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Focus of league meetings settling on the 'tuck rule'

Controversial play in AFC playoff game brings about a review of the guidelines for a fumble by a passer.

By DARRELL FRY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 18, 2002


ORLANDO -- Where do you draw the line?

Is a quarterback no longer attempting to pass when he starts to pull the ball down? Or is it when he has tucked the ball away with two hands?

That has become the pressing question of the week at an NFL owners meeting that has comparatively few weighty issues to debate.

The question relates to the league's "tuck" rule that became the center of debate after an AFC playoff game between the Raiders and Patriots. In response, league officials have been reviewing the rule in hopes of making a modification that will put the controversy to rest.

Bucs coach Jon Gruden, whose Raiders were hurt by the rule in that playoff game, said the issue is simple.

"I don't think you need to have an owners meeting to figure out the tuck rule," he said. "Put it like this, if the quarterback, the running back, the tight end or any eligible receiver has two hands on the ball, it can in no way be interpreted as an incomplete pass. Ever.

"If the arm is going forward and the ball is put together with two hands, he is now making an attempt to do something else. He is not a forward passer."

The league begged to differ.

The Patriots were behind 13-10 with less than two minutes left when quarterback Tom Brady, looking to pass, apparently changed his mind and tried to tuck the ball down. As he did, he was hit by Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson and lost the ball. The Raiders picked it up, which seemed to clinch the game for Oakland.

The play, however, was reviewed and ruled an incomplete pass. Referees applied the rule that says "any intentional forward movement of his arm starts a forward pass even if the player loses possession of the ball as he is attempting to tuck it back toward his body."

The Patriots retained possession and forced overtime, then won on a 23-yard field goal at 8:29 of the extra period.

At the time Patriots coach Bill Belichick agreed with the application of the rule, saying, "To me, there's no question, based on that wording, how it should be ruled."

The rule also came into play in the Bucs-Rams game last season when St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner appeared to fumble while back to pass, but the play was ruled an incomplete pass. The same thing happened to Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde in an early-season game against the Patriots.

But neither instance played as big a role in the outcome as in the Pats-Raiders game.

In such a situation, the officials aren't told to judge the quarterback's intent to pass, but rather whether the ball was tucked away or not.

"It's been in the rule book for a long, long time (and) it's been officiated the same way for a long, long time," said Bucs general manager Rich McKay, who leads the league's competition committee that has been studying the rule. "We've had a lot of discussion about the tuck and about the rule. We're trying to work though the language."

Discussion of the rule is expected to continue today when the committee addresses all the attendees. McKay said the committee has been mulling seven modifications, one of which it will present for consideration. But he cautioned that the rule may go unchanged.

"We will have a rule to submit to membership (today)," McKay said, adding the committee does not want to rely on instant replay on such plays. "We'll see if there's enough sentiment to actually change the rule."

Gruden, who will attend part of the meetings, said he doesn't need the rule altered to validate his contention that the play in the playoff game was a fumble.

"To me, pictures speak volumes," he said, alluding to replays that showed Brady might have had two hands on the ball before losing it. "That was a fumble. Their whole team walked off the field. Their stands were emptying. I wasn't the only one who was surprised by the outcome."

BENGALS: Cornerback Artrell Hawkins, who had been testing the free-agent market, agreed to re-sign. He will sign a three-year contract today, team spokesman Jack Brennan said. Terms were not announced. He started 13 games last season for Cincinnati and tied for the team lead with three interceptions. Hawkins, who played collegiately at the University of Cincinnati, has played all four of his NFL seasons with the Bengals.

RAIDERS: The team hired longtime NFL veteran Jim Harbaugh as quarterbacks coach, senior administrator Bruce Allen told ESPN.com.

"He's a good guy, he wanted to be a coach, and we feel he will be a good one," Allen said. "It's pretty safe to say he knows something about the position."

Harbaugh, 38, replaces David Shaw, who left the Raiders last month to join the Ravens. He is the second new assistant hired under first-year coach Bill Callahan, who last week was joined by Jay Norvell as tight ends coach.

It marks Harbaugh's first venture into the coaching ranks.

The 14-year veteran entered the NFL as the first-round draft choice of Chicago in 1987 and he played seven seasons for the Bears before being released. He also played for Indianapolis (1994-97), Baltimore (1998) and San Diego (1999-2000). He signed with the Lions last season but was released.

For his career, Harbaugh played in 177 games and started 140. He completed 2,305 of 3,918 passes for 26,288 yards, with 129 touchdowns, 117 interceptions and a 77.6 passer rating.

LOS ANGELES CONSTRUCTION: Philip Anschutz, the billionaire who built Staples Center and last month broke ground on a $120-million sports complex in Carson, Calif., is investigating the possibility of a privately financed football stadium in downtown Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Times reported. Anschutz has formed a coalition to study the new stadium effort, including Tim Leiweke, president of Staples Center, and Casey Wasserman, owner of the Arena League's L.A. Avengers.

-- Information from Times wires was used in this report.

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