Friday, December 29, 2017

How a punter changed the course of NFL history

12 Sep 1999: Tom Tupa #7 of the New York Jets passes the ball during the game against the New England Patriots at the Giant Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Patriots defeated the Jets 30-28. Mandatory Credit: Ezra O. Shaw /Allsport

By Noah Frank

December 29, 2017

WASHINGTON — With nine of the 12 available playoff spots already locked down, along with seven of the eight division titles, there are very few important NFL games being played this weekend. In fact, the only game that will affect both a playoff spot and a potential division champion is Carolina vs. Atlanta, with the Panthers having already made the playoffs.

But just because there aren’t many meaningful games doesn’t mean there can’t be some fun ones. In that vein, it’s worth taking a look back and appreciating one of the craziest games in modern NFL history, the aftermath of which’s far-reaching effects are still being felt.

You may remember Tom Tupa (he finished his career with one season in Washington in 2004). A punter with an alliterative name that rolled off the tongue, he was also a college quarterback his senior season at Ohio State, and even a starting quarterback in the NFL, going 4-9 over 13 starts with the Cardinals between 1989-91. Perhaps that’s why when he was the Cleveland Browns’ punter and Bill Belichick was head coach, he was used to score the first two-point conversion in NFL history. Tupa’s fake from the holder position was actually used three times in that 1994 season, earning the nickname Two Point Tupa.

Fast-forward to 1999. Tupa is now playing for the New York Jets, under Bill Parcells, with Belichick as his offensive coordinator. In the opening quarter of the first game of the season against the New England Patriots, franchise quarterback Vinny Testaverde goes down in a heap, his Achilles ruptured.

Parcells had a decision to make. An obscure NFL rule did not allow him to activate his bench quarterback, Rick Mirer, until the fourth quarter, without losing his emergency quarterback (and punter), Tupa. Parcells rolled the dice on putting Tupa under center — the gamble worked.

Tupa wasn’t perfect, taking a number of sacks, including one which led to a fumble and a New England touchdown. But he was otherwise pretty spectacular.

Tupa entered the fourth quarter 6-for-11 for 165 yards and two touchdowns. He came in with his team down 10-7, but Parcells pulled him in favor of Mirer for the fourth quarter, with the Jets within five points. The Jets took the lead with a pick-six with under 10 minutes to play, but Mirer threw the game away — literally. He completed just four of his 11 passes, gaining just 28 yards and throwing a pair of interceptions, including the one that led to the game-winning field goal by none other than Adam Vinatieri.

The Jets missed the playoffs by a single game, with the opener against the Patriots a glaring missed opportunity. Had they made it, Parcells may never have retired, as he did at the end of the ’99 season, opening the door for his assistant, Belichick, to become the next head coach of the Jets. But the Patriots fired their head coach — Pete Carroll — as well. That led to Belichick joining the Patriots and, after a successful stint at USC, Carroll to the Seattle Seahawks.

The rest is not just history, but the dominant history of the league for nearly two decades, with New England drafting Tom Brady the next summer and winning five Super Bowls during his tenure. The fourth win came over the defending champion Seahawks, coached by Carroll, on the final play.

What might the last 18 years of the NFL have looked like if Parcells had let Tupa finish that game? We’ll never know. But it goes to show how even the most simple, insignificant-seeming choices can have ripple effects still felt across the league years later. Who knows — maybe something wild will happen this Sunday, the true impact of which won’t be felt for years to come. If we’re lucky enough to get anything like a Tom Tupa Game, hopefully whoever our unlikely hero is gets a chance to finish the job.

WATCH: That Time a Punter Played QB for the Jets and Threw 2 TD's | NFL Highlights

WATCH: Throwback Thursday: Two Point Tupa

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