It was an AFC divisional playoff game in 2002—exactly ten football seasons ago now—and we know the game by a number of nicknames. Raiders fans often call it “the Snow Job,” while Patriots fans will usually call it the “Snow Bowl.” Just about everybody else knows the last game in Foxboro Stadium as “the Tuck Rule Game.”
To me, none of these nicknames really suit what happened on that Saturday night (yep, same time as this Saturday’s game just across the street at Gillette). I think a more appropriate name for it would be The Vinatieri Game.
We tend to forget just how that game was won, regardless of the team we support. Here’s my version: after a controversial (but in many ways routine) replay review that overturned a Tom Brady fumble, Adam Vinatieri stood around the 38 yard line and knocked home one of the most unbelievable field goals the league has ever seen. (“On a 45 yarder?” Just wait.) If you ask me, no play during the 2001 regular season or the ensuing playoffs was more impressive than the field goal that tied the final game played in Foxboro Stadium.
Kickers are often overlooked as instruments of a football team’s success. Oh, we’ll make sure they get their share of team failure, but crediting a kicker with a victory is in many ways simply beyond the common sports fan’s ability. With time, it hasn’t gotten any easier: it’s pretty easy to think of the game in question as a watershed moment in the career of Tom Brady, or the moment when Bill Belichick went from “washout former Browns coach” to being the brains of the Patriots’ operation.
Yet none of it happens if Adam Vinatieri misses that fourth quarter field goal.
To finish setting the scene, let me try to explain to people who live south of New England what a January snowstorm in eastern Massachusetts feels like. Snow up here is often wet and slush-like in its consistency, which has a way of almost sand-blasting anything exposed to the elements. There’s also the wind, about which I cannot complain enough. It swirls in all directions, which does not allow a person to get the least bit comfortable against the blowing winds that seem to slap you in the face with the cold. When it came time to take that field goal attempt, Vinatieri had been standing in those elements for three hours, with the very occasional trip out onto the field and back. Talk about a freezing a kicker.
Without looking it up, I would guess that make-it-and-tie-the-game kicks in the final minutes of playoff games are a low-percentage endeavor in the best of conditions. I don’t remember Martin Gramatica ever making such a field goal, regular season or postseason. Gary Anderson holds a plethora of NFL records for kicking (including his 100% 1998 regular season—35 makes in 35 attempts), and I don’t recall him ever tying a playoff game on a team’s last possession. Of course, the name “Scott Norwood” in a column like this probably doesn’t need much explanation—his career has been defined entirely by one such miss.
Meanwhile, Adam Vinatieri made one in the 2002 AFC Divisional playoff. He then went on to end Super Bowls XXXVI and XXXVIII with the only two “walkoff” field goals in the Big Game’s history.
So back to the thought exercise: what if he hadn’t made that fourth quarter kick against Oakland?
Consider the following: After that kick, New England went on to win the Super Bowl. After the playoffs ended, Oakland traded its head coach (Jon Gruden) to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who then went on to defeat Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVII. New England won Super Bowl XXXVIII on a last second Vinatieri field goal over Carolina, and then won the next year against Philadelphia by exactly three points. The next season after that, the Indianapolis Colts won the Super Bowl with—that’s right—Adam Vinatieri as their placekicker.
If all other things remained the way they actually were, the St. Louis Rams would have played either Pittsburgh or Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVI. That could have been Kurt Warner’s second Super Bowl title, but what if Oakland had won instead? How would we see Rich Gannon’s career after two consecutive Super Bowl appearances and a win? It seems unlikely that Oakland would have traded Gruden had the Raiders won the Super Bowl (even though they got a king’s ransom in draft picks when they did), so the participants and outcome of Super Bowl XXXVII would be in doubt.
How would all of these things have helped the Philadelphia Eagles? Would they have been the NFC Champion that faced Oakland, and if so how might that have impacted the careers of Donovan McNabb and Andy Reid?
Would Vinatieri have made the field goals that ended two Super Bowls without gaining the confidence from making the near-impossible kick against Oakland? We’ll never know. Would Indianapolis have won with a different kicker? (That sounds absurd, but to be fair, the Patriots have been title-free since the kicker in question skipped town. To that end, they lost Super Bowl XLII by exactly three points, and remember that the Patriots went for it on fourth down in the fourth quarter of that game when the Patriots were well within Vinatieri’s range. So it’s a point worthy of consideration.)
Let’s not forget that, technically, the New England Patriots were staving off a quarterback controversy at the time. Drew Bledsoe even started the AFC Championship game the next week. So, would things have been different if the Patriots had lost that night? Would the Pats have gone into camp with two potential starters? What if Drew Bledsoe had won that summer battle? Might Brady have become the accomplished quarterback we know today in Buffalo, or Dallas?
So far, my logic suggests that the following quarterbacks’ careers could be much different if that game had gone differently: Drew Bledsoe, Tom Brady, Kurt Warner, Donovan McNabb, Rich Gannon, Brad Johnson, Jake Delhomme, and Kordell Stewart.
Jon Gruden’s coaching career would likely have been much different, and so too would the public’s perception of Al Davis in his final years. (Would we have been able to laugh so hard if he had one or two more rings?)
There are a lot of assistant coaches whose careers would have been altered as well: Bill Callahan, Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel…Callahan would not have gotten the promotion in Oakland had Gruden stuck around, and who knows what would have happened to the New England staff?
All may have hinged of one kick that sailed through the uprights on a snowy night in Massachusetts just about ten years ago.
All of those careers were seemingly impacted in a big way because on that night, the New England Patriots sent out the greatest kicker (for my money) in NFL history with less than a minute to go in a playoff game.