“The Tuck Game was the undoing of a lot of things.” — Al Davis, at the 2009 NFL owners meetings in Dana Point, California.
HENDERSON, Nev. — Mention the events of Jan. 19, 2002, to the most ardent citizen of Raider Nation and you might have to knuckle up.
Ask Jon Gruden about the tuck rule and you’ll be on the receiving end of that infamous Chucky snarl and, well, a backhanded show of gratitude.
“Yeah, thanks for bringing that up,” Gruden said this week, sarcasm dripping from his chin.
• Assessing legacies of Brees, Rodgers
• Ravens-Chiefs best yet in Baltimore?
• QB Allen looks like star Bills envisioned
• 49ers brace for return to turf of terror
• Steelers getting after QBs at elite rate
“He did fumble that damn ball.”
With Gruden — in his third year since returning to coach the now-Las Vegas Raiders — heading back to the virtual scene of a nearly 19-year-old crime, a walk down memory lane is inevitable. Even if it’s not in the same stadium (the Tuck Rule game was the final game played in Foxboro Stadium) and quarterback Tom Brady is no longer with the New England Patriots (he took his act to, of all places, the franchise with which Gruden won a Super Bowl, Tampa Bay). Cam Newton is now the guy in New England.
A quick history lesson for the uninitiated: In a New England snowstorm and with the Raiders clinging to a 13-10 lead with 1:50 to play in an AFC divisional playoff game, the Patriots were on the Raiders’ 42-yard line with a first-and-10 when Brady dropped back to pass. Coming on a corner blitz from Brady’s right, Charles Woodson clobbered Brady, the ball popped out and Raiders linebacker Greg Biekert jumped on it.
Ballgame. Brady trudged off the field and the Raiders would play in the AFC title game the following week, either at home against the Baltimore Ravens or at the Pittsburgh Steelers (the AFC North rivals would play the following afternoon, with the Steelers winning).
“Or so we thought,” Woodson would say years later.
Enter Rule 3, Section 22, Article 2, Note 2 from the NFL rulebook: “It is a forward pass if: When a Team A player is holding the ball to pass it forward, any intentional forward movement of his hand starts a forward pass, even if the player loses possession of the ball as he is attempting to tuck it back toward his body.”
“I used to pride myself on knowing all the rules of the game, but what the f— is the tuck rule?” said Lincoln Kennedy, then the Raiders’ right tackle, now a member of the team’s radio broadcast team. “What? He wasn’t throwing the ball. And C-Wood’s going, ‘He wasn’t throwing the ball. He had both hands on it.'”
After a lengthy review made possible by the play occurring in the final two minutes, and despite no clear evidence to overturn the original ruling of a fumble, referee Walt Coleman summoned the tuck rule, which deemed it an incomplete pass and allowed the Patriots to maintain possession.
“After the ruling, it just took all of the air out of us,” Kennedy said. “We were just shells. Deflated.”
Conversely, the revitalized Patriots drove through the snow into field goal range, setting up Adam Vinatieri’s game-tying 45-yarder with 27 seconds remaining.
The Raiders got the ball back at their 35-yard line with 22 seconds to go, and despite having two timeouts, Gruden chose to have quarterback Rich Gannon kneel to end regulation and play for overtime. But the Patriots won the coin toss, drove down the field and Vinatieri’s chip-shot 23-yarder ended it in what was then sudden death.
“Jon came in the locker room after the game and said, ‘They’re never going to let the Raiders win,'” Kennedy recalled.
Oh, and that earlier quote from the late Al Davis?
That was Gruden’s final game as Raiders coach until he returned to the franchise in 2018. Gruden was traded to the Buccaneers on Feb. 18, 2002, for a king’s ransom — two first-round picks, two second-round picks and $8 million. Less than a year later, Gruden’s new team thrashed his old one 48-21 in Super Bowl XXXVII.
The Raiders have had only one winning season and one playoff appearance since, in 2016.
While current Raiders quarterback Derek Carr was all of 10 years old at the time of the Tuck Rule game, he has thoughts on the play as a member of a family full of longtime Raiders fans.
“C-Wood definitely stripped him, that’s for sure,” Carr said Wednesday.
“That’s a big moment in football history, let alone Raider history. And Patriot history. … As a Raider fan, of course it’s a fumble. You go to New England, of course it wasn’t a fumble. It would be nice to hear what Tom has to say about it sometime, that’s for sure.”
“You’re never going to get the answer out of me you want,” Brady joked on a conference call with Raiders beat reporters in 2011, two years before the tuck rule was abolished by NFL owners.
And Carr has his own New England horror story, so to speak.
In Week 3 of his rookie season in 2014, Carr led the Raiders on a late drive to the Patriots’ 6-yard line, where Darren McFadden burst through for a TD that, with the PAT, would have tied the score at 16-16 with 59 seconds to play. But left guard Gabe Jackson, who sprung McFadden, was called for holding at the 2, and the Raiders were pushed back 10 yards.
One play later, Carr fired a short pass across the middle to Denarius Moore, who was camped at the 8-yard line. The ball popped off Moore’s chest into the air and was tipped by Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan into the waiting arms of nose tackle Vince Wilfork.
Ballgame. For real.
“So I don’t have good memories there either,” Carr said. “I’ve got a lot of making up to do, but I’m excited for the opportunity.”
A week later, the Raiders were thumped by the Miami Dolphins in London and Dennis Allen was fired, which set into motion a series of events that saw Tony Sparano and Jack Del Rio become Raiders coaches until Gruden decided that nine years in ESPN’s Monday Night Football booth was enough.
Gruden, who returned to the Raiders on a 10-year contract in January 2018, has coached in New England once since that fateful snowy night. His Buccaneers were shut out 28-0 on Dec. 17, 2005, and he is 0-2 in his career against Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
Plus, the Raiders have lost five straight to the Patriots, last beating them on Nov. 17, 2002, in Oakland.
“Anytime you step in a [city] like that, it does bring back memories,” Gruden allowed. “Some of the memories aren’t great, but we’re excited to play. We’re excited to play the Patriots and see what we can get done in a short week. They’re a heck of a team.”
Even if, as noted earlier, they’re a different team.