If the infamous Tuck Rule play had been ruled a fumble, does Tom Brady ever become Tom Brady?
That’s one of the primary questions posed in ESPN’s latest “30 for 30” documentary, simply titled: “The Tuck Rule.”
Brady’s answer: probably not. At least not right away.
In the film, Brady tells former Michigan teammate Charles Woodson — the player who jarred the ball from his hand in that iconic 2001 playoff game at Foxboro Stadium — that he’d “probably (be) the backup quarterback going into 2002” if his fumble hadn’t been overturned.
“That’s what I think probably happens,” Brady says.
Brady had gone 11-3 as a starter that season after replacing an injured Drew Bledsoe. But if he closed out that campaign with a one-and-done in the playoffs — and made a costly ball-security slip-up on the pivotal play — would head coach Bill Belichick still have chosen to move on from Bledsoe the following offseason?
“That play is on me,” Brady says. “At the end of the day, I’ve got to see that. I’ve got to see the blitz. … They would say, ‘With Drew’s experience, that play doesn’t happen.’ I think there’s a good chance that I’m not the starter at that point if we lose that game. … A lot of things could have changed based on a couple little milliseconds of a play.”
Belichick disagrees. He says in the documentary that Brady would’ve remained the starter in 2002 even if the ’01 Patriots had been bounced by the Oakland Raiders.
“I don’t think that would have changed,” the coach says.
Here are a few other nuggets gleaned from “The Tuck Rule,” which premieres Feb. 6 on ESPN and features interviews with Brady, Woodson, Belichick, Robert Kraft, referee Walt Coleman, Troy Brown, Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest and a handful of former Raiders players:
— Raiders right guard Frank Middleton botched his blocking assignment on a key third-and-1 with just over two minutes remaining, believing Oakland had called a different play. Middleton’s miscue allowed Richard Seymour to stop running back Zack Crockett short of the first-down marker and force a Raiders punt.
Brown returned that punt 37 yards to near midfield, then fumbled, but teammate Larry Izzo recovered, setting up the drive that featured the Tuck Rule play and Adam Vinatieri’s game-tying field goal.
“I don’t know why people don’t talk about that (fumble) more,” Brown says, “but I’m happy they didn’t. We had more guys around the ball than they did, luckily. That was a season-saving play at that time. But who knew that after that would be an even bigger play.”
— The play call on the Tuck Rule play, per Brady: Trips Right 68 Slant D Slant.
— Coleman, who worked through the 2018 season but never officiated another Raiders game, believes his ruling on the play was a no-brainer.
“It was just a normal tuck rule play where the quarterback has to tuck it back against his body in order for it to become a fumble,” Coleman says. “… It was easy for me. There was no doubt in my mind. There was no question. I mean, I had seen these plays before. … It’s an incomplete pass. It was an incomplete pass when it happened, and it’s an incomplete pass 20 years later.”
— Belichick agreed, having seen the same rule go against the Patriots during a loss to the New York Jets earlier in the same season.
“It was really, to me, the exact same play,” Belichick says. “… When I saw the replay and I saw Tom start to bring the ball in, then I immediately knew that. I said, ‘We’re going to get this ball back. He’s tucking the ball in.’ “
Belichick later added: “The Tuck Rule, to me, it’s much ado about nothing. … Much ado about nothing.”
— Vinatieri’s game-tying field goal — perhaps the greatest kick in NFL history — was a 45-yarder through a blizzard.
“If it had been 50, I don’t know that I would have kicked it, especially with the weather,” Belichick says. “But I really felt like Vinatieri at that point was our best chance.”
Vinatieri, of course, went on to convert a 23-yard game-winner in overtime, then a 48-yarder two weeks later to win Super Bowl XXXVI.