Jon Gruden May Have Inadvertently Started the New England Patriots’ Dynasty With a Single Mistake

Even if you think he’s somewhat overpaid and overrated, no one can argue with Jon Gruden’s will to win. While every NFL coach cares about their work, Chucky’s passion is plain to see. Even if he makes the wrong decision, it’s coming from the heart.

On the subject of wrong decisions, one of those came about in January 2002. While Gruden made the conventional choice by attempting to “ice” Adam Vinatieri, that timeout may have unintentionally given birth to the New England Patriots dynasty.

Jon Gruden and his Oakland Raiders met the Patriots in an unforgettable playoff game

In sports history, certain games are significant enough to take on a life of their own. The 2001 AFC Divisional Round meeting between the Oakland Raiders and the New England Patriots was one of those moments.

In case the Tuck Rule Game hasn’t been burned into your memory, the two clubs met on a snowy Saturday night in Massachusetts. Tom Brady had taken over for the injured Drew Bledsoe earlier that year and faced the Raiders in his first postseason test.

Oakland jumped out to an early lead. But in the second half, Brady began throwing the ball more and brought the Patriots back into the game. In the final minutes, it appeared he had fumbled the ball and lost his chance at glory. As NFL fans know, however, something else happened.

In a controversial decision, the on-field officials ruled that Brady was tucking the ball back into his body, making the play an incomplete pass rather than a fumble. New England kept the ball, moved a bit further down the field, and kicked a difficult field goal to send the game to overtime.

In that extra frame, Gruden made his ill-fated decision.

Jon Gruden iced Adam Vinatieri, giving the kicker a key advantage

Raiders head coach Jon Gruden reacts to a loss.
Head coach Jon Gruden during his second stint with the Raiders. | Ethan Miller/Getty Images

When a kicker is about to attempt a clutch field goal, the opposing coach will usually call a timeout to ratchet up the pressure. That’s exactly what Gruden did in overtime on that fateful day in January 2002.

The Patriots won the coin toss and advanced down the field to put the ball well inside Vinatieri’s field-goal range. Ahead of that game-winning kick, however, the Raiders called timeout.

Between the awful weather conditions and the pressure of the moment, Gruden’s logic seemed pretty clear. According to Ken Walter, the man who held the ball for that kick, the timeout actually helped Vinatieri better prepare to tie the game.

“When we get to the game-winner on the chip shot, the snow was piling up,” Walter explained in an ESPN story reminiscing about Vinatieri’s career. “I love Jon Gruden to death, but he made the biggest mistake of his career, in my opinion, by calling a timeout to allow us to clear the snow. Adam already made one in the snow from a further distance. Then he calls a timeout to give us time to clear a spot. That was too easy.”

From there, the rest is New England Patriots history

With an assist from Gruden’s timeout and the extra opportunity to clear some snow off the turf, Vinatieri converted a chip-shot field goal to win the game. From there, the rest is history.

In the AFC Championship, the Patriots topped the Pittsburgh Steelers. In the Super Bowl, they managed to slow down the St. Louis Rams and their “Greatest Show on Turf” offense and lift the Lombardi Trophy. Fittingly, Vinatieri converted the game-winning field goal at the final whistle, sealing the upset. That championship, of course, helped kick-start the modern Patriots dynasty.

How much of a difference did Gruden’s timeout make? At this point, there’s simply no way to know. If you believe Ken Walter, though, it helped set the stage for New England’s playoff success.

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