ball and Charlie had a huge hole. He could have broken it following [fullback] Jon Ritchie. He could have broken it right or left, but he kind of ran into Ritchie and got tackled.
Gannon: Charlie was downhill so fast he didn’t give the pulling guard a chance to make the block.
Papa: Charlie, just, he went the wrong way. He just misread the block. But the Raiders had a lot of third-and-1s that year and they ran a play that year that was never stopped.
Treu: I think it was 96 G Lead. It was a G Lead or it was the Blast, one of those two plays. I thought for sure we’d get the first down and end the game on the field.
Lombardi: 12 Lead. We had a play called 12 Lead. It was a lead to Zack Crockett.
Gannon: It was one of our base core plays. And we had one particular player blow an assignment.
Papa: Never was stopped, 14 Blast made it every single time. And [Raiders offensive guard] Frank Middleton screwed up the blocking assignment, [Patriots linebacker] Bryan Cox flashed across, and they stuffed 14 Blast.
Gannon: Instead of making really half a yard, we didn’t get back to the line of scrimmage. We were the best short-yardage and goal-line team in football that year, and we didn’t block it right.
Papa: So that’s Belichick’s brilliance. And the Raiders had to punt.
Gannon: The difference between going 6–10 and 10–6 in our league is probably half a dozen plays. Those two running plays had a chance to be big plays in the game that we didn’t execute. And that’s all it takes in a game like that.
Part 4: “50 Guys in a Bar”
Lechler kicked a 37-yard punt, which New England’s Troy Brown returned 27 yards, then fumbled as he fell into the snow. But the Patriots saved themselves once more, this time thanks to special-teams ace Larry Izzo, who dived on the ball — the second time in the quarter that Izzo had recovered a Brown fumble on a punt return (it had also happened before the Patriots’ touchdown drive). It was first-and-10 for Brady and the Patriots at their own 46 with 2:06 to play and no timeouts. Brady threw a 7-yard pass to Faulk, then scrambled for 5 yards. First-and-10 for the Patriots at the Oakland 42, 1:50 left.
Mike Pereira (NFL director of officiating): I was actually in a hotel room in St. Louis. I was there for the Rams’ playoff game the next day. I’m just by myself, watching the game, and I remember thinking what a beautiful game it was. There’s something about the snow that makes it seem, I don’t know, soft or quiet or whatever. I thought, “Well, might as well have some wine with this beautiful game.” So I did have a bottle of wine in the room, of which I’d consumed two-thirds, or maybe half, when the play happened.
Papa: New England had a three-by-one formation. They put three receivers to one side. And Eric Allen, who is one of the most underrated players the Raiders have had in the past 20 years, heard Brady talking that he was going to throw that backside slant.
Eric Allen (Raiders defensive back), to ESPN in 2012: 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 three-by-one. We’re going to throw the slant backside.”
The Raiders, knowing what to expect, played it perfectly.
Wiggins: [Brady] should have actually come to my side and thrown me the football. [Charles] Woodson blitzed off our side and it was kind of like a zone blitz and they dropped that defensive end. That’s why when you see Brady getting ready to throw the football, they drop a guy right into that position, and that’s why he starts to kind of pump it, and that’s when Charles Woodson hit him. If he was looking the right way, he would’ve been looking to the right and he would’ve threw right off that edge and he would’ve thrown it to me.
Redmond: When I looked at the replay, there was a guy downfield — maybe Troy Brown — and I think he was trying to throw it to that guy.
Papa: You just didn’t blitz a lot of slot corners then, and they moved Charles into the slot a little bit that year to get him closer to the quarterback. You want the blitzer to be as close as possible. And Charles was so good at it, so it was called a cat blitz, a slot corner blitz. It was a great football play. I saw it all. If you hear my call, I call it, I see it.
Andruzzi: They brought two and we can only protect one. It was a hot read and [Woodson] came in untouched.
The ball slipped out of Brady’s hands and onto the snow.
Wiggins: I’m probably half a second behind [Raiders linebacker] Greg Biekert, who jumped on the ball. And at that point in time you thought to yourself, “This is it.”
Treu: Oh yeah, we got this.
Smith: Everybody in the stadium, everybody at home watching TV — we’re all thinking, “Game is over.”
Redmond: First thing I said was, “Aw, shit.” Then I said, “He should have thrown the ball to me.” That’s my ego as a player talking.
J.T. the Brick: I was hosting the Raiders pre- and postgame shows at Ricky’s in San Leandro, which was in Sports Illustrated as, like, the number-two sports bar in America. Massive, giant Raiders bar. We were outside, good weather, watching on big-screen TVs, and when that fumble happened and the ball came out, it was like a rock concert. You saw beer spray in the air and people jumping up and down.
Walter: Two helmets went flying by me on the sideline. Skidding and ear pads flying out.
Vinatieri: I’m like, “Damn, the game’s over.”
Bledsoe: OK, well, season’s over. I can go to Montana now.
Lombardi: I was in the press box and once we made the play I got up and screamed, “Yes!”
Brady, to ESPN: I thought, “Oh man, this is not looking good.”
Woodson, to MMQB: We’re celebrating, jumping around, and then all of a sudden the referee says the play is being reviewed. None of us could really understand why.
The use of instant replay to review calls was still relatively new. The NFL had employed replay from 1986 to 1991, but then a majority of owners voted down the system, citing the fact that nine of the 90 calls in ’91 were overturned incorrectly and that only 13 percent of reviewed plays during that six-year period were reversed. And then, toward the end of the 1998 season, one controversial call helped reinstitute the system.
Pereira: That Vinny Testaverde quarterback sneak on the [Jets’] last play of the game in 1998 that was ruled a touchdown, and knocked Seattle out of the playoffs, and all of Seattle’s coaches got fired. It wasn’t a touchdown. It was a mistake by the head linesman. And we didn’t have instant replay. That one call really brought in a system that is now obviously widely used in the NFL.
Simms: For the announcers, it was your nightmare, it really was. Back then, it was so many rules. And we didn’t have officials explaining things on the field. That was always the worst part of the job for me, constantly going over all the little rules every week. Why do they expect me to know this rule book, inside and out, when every time there’s a call on the field they all have to get together, discuss, and decide?
Following that ’98 season, the owners voted in the current instant-replay system by a count of 28 to 3. And now the system was facing its highest-profile test to date — an automatic review, triggered in the final two minutes of the game, that was both entirely justified based on what was in the rule book and utterly controversial based on the eye test.
Smith: I’m thinking, “Ain’t nothing to review about that.”
Edwards: When I saw the first replay, I was like, “Oh, he was throwing the ball.” And then he kept holding onto it and went farther and farther down, and I’m like, “Oh, I don’t know about that one. I don’t think this one’s going our way.”
Pereira: I think I was probably at that point like everybody else in America. It looked like a fumble. It felt like a fumble. And then when the first replay came, I thought, “Uh-oh.”
Lombardi: Art McNally [the NFL’s supervisor of officials from 1968 to 1991] was sitting in front of me in the press box and he leans back to me and goes, “This is going to be the tuck rule.” And I said, “What is that?”
Simms, on the air to Gumbel, before viewing the first replay: I don’t think there’s much doubt [that it’s a fumble], Greg.
Greg Gumbel (CBS announcer), on the air, after watching the first replay: Ooh. The question is, did he pull it down? His arm was going forward, but was he throwing the football?
Keteyian: It’s snowing to beat the band. You’re trying to figure out what happened. In that situation, your instincts are to be very, very careful because the stakes are so high. You’re not just going to get on the air with a guess. Phil understands the rule book better than anyone. So that’s where you defer to him.
Simms: When I see the replay of it, he definitely held on to the ball, was not going to throw it, and it’s kind of hard to even explain. We used to get little videos about plays every once in awhile [from the league]. And they had sent a video talking about the tuck rule, and that was the first time I really saw it in action during a game. In other words, “Oh, that will be called, that will not be ruled a fumble.”
Pereira: I was sending tapes out to the media and I had put it on my tape two weeks before. I showed an example of the tuck play and said, “This is why this is an incomplete pass,” and went through the whole situation with, you know, not getting the ball back tucked all the way into his body and then becoming a runner.
Simms: That’s funny, that’s right. Mike Pereira was the one who sent out those videos. I couldn’t get them online, on my computer or whatever. The tape would come to my house and I’d have to put it on the machine and watch it. That seems pretty ancient.
Pereira: It’s interesting how I had just sent out that play two weeks before.
Simms: I said it was a fumble, if I remember right. Then, as I saw it stop, and him starting to recoil the ball, probably just a few inches, then I realized, oh my God, this is, the — I don’t even know if I knew the name of it at the time — the tuck rule.
Simms, on the air during the replay review: The exact term I can’t think of.
Gumbel, on the air: That ball did not look like it was slipping out of his hands. It was forced out by Woodson.
Smith: I had no idea what a tuck rule was. But now I know what it is. For a long time I knew the exact number of the rule.
Ira Miller (San Francisco Chronicle NFL writer): I covered Eagles-Bears that afternoon and I saw the play on TV at the Billy Goat Tavern. I turned to Don Pierson [of the Chicago Tribune] and told him it would be overturned on replay and ruled an incomplete pass. I was aware of the rule, at least in part, because of a play that had happened a few weeks earlier involving [Rams quarterback] Kurt Warner.
Pereira: The rule had been formulated long before. It hadn’t really been codified in the rule book until I think a couple of years before. Somewhere in the late ’90s [Editor’s note: 1999], it was laid out in the book to the extent where you have to become a runner and get the ball all the way back to your body. But it was in the book. It wasn’t uncommon.
Wiggins: Bill Belichick being the coach he is and remembering every play and every scenario, he remembered that earlier in the year the same play had happened to us against Vinny Testaverde and the Jets.
During that Week 2 game against the Jets, when Bledsoe was injured and Brady replaced him, the Patriots defense seemed to force Testaverde to fumble in the second quarter. It was overturned on replay thanks to the tuck rule.
Bill Belichick (Patriots coach), to ESPN in 2013: It played a big role in that season — it cost us the Jets game and it helped us win the snow game.
Pereira: It was the type of play that happened 10 to 15 times a year, probably. It wasn’t like we made it up on the fly and said, “We’re going to make this an incomplete pass.” It was one that, when [referee] Walt Coleman looked at it for the very first time in replay, he knew without question that he was going to change it to an incomplete pass.
Walt Coleman (referee), on-field explanation: After reviewing the play, the quarterback’s arm was going forward. It is an incomplete pass.
Gannon: I think everybody was surprised.
Jon Gruden (Raiders coach), in a postgame interview: You can never count on anything in the NFL these days.
Andruzzi: The ref made a great call. I’m sticking to that.
Woodson, to the NFL Network in 2016: That’s the worst call in the history of all sports.
Pereira: You tried to take as much gray area as you can out of the rule book. It was a bright line. The bright line said, “Look, you’ve got to get the ball tucked all the way back into your body [to avoid a fumble].” And it even went further, to say if you start to bring the ball up after you’ve tucked it back into your body to recock it to throw and it gets knocked out of your hands when you recock it, it’s a fumble. But that whole process of bringing it back into your body, really, the intent was to make it easy for the official to make the call. It kind of was counterintuitive because it felt like a fumble.
Ryan: I’ve posed this rhetorical question for a number of years now. There’s an answer. Someone has to have it. But when was this “ground can’t cause a fumble” philosophy adopted? I grew up in the ’50s, when a fumble was a fumble. It had nothing do with if your knee was down. The only question was, “Did the whistle blow?” A fumble is a fumble. In my better world, that would be the way it is.
Pereira: It was my first year as head of the department. I knew my phone would explode when it was reversed to an incomplete pass. And it did.
Coleman, to a pool reporter after the game: Obviously, what I saw on the field, I thought the ball came out before his arm was going forward. Then when I got to the replay monitor and looked at it, it was obvious his arm was coming forward. He touched the ball. And they just hooked it out of his hand. His arm was coming forward, which makes it an incomplete pass.
Pereira: It’s much harder if you think you’ve made a mistake. But Walt didn’t make a mistake. And the replay official involved didn’t make a mistake.
Ryan: I come from a basketball background, where I think officiating is an art form. Yes, there’s a rule book, but there’s a common-sense factor. I’m much more concerned about the spirit of the law than the letter of the law.
Pereira: I always use the old “50 guys in a bar” notion. If there are 50 guys in a bar that think it’s a fumble, and the players think it’s a fumble, and the coaches think it’s a fumble, then it probably ought to be a fumble. That’s what eventually changed my mind about the rule. But the league wasn’t willing to change it until 10 or 11 years after the fact.
Papa: I mean, if you asked 100 guys in a bar, 99 are going to say it’s a fumble. I have pictures that were sent to me of that day showing Brady with two hands on the ball. When does the motion of passing stop and the tuck rule no longer applies? To me, when you put your left hand back on the football.
Gannon: The rule is the rule and how it’s interpreted, but clearly when you understand the intent, you know why he did what he did and what he was trying to get accomplished. Any quarterback, any coach that looks at that knows what happened. It’s funny — I ran into Brady at the Pro Bowl a couple of weeks later, and we spoke about it. I knew what was going on, and so did he.
Pereira: Anytime I would get a fax after that from the Raiders, it would come with a still photo of Brady with two hands on the ball. All the way through 2009 or 2010. I mean, we’re in 2017, for God’s sake, and I still get, “It was a fumble.” But still photos are nothing. It’s the process of bringing the ball back into the body. If you want to use a still photo, then go ahead and call roughing the passer on Woodson for clubbing at the quarterback’s arm.
Brady, to ESPN: It was really a very fortunate call. … But we took advantage of it.
Keteyian: One of the things I saw rewatching the broadcast was Phil saying, “This could be remembered for a long time.”
Simms: I remember Al Davis going, “You were right when you said it was a fumble!” And I said, “Yeah.” But as it all went on, I think I changed my mind when I said, “Oh my gosh, this is just what we had been shown video of.”
J.T. the Brick: The longer they stayed under the hood looking at it, you knew the Raiders were going to get screwed. Every second they kept looking at it, you just had the feeling they were going to overturn it. And it just deflated everybody.
Lincoln Kennedy (Raiders offensive lineman), to San Francisco’s 95.7 The Game in 2015: We’re standing on the sideline. It’s me, Charles Woodson, and Greg Biekert. We’re standing right next to one another, Charles Woodson and I. Biekert comes up and he says, “You know what, they’re going to take it away.” And I’m like, “How could they take it away? It’s a fumble.” He says, “We’re the Raiders and they’re taking this long.” And since then I’ve heard many shadow conspiracy theories. I’ve heard they got a phone call from New York.
Gannon: That was one of the problems I had with the Raiders the time that I was there. There was this mind-set from a lot of the players and some of the older players that had been there for years that the league was against us. That the officials didn’t like the Raiders. That the officials officiated games differently against the Raiders. Which was totally nonsense.
Smith: When they reversed that call, I think our whole team felt like this was our time. We’re destined.
Bledsoe: Oh, OK, I guess this team is going to win the Super Bowl now.
Keteyian: I think the Raiders were so discombobulated by the call that the momentum definitely shifted. There was this chaos on the field, people screaming about the call, but you couldn’t really tell who it was. I know, in retrospect, it was Woodson.
Woodson, to MMQB: And so then it’s like you are at the height of your positive emotion to all of a sudden that being ripped out from under you. Nobody on the team ever recovered quick enough to go out there and do what we needed to do for the rest of the game, because we felt like we got punched in the gut.
Treu: You get excited you’re going to play Pittsburgh in the AFC championship game, and in the end it’s just taken from you. Your whole world is upside down. On the sideline, you could just see it. Looking back, maybe it was their night. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be.
Part 5: “This Has Got a Chance”
Even after the call, the game was far from over. The Patriots maintained possession, but faced a second-and-10 at the Raiders’ 42 with 1:47 to play, and the snow had not let up. A game-tying field goal of any length felt like a desperate notion. Vinatieri, who had played for the Patriots since their last Super Bowl appearance in 1996, was a solid kicker, but even growing up in South Dakota, Vinatieri had never kicked in conditions quite like these.
Vinatieri: We’d once played in Buffalo in one of those 50-mile-an-hour-wind games, where you’re spreading your legs apart, leaning into the wind so it won’t blow you over. But that was probably the most snow I’ve seen coming down during a game.
Walter: We were at the kicking net one time in Buffalo, and it was like a sheet of ice. Adam went to plant and he fell straight on his back and his legs went up in the air and he landed, and the crowd was all over him and laughing. We’d been through some situations with the elements. But those circumstances? The weather, the wind, the magnitude of it — if we don’t tie it then, it’s history.
Vinatieri: I’m over at the kicking net getting ready. The old stadium had these lousy big-screen TVs in the corners. It was snowing so hard you couldn’t see much, but I saw the crowd going crazy, and then I saw the replay and said, “Oh my gosh.” And the next thing you know the referees are huddling about it and we went from “Oh, shoot, our season’s over,” to “Oh my God, go get to the net and start kicking, buddy, ’cause it’s going to come down to you.”
On second down, Brady completed a 13-yard pass to David Patten for a first down. But then there was a pair of incompletions. On third down, Brady, finding no open receivers, kept the ball and centered it, and Vinatieri ran onto the field with the clock down to 32 seconds. There was no time to clear any space to help him kick a 45-yard field goal to tie the game at 13. There was no time to think at all. If nothing else, he was kicking with the wind.
Walter: We tried to brush away as much snow as possible but it just happened so quick.
Gumbel, on the air: No snowplow in sight tonight.
Vinatieri: I had the longest replaceable cleats on my plant foot as I could. But I don’t have a lot of experience kicking in five inches of snow.
Wiggins: I was on the field goal protection team. So my focus was don’t hold, and don’t let none of my guys get by me and block the kick. There was probably about four or five guys on my side coming off the edge, and then I think Woodson slipped and maybe Eric Allen slipped, too.
Smith: I think Oakland thought there was no way he would make the kick. I don’t think they really put forth an all-out rush.
Vinatieri: It was like running on ice. You take littler steps to stay upright. I thought, “If I slip and fall, the ball hits my long snapper in the back of the head and this game’s over.”
Simms: Don’t know if I said it [on the air], but I was thinking he had no chance to make it.
Keteyian: I couldn’t believe he got it off. I just remember the sound. “Boom!” I was standing almost horizontal to see it. It’s like when a rocket ship takes off into space and you’re like, “Is that going to get liftoff?”
Papa: My call on the air was that it was no good because it came off his foot like a helicopter, going sideways. And it was so low I never thought it would get over the crossbar.
Edwards: I was on the sideline, and I see the ball leave Adam’s foot and it looked like it went five feet off the ground. And literally, I dropped my head down knowing he missed it. It looked like he shanked it.
Vinatieri: I knew they wouldn’t get a very good rush, so it wasn’t like I was having to worry about getting it off fast — or even, for that matter, really having to elevate too terribly much. Little steps, stay over your feet, get it above the line of scrimmage, pray that it goes straight. And then still, when it’s 45 yards or better, it’s not an easy or a short kick, so you still have to hope it’s going to get there and it’s not gonna get beat up by the wind, or the snow, or whatever, or get knocked down. It left my foot, got above the line of scrimmage, I said, “OK, that’s one thing that’s good.” I kinda saw it going straight and I said, “Well, that’s good.”
Keteyian: Holy shit. This has got a chance.
Vinatieri: I still held my breath until it finally went through. Honestly, I couldn’t really even see the ball. I could see the referees step forward, raise their hands, and then it was like, “Oh my God! OK!”
Edwards: And then I hear the place go nuts, and I’m like, “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”
Papa: I don’t know how he made it.
Keteyian: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more clutch field goal to tie a game.
J.T. the Brick: Sickest kick I ever saw.
Walter: I look down to try and find the referees, and I look over to see Adam, and he’s already running with his hands up in the air. “Holy shit, he just made that?” That’s when I told him, “Dude, don’t ever take off running, come on, man.” I’m holding the ball here, I’m kind of a part of this process, and so is Lonie (Paxton), he snapped it. Don’t do this whole soccer thing where you run around and do the airplane. I’m not going to chase you. Come and celebrate.
Edwards: That was the best kick in NFL history. Period.
Vinatieri: The 48-yarder in a Super Bowl to win the biggest game of your life and what you’ve played your entire career for, that has a little extra mental stress. But the one in the snow, physically is — I’ve never had to kick one before or since that’s been as difficult as that kick.
Walter: It catapulted Adam there. And he became ice in the biggest moments. It’s the most amazing kick I’ve seen with my own eyes, and I’ve held for a lot of good guys.
Part 6: “A Dream Come True”
Vinatieri kicked off, Gannon took a knee with 22 seconds left, and the game went to overtime. The Patriots’ good fortune continued, as they won the coin toss. Under the overtime rules at the time, New England would have an opportunity to win the game in sudden death. The Patriots began with a pair of short passes to Redmond, the second of which, a screen pass, went for 20 yards and put them in Raiders territory, at the 45.
Redmond: A dream come true for me was getting to play in the NFL. That was a dream since I was 8 years old. But the competitor in me wanted to be a great running back in the NFL. That didn’t pan out, but what I was given were some opportunities to make some plays that will go down in history. And that drive was one of those things.
Then, four more throws for a total of 15 yards. One went to Redmond, and three of them went to Wiggins, the tight end who had caught 14 passes during the regular season but pulled in 10 against the Raiders.
Wiggins: Every time it came my way, I made sure I was going to hold on to that thing. I coach now and I tell the kids, “You run every route like you’re getting the ball, because you never know.”
After a Redmond rush lost a yard and Troy Brown caught a pass for 3 yards, the Patriots faced a fourth-and-4 at the Oakland 28. They called timeout, then chose to go for it rather than have Vinatieri attempt a 46-yard kick into the wind. A stumbling Patten (who caught eight balls for 107 yards) made a brilliant catch to convert the first down. The drive continued, with Brady having proved definitively that he could come through in the clutch.
Ryan: He never did become a great over-the-top thrower. He wasn’t Manning, he wasn’t Marino. He is himself, and he’s closest to those guys I mentioned [in my column that day], Joe Montana and Bart Starr. Never changed. I think I was remarkably prescient. I’m waiting for the applause.
Edwards: You certainly started seeing the leadership qualities out of Tom Brady, though he didn’t become “Tom Brady” until later. But every now and then that season, when the stuff hit the fan, it was, “All right, let’s see what this kid can do.”
Walter: He believed, and he made everybody else around him believe. The four years I spent with my locker next to him, he always said, “Look I’ve got the rest of my life to do whatever I want. I’m gonna give everything I possibly have.”
After the fourth-down conversion, the Patriots had the ball at the Oakland 22. Smith, their most reliable ball carrier that season, had sat out most of the second half as the Patriots threw the ball and relied on more mobile pass-catching backs. But now Smith pounded it four straight times, running for 4 yards, and 1 yard, and 8 yards to put the ball inside the 10, and then diving ahead for 2 more.
Smith: Everybody know Antowain Smith did not have a lot of wiggle to him. I would give you one move, but all that dancin’? That wasn’t me. We had Kevin Faulk for that. My job was to get the ball, go downhill, get 3 yards and a cloud of dust. Don’t fumble the ball, hold on to the ball, don’t fumble the ball. That last run I didn’t even give them a chance to tackle me. I just dove down.
Gannon: We just couldn’t stop them. Even when the game went to overtime, we couldn’t get on the field.
Brady centered the ball on second down, on the 14th play of the drive, after more than eight minutes of possession time, and Vinatieri came back onto the field on third down, giving the Patriots a cushion in the event of a bad snap. Vinatieri would have to kick a 23-yard field goal to win the game. Gruden, hoping to (perhaps literally in this case) ice the kicker, called a timeout.
Walter: I don’t know if Gruden ever regrets that decision, or if he just figures it wouldn’t have mattered, but it certainly helped us out.
Vinatieri: Teams, they like to ice the kicker. In that particular situation I think it was maybe not the right decision. Thank goodness for big offensive linemen that had size-15 shoes and stuff because they tried to clear a little bit of the snow off at that point.
Walter: I was on my hands and knees. I just started clearing with my hands, and then the referee comes over and he goes, “You can’t use your hands.” I’m like, “What?” So I called all of the linemen over in this big circle. I was like, “Right here, everybody start digging down to the dirt,” because it was warm [from the heating coils under the field]. You could see the steam coming off, so you know it was warm and he would get some footing on that.
Wiggins: By that time, it felt like it was 8 to 10 inches on the field. We were just using our feet and trying to make space and trying to get all that, like, high snow out of the way.
Walter: Good snap, good hold, good kick. And now that spot is in a sporting goods store.
Vinatieri: It seemed much easier than the other one before that. What I remember is Lonie Paxton running into the end zone and doing snow angels.
Lonie Paxton (Patriots long snapper), to the Boston Herald in 2014: I had people [in] from out of town that were all California kids. They literally brought flip-flops in six inches of snow. It’s like, “Well, screw it, we’re just going to do snow angels after in the parking lot when you guys win.” So that came up in my brain for some reason. I’m like, “Hey, are we going to do this after the game?”
Redmond: I grew up in L.A., watching Tim Brown return punts at the Coliseum. It took me two years, but that was the point in time I’d realized I’d made it in the NFL.
Gannon: We had opportunities inside of four minutes to close that game out and run the football, chew up clock, and to not give the Patriots and Brady another opportunity. And we didn’t do that.
Part 7: “Cosmic Payback”
Some 25 years earlier, the Raiders had defeated the Patriots on a questionable roughing the passer call late in a playoff game. To longtime observers of Boston sports, this felt a little bit like karma.
Ryan: I don’t know, but somehow I’ve always chosen to believe that it’s more likely than not that none of the rest of it would have followed, as routinely as it did, if they hadn’t won that game. The Raiders were still regarded as a special team. This is the cosmic payback that evens up the scales for “Sugar Bear” Hamilton and roughing the passer, for the outrages that were perpetuated upon the Patriots in the Alameda County Coliseum back in December of 1976. It’s the only football game that enters into the discussion of my greatest moments [as a columnist].
Bill Simmons (CEO, The Ringer): I started rooting for the Pats when I was 4 years old. The Sugar Bear game was my first brutal football loss — we were loaded that year  and we absolutely should have beaten the Raiders. That was the best Patriots team of my lifetime until Brady showed up. And it’s just the most atrocious call — the referee who called it was named Ben Dreith and for the next 25 years, he was down there with Bucky Dent, Mookie Wilson, and Satan for Boston fans. Then the Snow Game happened and that Sugar Bear game got washed away. For the first 32 years of my life, the Patriots never, ever, ever won a game like that — much less a playoff game. And then, everything flipped with the Snow Game. We call it the Snow Game, by the way.
Lombardi: We didn’t take off until six o’clock the next morning. I can still remember leaving the old stadium, and they were throwing snowballs at us. It was really bad.
Papa: It was the most unfair thing I’ve seen in sports. I was angry the whole flight home. We got home at daybreak. I couldn’t even watch football the next day. You got me heated again just now talking about it.
Everything changed for the Raiders after that game: One month later, Gruden — perhaps seeking a contract extension that Davis wasn’t willing to give him — was traded to Tampa Bay for two first-round draft picks, two second-round draft picks, and $8 million.
Papa: Say they win the Super Bowl that year. It’d be hard to trade Jon. Al just felt Jon never made a big enough deal about [the call]. He kept going on and on about that, so it bothered him.
Lombardi: What could Jon have done? I mean, really.
Gannon: That was the turning point for two organizations. At that point, nobody really knew who Tom Brady was. And then Jon Gruden goes back to Oakland and packs up his office and is traded to Tampa Bay. That was the worst decision that Al Davis ever made in his years running the Oakland Raiders. That was a horrible decision.
Gruden, to the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005: If we had won that game, I might have been selling pretzels in the Black Hole. You never know what would have happened.
Gannon: It was not an easy place to work. There were challenges every day inside the organization, inside the building, and I think Jon grew frustrated. I think there were some issues with his contract, and I just think that he wanted out. I think that the owner saw an opportunity to get some draft picks for him and get some money, and chose to do that. We were building something special, that was the problem. It’d be like separating Drew Brees and Sean Payton or Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy or Belichick and Brady. I’m not trying to put myself into that category, but we were in the infant stages of doing something unique and special.
Treu: I grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, and I played for Tom Osborne, and he coached there forever. And I was still learning how this whole NFL thing kind of worked. I didn’t feel betrayed, but I kind of felt like, well, we were this close, how could he go? There must be something else in the equation. So I think it made the guys in the locker room more determined to get back to the playoff and ultimately get back to the Super Bowl the next year.
The Raiders did get to the Super Bowl the next year under new coach Bill Callahan. But they lost — and they lost, painfully enough, to Gruden’s Buccaneers. An aging core began to come apart afterward for the Raiders, who would not have a winning season or reach a playoff game again until the 2016 season, long after Al Davis’s death in 2011. The Tuck Rule became a watershed moment for a once-proud franchise.
Papa: Art McNally was in Pittsburgh for the Immaculate Reception. Al Davis was convinced that they were trying to screw him again. The Tuck Rule was probably the one that bothered him most.
Woodson, to NFL.com in 2014: Tom Brady owes me his house. I’m the reason why he’s married to who he’s married to.
Gannon: I never focused on that one play and said, “That’s why we lost.” I think anyone who does is short-sighted and doesn’t see the big picture.
Gruden, to Men’s Fitness in 2016: You never get over that. I don’t have nightmares about it, but the call on the field was fumble, Raiders ball. In my understanding of this instant replay stuff, the only way you reverse a call is if it’s indisputable. Well, I don’t think that was indisputable. I don’t think they should’ve reversed it. Obviously.
Treu: I still haven’t rewatched that game in its entirety. Maybe I just don’t want to know.
Frank Middleton (Raiders offensive lineman), to the New York Daily News in 2003: Guys will tell you they’ve forgotten it. Those guys are lying.
Jon Ritchie (Raiders fullback), to ESPN in 2012: It was the worst loss I’d ever experienced. You know, I’d just as soon never talk about it again.
Redmond: Two years later, I found myself in Oakland. I’m playing with the Oakland Raiders, and they’re still treating me like I was a Patriot. Guys would come up to me all the time and say, “It was a fumble, wasn’t it?”
Allen, to ESPN: 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.
Smith: I had a friend I went to college with at the University of Houston, and he was on the Oakland team, and every time we see each other, if I have my Super Bowl ring on, he’ll be like, “Y’all stole that ring from us. Y’all know you lost that game.” But then I always tell him, “Article 15, Section such-and-such says that it was not a fumble.” And I always bring the rule up on him.
It took 12 years for the tuck rule to be stricken from the rule book, in 2013. Only the Steelers voted against the change; the Patriots were one of two teams (along with the Redskins) that abstained from voting. By the time it finally was rescinded, Pereira had become one of its biggest critics.
Pereira: The committee was never inclined to change it, because you’d look at a bunch of plays and you’d say, “OK, without this Tuck Rule, is this an incomplete pass, or is it a fumble?” Because for every one you had as bright as that one, you had 10 others that the ball came out just as the hand was starting to turn down. So it was really, really a close call, and we’d sit there and look at those and say, “OK, if we get rid of the Tuck Rule, then is this a fumble?” And you’d look at it and go, “Oh man, I’m not sure. It might be, it’s close.”
In a way, then, this was the moment when the Instant-Replay Era in professional football truly began — when a game could be decided by the analysis of slow-motion footage in an attempt to adhere to the letter of the rule. These moments now arise pretty much every week in the NFL, so much so that Pereira pioneered a new job after leaving the league: on-air rules analyst and replay interpreter for Fox Sports.
Simms: It’s almost like catching. What’s a reception? There’s always gray areas in everything, and I will say this — the NFL tries to make nothing a gray area. They try to make it truly black and white. And that’s why they have to be so definitive about these rules. People go, “We know a catch when we see it.” Well, do you really? What constitutes a catch?
Pereira: It’s the same thing we face even today. If 50 guys in the bar think it ought to be a catch, and it’s ruled an incomplete pass, then you’ve got a disconnect there, for sure. But it’s part of the nature of the beast.
Gannon (now an analyst for CBS): That’s your job as an analyst, is to know the rules. And there’s so many rules. You see NFL officials huddle together and stay in those huddles for what seems like ages, and meanwhile they’ve got someone in New York in their ear, and they’ve got the replay official up in the booth. And so there’s a lot of conversations that go on to make sure they get the rule right or the interpretation of the rule correct. And our job as an analyst is to know the rules and to be able to advance the story line and to be able to talk strategy.
Ryan: You pull it out, guy hits the ground and drops the ball, it’s a fumble. Period. Now, if there’s some kind of unnecessary roughness, or the guy is kneed in the cojones or punched in the face — good, that’s fine! That’s a penalty, and that’s not a fumble. [The officials] are getting paid to make these judgements, in my opinion.
Papa: The amazing thing is Walt Coleman has never refereed a Raider game since. Can you believe that?
Pereira: I think that’s probably right. He didn’t do it the rest of the time I was there [through the 2009 season]. And listen, I have my reasons for doing things, and I’ve been to Oakland as a spectator and official. And I just didn’t think it was a wise thing to do.
While the Raiders began to unravel and replay culture evolved, the Patriots soared: A week after defeating Oakland, they traveled to Pittsburgh and upset the Steelers in the AFC championship game. Bledsoe made an appearance, subbing for an injured Brady (who hurt his ankle) and throwing a touchdown pass. Brady healed up and quarterbacked the Patriots to their first-ever Super Bowl victory, with Vinatieri making a game-winning field goal to defeat the St. Louis Rams.
They’ve won three more since and will attempt to compete for another by beating the Steelers in the AFC championship game Sunday. Fifteen years after the Tuck Rule call set them on the path to claiming their first Lombardi Trophy, the Belichick-Brady dynasty has altered the league in an incalculable number of ways. Two players from that team are still active: Brady and Vinatieri (who’s now with the Colts). And at a December 2016 reunion for that team in Foxborough, the 2001 Patriots were able to reminisce about how they’d altered the trajectory of the franchise.
Walter: There were probably 46 guys out of the 53-man roster there at the reunion. And there are five or six guys coaching. We really set the trend [that season]. The whole sweatshirt thing caught on back then with Bill. The whole “Do your job” thing — he was saying that back then. That’s just kind of how the Patriot Way formed.
Vinatieri: That was the year of 9/11, and after the season we said, “Man, were we destined?” We’re the Patriots, and you know what this is and what this means. But I don’t know if destiny is the right terminology, because we were working our butts off.
Lombardi: That game bred a culture for them.
Ryan: Absent that fortuitous call, they don’t win and maybe none of the other stuff follows. I’m sure I’m not the only one that thinks that.
Simms: It changes everything — perception, dynamics. Think about winning that Super Bowl, what it does to the head coach, too. Now, all of a sudden, he’s validated everything he’s taught and preached to the football team. It’s easier for them to make decisions when they have pelts on the wall. Don’t tell me you’re a good fur trapper if I go out to look at your horse and there’s no furs on it.
Wiggins: Who knows? Maybe there’d be no dynasty. Maybe there’d be no Super Bowls. Maybe Brady would be a great quarterback, but maybe he’d be Dan Marino.
Vinatieri: If I dare say it, dynasties start at a pivotal time.
Gannon: The Patriots, they went on to have great success and win multiple Super Bowls. And we went on to lose our head coach.
Edwards: Maybe you would have lost and not been the same, kind of like the Buffalo Bills. If they beat the Giants in that first Super Bowl, maybe the Bills win another one or two, instead of losing four in a row.
Andruzzi: Win or lose, there were a lot of changes from ’01 to ’02. [Belichick] and the coaches and the scouting staff, they don’t have an easy job. They gotta build this puzzle with ragged edges and try to put this puzzle together to fit a mold. It’s a tough job, but being able to do it for the last 15, 16 years has been pretty amazing.
Walter: At that reunion, Drew Bledsoe got up and addressed the team and he said, “I just did my job, and that was it.” That was nice for him to say it out loud.
Keteyian: I do know that after that year, there was a real adjustment period for Tom. And I think he got overwhelmed by it, whether it was the People magazine covers or whether it was being young and experiencing extreme fame in a very short period of time. The next season, Tom wasn’t a lot of fun to be around.
Smith: After the Super Bowl, we didn’t even make the playoffs the next year.
Keteyian: But I do remember that Tom said to us that Charlie Weis eventually said to him, “There’s a difference between what you want to do and what you have to do.” And it changed Tom. It changed him for the better. I’m not criticizing him for it. There’s fame and there’s extreme fame. And then when that happens, you withdraw because you’re just like, “Really? Another this, another that?” That’s what I heard in one of our production meetings, that Charlie just set him straight.
Walter: Our owner shared some things with us at the reunion about this blue steel that he ordered for what’s now Gillette Stadium. And he had to order it all and promise that he would pay X amount of millions for it that he admitted to everybody that he didn’t have. He said, “I figured we can talk about it because I didn’t want to put any extra pressure on you guys.” But us winning the Super Bowl that year brought in a lot more revenue, and it was able to kind of catapult the organization into a new place.
Wiggins: When you look at the Godfather movies, you always remember the greatest one is the original. Same thing when you look at this dynasty. You can brag about that a little bit. I kind of tend to like to.
Thanks to: David Shoemaker for art direction; Zach Kram, Chris Almeida, and Katie Baker for interview and research assistance; and Erin Barney, Paolo Uggetti, Daniel Varghese, and Ryan Wright for transcription assistance.