So, now it can be asked: Was the Patriots dynasty built on a lie?
OK, maybe that’s a little harsh. But the NFL rules committee on Wednesday eliminated the phony “Tuck Rule,” which means the team’s first championship never should have happened.
It really was a fumble, after all.
This must make former Raiders coach Jon Gruden feel good. And I’m sure Al Davis is dancing with the devil in Football Heaven.
We can’t blame the Patriots for any of this. All you can do is play within the rules as they are written. The Patriots didn’t manipulate the system. But Wednesday’s ruling validates what everybody knew all along: The Patriots got lucky. They got a second chance they never should have received. Tom Brady wasn’t trying to tuck the ball next to his body when he was hit. He simply fumbled it and the Patriots should have lost that game to the Raiders.
Who knows what would have happened to everybody if the Patriots had never advanced beyond that Divisional Round playoff game on Jan. 19, 2002?
It’s like a George Bailey story in reverse.
What if there had never been a Tuck Rule? Maybe Brady wouldn’t be the best quarterback of all time. Maybe Tom never would have met Gisele. Maybe Bill Belichick would be working in a TV studio with Eric Mangini and Charley Casserly. Maybe Bob Kraft would have gone back to a life of corrugated cardboard. Maybe Patriot Place would be a parking lot. Think of how we’d all miss CBS Scene.
Let’s roll back the tape, shall we?
Entering that game, the Patriots had never won a playoff game in the Belichick era. Brady had never started a playoff game. We didn’t know what to expect when we gathered at Foxboro/Sullivan/Schaefer Stadium on that snowy Saturday night. We had an inkling it might be the last game ever played in the horrible old bowl, but none of us believed this was the beginning of the last great dynasty in the NFL.
The Raiders led, 13-10, with a little less than two minutes remaining. The Patriots had first and 10 at the Oakland 42-yard line. Brady dropped back to pass.
Here’s the play-by-play from the late, great Will McDonough: “Brady had his right arm raised, ready to throw, brought the ball forward, then down almost to his waist, and was just about to put it in his left hand when Woodson hit him, jarring the ball loose.’’
Blitzing from the left corner, the Raiders cornerback separated Brady from the football, and linebacker Greg Biekert recovered for Oakland. The Raiders had a first down with 1:43 left and the Patriots were out of timeouts. The game was over. Knee down. Shake hands. Thanks for coming.
Not so fast. The gods intervened. Rex Stuart, working in the press box as an NFL replay assistant, ruled that the play should be reviewed. He buzzed referee Walt Coleman before the Raiders were able to run a play.
Enter the Tuck Rule, which had been instituted in 1999:
Rule 3, Section 22, Article 2, Note 2 of the (old) NFL rulebook: “When a Team A player is holding the ball to pass it forward, any intentional forward movement of [the passer’s] arm starts a forward pass, even if the player loses possession of the ball as he is attempting to tuck it back toward his body.’’
Coleman reviewed the play.
“Obviously, what I saw on the field, I thought the ball came out before his arm was going forward,’’ Coleman told a pool reporter. “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.’’
No. It was a fumble. It has been a fumble for 100 years. It’s a fumble now.
Brady knew it was a fumble.
“Yeah, I was throwing the football, ’’ he said after the game, stifling a grin. “I was going to throw it and he hit me as I was going to throw it. How do you like that?’’
“It was a ridiculous rule,’’ former Patriots quarterback Scott Zolak said Tuesday. “Rules are about common sense. You looked at Tom’s reaction that night and he was clearly thinking, ‘I cost my team the game. I fumbled it.’ When you are a quarterback, you know.’’
After the Tuck Rule was invoked, Brady was able to move the Patriots to the Oakland 29, and then Adam Vinatieri was able to send the game into overtime with the most clutch field goal in NFL history. New England won the overtime coin toss and marched down the field for a winning field goal. Oakland never touched the football in overtime.
Again, the Patriots benefited from a rule that has since been amended.
But it doesn’t matter now, does it? All the Patriots could do was play within the rules. And they did. They went on to win the Super Bowl. Two years later, they won another. Then another.
And it was all triggered by a bogus rule that the league finally has eliminated.
The Tuck Rule is gone, too late to help the Raiders.
The Patriots — the luckiest team in the history of sports — won three Super Bowls in four years.
It’s a Wonderful Life.Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.