To our readers: Mike Evans' 2016 NFL Catch of the Year and the big Bucs' offseason catches — DeSean Jackson, O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin — inspired us to mark the start of the 2017 season with a series of stories celebrating "The Catch." We hope you enjoy them.
What if it had been a catch?
What if the most controversial play in Bucs history had gone Tampa Bay's way? My oh my, how the world would be different.
The 1999 NFC Championship gave us the Bert Emanuel Rule. It was named for the Bucs receiver who caught — or rather, didn't catch — a pivotal pass late in the fourth quarter that could have set up a touchdown that would have sent the Bucs to their first Super Bowl.
Woulda coulda shoulda.
Trailing 11-6 late in the fourth quarter, Emanuel made a diving catch that would have set up a third and 10 at the St. Louis 22. Instead, after a replay review, the play was ruled an incompletion because the tip of the ball touched the ground even though it was locked in Emanuel's hands. Now facing third and 23, the Bucs watched their season end after two more incompletions.
Here's what we know for sure: The NFL pretty much admitted it messed up and Emanuel's catch should have counted. In the offseason, it put a rule in the books to clarify that if a receiver has control of the ball, it can still brush up against the ground. It became known as the Bert Emanuel Rule.
We also know that the Rams would go on to win the Super Bowl against the Titans.
That's all we know.
Here's what we don't know: What would have happened if the catch had counted?
Times file (2000)
"For starters, we would have won the Super Bowl that year," said Shaun King, the rookie quarterback who threw the pass to Emanuel. "I know we would have beaten the Titans. I know it."
To be fair, we can't say for sure the Bucs would have even gone on to win the NFC Championship Game. There's no guarantee the Bucs would have scored even if the catch had stood. It had six points all game, and if the catch had counted, Tampa Bay was still facing third and long, 22 yards from pay dirt.
But, for argument sake, let's say that Bucs had beaten the Rams. They likely would have been favorites to beat Tennessee in the Super Bowl.
"And if that happens," King said, "no way Tony Dungy gets fired. Who knows how long he stays in Tampa Bay?"
Dungy lasted two more years after the '99 season. The Bucs reached the postseason both seasons, but Dungy was fired, presumably because he couldn't get the Bucs to win the big one. If they had won the Super Bowl in January 2000, it's hard to imagine he would have been fired two years later. Or ever.
For sure, offensive coordinator Mike Shula doesn't get fired after the season, causing quite the riff between Dungy, who wanted Shula to stay, and ownership. Maybe King remains the quarterback instead of being replaced by Brad Johnson in 2001. Coach Jon Gruden never arrives in Tampa Bay. Maybe the Bucs win two or three Super Bowls under Dungy. Dungy never goes to Indianapolis.
But it seems fairly sure that if the Bucs had won the Super Bowl that year, Dungy would have remained in Tampa Bay for years.
Dungy only laughs when asked about that. It's not his bag to play that what-if game. But he compared the Bert Emanuel Rule to the Tuck Rule Game when the Patriots were given a fresh do-over in a 2002 playoff game they should have lost.
"New England never does go to that first Super Bowl," Dungy said. "But, hey that's football. Just goes to show how hard it is to win a Super Bowl. One play can ruin it all."