Ten years ago, anyone who had any rooting interest in the Oakland Raiders figured out what to point their collective fingers at after a 16-13 overtime loss to the New England Patriots. Hell, ten years later, all of our fingers were still pointed at that damn tuck rule that essentially pulled a trip to the AFC Championship game from the grasp of Raider Nation and put it right back on that frozen tundra for the Patriots to pick up and run with all the way to their first of a series of Super Bowls.
That play still burns my heart; tremendously. But my finger is not pointed at that horrible call anymore, but instead pointed at the Raiders, who had every opportunity to win that game, and let a bad break get them out of their game.
I have no doubt in my mind that the Raiders were a better team that season, but they didn’t take advantage of the opportunities afforded to them like the Patriots did, and they allowed the conditions and the bounces of the ball to get the best of them.
A couple of days ago, the NFL Network showed this game on their “NFL’s Greatest Games” series (which should be “NFL’s Most Painful Games To Watch For Fans Of The Losing Team.”) It was my first time watching the game since 2001, and I had forgotten so many of the details leading up to the game, and some of the in-game mistakes and missed opportunities that the Raiders had that make it so hard for some to really say the tuck rule had that much impact on the game.
To really understand what I mean, you have to go back to Week 15 of the season. Going into that game, they were 10-3 and looking like they had home field advantage wrapped up with two of their final three games against non-playoff teams. Instead of going into the postseason as hot as they should have been, they lost their final three games and were forced to play in the Wild Card game and on the road for each playoff game after that. The game against the Patriots could have been played in Oakland with the support of the Black Hole and the help of California weather.
Then, when you really go back and watch that game, the Raiders created ample opportunities to blow that game out of the water. They picked off Tom Brady once, and forced three fumbles. THREE FUMBLES! And they didn’t recover any of them. The Raiders didn’t recover any of those three fumbles that they forced, yet, all we remember is the fumble that the Raiders did recover that didn’t count. The most crucial fumble was on the punt return right before the tuck rule. Travian Smith poked the ball right out of Troy Brown’s arms. Had a Raider landed on the ball, all Rich Gannon would have needed was to take a few knees and the Raiders were headed to Pittsburgh.
What makes this game burn even more is the fact that the Raiders shouldn’t have even needed to punt the ball in the first place. On 3rd and 1, the Silver and Black gave the ball to Zach Crockett, who was easily the best short yardage specialist in the AFC that season and he couldn’t get the first. If Crockett pummels his way to the other side of that marker, the tuck rule play never happens and the Raiders revisit their 70s post-season rivalry with the Steelers.
Saying the tuck rule is the reason the Raiders didn’t win that game is the easy way out. That Charles Woodson blitz would have been a beautiful way to win the game. It would have gone down as one of the most revered plays in Raiders lore instead of a taboo. However, the Raiders still could have gotten a stop to prevent overtime.
They still could have gotten a stop in overtime. They didn’t. We all fail. However, a lot of our failures come simply because we didn’t take advantage of the situation presented to put us in a position to succeed. That’s what happened to the Raiders. I’ll be the first one to tell you that loss still hurts, but I’ll be the last one to point at that one play for the reason the Raiders couldn’t pull out that win.