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Tuck Rule Hard to Grasp

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 15, 2005

Bruce Allen figures he has watched the play more than 1,000 times. He can give a millisecond-by-millisecond description.

"I remember everything," the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' general manager said this week.

Allen was the Oakland Raiders' front-office chief on Jan. 19, 2002, when Rule 3, Section 21, Article 2, Note 2 of the NFL rule book first entered the public consciousness. The "tuck rule" spawned a dynasty that night, negating a would-be, game-losing fumble by quarterback Tom Brady and giving the New England Patriots a second chance to craft a dramatic playoff triumph over Allen's Raiders. The win put the Patriots on their way to the first of their three Super Bowl titles in four seasons.

To this day, Allen maintains it was a fumble. "The rule itself doesn't bother me," he said. "But the way the rule is written, it was a fumble."

The Washington Redskins can relate to Allen's pain, albeit on a smaller scale. The tuck rule cost them two points Sunday at Denver, nullifying a safety in a game the Redskins ended up losing by two.

"The tuck rule is the tuck rule," said Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs, who discussed the call with the NFL's officiating department. "It says you can pull [the ball] down and do anything you want for the next 10 minutes. It makes no sense to me. It's the way it's worded. I think everybody probably sees that and says it's a bad rule."

But Mike Pereira, the NFL's director of officiating, said this week that the officials "absolutely" made the right call last weekend in ruling that Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer had thrown an incomplete pass rather than fumbled the ball.

"The rule is very specific," Pereira said. "We have to make our decision based on the rule. Intent doesn't factor into the rule. Does the ball come out after [the quarterback's] arm is going forward and before he tucks the ball back into his body? If so, then it's an incomplete pass."

The tuck rule, according to Pereira, long had been a rule interpretation used by officials, then was added to the rule book in 1999. Pereira has spoken about the rule often enough since the Patriots-Raiders playoff game that he knows it inside and out. "It's the one I know the best," he said with a chuckle when a reporter brought up the subject during a telephone conversation this week.

Under the rule, a quarterback's throwing motion begins when he raises the ball in his hand and begins to move his arm forward; that motion doesn't end until the quarterback tucks the ball back against his body, making him a runner. If the ball comes loose any time in between, it's an incomplete pass, not a fumble. Only if the quarterback reloads -- and raises the ball again to start a new throwing motion -- can he fumble, as long as the ball is knocked loose before his arm begins to move forward again.

The furor over the Brady play in the AFC title game in 2002 led the NFL competition committee to consider changing the tuck rule, but it never happened. Brady lost the ball on a hit by blitzing Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson with less than two minutes remaining and the Patriots trailing, 13-10. The Raiders recovered the fumble. But an instant-replay review showed that, while Brady had brought the ball back to chest level and was touching it with both hands, he hadn't tucked the ball back into his body. Referee Walt Coleman called an incomplete pass and gave possession to the Patriots, who tied the game in regulation on kicker Adam Vinatieri's 45-yard field goal and won it in overtime on another Vinatieri kick.

"We've talked about it ever since that New England-Oakland game," said Baltimore Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome, a member of the competition committee. "That year, it was probably the biggest topic of the committee and the biggest topic in our presentation to the owners. But it's one thing to think you need to change it, and another thing entirely to change it in a way that it actually can be officiated."

The rule is troubling to many around the league because it seems to contradict what even the participants in the play think has happened. Brady seemed to have halted his throwing motion before he lost the ball, and reacted afterward as if he'd fumbled. The same was true of Plummer last weekend.

But the problem that competition committee members have faced is trying to come up with a new rule that doesn't create more problems than it solves, and doesn't rely on having officials attempt to determine a quarterback's intent.

"We tried several different ways to change it," Newsome said. "But every time we tried to rewrite it, what we came up with was too difficult to officiate."

Pereira said there might not be a way to craft a version of the rule that would be more palatable to coaches, players and fans. "To this point, we haven't been able to come up with one," he said. "A lot of very bright minds on the competition committee have discussed it. But you don't change a rule just to change a rule. You have to change it to a rule that you can officiate."

Pereira said the rule comes up in games about 12 to 15 times per season and the application of it usually is clear-cut -- although not always as "obvious," he said, as it was last weekend on the Plummer play.

"To me, it makes it an easy rule to call," Pereira said. "There's no gray area. It's black and white. There was absolutely no question in the mind of the official last weekend when he got into the replay booth that he had a tuck rule."

Referee Peter Morelli used an instant-replay review Sunday to reverse the original ruling of a fumble by Plummer (which the quarterback recovered in his own end zone for what would have been a safety for the Redskins) and, based on the tuck rule, call the third-quarter play an incomplete pass. Pereira said it has been suggested to him that Plummer should have received an intentional-grounding penalty if the play indeed was an incomplete pass. But, according to Pereira, it wasn't intentional grounding because Plummer lost the ball inadvertently, not intentionally.

Newsome said the competition committee still reconsiders the tuck rule occasionally, but he has been given no indication that members will make another attempt after this season to come up with an alternative.

"I haven't gotten anything yet that would indicate it's going to be a topic this year," Newsome said. "But that could change. There are 12 weeks left" in the regular season.

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