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Some 16 years later, 'Tuck Rule' still has Jon Gruden all fired up

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Remembering the 'Tuck Rule Game' (3:15)

On January 19, 2002, the Patriots benefited from an infamous call in a playoff win against the Raiders. (3:15)

ALAMEDA, Calif. -- You think Jon Gruden is over the "Tuck Rule" and how it ended his first run as coach of the Oakland Raiders?

Think again.

It took Gruden all of 40 seconds to bring it up on his own during his introductory news conference last week. Seeing Charles Woodson in the crowd jogged his memory.

"[Tom] Brady," Gruden thundered about the New England Patriots quarterback, "fumbled that ball."

It was 16 years ago Friday, on a snowy, 25-degree evening in Foxborough, Massachusetts, when the Tuck Rule set in motion a shift in the NFL, essentially launching a dynasty in New England and hastening the decline of the Raiders.

"The 'Tuck Game,'" the late Raiders owner Al Davis lamented more than six years later, "was the undoing of a lot of things."

It was the final game Gruden coached for Oakland ... until this coming fall.


The Raiders led that AFC divisional playoff matchup in five inches of snow 13-10 with 1 minute, 50 seconds to play and the Patriots with a first-and-10 at Oakland's 42-yard line.

Raiders cornerback Eric Allen listened in on a conversation between Brady and Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis.

"So here's this young quarterback that comes over and he's speaking with the offensive coordinator and he says, 'Hey, we're going to go 3-by-1 and we're going to throw the slant, backside,'" Allen said in an ESPN special on the play. "I dashed to the huddle and I set the play up, basically. I said, 'Hey, they're going to go 3-by-1, so, linebacker, make sure you're in that first window.' It was a slant and he was going to throw it in the first window and he sees a linebacker and he pulls the ball back to pump it."

That's when a blitzing Woodson arrived, thumping Brady and sending the ball hurtling into the powder. That's where Oakland linebacker Greg Biekert fell on it -- after taking a kick to the groin from a prone Brady -- to clinch the win and send the Raiders to their second consecutive AFC Championship Game under Gruden, either a home matchup against the Baltimore Ravens or at the Pittsburgh Steelers, with that to be settled the next day.

But, because the play happened with less than two minutes to go in the game, it was by rule subject to review.

"So when I put me headset on," referee Walt Coleman said in that ESPN special, "my replay guy said, 'Walt, this is a big play.'"

With Coleman under the replay hood, more than two minutes went by as Phil Collins' seminal "In the Air Tonight" blared into the Foxborough air, between the snowflakes.

Coleman came out, trudged to midfield, directly in front of Gruden and the Raiders bench, and invoked the Tuck Rule, saying Brady's arm was moving forward. Incomplete pass. New England maintained possession.

"The shot [the replay official] gave me [of the play] was from the front, which gave me a clear look of exactly what happened on the play," Coleman said. "What it showed is Brady's arm 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."

From the NFL's rulebook: Rule 3, Section 22, Article 2, Note 2: 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.

"Oh, God, that's bogus," Raiders Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver Tim Brown said years later. "Yo, they found the Tuck Rule. How about that?"

Davis, meanwhile, maintained to his dying day in 2011 there was not enough visual evidence to overturn the initial ruling of a fumble. Because, from other angles, you also can see both of Brady's hands on the ball at the moment of Woodson's impact.

Then there was this, ahem, fine print part of the rule: Also, if the player has tucked the ball into his body and then loses possession, it is a fumble.

We all know what happened next: The Patriots drove into field-goal range and Adam Vinatieri's 45-yard kick through a blizzard somehow split the uprights to tie the game 13-13 with 27 seconds to play.

Yes, Oakland got the ensuing kickoff and had the ball at its own 35-yard line, but even with two timeouts and 22 seconds remaining in regulation, a conservative Gruden had quarterback Rich Gannon kneel on the ball to play for overtime.

The Raiders never touched the ball again.

The Patriots drove from their 34-yard line to the Raiders' 5-yard line in 14 plays, including a converted fourth-and-4 at Oakland's 28, before Vinatieri booted the winner.

"It's bulls---," Woodson said after the game. "That's exactly how I feel. It's a bulls--- call. Never should have been overturned."

Brady later offered his take.

"You're never going to get the answer out of me you want," Brady laughed on a conference call with Raiders reporters in 2011.

Patriots fans saw it as redemption for Ray "Sugar Bear" Hamilton's roughing-the-passer penalty on Ken Stabler in the 1976 playoffs that helped Oakland upend the Patriots and go on to win Super Bowl XI. Particularly since the Patriots went on to win three of the next four Super Bowls after the "Tuck Rule Game." (They have also won two in the past three seasons and are the favorites to win again this year under Brady.)

Former Raiders right tackle Lincoln Kennedy told me years later he saw the Tuck Rule as a "flashpoint" in NFL history. Because besides the Patriots' growing collection of Lombardi trophies, the Raiders have had only two winning seasons since that night (and yes, one was the following season, when the Raiders faced Gruden and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVII and got thumped). And, oh yeah, Coleman has not worked a Raiders game since.

"I don't think Brady makes the Hall of Fame," Kennedy said. "I don't think [Bill] Belichick becomes a Hall of Fame coach."

And Gruden? Does he ever leave Oakland?

"You can't say because you can't get into the mind of Jon Gruden," Kennedy said. "What if we had gone on to win the Super Bowl, would that have made him stay with all the problems that were out there? It all started with he wanted control. Then [coach Bill] Callahan came in and tried to do things his way after we went to the Super Bowl and the team revolted."

Davis, at the 2009 NFL owners meetings in Dana Point, California, chastised reporters for not selecting Jim Plunkett for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, asking those in earshot to name another quarterback with multiple titles not yet in Canton.

Some wiseacre mentioned Brady, who is obviously not yet eligible, and Davis, leaning on his walker, perked up.

"He won the 'Tuck Game,' f--- him," Davis said with a Cheshire cat grin, and laughter abounded. "He did win it, the son of a b----."

Woodson was more diplomatic last week when asked how different the league in general, and the Patriots and Raiders in particular, would look if the Tuck Rule had never been invoked.

"That's the thing, we don't know," he said. "We wish we could go back and do it again. But you don't get do-overs. The [Raiders] team that they had put together at that time, we had a really special team. It's just one of those woulda, coulda, shoulda things.

"Had [Gruden] came back, the year after the Tuck Rule, who knows. We all wish we could know what could have happened, way back when, but of course, you can't go back in time. But you can take another shot at it."

Gruden returning to Oakland for "unfinished business" is that shot.


A day shy of one month after the Tuck Rule Game, Gruden was traded to the Buccaneers, for two first-round picks, two second-rounders and $8 million. In an ESPN oral history of the trade, Brown said he had an inkling something was amiss in the wake of the season-ending loss to the Patriots.

"Right after the game in New England," Brown said, "[Gruden] made a comment in the locker room that basically said ... 'You guys should have won.' And I went up to him after he had finished, and I asked him what did 'you guys' mean? 'Coach, you are a part of us.' And he just sort of walked away from me."

And as Woodson said last week: "I swear, I didn't know coaches could get traded. That was a shocker."

Though not as shocking as the Tuck Rule being revoked in 2013 -- "Hallelujah," Woodson said at the time -- or Gruden returning to Oakland -- Woodson asked Gruden if there was a "no-trade" clause in his contract -- this year.

"For my [Raiders] career to end on that night in New England, it still ticks me off," Gruden said. "I'm so thrilled to be back here. I hope people understand the emotion inside of me. I feel unfinished business.

"I also feel a lot of loyalty and I feel a lot of responsibility to get the Raiders going again, and it's been a while since we've consistently performed at a high level, and that's really all I care about. I'm going to do everything I can to get this team right again."