A quick qualification on this post to start… I don’t usually write such long articles, nor do I include such long videos (this one’s nearly four minutes long). But, the Tuck Rule is so controversial, and often so critical, that the length is necessary to give it an adequate explanation. I hope you enjoy it.
In today’s lesson, I will attempt to explain a rule that has ended championship dreams, infuriated defenses, and confused fans, players and commentators alike. Readers, I present…. the Tuck Rule.
The Tuck Rule was formalized in the NFL Rule Book in 1999 and it wasn’t long before the new rule became the focus of controversy. On January 19, 2002, the New England Patriots were hosting the AFC Divisional Playoff game against the Oakland Raiders. New England was trailing by three points in the last two minutes of the game when quarterback Tom Brady stopped mid-throw and began to pull the ball back toward his body. Just then, blitzing Oakland cornerback Charles Woodson hit Brady and knocked the ball out of his hands. The Raiders jumped on the loose ball and appeared to have recovered a fumble, sealing their victory. However, after an instant replay review, the referee ruled that it was an incomplete pass, not a fumble. The result? The Patriots kept the ball, kicker Adam Vinatieri kicked the tying field goal a bit later and the Patriots ended up winning the game in overtime. National controversy and argument ensued, even prompting the league to reexamine the rule during the off-season. New England went on to win Super Bowl XXXVI, beginning a dynasty that would win three Super Bowls in four years. Meanwhile, the Tuck Rule remains unchanged and continues to spark debate today. Here’s a video recap of the play and its aftermath…
Let’s start by looking at the rule itself. It appears in the NFL Rule Book at Rule 8, Article 1, which is the definition of a “Forward Pass”:
…When a player is in control of the ball and attempting to pass it forward, any intentional forward movement of his hand starts a forward pass.
…(b) If, after an intentional forward movement of his hand, the passer loses possession of the ball as he is attempting to tuck it back toward his body, it is a forward pass. If the player loses possession after he has tucked the ball into his body, it is a fumble.
(c) If the passer loses possession of the ball while attempting to recock his arm, it is a fumble.
What does that all mean? Simply put, the quarterback gets a free pass (no pun intended) if he drops the ball while pulling it back to his body after deciding not to throw. It is considered an incomplete pass and therefore “dead” when it hits the ground. However, if he drops it after bringing it all the way back to his body, that is considered a fumble and can be recovered by the defense.
Why? Under the rules, the hand and arm of the quarterback are making a “passing motion” from the time the QB raises the ball in his hand until the ball is tucked back into the quarterback’s body. Therefore, any loss of grip he has on the football—whether from a hit by a defender or a case of butter fingers— before he brings it all the way to his body is considered an incomplete pass.
Though the rule seems straightforward, its application always invites criticism and endless analysis. As you might imagine, the judgment over whether the ball is “tucked” or not can be quite subjective. Therefore, it is often the subject of a coach’s challenge and review. To provide some clarity, the NFL’s Case Book discusses several alternative scenarios and how a referee should rule in each. Below is an excerpt from the Case Book. Would you apply the rule correctly? Read the excerpt below and see if you know the answers for scenarios “a,” “b,” “c” and “d” before reading on:
A.R. 8.20 QUARTERBACK “TUCK”
Second-and-10 on A30 [“A” signifies the offense, while “B” is the defense; “A30” refers to A’s 30-yard line]. After quarterback A1’s hand has started forward in a passing motion, he changes his mind and does not pass the ball. In the process of tucking the ball back to his body, the ball is knocked loose by B1 and recovered by B2 at the A25 where he is [tackled]. The ball came loose when it: a) was half-way back to his body; b) was touching his non-passing hand but not yet secured against his body or in both hands; c) had just touched the quarterback’s body; or d) was secured against A1’s body.
According to the Case Book, the ruling in scenarios “a,” “b” and “c” should be an incomplete pass, and therefore third-and-10 for A on the A30. In scenario “d,” however, it should be a fumble because the quarterback got the ball all the way back to his body. The result would be first-and-10 for B on A25.
Though the NFL committee in charge of rules, the Competition Committee, has considered changing the Tuck Rule, they haven’t yet made any revisions. The problem is that the alternatives they have come up with would be too difficult to enforce. For example, one revision might be to require the official to decide whether the QB had actually changed his mind about throwing the pass. The problem with such a change is that officials are hesitant to make calls where they have to infer the quarterback's intent.*
The Tuck Rule doesn’t come up very often, but when it does it is usually in a critical point in the game. You usually won’t see a challenge unless the play might result in a fumble recovered by the defense. In those situations, the ruling is an all-or-nothing proposition: if the ruling is an incomplete pass, the offense keeps the ball and moves on to the next play; if the ruling is a fumble, the other team gets the ball.
So, that is the infamous Tuck Rule. Even if you don’t entirely understand the rule (and you aren’t alone), one thing is certain: it will always be the subject of debate.
*It should be noted, however, that other rules in football do legislate intent. It is illegal, for example, to intentionally muff or fumble the ball, and to bat, punch or kick the ball forward. To a certain extent, intentional grounding requires interpretation of the QB’s intent, too. Under the rules, it is not intentional grounding unless the throw is made when the QB is “facing an imminent loss of yardage because of pressure from the defense.” Furthermore, to be grounding, the pass must be made without “a realistic chance of completion.” This means that the officials must make two decisions about what the quarterback was thinking: (1) whether the QB felt that the pressure from the defense could result in lost yards; and (2) whether the QB thought there was a “realistic” chance of a receiver catching the pass. You’ll see quarterbacks arguing the latter point all the time.