It’s Theme Week again here at SBNation, and the theme this time is “What If...”, examining what sort of alternate histories NFL fanbases might live in if one thing or another had gone the other way. Today I’ll look at one of the darkest days in Raiders history, a moment which has become far, far more important than it seemed at the time.
January 19, 2002 is one of the most pivotal dates in NFL history. It was the date of what has become known as the “Tuck Rule Game”, which not only was one of the most controversial games of all time, but also led to one of the most dominant dynasties and long-term runs of success football has ever seen.
The tuck rule itself was not new in that particular game, and in fact had reared its ugly head earlier that same season, in a game between the Patriots and Jets. New York QB Vinny Testaverde was tackled and seemingly fumbled, leading to a recovery and touchdown by future Raider Richard Seymour. But nay! said the officials. Testaverde’s arm was coming forward. The call was nullified.
Later on in that game, Patriots QB Drew Bledsoe suffered an injury at the hands of the Jets’ Mo Lewis, and wet-behind-the-ears backup Tom Brady entered the game. Even when the Jets do something right, they screw themselves and everyone else.
Brady played exceptionally well for the Patriots and started a Divisional Playoff game against the Raiders, who were among the most dominant forces in the AFC at the time. Near the end of this game, Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson smacked the ball out of Brady’s hands and the Raiders recovered. This seemingly secured a road playoff win for Oakland. But nay! said the officials. Brady’s hand was moving forward. Incomplete pass. The Patriots would later win the game as Adam Vinatieri kicked an absurd overtime field goal in the snow.
The Patriots advanced to take on the Steelers in the AFC title game, and though Bledsoe had to relieve Brady in the game due to an ankle injury, Brady was healthy enough to beat the ‘Greatest Show on Turf’ Rams for his first Super Bowl, and the first in Patriots history.
Before I get to the impact this one single play had on the rest of the league, I want to talk about how it affected the Raiders. This was, until last year, the last game Jon Gruden would coach in the Silver and Black. Oakland traded him to the Buccaneers, hired Bill Callahan as coach, and made the Super Bowl the next year... against the Buccaneers. They lost. And from that point until 2016, the Raiders did not make the playoffs once. For this once-proud franchise, the Tuck Rule’s impact led to a 14-year stretch of abject futility. Oakland became the laughingstock of the NFL. The Raiders hired and fired eight different coaches between Gruden and Gruden 2: Electric Boogaloo.
Had the Tuck Rule been ruled a fumble, the Raiders would have almost certainly beaten the Steelers the following week and the Super Bowl against the Rams might have been an all-time classic. I can’t in good conscience tell you the Raiders would have beaten that Rams team, but maybe they would have. Hell, the Titans almost did it, two years before.
Now on to the more wide-ranging implications of the Tuck Rule never happening. If Tom Brady loses that game, he is just another shmuck, the Jeff Hostetler of his time. Drew Bledsoe regains his job the next season instead of being shipped off to the Bills. Bledsoe played another five years after this for the Bills and Cowboys, so perhaps Brady never becomes the Patriots starter. Maybe he gets shipped out, like Belichick did with Jimmy Garoppolo. What I can tell you is, as good as Brady is, it’s his synergy with Belichick that makes him so dangerous. Without that first Super Bowl, there is no guarantee Belichick stays as the long-term overlord of the Patriots. On any other team with any other coach, there’s a chance that Brady’s just another guy.
Just another guy wouldn’t have been good enough to outduel a team like the 2018 Chiefs. Another guy wouldn’t have dismissed the 2006 Chargers, one of the most underrated and forgotten teams in NFL history. Some other jabroni wouldn’t have been there to upend the 2003 Panthers or the 2004 Donovan McNabb-led Eagles. Any other schlub doesn’t come back against Matt Ryan’s Falcons, down 28-3. Matt Ryan is, right now, a surefire Hall of Fame player if the Tuck Rule never happened.
Would the Patriots be a good team? Of course. They made the Super Bowl just a few years before, losing to Brett Favre’s Packers, under Bill Parcells. The Patriots had plenty of talent and were arguably the class of the AFC East even then. But what they’ve managed to do since the Tuck Rule game is unlike anything the NFL has ever seen, or professional sports since the 1960s Celtics. They do absolutely none of it without Brady and Belichick together, ergo, without the Tuck Rule.
Without New England, either Oakland, Pittsburgh or the Rams have another title. Would the Steelers have drafted Ben Roethlisberger two years later? Would the Rams have moved to Los Angeles? Would Al Davis and Jon Gruden have learned to work together?
Would San Diego have won the Super Bowl in 2006, and if they did would they have moved to LA? Would the Seahawks have a second Super Bowl? Would Donovan McNabb be looked at as an all-time great? Would the Falcons have slaughtered any other team but the Patriots in 2016? Would Peyton Manning have more than two Super Bowl wins? Would the Rams of five months ago have been able to solve any defense but Bill Belichick’s? Turf Show Times just wrote their What If piece on a pass interference call in this year’s Super Bowl. Would it have even mattered, if not against the Patriots?
Some of these things happen, some of them maybe don’t. What we have today is an NFL where the Patriots are on top as the face of the league, and anyone who wants to win has to go through them (as the Eagles did). That goes for the Raiders as well. The Tuck Rule game was, in my view, the single most important moment in NFL history next to the AFL-NFL merger itself. It has changed and molded literally everything about the NFL for the last 18 years. And it is why, even though Raider fans hate every other team, we all hold a special, personal, seething amount of hate for the Patriots.