Over the course of his 20-year career as an NFL referee, Walt Coleman officiated 306 games — but one stands out among all of them, one of his 17 total postseason assignments: the 2001 AFC divisional round game between the New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders, more commonly known as the Tuck Rule Game. Coleman played as big a rule in the contest as Patriots quarterback Tom Brady or Raiders safety Charles Woodson.
You know the story by know. With under two minutes to go in the fourth quarter and the Patriots down 13-10 while at the Raiders’ 42-yard line, Woodson blitzed off the edge on a 1st and 10 pass attempt. Brady did not saw him, was taken down, and the football came lose. Oakland’s Greg Biekert fell on the ball to secure his team’s victory — or so everyone thought until NFL Rule 3, Section 22, Article 2, Note 2 came into play:
When [an offensive] player is holding the ball to pass it forward, any intentional forward movement of his 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. Also, if the player has tucked the ball into his body and then loses possession, it is a fumble.
Coleman reviewed the play for what seemed like an eternity but was rather just three minutes, and came out of the hood announcing his decision that the play would be overturned: “After reviewing the play, the quarterback’s arm was going forward. It is an incomplete pass, 2nd and 10 at the 42.”
The rest, as they say, is history. New England marched to a game-tying field goal — arguably the best kick of Adam Vinatieri’s legendary career — and later won in overtime on another kick. The Patriots then marched through the top-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers and to Super Bowl 36, winning the first title in franchise history against the team they will face next week as well: the Rams, back then still based in St. Louis.
Coleman’s call, a correct one when given how the rule was stipulated, made the referee a persona non grata in Oakland. The NFL also recognized this and never again assigned him a Raiders game. Meanwhile, Coleman called 20 more of New England’s games with the last one coming earlier this year: he was the referee for the Patriots’ regular season finale against the New York Jets.
He will still work the Pro Bowl together with Pete Morelli, another referee to end his career after this season, and then head into retirement as arguably New England’s favorite referee.