NFL bids less-than-fond farewell to ‘tuck rule’

(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

The NFL bid a less-than-fond farewell Wednesday to the once-obscure “tuck rule” that came to prominence 11 years ago when it played a central role in deciding a playoff game and launching a football dynasty.

NFL team owners, gathered at a Phoenix resort for the annual league meeting, voted to eliminate the rule, a decision that some in the sport called long overdue.

The measure had been in the rule book since 1999 and led to some apparent fumbles by quarterbacks being called incompletions–correctly, under the terms of the rule. Most famously, or perhaps infamously, the tuck rule led game officials to overturn a would-be fumble by New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in an AFC playoff game in 2002. That helped the Patriots beat the Oakland Raiders en route to the first of their three Super Bowl titles.

The NFL’s rule-making competition committee announced last week it would recommend that owners rescind the tuck rule. The new measure, which goes into effect in the 2013 season, required approval by at least 24 of the 32 owners.

The elimination of the tuck rule was approved by a 29-1 vote, with the Patriots and Redskins abstaining, according to a person familiar with the vote.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft had said earlier in the week that he might abstain, given his affinity for the tuck rule. Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said earlier Wednesday that the tuck rule was the worst rule in the history of sports. But the general manager of the Redskins, Bruce Allen, was a Raiders executive at the time of the famed tuck-rule playoff game in New England. And although Allen has said in the past he believed that Brady fumbled, he also has said he believed the rule was acceptable but was improperly interpreted on that play.

“The rule itself doesn’t bother me,” Allen said in a 2005 interview, when he was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “But the way the rule is written, it was a fumble.”

Allen said later Wednesday that he and the Redskins abstained both as a tribute to Davis and because he felt the tuck rule itself was not the problem on the Brady play.

Davis’s former boss with the Raiders, late owner Al Davis, often abstained from league votes. But the Raiders did vote Wednesday in favor of eliminating the tuck rule.

The Pittsburgh Steelers voted against the elimination of the rule.

Competition committee members had debated the merits of the tuck rule for years, concluding it was imperfect but that they could not come up with an easily officiated alternative. That changed this year when the committee decided, members said, to take a more common-sense approach after consulting with officials. The officials, according to members of the competition committee, believe they can call the new rule properly.

“With the officials, for the guys on the field, we’re trying to clean that up for them a little bit,” Cincinnati Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis, a member of the competition committee, said this week.

Under the new rule, a fumble will be called when a quarterback loses the ball after finishing his throwing motion and bringing the ball back down. An incompletion still will be called if the quarterback loses the ball with his arm in the throwing motion.

Under the tuck rule, a quarterback’s throwing motion was deemed to begin when he raises the ball to make a throw and puts his arm in motion. The throwing motion doesn’t  end until he brings the ball down and tucks it into his body to make himself a runner. If the quarterback loses the ball after bringing it down from his throwing motion but hasn’t yet tucked the ball into his body, it is an incompletion, even when it appears to be a fumble.

That’s what happened on Brady’s tuck-rule incompletion, which initially appeared to be a game-winning fumble recovery for the Raiders. Instead, the play ultimately was called an incompletion, the Patriots retained possession of the ball and they went on to win the memorable game on a snowy night.

The Raiders never forgot or forgave. They posted a message on the team’s official Twitter account last Thursday, after the competition committee’s announcement of its recommendation, that showed exactly how many years, months and days it had been since the tuck rule game. Patriots owner Robert Kraft said this week that he has a picture of the play signed by former Raiders Coach Jon Gruden with the inscription, “It was a fumble.”

Kraft said this week that he might have to abstain from the vote for sentimental reasons.   “I never heard of the tuck rule before the snow game. I love the tuck rule, and forever will,” he said.

St. Louis Rams Coach Jeff Fisher, a member of the competition committee, said this week that the new rule “is not retroactive.”

Lewis said that previous changes to the instant replay system, which allow officials to award the ball to the defense if it recovers a fumble in certain instances when the play originally was ruled dead, also helped pave the way for elimination of the tuck rule.

“It was the change in replay,” Lewis said.

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