The NFL Network aired a rather well-timed documentary about the famed Immaculate Reception last night, part of the great “A Football Life” series.
It was well timed because it ran on the same day that the NFL voted to eliminate the equally controversial Tuck Rule.
The two plays are intertwined in American sporting history for their controversy, for the tandem of future Hall of Famers involved in each play, for the two budding dynasties that benefitted from the plays, and for the fact that both caused the NFL to rewrite the rule books.
The 1972 Steelers won the first playoff game in franchise history thanks to the Immaculate Reception: trailing 7-6 late in the fourth quarter, Terry Bradshaw heaved up a fourth-down pass that may or may not have bounced off the hands of running back Frenchy Fuqua.
It was illegal at the time for an offensive player to catch a pass if deflected by a teammate.
The ball was famously “caught out of the air, the ball is pulled in by Franco Harris!” and the image of the rookie running back rumbling down the field for the winning score is etched in the minds now of several generations of football fans.
The 2001 Patriots won perhaps the most cinematic playoff game in NFL history thanks to the Tuck Rule: late in the fourth quarter of a beautifully snowy January night in Foxboro, Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson blitzed Tom Brady and jarred the ball loose. It looked like a fumble to everyone, even to Brady, who sheepishly walked off the field with his head down.
But referee Walt Coleman checked the replay video, determined that Brady was in the act of “tucking” the ball into his body and ruled it an incomplete pass. The Patriots turned the gift into Adam Vinatieri’s game-tying field goal through the nearly blinding snow and then won with another field goal in overtime.
The two greatest controversies in NFL history might be very different stories today.
The Immaculate Reception simply would not have been a controversy in this day and age.
One, we’d have more cameras on the field and certainly one of them would have captured the play. Instead of a good angle, we have images jammed together from different cameras, giving us the awkwardly edited image of the Immaculate Reception we know today. (However, the best image may have been the replay view from the original broadcast shot from behind the Pittsburgh offense. See it here.)
Two, Fuqua’s role would not have mattered. The NFL before the 1978 season, nearly six years after the Immaculate Reception, changed the rule that prevented one offensive player from catching a pass if another had touched it first.
Three, the additional cameras and instant replay rules of today would have resolved any other lingering controversies: for example, the issue of whether or not the ball touched the ground before Harris pulled it out of the air.
The Tuck Rule game, however, is a lot more complex and would be a major controversy today without or without Coleman’s decision to overturn the ruled fumble. In fact, it was a controversy CREATED by instant replay.
But there's more to the story.
Clearly, most of the world, including Patriots rump swabs, saw a fumble, even if the letter of NFL law and Coleman said otherwise.
But here’s what the world missed because of its fascination with the Tuck Rule: it missed the fact that Woodson committed a flagrant roughing the passer penalty that Coleman’s crew simply failed to call amid the swirling snow and the chaos.
The blitzing cornerback viciously whacked Brady in the head – an infraction punishable by 15 yards and an automatic first down.
The head slap is plain as day if you merely take your eyes off the ball for a moment – especially if you look at Coleman’s replay video, which was shot from behind the Oakland defense.
From the angle of the broadcast, Woodson rushed in from Brady’s right side, with his right hand held high and swooping down at the ball.
But Woodson, of course, MISSED the ball, allowing Brady to oh-so-briefly TUCK it close to his body.
If Woodson had hit the ball with the violent force of his arm, there would be no controversy today. It would have been a fumble even according to the Tuck Rule.
Woodson’s open hand, instead, nailed Brady on the right side of the helmet, at about the ear hole. You can even see Brady’s head snap to the left by the force of the hit a micro-second before his body snapped to the left as Woodson drove into the quarterback.
It’s almost like that scene from "JFK" when Kevin Costner as DA Jim Garrison describes the assassination of the president: “Back, and to the left. Back, and to the left.”
Look at the play from the front angle view, such as the one Walt Coleman discusses here in this ESPN video (the same video as above), taken from behind the Oakland defense. The illegal head slap is easy to see.
Stop the video at the 3:07 mark and especially at the 4:22 mark.
It’s right there for the world to see: Woodson’s right hand hits Brady’s helmet (in this case coming from the left side of the screen). Brady’s helmet even twists first under the force of Woodson's hand and his head snaps to the right, a split second BEFORE his body is impacted by the force of Woodson’s body.
Amid the chaos, nobody noticed the penalty. And you can’t review missed roughing the passer penalties.
Coleman’s crew simply blew it.
Their missed call, easy to see in the official’s replay video, WOULD have been the game’s great controversy if not for the greater controversy that unfolded before the nations’ eyes.
In reality, the Tuck Rule controversy never should have happened, because the Patriots should have been handed 15 yards and an automatic first down ... if only had officials on the field got the call right.
There’s one other difference between these two moments in NFL lore, the Immaculate Reception and the Tuck Rule, that sets them apart.
The Immaculate Reception was the first postseason victory and what had been, to then, the dismal 40-year history of the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was and is one of the great moments in Pittsburgh sports lore.
But it was not the play that “launched a dynasty” despite efforts to make it so. The Steelers lost the following week, at home, to the undefeated Dolphins in the AFC championship game. The Raiders gained revenge the following year, crushing the Steelers in the 1973 divisional playoffs.
Pittsburgh would not win its first Super Bowl until two years after the Immaculate Reception. The play likely did not change history, or only would have changed history had the Raiders gone on to to topple the undefeated Dolphins the following week. But we'll never know.
In the case of the Tuck Rule, we know that the controversy did in fact change the course of NFL history. It did in fact launch the Patriots dynasty, which makes the impact of the the Tuck Rule all the more palpable.
The Patriots beat the Steelers the following week in the AFC title game and then humbled the Greatest Show on Turf Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, the first of three championships in four years for New England.
The Patriots, in other words, immediately turned the largess of Walt Coleman and the letter of the NFL rule book into a Super Bowl championship and then a dynasty.
Nothing can change that now, of course. Which means nothing will change the controversy that will always surround the “Tuck Rule,” even after the NFL has wiped it from the rule books ... not even the other call that officials blew on that very same play.