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Farewell to the Tuck Rule

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  March 20, 2013 01:11 PM

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It was a ridiculous rule that helped commence a reign, and if a line from a rulebook could be inducted into a team's Hall of Fame without bringing on mockery, appropriate homage to the infamous Tuck Rule would have been paid at Patriot Place a long time ago.

Sure, there's an easy argument to made that the Tuck Rule -- which informed us against all football logic that a passer who lost the ball while bringing it back toward his body was "throwing" an incomplete pass rather than committing what your eyes told you was a fairly obvious fumble -- never should have existed in the first place.

Now it exists no more. Eleven seasons after referee Walt Coleman's correct interpretation of an counterintuitive, confusing, downright foolish rule played a pivotal role in the Patriots' unforgettable overtime victory over the Raiders in a Jan. 19, 2002, playoff game, NFL owners voted to eliminate the rule Wednesday.

The Steelers voted to keep the rule as is. The Redskins and Patriots abstained. The other 29 teams voted to change it so that when a player loses the ball while bringing it back toward his body, it's exactly what it always appeared to be -- a fumble. I believe that's what you call a consensus.

Didn't you chuckle at the news that the Patriots abstained? Owner Robert Kraft said Monday that he "[loves] the Tuck Rule and fiorever will" and hinted that he might have to abstain because of his "great bond" with the rule. The decision to abstain was essentially him saying, "Yeah, it's a dumb rule, but you know, we've got to respect it. It kind of worked for us that one time, as some of you might recall."

More than anything else, the discussion and demise of the Tuck Rule is a fine excuse to relive the final moments of that glorious snow globe of a football game, the last and best in Foxboro Stadium's goofy history ...

... and yet it's also a reason to consider all that came after. It's impossible not to indulge in the what-if game -- heck, the Raiders, who did go to the Super Bowl the following year, have been doing it pretty much every moment since Coleman's ruling. When Jon Gruden talks about it, the Chucky Face isn't a camera-ready affectation for once. Bill Romanowski may or may not have mauled a random dude who was wearing a black-and-white-striped shirt simply because it gave him a flashback. And it would not shock me at all if Al Davis found a way to tweet this from the great beyond:

Purely conjecture here -- that should probably be the name of this blog, actually -- but wouldn't it be something if Charles Woodson, who dislodged the ball from his college teammate Brady on the fourth-quarter play, ended up coming to the Patriots as a free agent all these years later? How many questions into his introductory press conference would we be before the play is brought up? I'm setting the over/under at 1. And taking the under.

Of course, there's that other what-if aspect, the ready-made, let's-kill-an-easy-four-hours-here sports radio topic: Would the Patriots' dynasty have existed had Coleman not made the call, after which the Patriots tied and eventually won the game in overtime? Or would there have been some sort of football butterfly effect, with a change in that one moment altering everything that came after?

I believe, without a doubt, that the Patriots still would have emerged as the team of the decade and won a Super Bowl or two, though I suppose you can't say without absolute certainty that they would have won in 2003-04. But remember, the dynasty didn't really take off until after the hiccup of a 2002 season, when the safety trio of Lawyer Milloy, Tebucky Jones, and Victor Green didn't quite thrive as planned and there were essential new arrivals (Deion Branch, David Givens) and requisite busts (Donald Hayes, the forefather of a long run of receivers who couldn't master the playbook).

The peak occurred as Brady kept becoming greater and greater and reinforcements such as Rodney Harrison and Corey Dillon arrived to create a truly great team. That 2003-04 dominance had little direct relation to the Patriots' good fortune one snowy night in January 2002.

Bill Belichick's brilliance was proven during the '01 season no matter whether it had ended against the Raiders or, as it turned out, they went on to become the most improbable Super Bowl champion ever with stirring victories over the cocky Steelers and even cockier Rams.

And Tom Brady still would have become Tom Brady -- knowing what we now know about his competitiveness and work ethic, the loss would have fueled him even more. The Snow Bowl is actually more relevant to Adam Vinatieri's legacy -- he should be the second kicker inducted into the Hall of Fame, and his tying and winning field goals in the Snow Bowl will be as much a part of his case as his two Super Bowl game-winners.

Related to that, stop booing the guy, you knuckleheads. If you watch the above clips -- and that is your assigned viewing for the day -- you'll realize that the only people who ought to boo Vinatieri are Raiders fans. Even though a certain rule is gone, they can never let that night go. Around here, we'll just keep on enjoying the reminders.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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