TAMPA, Fla. — The catch that wasn’t. It became part of Burt Emanuel’s legacy.
It was a play he thought was going to be part of a game-winning drive sending the Buccaneers to the Super Bowl but instead became so infamous that it led to a rule clarification by the NFL.
“We had the momentum. We had the confidence. And it just felt like the whole game was shifting in our favor,” Emanuel told ABC Action News from his home in Houston, Texas.
The 1999 NFC Championship game was a defensive struggle between the Buccaneers and the St. Louis Rams. But in the final minute Tampa Bay, trailing 11-6, seemed to have found a rhythm.
Emanuel’s catch of Shaun King’s pass would have put the Bucs at the Rams 23-yard line with time to take shots at the end zone.
“Shaun just threw a dart. I mean that ball got on me quick," Emanuel said. "I didn’t even get a chance to gather my feet underneath me. And so I felt like I just needed to dive out and secure the ball with my chest.”
The play was ruled a catch on the field. The Bucs then called a timeout and Head Coach Tony Dungy talked with Emanuel about what they would do next.
“I said, 'I think I could beat him on a seem route. Then give me on a corner route in the back of the end zone, corner of the end zone. Then we will celebrate that we were going to the Super Bowl,'” Emanuel recalled.
But then a referee came to the sideline and told the Bucs the play was under review. The 1999 season was the first the NFL had returned to using instant replay since 1992.
“We all kind of paused like, 'What do you mean review the last play? I mean what are we reviewing?'” Emanuel said, describing the confusion on the sideline.
The review found that while Emanuel had control of the ball, it touched the ground. At the time, under the rules for what was and wasn't a catch, Emanuel's catch was technically an incomplete pass. Two plays later the game was over and the Rams were headed to the Super Bowl.
In the off-season after the non-catch catch, the NFL clarified the rule so any play like the one Emanuel was involved with would be ruled a catch. It became known as the "Bert Emanuel Rule."
But the definition of what is and isn’t a catch has continued to be an issue in the two decades that followed.
“The explanation or the interpretation of the rule has just been all over the place," Emanuel said.
Just ask Dez Bryant and the Dallas Cowboys what is and isn't a catch. They had a similar situation happen to them in 2014 where a catch went to replay, became a non-catch, and generated years of controversy.
For years, Emanuel struggled with the memory of that play and what might have happened if the catch was ruled a catch.
“We were marching down the field and there was nothing that they could do to stop us," Emanuel said.