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As Tom Brady slid through the thick layer of snow out of bounds, he immediately located Charlie Weis on the sideline. With 1:50 remaining in the fourth quarter of the 2001 AFC divisional playoffs, the Patriots trailed the Raiders by a field goal, and the ball was at the Oakland 42-yard line. Brady, New England's 24-year-old quarterback, needed to ask Weis, the team's offensive coordinator, which play he should run next.
"Trips 72 cut slant E slant," the coach answered, as Brady ran back to the huddle.
• • •
Heading into 2012, Brady has started in 19 career playoff games; the game against the Raiders on Jan. 19, 2002, was his first. Foxboro Stadium, the home of the Patriots for 31 years, hosted 242 regular-season and playoff games; the matchup that night was the final one to be played there, with the team moving into Gillette Stadium for the '02 season.
Of the 146 offensive plays in the three-hour, 32-minute game, the play that Brady called next took seven seconds and resulted in no points or yards. However, it ended up being the game's most important and memorable play.
In the decade since they played on that snowy night, the Patriots' and Raiders' franchises have gone in opposite directions. New England has won three Super Bowls and become the model of NFL success; Oakland has made one playoff appearance while going through six different head coaches. It's unfair to say the results of one game or the interpretation of one rule impacted all that. It's also unfair to say it didn't.
• • •
While Weis was instructing Brady about what play to run, Eric Allen stood near the Patriots' sideline. Unlike the budding quarterback he was facing, the Raiders' right cornerback had been through playoff battles many times before. The 36-year-old veteran had played in the famous Fog Bowl when he was a rookie with the Eagles in 1988. Now, 14 years later, he was facing some more hostile conditions. Not a flake of snow had fallen on Foxborough when the Raiders left their team hotel at 4 p.m. As Allen prepared for the next play to begin, nearly seven hours later, there were almost five inches piled up.
The weather wasn't an issue; stopping Brady was. As he lingered, Allen heard Weis tell the young quarterback what he wanted the play-call to be: a quick slant pass with three receivers lined up to Brady's right and one to his left. Recognizing the call, Allen rushed to his defensive teammates in the middle of the field.
"Look, they said it's going to be three-by-one and the backside guy is going to get the slant," Allen told the rest of his huddle. "So linebacker, whoever is on that back side, be sure you're in that first window so he can't throw the ball in that first window, and corner, you position yourself in the second window.
"When you get in three-receiver sets and the back receiver is wide, you have to run a slant; that's just the ABCs of football," Allen recalled. "So we had a blitz for that. We would have Charles (Woodson) line up inside and come off the edge. It wasn't any kind of defense that was new; many people run it. We just happened to have Charles run it, who's a phenomenal athlete, so he would get there a lot."
• • •
As Brady broke the huddle and approached the line of scrimmage for 1st-and-10, with the snow falling steadily and his team down 13-10, his teammates positioned themselves for the play. Split wide to his right, from closest to furthest, were TE Jermaine Wiggins, WR Troy Brown and WR David Patten; wide to his left was WR Fred Coleman; alongside Brady in the backfield was RB J.R. Redmond.
Scanning the defense to his left, Brady saw Allen matched up with Coleman. Far to his right, he checked on Patten, who was being guarded by Raiders nickel CB Tory James. As he pointed and yelled instructions to Redmond, it appeared the only thing Brady didn't notice from the Raiders was Woodson, his former University of Michigan teammate, who was lined up over Brown - ready to pounce.
"Blitz," exclaimed CBS commentator Phil Simms at the exact second Brady received the shotgun snap.
• • •
The fourth-quarter play wasn't the first time the Patriots had called "Trips 72 cut slant E slant" against the Raiders that day. In fact, it had been a constant element of the team's attack. So, too, had screens, swing passes and other short, safe throws. With conditions making it difficult to run the ball, Weis believed his team's best chance to win was to place the ball in the hands of his young signalcaller. Brady threw 52 passes that night, still the most he ever has attempted in a playoff game. He completed 32 of them.
"That was the best way of throwing the ball, to throw relatively quick passes right there," Weis said of the team's strategy. "Get the ball out of your hands without a pass rush and let the receivers and tight ends, who knew where they were going, get open quick and get the ball to them."
Redmond, who finished the game with four receptions, recalled the same approach.
"Myself, I probably caught four screens that day, so we likely ran more than 10 screens total," he said. "They had a good D-line; they could get up the field and rush the passer. Of course, you're going to pin your ears back and come when you're in the snow. We wanted to use that against them, so we ran a lot of screens and a lot of short routes, safe routes - things that made for high-percentage plays."
• • •
Right as the ball was snapped, Woodson began charging. He ran around Wiggins, around chopping Patriots ORT Greg Robinson-Randall, all the while his eyes fixated on Brady. As that was happening, Brady tried throwing the quick slant to Coleman. Yet, LB William Thomas was in the passing window, just as Allen told him to be. Brady looked for Wiggins, but he also was covered. Finally, the QB tried to pass to his last resort - a dump-off throw to Redmond in the flat.
Just as Brady's right arm cocked to throw to Redmond, Woodson launched himself, with arms outstretched, onto Brady. As he struck the QB, the ball squirted out of Brady's hand and fell onto the frozen field directly in front of the two players. Oakland MLB Greg Biekert tried to jump on it, but as footballs are known to do in ice and snow, the pigskin rolled away. Biekert dove again, landing on the ball just as 305-pound Patriots OLT Matt Light landed on him.
Biekert emerged from the pile with the ball, which he subsequently punted into the air in celebration. Brady walked back to the sideline, his chin in his chest, believing the game was lost. A jubilant Woodson was mobbed by his teammates. The Raiders would have the ball near midfield with 1:43 remaining, up by three points. New England had no timeouts remaining.
"I remember being all happy, jumping around on the sideline," Raiders WR Jerry Rice said. "I'm thinking the ballgame is over."
However, Rice, like nearly everyone else playing in and watching the game, didn't know about Rule 3, Section 22, Article 2, Note 2 of the NFL Rule Book.
• • •
In the spring of 1999, the NFL's competition committee met in Phoenix to discuss the changes for the upcoming season. The major topic on the table was the installment of a rule that allowed coaches to challenge controversial plays. During the meeting, the nine-member committee also voted to add some clarification to a play where referees could not determine if a quarterback fumbled or threw an incomplete pass. Instead of forcing officials to make a judgment on the player's intent, a note was added to the rule on forward passes that stated that if a QB "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."
In the three seasons following the addition of the note that preceded the Raiders-Patriots playoff game, nobody interviewed for this story could remember the rule change ever being enforced.
• • •
On the sideline, Weis went over to chat with Brady. "You know, they might overturn this. This might be an incomplete pass," he said. As that conversation was going on, veteran referee Walt Coleman jogged to the replay hood behind the Raiders' bench. With the game inside two minutes, New England head coach Bill Belichick didn't need to throw a challenge flag on the play; all close calls were to be looked at by Coleman and replay official Rex Stuart.
On CBS, Simms told play-by-play man Greg Gumbel that he didn't think there was much doubt that the play would stand as a fumble. He wasn't alone.
"I don't think there was any question to us that it was a fumble," said Redmond, the intended receiver on the play.
"When an official is reviewing any play, it's about their interpretation of the rule and how they see it, so there's nothing you can ever anticipate," Patriots LB Tedy Bruschi- said. "I've seen calls that I thought were black and white, but they came out the other way. So I didn't really anticipate any type of outcome. I knew there was a chance, because seeing the play from the sideline, it looked like a fumble to me."
After two minutes and 20 seconds of review, Coleman returned to the field to make his announcement.
"After reviewing the play, the quarterback's arm was going forward," he said. "It is an incomplete pass."
• • •
Of course, the call wouldn't be noteworthy if the Patriots hadn't come back to win. Five plays after the incomplete pass, New England PK Adam Vinatieri made a 45-yard field goal that he drove through the snow and wind to tie the game at 13. From the sideline, Bruschi said all he heard was a loud thud when the kicker's right foot struck the frozen ball. "That was the most difficult kick I had ever seen," said Bruschi, who played 13 NFL seasons.
In overtime, it was all Brady. After the Patriots won the coin toss and received the kickoff, Brady, who had been a sixth-round draft pick the season before and had begun the year as an unknown backup to Drew Bledsoe, orchestrated a 15-play, 61-yard drive. It set up more dramatics from Vinatieri, who booted a 23-yard field goal to give the Patriots the improbable victory.
Fifteen days later in the Louisiana Superdome, Brady again drove his team downfield with the game on the line and set up another Vinatieri field goal. This one gave New England its first Super Bowl title in franchise history - a 20-17 upset victory over the Rams.
• • •
Looking back at the "Tuck Rule" 10 years later, different players had different reactions. Raiders QB Rich Gannon believes his team squandered opportunities, not defensively, but on offense. The man who would win the Pro Football Weekly/Pro Football Writers of America MVP award the next season said, "I've always chosen to look at it from our perspective - offensively, what we could have done different in that game. There's two or three plays in that game where if we just block it right or we do what we're supposed to do, a missed assignment or mental error, (the application of the Tuck Rule) never even happens."
Gannon said people still want to talk about that game. Rice, who won three Super Bowl rings with the 49ers, said the same thing, adding that the loss to the Patriots left "a bitter taste in my mouth."
On the other side, Bruschi believes the victory sparked the Patriots to a run of three Super Bowl titles in four seasons. "There have been many plays in the course of NFL history that have turned the tide for many organizations," he said. "A lot of calls that go a certain way create momentum, and we took that momentum and never looked back."
Then there is Allen, the defender who overheard what play was being run and knew the perfect way to counter it. A decade later, he still becomes emotional when talking about the game, which ended up being the last of his career.
"I played in some great games," he said. "But never have I been in a situation where I felt there was no way I could recover from a call. And that's the way I felt, and many of my teammates felt the same way."
This story first appeared in the Jan. 8, 2012 issue of Pro Football Weekly.