The Bert Emanuel Rule still rankles years later

To this day, those involved still can't believe what happened. And they're still sore about it.
Published August 30 2017
Updated August 30 2017

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.

It's one of the most famous catches in NFL history.

Well, except for this fact: it wasn't a catch.

Not then.

It is now.

Confused? You're not alone. It also goes down as one of the most confusing and controversial plays in sports history, a play that affected a championship and the careers of those involved. More notably, it was a play that changed football forever.

Officially, we call it the 1999 NFC Championship Game. But it is better known as the game that gave us the Bert Emanuel Rule.

It's named for Bert Emanuel, a dependable possession wide receiver out of Rice who was in his sixth NFL season — his second with the Bucs.

To this day, those involved still can't believe what happened.

And they're still sore about it.

It was Jan. 23, 2000, and the Bucs traveled to St. Louis to take on the Rams, Kurt Warner and an offense known as "The Greatest Show on Turf." Yet, with a punishing defense that featured future Hall of Famers Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks, the Bucs pulled the plug on St. Louis' offense and had a chance to make Super Bowl XXXIV.

Trailing 11-6 late in the fourth quarter, the Bucs simply needed a drive. Led by rookie quarterback Shaun King, the Bucs moved the ball to midfield and faced a second and 23 at the St. Louis 35 with 1:25 left.

On the sideline, safety John Lynch yelled, "Somebody make a play."

King took the ball out of the shotgun and drifted back six steps and saw Emanuel crossing over the middle.

"Shaun King threw a dart," Emanuel said in an interview with NFL Films. "I dove for it. I had both hands around it, pulled it to my chest."

Emanuel looked to the sidelines and saw the official ruling it a catch. A 13-yard gain. The catch set up a manageable third and 10 at the Rams' 22.

Bucs coach Tony Dungy immediately signaled timeout.

"On the sidelines, we're talking about what play we want to run next," Dungy said.

Unbeknownst to Dungy and the Bucs, the play was under review. "Nobody could figure out why," Dungy said.

As referee Bill Carollo raced to his replay machine, replay official Jerry Markbreit looked at the play over and over.

On the Fox broadcast, play-by-play announcer Pat Summerall said, "I'm not sure what's going on. It looks like they might be reviewing something."

As Fox ran replays of Emanuel falling to the ground with the ball, Fox analyst John Madden said: "Yeah, that's good."

Summerall: "He had possession. The ball might have hit the ground, but he had it."

Madden: "I don't think you can take that one away."

Summerall: "I don't think you can either."

All the while, the Bucs had no idea their chances to reach the Super Bowl were about to take a major hit.

"It never even occurred to me that they were reviewing it," King said. "He didn't bobble it. No one called it incomplete. We called the timeout. We figured out the next play and we were in the huddle waiting to run the next play."

No replays were shown on the big scoreboard inside the stadium. Some players thought it might have been an issue with how much time was left.

The Bucs were stunned when Carollo announced the play was overturned. Emanuel screamed in Carollo's face.

Replays showed the tip of the ball hit the ground. It also was obvious that Emanuel had complete control of the ball.

"On every football field in America," King said, "that is a catch. Every field in America!"

Every field except one.

Now it was third and 23.

"We were in a pickle," Dungy said. "Not only didn't we get the play. But we lost the timeout, too. Now we had no timeouts left."

Said King: "Now we're in desperation mode."

Two incompletions later, the Bucs' season was over.

Bucs fans seethed and football fans across the country were buzzing. Dungy had no idea of the controversy that was blowing up.

"After the game, people were asking me what I thought," Dungy said, "And I just said, 'Well, that's why we have replay.' I just assumed he didn't catch it."

Check this out: Dungy didn't see a replay until the next day.

"I was flabbergasted," Dungy said. "I immediately called the league office and said, 'This has been a catch for 100 years and it always will be a catch. And if it isn't a catch, we got to take 100 catches that Cris Carter had when I coached in Minnesota.'

"No one had ever discussed that a play like that might not be a catch."

Everyone agreed with Dungy.


Even the NFL.

In the offseason, the NFL's competition committee wrote a rule to clarify that the Emanuel play was, indeed, a catch.

"Everyone in America knew it was a catch," Dungy said. "But we had to write a rule that said it was a catch. Pretty ludicrous when you think about it."

It became the Bert Emanuel Rule.

"I was bitter," Emanuel told NFL Films, "because I don't think any player goes into the NFL thinking, 'I want a rule named after me.' "

That's an interesting comment considering this:

You know what Bert Emanuel's handle is on Twitter? @TheBertEmanuelRule.