By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The great mystery of sports always lies within the unanswerable question of “What if?” Countless moments throughout sports history could have and would have been altered significantly if only this had gone one way, if only that had gone the other. The theoretical domino effect from those points forward is impossible to calculate.
Alas, all we actually have in sports is reality. And on Wednesday, New England football fans have one heck of a reality to celebrate, as the unforgettable Snow Bowl turns 20 years old.
Of course, Raiders fans(and Patriots haters) likely refer to the day as the 20th anniversary of the Tuck Rule Game, not the Snow Bowl. That’s due to the way that the proper enforcement of a rule — however odd that rule may have been, it had been enforced before that night, including in a way that adversely affected the Patriots that very same season — gave the Patriots a second life on that fateful evening in the old Foxboro Stadium. To say they made the most of their extra opportunity would be a massive understatement.
In the immediate aftermath of Walt Coleman announcing that the Patriots would retain possession after Charles Woodson had knocked the ball out ouf Tom Brady’s hand, Brady delivered a strike to David Patten up the right hash. Patten dropped to his knees to secure the catch before popping up and crawling forward for a gain of 13 yards.
Brady threw incomplete on the next pass and then was hit as he threw on the next snap, sending a wounded duck into the defense that harmlessly fell to the snowy turf.
I'd say this was a forgotten moment of the Snow Bowl. This hit on Brady as he was throwing came THREE SNAPS after the tuck rule was enforced. Mamma mia. pic.twitter.com/Hq6HLNGam5
— Michael Hurley (@michaelFhurley) January 19, 2022
Brady had nowhere to throw on third down, leading him to scramble up the middle for a yard and thus setting up the greatest kick in NFL history. Adam Vinatieri — who had missed four of his previous five attempts from the 40-49-yard range — came on and made one of the most difficult kicks anyone has ever made. His 45-yard boot barely cleared the line of scrimmage, cutting through the wind and the snow before heading through the uprights to tie the game at 13-13 with 27 seconds left in the game.
"Adam Vinatieri es el pateador más grande en la historia de la NFL e hizo la patada más grande de todos los tiempos (Snow Bowl, 2001)"
—Bill Belichick pic.twitter.com/TgFoxIkHoM
— Patriots México (@PatriotsMexico) May 27, 2021
Nothing about that kick seems possible — the footing, the trajectory, the recent history, the conditions — but Vinatieri somehow got it through the uprights, keeping New England’s season alive.
“I would say it was by far the greatest kick I have ever seen,” Bill Belichick said in 2018. “The conditions were very difficult. There were probably three to four inches of snow on the ground. It was a soft snow that kind of didn’t go away. I mean, there was no way to get around it. The magnitude of the kick was significant. It’s got to be the greatest kick of all time, certainly that I’ve seen.”
What’s kind of lost to history after that is that the Raiders got the ball at their own 35-yard line with 22 seconds on the clock and two timeouts in their back pocket, with an iron-legged kicker of their own in Sebastian Janikowski available if needed. (Janikowski had made a 45-yard field goal earlier in the game.)
But Jon Gruden decided to play things “safe,” calling for Rich Gannon to take a kneeldown and play for overtime.
Perhaps a deep shot to Jerry Rice or Tim Brown would have been a better choice, because the Raiders never touched the football again.
The Oakland defense showed zero resistance in overtime, and Brady went 8-for-8 for 45 yards, only needing to convert one third down along the way. Once in field goal range, the Patriots went to the ground game, and Antowain Smith converted a third-and-5 with an 8-yard run. That set up a much easier kick for Vinatieri this time around, and he of course did not miss.
That was the final play in Foxboro Stadium’s history. For a building without too many fond memories, it was a heck of a way to close the doors.
From there, everybody knows the story. The Patriots upset the Steelers in Pittsburgh the following week before pulling off what was at the time the greatest upset in Super Bowl history over the St. Louis Rams. It was the first of three Super Bowls won by Brady, Belichick and the Patriots in a four-year span, kicking off the most dominant two-decade stretch the NFL has ever seen.
Of course, given the controversial nature of the tuck rule, the “what if?” that hangs over that play has messed with the minds of many sports fans over the years.
The Raiders franchise — despite getting a shot at redemption by reaching the Super Bowl a year later — certainly has never properly recovered.
Tuck Rule? It’s been 11 years, 1 month and 23 days…but who’s counting? pic.twitter.com/63DqAPlWeb
— Las Vegas Raiders (@Raiders) March 14, 2013
The team went on a 14-year playoff drought after the Super Bowl loss, and the team still hasn’t won a playoff game since 2002.
The NFL never again assigned Coleman to a Raiders game, because of the way fans perceived him in that moment.
Hall of Famer Ray Lewis once argued that “the only reason we know who Tom Brady is, [is] because of a tuck rule!” (Which somehow wasn’t even the most nonsensical thing Lewis said at that particular moment in time.) Gruden said he’ll never get over it. Woodson remains quite peeved (and will express that frustration to Brady in person in an upcoming ESPN documentary).
Get your popcorn ready 🍿 @30for30
"The Tuck Rule" premieres February 6. pic.twitter.com/aEBKFLqh8y
— ESPN (@espn) January 19, 2022
If there’s any “what if?” that can be eliminated from the conversation, it can be the doubt that Brady needed the tuck rule to become great. Brady has obviously gone on to win seven Super Bowls, earning five Super Bowl MVPs, three NFL MVPs, and 15 Pro Bowl selections while becoming the NFL’s all-time leader in every meaningful passing statistic and continuing to play at an MVP level at the age of 44. Tuck rule or no tuck rule, Brady’s singular greatness was inescapable for the rest of the league, even if that first title was delayed.
But of course, the world can’t help but wonder how differently things would have gone for the Patriots if not for the proper enforcement of a strange rule. Surely, logic would dictate that the team had the right blend of talent and attitude to eventually win championships. Their two titles in ’03 and ’04 are a testament to that. But as always is the case with the “What If?” game of sports, the case can be made for any alternate reality to become believable. Raiders fans would like to believe that Oakland would have gone on to pull the upsets over the Steelers and the Rams in the weeks that followed, bringing about the first of multiple Super Bowls won by Gruden in Oakland.
Instead, Al Davis essentially fired Gruden, trading him to Tampa Bay for draft picks. Gruden beat the Raiders with the Bucs in the Super Bowl the following year.
And though the Patriots failed to make the playoffs in 2002, their Super Bowl wins in ’03 and ’04 began a stretch of making the playoffs in 16 out of 17 years. With Brady and Belichick, the team reached nine Super Bowls total and won six of them, authoring a truly remarkable stretch of success — a level that is supposed to be unattainable in the era of salary caps and parity.
Again, logic might say that some or all of that was inevitable, that the combined GOAT powers of Brady and Belichick would always have to result in multiple championships, no matter what happened on the night of Jan. 19, 2002. That may be true, but we’ll really never know.
What we do know without a doubt is that the foundation for all of that winning — for all six Lombardi Trophies that reside in Foxboro — was laid 20 years ago to the day.