NFL: 10 signature moments
Drew Bledsoe's injury in 2001 opened the door for Tom Brady's emergence
The Tuck Rule game foreshadowed years of scrutiny over rules, instant replay
The dramatic Titans-Rams finish set the stage for a decade of thrilling Super Bowls
1. The hit that launched a dynasty. When Jets linebacker Mo Lewis slammed into Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe near the sideline late in a Week 2 game at New York on Sept. 23, 2001, it initially looked like a very bad break for New England. The hit caused the Pro Bowl passer to suffer internal bleeding, knocked him out of action for weeks and forced the Patriots to play untested second-year backup Tom Brady long before they intended.
And the rest is history. Brady, a sixth-round pick in 2000, seized the opportunity and never looked back, leading the Patriots that season to the first of their three Super Bowl titles. Bledsoe was traded to Buffalo following that season. Were it not for Lewis and the twist of fate, who knows if the New England dynasty would have ever unfolded?
2. David Tyree's helmet catch. If there was one indelible image of the NFL decade, it had to be that miracle, ball-pinned-against-the-helmet grab made by the little-known Giants receiver late in Super Bowl XLII, sparking New York's historic 17-14 upset of the 18-0 Patriots. The 32-yard gain, which came on third-and-5 from the Giants' 44, gave New York a first down at the Patriots' 24 with 59 seconds to go, and set up Plaxico Burress' game-winning touchdown catch four plays later. Tyree's improvisational masterpiece was an inspiration to underdogs everywhere, and reminded us that David can still occasionally beat Goliath in one-on-one coverage.
3. The "Next Question'' press conference. Did any scene exemplify the decade of the diva receiver and all its accompanying nonsense quite like the November day in 2005 when Terrell Owens did sit-ups in the driveway of his Moorestown, N.J., home to the rapt attention of a media throng? With the Eagles having suspended Owens indefinitely for his public criticism of Donovan McNabb, Owens and his drama-loving agent, Drew Rosenhaus, held a press conference to issue an apology and ask for reinstatement. It quickly devolved into farce after T.O. read a short statement, with Rosenhaus pointedly ignoring tough questions, such as: "What have you done for T.O., besides get him kicked off the Eagles?''
4. The Saints go marching back in. On the magical Monday night of Week 3 in 2006, the Saints returned to a renovated Superdome more than a year after it had endured the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It was the feel-good moment of the decade as the besieged city and its beloved football team celebrated together on a national stage. The night started with U2 and Green Day playing before the game, and then the capacity crowd reached an emotional crescendo when the Saints blocked an early Atlanta punt and recovered in the end zone for a touchdown. New Orleans improved to 3-0 with a 23-3 victory, an outcome so preordained the Falcons might as well have been the Washington Generals.
5. A new sheriff in town. On Aug. 8, 2006, Roger Goodell was unanimously named the league's eighth commissioner, succeeding Paul Tagliabue, who announced his retirement after 17 years on the job. Goodell quickly made the issue of cleaning up the league's reputation regarding player conduct the foremost initiative of his new administration, meting out increased punishment for violators to the strengthened policies. Players such as Adam "Pacman'' Jones, Tank Johnson and Chris Henry found out first-hand that Goodell wasn't messing around, earning suspensions for their off-field misdeeds, and the distinction of being the early poster children for the commissioner's get-tough approach.
6. The fall of Michael Vick. There was no story in the NFL this decade that proved to be more of a cautionary tale than Vick's pleading guilty to dogfighting charges in the late summer of 2007. With an electrifying playing style and a unique set of quarterbacking skills, Vick was practically the face of the NFL as he made his rise to league stardom. But in the spring of 2007, his name was linked to a dogfighting ring that was being operated on his Virginia property, and his world soon crumbled as he became one of the most vilified figures in sports history. By November of that year, Vick had begun serving a 23-month sentence in a federal prison, and before making his return in 2009, he wound up missing two full NFL seasons in the prime of his career.
7. The Tuck Rule play. The game-turning Tom Brady non-fumble call late in the snowy Raiders-Patriots 2002 AFC divisional playoff was the controversy that served to usher in a decade seemingly dominated by instant-replay reviews and debates, as we all began our endless quest to define the exact parameters of what constituted a fumble, a catch, possession of the ball, you name it. The Tuck Rule taught us that rules can be very tricky, because to the proverbial three guys sitting in a bar, it will always look like referee Walt Coleman blew it when he ruled Brady's arm was moving forward and in the act of passing.
8. Tony Dungy's ring. Nearly two full decades after Doug Williams became the first African American to quarterback a Super Bowl champion, Dungy wrote his own chapter in history on Feb. 4, 2007, earning the distinction of being the first black head coach to win the NFL's ultimate game. Dungy's Colts beat the Bears in Super Bowl XLI, providing him the highlight of his eventual 13-year head-coaching career. He led his teams to the playoffs in 11 of those 13 seasons, and his legacy as one of the league's most respected figures stands in stark contrast today to the length of time he waited before being granted his first head-coaching opportunity, in Tampa Bay in 1996.
9. Brett Favre retires, Take One. Our collective preoccupation with the end of Favre's playing career is a multichaptered saga that has consumed much of the second half of the decade. But if you have to pick a defining moment when it entered another realm in terms of its ability to both fascinate and continually delude us, it would be his teary-eyed retirement press conference in Green Bay on March 6, 2008. That's when Favre declared, "I know I can play, but I don't think I want to. It's been a great career for me, but it's over.'' That was two teams and many breaking news headlines ago, and Favre is still playing on, winning games and smashing records well past his 40th birthday.
10. The Tackle. Derided in past decades as a super bore, the Super Bowl has given us many unforgettable moments in the 2000s, such as Santonio Holmes' game-winning catch for Pittsburgh last February, Adam Vinatieri's clutch 48-yard field goal to win it for New England in 2002 and David Tyree's helmet catch in 2008. But though it barely slipped into this decade, making it by just 30 days, we'd be remiss not to shine a spotlight on the greatest defensive play to end a Super Bowl: Rams linebacker Mike Jones' tackle of Titans receiver Kevin Dyson on the 1-yard line, preserving St. Louis' 23-16 victory against Tennessee in Super Bowl XXIV in Atlanta. Jones' game-saving stop earned the Rams their only ring and served to kick off a glorious decade in Super Bowl drama.