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From the archives | 2002

Tuck rule makes no sense

Have you absorbed all the technical mumbo-jumbo by now?

Have you, a Patriots fan growing giddier by the hour, erased from your mind the immediate sorrow you felt when you saw Greg Biekert flop on that fumble - and in your heart of hearts you knew it was a fumble because you’ve seen enough football to know that Tom Brady was no longer in a throwing mode and was in the act of pump-faking when he was hit - after Charles Woodson jarred the football loose from Brady’s grasp with 1:50 remaining in the fourth period Saturday night?

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The man of the hour is Mike Pereira, the director of officiating for the National Football League. He tells us that referee Walt Coleman made a correct call because Brady, who was clearly not throwing the football, had not “tucked” the football to his body before he was hit. “The ball has to be tucked into the side of your body,” Pereira says. “Then if the ball comes out, it’s a fumble. Otherwise, it’s a forward pass.”

Fine. That is the rule. But does the rule make any sense in this situation? The answer, of course, is no. You know it and I know it. But Mike Pereira doesn’t know it. He actually defends this rule. “If we didn’t have this rule, it would be up to the individual official’s interpretation,” he explains.

That’s an official speaking. Like far too many officials, he is more interested in upholding minutiae and legal technicalities than in getting the call right and producing both a better game and a just outcome. It doesn’t occur to him that we really do want competent, qualified, and savvy officials to exercise reasoned human judgment if it means there is a better chance of getting the call right.

Referee Walt Coleman’s first instinct was correct. His real self recognized a fumble when it saw it. But when forced to reexamine the play via replay, the referee in him had to hide under the absurd legality that, because Brady was a split-second away from “tucking” the ball away, there could not yet be a fumble. So in the end he did the technically defensible, correct, “legal” thing. But by all laws of common sense he did the wrong thing, and in so doing he took the game away from the Raiders. The problem is that NFL officials are mandated to check their common sense at the door before walking onto the field.

So what do we want from our games? Do we want justice, or do we want legalities? When there are dumb provisions such as Rule 3, Section 21, Article 2 - the rule in question - we clearly cannot have both.

All our primary games are flawed and are difficult to govern. Balls and strikes in baseball, personal fouls in basketball, and penalties in hockey are subject to someone’s opinion, and we often quarrel passionately about them. When it’s all said and done, we acknowledge that these are difficult calls and we judge officials by their track record in making a decent percentage of what we would deem to be “correct” calls. We allow for human frailty, even as we applaud human ingenuity and experience. But football has gone out of its way to overanalyze things in a futile attempt to eliminate the human factor in certain situations, with Rule 3, Section 21, Article 2 being Exhibit A.

This also happens to be the sport that woke up one day and decided that “the ground cannot cause a fumble.” When exactly was this declaration made? I grew up in the ‘50s and never heard it. Same with the ‘60s. I can’t say that I remember it in the ‘70s. In the old days, a fumble was a fumble unless it occurred after the whistle. When it comes to fumbles, I’m from the Potter Stewart School. I know a fumble when I see it, and so what if it happens because the man has hit the ground? I’m sure Mike Pereira would defend that one, too.

It is all well and good to be a Patriots rooter who chooses to dwell on the many positives emanating from Saturday night’s epic Event. It is doubtful that a snow game ever has been better played. These things are normally turnover-filled fiascos, but this game had a charming aura of semi-normality about it, despite the very difficult playing conditions. And Adam Vinatieri gave himself a place in football history by making the most celebrated clutch snow field goal since Pat Summerall’s 49-yarder for the Giants beat the Cleveland Browns on the last day of the 1958 season to create a special playoff game the following Sunday for the right to meet Baltimore for the NFL title.

Throw in the revenge factor for those of you old enough to recall the aggravating events of Dec. 18, 1976, when the Patriots came out of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum feeling they had been robbed (and they were), and it gets easier to rationalize what took place last Saturday. Around here, it’s a case of the Good Guys emerging victorious over the Evil Empire of Al Davis, and that’s that.

Had this play taken place in the first period, it would have been a footnote. But it took place at a point in the game when getting the call right was paramount. Had Oakland gotten the ball back against a Patriots team shorn of its timeouts, it would have been take-the-knee-time, and Hello, Pittsburgh. Taking place when it did, this play exposed a terrible rule that should be revisited, although Pereira is on record as saying it’s a “good” rule.

It most certainly is not a good rule if it insists we pretend that a man with no intention of throwing the football is safe from being charged with any possible fumble because he is a millisecond away from “tucking” the ball to his body. It most certainly is not a good rule if it insists we pretend we didn’t see what we saw (and what Walt Coleman, the human being, knows he saw).

So, I repeat: What do we want from our games? I would think we’d want justice far more than a rampantly partisan outcome. We want to create circumstances that favor fair and proper game resolution. The only way to do that is to allow officials to exercise their powers of reason in certain circumstances. If Walt Coleman has ever seen a football game, then he would know that Tom Brady wasn’t passing the ball when he was hit. (We know from his own words and actions that Brady is well aware he has gotten away with a big one.)

Justice. That’s what we want. The Random House Dictionary of the English Language defines justice as “the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness.”

What happened to the Oakland Raiders last Saturday night was football’s version of a justifiable homicide. There was no moral rightness. There was only injustice. A sports-loving society should be able to do better.

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