It’s the play that changed the course of history in the NFL, and especially for Tom Brady. In what was a whirlwind season for Brady in 2001, the then second-year quarterback and backup took over for an injured Drew Bledsoe and helped lead the New England Patriots to the franchise’s first Super Bowl victory, but it was also in large part thanks to the now infamous “tuck rule.” In his first playoff game, a nail-biter against the Oakland Raiders, Brady was hit late in the fourth quarter by future Hall of Fame defensive back Charles Woodson and the ball came loose.
The Raiders would recover with a chance to punch their ticket to the next round and send Brady home with his first taste of postseason disappointment, but it was not to be. The officials, namely NFL referee Walt Coleman, eventually deemed it was not a fumble at all by Brady, but instead that he had begun forward motion to attempt a pass — deeming the play dead on an incomplete pass attempt.
If that’s instead ruled a fumble, the butterfly effect would’ve likely sent Brady back to the bench the next season.
“I’m probably the backup QB going into 2002,” Brady said in ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary on the play, via NBC Sports. “I’m not the starter if we lose that game.”
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Legendary kicker Adam Vinatieri went on to kick a game-tying field goal to force overtime, where the Patriots went on to win on a 23-yard kick by Vinatieiri. And, with that, the legend of Brady and the Patriots of the 2000s and beyond was launched. Bledsoe was traded to the Buffalo Bills and the Patriots went on to win six titles with the tandem of Brady and head coach Bill Belichick, a triumvirate completed by owner Robert Kraft — the latter also confessing to ESPN how it was the fateful play in January 2002 that truly started it all where it could’ve instead ended it before any of it ever truly began.
“That was the catalyst for the beginning of a dynasty.”
Brady eventually parted ways with the Patriots after two decades and a list of NFL honors, landing his seventh and final Lombardi trophy as QB of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But Raiders fans will always remember the play that got away, and the Patriots will always be thankful for the tuck rule, something that has become the norm in today’s NFL but was anything but when it took center stage on a snowy day at Foxboro Stadium a little more than 20 years ago.