As a tribute to the late Al Davis, both New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Washington Redskins general manager Bruce Allen chose to abstain from a vote on Wednesday that would determine the fate of the 'tuck rule.' After all, Davis routinely stayed well enough away from those stuffy league votes.
Unsurprisingly, the tuck rule was stricken down forever at the hands of a 29-1 decision, putting to bed one of the most controversial chapters of a rulebook that deserves as much of a place in New England lore as one of Tom Brady's patented two-minute drives.
Snow was falling endlessly at the old Foxboro Stadium on January 19, 2002. It was the type of postseason game you want to see the Patriots host, a slew of shovelers in bright fluorescent jackets attempting to clear the yardage markers at every stoppage in play. The type of game that draws the ire of visiting teams that don't so much as see a raindrop in their own confines. It was the type of weather that causes big, barrel-chested men to shed their shirts and throw their paint-covered weight around with reckless abandon , but above all, it was the type of weather that signals something special is about to happen for the astute Patriot fan.
During the closing minutes of the AFC Divisional game against the Oakland Raiders, Charles Woodson releases off the edge and forcefully slaps the ball out of the hands of a bewildered Tom Brady. The Patriots, down 13-10, looked to be drinking the last of their bottled luck during a miracle season that saw Drew Bledsoe's backup permanently seize the signal-calling reins. During the video replay, you'd be hard-pressed to find a fan on either side that wasn't convinced it was a fumble. The Raiders would inevitably regain possession and run out the clock to secure an AFC Championship date with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Much to the Raiders' chagrin, referee Walt Coleman did not see it that way. He determined that Brady's arm was in fact moving forward at the time of the alleged fumble, citing a 'tuck rule' that had been established in 1999. The Foxborough faithful roared in approval with handfuls of snow tossed sky-high, positive that some divine intervention had just occurred to prevent the "team of destiny" from falling off its tracks. The Patriots maintained possession, Adam Vinatieri kicked a flawless field goal in swirling winds of white, and the game was headed to overtime. The Raiders' were visibly deflated, frustrated after they were absolutely sure victory was firmly in their grasp. The kid from Michigan wasn't rattled, engineering another physics-defying drive that led to yet another Adam Vinatieri field goal. 16-13, and the Patriots (somehow) win.
There was a certain magic in the air that night. After all, the New England Patriots were the poster children of football sub-mediocrity, failing to deliver anything resembling a championship trophy in their 40+ years of existence. They were, if you were a seasoned New Englander, football's answer to the Boston Red Sox. They'd tempt you from time to time, promising better days ahead as luck would sometimes cruelly select a season to shine on them, but it wouldn't happen in the end. And we were okay with that.
For some reason or another, things were different; much more than the quarterback position was permanently altered when Mo Lewis sent a hurting Drew Bledsoe to the sidelines earlier that season. There was simply no stopping this scrappy underdog as they stifled the Steelers at Heinz Field and put an end to the "Greatest Show on Turf" after being introduced as one contiguous team--as opposed to merely individuals.
There's no telling whether a loss against the Raiders that night would have derailed their building organizational momentum. Would they have still gone on to win it all in 2003? 2004? Those with selective memory fail to remember the times other teams met a similarly nasty fate at the hands of the 'tuck rule' well before the Patriots, and the time the Patriots were handed a tucked loss of their own against the New York Jets and Vinny Testaverde just a season later. Either way, the night of January 19 encapsulated all of those little oft-discussed intangibles we love about sports. It proved that skill--combined with a little helping of luck--is often necessary to find yourself on top of the world's biggest stage.
More than anything, though, it proved an unshakable belief that you're wearing glass slippers will eventually get you that coveted date to the Ball; whether everyone else on the outside thinks you deserve it, or not.