It was a fumble.
A simple utterance of the phrase around any Raiders fan is likely to be met with a sympathetic nod and a skyward glance to ponder what could have been on that fateful snowy day nearly 20 years ago.
Say it to a Patriots fan and risk being labeled a crybaby who can’t let go of the past.
Jan. 19, 2002. Charles Woodson rushes on a corner blitz with the Raiders leading the Patriots 13-10 with 1:43 to play in a divisional round playoff game in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Tom Brady pump fakes and is hit by Woodson as he brings the ball back to his body.
The ball comes loose. The Raiders recover to seal the game until the officials rule incomplete pass on replay. The Patriots eventually win in overtime.
The Tuck Rule Game, the last Patriots game at Foxboro Stadium before they moved next door to their current home, set two NFL franchises in two very different directions.
The Patriots used the second life they were granted by a referee’s interpretation of an obscure rule as a springboard to nearly two decades of league dominance.
The Raiders lost their coach that offseason when Jon Gruden was traded to the Buccaneers.
Oakland lost the Super Bowl to Gruden’s Bucs the next season and have not won a playoff game since, making the postseason just once in that span.
“For me growing up, that’s a big moment in football history, let alone Raider history,” said Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, who was 10 at the time. “I’ve definitely had a lot of conversations about it. As a Raider fan, of course it’s a fumble. You go to New England, of course it wasn’t a fumble. It’d be nice to hear what Tom (Brady) has to say about it one day.”
When Gruden returned as Raiders coach in 2018, he reiterated his belief the play should have been ruled a fumble during his introductory news conference.
He’s not backing down from the stance this week.
“He did fumble that damn ball,” Gruden said ahead of Sunday’s return to Foxborough. “Anytime you step in a stadium like that, it does bring back memories. Some of the memories aren’t great, but … we’re excited to play the Patriots and see what we can get done in a short week. They’re a heck of a team.”
Here are three keys to watch for as the Raiders return to Foxboro to play the Patriots at 10 a.m. Sunday:
Exorcise the demons
The Tuck Rule isn’t the only negative memory of Foxborough for Gruden or the Raiders.
Gruden took his Buccaneers there in 2005 and got shut out 28-0 in his only time coaching at Gillette Stadium.
Carr led the Raiders to Foxborough in his rookie season of 2014 and nearly pulled the upset.
Oakland scored what appeared to be a game-tying touchdown with less than a minute to play, only to have it wiped out by holding.
Carr was intercepted on the next play.
His pass hit a receiver and ricocheted to defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, allowing the Patriots to preserve a 16-9 victory.
“I don’t have good memories there, but it’s not something where I’m like, ‘I’ve got to get back at them,’ ” Carr said. “It’s two different teams, and I’m going to go into it like that. But to say it hasn’t motivated me throughout my career would be a lie.”
The Patriots have seemingly done the impossible in making a relatively seamless transition to a new era after Brady decided to move on to Tampa Bay.
Cam Newton, who Gruden dubbed ‘Slam’ this week in saying he plays like a power forward, looks rejuvenated and the Patriots still look like a threat in the AFC.
“When you’re playing against a guy like this, it’s an 11-man responsibility,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “If one guy’s out of whack, everything gets out of whack. Everybody’s got to play their responsibilities just about every week. This one’s just a little bit different with some of the quarterback run things that they have and some of the things they present in the run game.”
Keep it clean
The Raiders have committed just three penalties in each of the first two games, a remarkably clean stretch for what has traditionally been one of the league’s most flagged teams.
It has been since October 2009 that the Raiders committed three or fewer penalties in back-to-back games.
In fact, it’s been since 2016 that the Raiders had two such games in the same season.
It didn’t happen a single time in 2018.
To be fair, penalties are down across the league. But the Raiders have played incredibly clean football. It’s one of the reasons they are 2-0.
They need to keep that going.