I constantly see Oakland Raiders fans complain about the so-called “Tuck Rule” Game, but they never seem to remember the 1976 “Phantom Roughing the Passer” Game. Why the constant bitching about the “Tuck Rule” when in 1976 the Patriots got screwed by the officials out of a possible Super Bowl Championship title.
You say you don’t remember the 1976 game? Well, let me refresh your memory. The Raiders were 13-1 and considered the best team in football. The Patriots, on the other hand, were an up-and-coming surprise team that nobody expected anything from.
The Patriots were a machine on the ground, as they rushed for a total of 2,957 yards (averaging five yards per carry) and scored 376 points, both second-best in the league. The 2,957 yards rushing was the fifth-highest total in NFL history at the time.The team’s 5.0 yards per carry was the best in the NFL and remains higher than all Super Bowl champions except the 1973 Miami Dolphins, whose own run game was 5.0 yards per carry. The Patriots also led the league in takeaways at 50; they finished third in the league in turnover differential at plus-14.
New England finished the season 11-3, and on consecutive weeks during the regular season had beaten the AFC’s top two conference-title contenders, defeating first the Steelers in Pittsburgh, 30-27. The very next week in Foxborough, the Patriots handed the Raiders their only loss of the season. Now, mind you, the Patriots didn’t just beat the Raiders: They destroyed them, 48-17.
New England actually lost the division title to the Baltimore Colts, who were led by quarterback Bert Jones, and the Patriots entered the divisional playoffs as the wild-card entry. They would have to travel to Oakland for the divisional round of the playoffs.
The divisional playoff matchup between the Patriots and Raiders would become known as the “Ben Dreith Game”, as officiating would become a major controversy with numerous questionable penalties. Bill Lenkaitis, a Patriots offensive lineman who had not been flagged for holding all season, was flagged an inexplicable three times during this game.
No penalty was called when George Atkinson of the Raiders hammered Russ Francis in the facemask and broke his nose. (Steve Zabel popped Francis’ nose back into place.)
There was also controversy over a Sam Cunningham run in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter when he went out of bounds. Patriots OG John Hannah claimed the sideline official moved the first-down marker just before Cunningham went out of bounds, denying him a first down.
On the following play, Cunningham run on 3rd and 1 at the Raiders 28-yard line. Patriots QB Steve Grogan changed the snap count to draw the Raiders offside, but the Raiders were barking out dummy snap counts themselves — so Hannah, Leon Gray, and Pete Brock all jumped offside (“I should have known better”, Grogan said after the game).
On the next play (3rd and 6), Grogan threw to Russ Francis, but Francis could not raise his arms because of holding by the Raiders’ Phil Villapiano, a hold so blatant that, according to Francis, he left “the game with bruise marks on my arm … when I saw Phil at the Pro Bowl that year, he came right out and told me he had done it.”
The Patriots missed the ensuing field goal attempt and the Raiders took possession. In the final minute of the fourth quarter, Raymond “Sugar Bear” Hamilton of the Patriots was flagged for roughing the passer against Ken Stabler on a 3rd-and-18 play, even though replays showed no roughing; Dreith said the call was made because Hamilton had hit Stabler’s helmet, but replays showed Stabler ducking away from Hamilton.
Despite Patriot protests (Hamilton was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for doing so), the call stood. The Patriots stopped the Raiders on 3rd and 1 near the goal line, but another personal foul penalty (this one on Prentice McCray) extended the Raiders drive, and on second and goal at the Patriots 1-yard line, Stabler ran in the game-winning touchdown with ten seconds left in a 24–21 Raiders win.
Patriots protests over Dreith’s call were such that Dreith was not assigned to work any games involving the Patriots until 1987.
So if you are a Raiders fan that constantly cries about the “Tuck Rule Game”, remember that over two decades before, you had the “Ben Dreith” game.
Both are bad, but I think it’s safe to say that the1976 Patriots would have won their first Super Bowl if they would have gotten by the Raiders. New England would have had to play the AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh, but the Steelers had been depleted by injuries. On the other hand, the Raiders in 2002 would have had to go beat a healthy Steelers team in Pittsburgh, and they would have had to beat “The Greatest Show on Turf”, Kurth Warner and Marshall Faulk’s St. Louis Rams, in the Super Bowl.