December 16, 2005
Gruden Returns To Tuck Rule Town
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
Walt Coleman is his personal Ben Dreith.
Jon Gruden probably curses Coleman’s name every night before he goes to bed, assuming that he does sleep now and then.
That historic night at snowy Foxborough Stadium, which turned out to be the old palace’s final game, remains one of the most famous NFL contests in recent memory, if not all time. With Gruden’s Oakland Raiders leading, 13-10 late in the AFC Divisional Playoff game on Saturday night, January 19th, 2002, Raider cornerback Charles Woodson came in on a corner blitz. He clobbered former Michigan teammate Tom Brady just as his arm was going forward and just before the ball was to hit his left hand. The ball came loose, Greg Biekert recovered, and the Raiders were just a few kneel-downs from heading to Pittsburgh to play for the conference championship.
But the replay booth signaled Coleman (it was within the final two minutes of the half) to re-examine the play. Word has it that Coleman took one look at Brady not tucking the ball into his body before the ball came loose, and said something like “Oh, (expletive)!” Coleman knew what he had to do. He perhaps took an excessive amount of time at the screen going over ball placement and what to set the game clock at. The reversal was the easy part.
At least for Coleman. But not for Gruden or his Raider players.
You all know the rest. The Patriots tied the game and won it in overtime. Lonie Paxton became famous for making snow angels. The old stadium went out in style, making up for 31 years of generally bland football. This game was to old Schaefer what Game 6 of the 1975 World Series was to Fenway Park. The game was so exciting that one fan unfortunately died of a heart attack when it was over.
Gruden and the Raiders complained long and hard. At least Gruden went on to win a Super Bowl the following year, albeit with Tampa Bay and against these same Raiders (it was like what former Houston Oilers head coach Bum Phillips said about former Miami head coach Don Shula: “He can take his’n and beat your’n, then take your’n and beat his’n!”). But players like Woodson still don’t have a ring, and still feel cheated out of a Super Bowl title that year.
Of course, those griping Raiders forget a lot about that game when they cry and moan. At the time of the fumble, the Raiders still led. It took what many people refer to as the “greatest field goal in NFL history” to eventually tie the game, a miracle 45-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri into a raging blizzard on a cold field with a ball as hard as a rock. And had the Raiders not laid down in overtime, they could have made a defensive stop and gotten the ball back. It was very much a game they could have won despite the controversial call.
Gruden makes his return to Foxborough on Saturday, as Buccaneer head coach. His team is 9-4, a game better than the Patriots. Tampa Bay has only two cold weather wins in their history, but Gruden coached both of those wins. One of them got the Bucs to Super Bowl XXXVII, the 2002 NFC Championship Game at Philadelphia. The Patriots have not beaten Tampa Bay since 1988, and the Buccaneers have won the last two meetings between the Patriots after New England won the first three.
The game will pit the best defensive coach in the game against perhaps the best offensive mind. With Monte Kiffin minding the defense in his usual masterful way, Gruden is able to ply his offensive trade and make Tampa Bay one of the more formidable NFC teams. Granted, Gruden has yet to repeat the success he had three years ago, as many of those players who won the Super Bowl have moved on. But he has rebuilt his offense around some new key parts, and how well they perform on Saturday will determine who wins this game.
The Patriot offense against the Buccaneer defense could be a big, huge stalemate, especially if Brady is not 100 percent. Brady is still listed as questionable for the game Saturday because of the leg injury sustained while scoring a touchdown last week at Buffalo. Even if Brady is healthy, he will be tested by the stout Tampa Bay defense which is the second best in the league. The Bucs are fifth against the run and fourth against the pass. What might help the Patriots is the fact that down lineman Anthony “Booger” McFarland is listed as doubtful with a hamstring injury.
What will decide this game is whoever wins the coaching matchup. Bill Belichick will provide plenty for quarterback Chris Simms (son of CBS broadcaster and former Giant slinger Phil) to have to deal with. It might come down to how well the Patriots deal with rookie running back Cadillac Williams, as the Patriots have had problems this year dealing with top running backs. Back from an injury, Williams is just short of the 1,000-yard mark for the season.
If there is a coach out there who can devise an offensive game plan to counter a Belichick defense, it’s Gruden. Only the snow slowed down the Raiders in 2001, as Gruden had a ton of offensive threats at his disposal, from quarterback Rich Gannon and running back Charlie Garner to wideouts Tim Brown and Jerry Rice. If Simms can execute the game plan without making too many rookie mistakes, Tampa Bay has a great chance to win the game.
The Patriots are at home, but Tampa Bay has been a terrific road team (5-2 on the road this season). The Patriots have the incentive of clinching the division if they win. Weather projects to be in the mid-30s, which will help but not likely be a deciding factor. Furthermore, the Patriots simply haven’t matched up well with Tampa Bay in their current era (prior to the losses in 1997 and 2000, the teams hadn’t met in nine years).
This game figures to be low scoring, and a tough defensive war. Just like that snowy night once upon a time.
Gruden may have his ring, but he will never come to these parts and not think about that night, and that call.
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