Raiders Vault: Bill Callahan Super Bowl Conspiracy Part I

Would an NFL coach really be willing to throw a Super Bowl? If so, how? A look back at the Raiders blowout loss in Super Bowl XXXVII attempts to answer these questions. Stay tuned for the second part of this special investigation.

What Happened?

January 2002

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had just suffered yet another playoff loss under then-head coach Tony Dungy. After six years of being good, but not great, the team decided to move on. Meanwhile, the Raiders were also coming off yet another disappointing playoff loss in the infamous Tuck Rule Game. Contract re-negotiations between head coach Jon Gruden and late Raiders owner Al Davis had not been going well. The following month, Davis traded Gruden to the Bucs for a king’s ransom: Two first-round draft picks, two-second rounders, and $8 million. Also, the trade had come with an important stipulation: Gruden could not take anyone from his coaching staff in Oakland with him to Tampa Bay. Following the trade, the Raiders promoted offensive coordinator, Bill Callahan, to head coach.

February 2003

A year later, Callahan’s Raiders, as well as Gruden’s Bucs, reached the Super Bowl. Gruden is set to take on the team he had just spent the last four years building. As we now know, this game would not go well for the Silver and Black. Things had gone south even before the game began, with center Barret Robbins running off the Friday night before the game (more on that later). Once the game kicked off, things did not get any better. Tampa Bay’s defense seemed to know what was coming all game, and the Raiders were beaten handily. After the game, people were just left wondering what happened. The Raiders were a slight favorite heading into the game in large part because they had a loaded offense. Quarterback Rich Gannon was the league MVP that year, and he was throwing to two Hall of Fame wide receivers in Tim Brown and Jerry Rice. It was stunning when Gannon threw five interceptions while Brown and Rice combined for just six catches for 86 yards. Many people just attributed it to Gruden having his defense well prepared to face an offense that he was very familiar with. But why was his preparation so effective? Surely Bill Callahan was aware that his former boss had a deep knowledge of the offense. Couldn’t he have done more to mitigate Gruden’s strategic advantage?

Related: Top Overlooked Raiders Players: RB Hewritt Dixon

2013

Ten years after the fact, Tim Brown gave his thoughts, floating the word ‘sabotage’. These comments sparked a ton of debate, with other members of that 2003 team both agreeing and disagreeing with what he said. I think that Brown’s comments helped strengthen a sentiment that many Raiders fans held that something was just not right with that Super Bowl.

Motives

So, if we are going to accuse Callahan with essentially committing Raider’s treason, we have to build a strong case. The first part of building that case is finding a clear motive. This is tricky because the motive to throw the Super Bowl has to be so strong that it outweighs all of the huge motivations for actually trying to win the championship. Let’s go through the various motivations and see how they hold up.

Loyalty to Gruden

Callahan got his start in the NFL in 1995 as the offensive line coach for the Philadelphia Eagles. That same year, the Eagles hired Jon Gruden to be the offensive coordinator. The two were there for three seasons. When Gruden went to Oakland to be the head coach of the Raiders, he brought Callahan with him to be his offensive coordinator. Callahan likely would have followed Gruden to Tampa Bay if the trade would have allowed it. In 2015, he joined Jon Gruden’s brother Jay’s staff in Washington. In 2017, Jay promoted Callahan to assistant head coach on top of being the offensive line coach. Clearly, Callahan has deep ties to the Grudens. But, would that really be enough to get him to throw a Super Bowl?

Unhappy in Oakland

According to this quote from Tim Brown, Callahan did not want to be with the Raiders:

“…And Callahan had a big problem with the Raiders, you know, hated the Raiders. You know, only came because Gruden made him come. Literally walked off the field on us a couple of times during the season when he first got there, the first couple years.”

If this is true, and Callahan really did not want to be in Oakland, then maybe he wanted to get fired. His reserved personality certainly never seemed like one that would have meshed well with the brashness of Al Davis. Another example of Callahan not looking like he wanted to be with the Raiders came in a press conference during the season following the Super Bowl where the Raiders went 4-12. It was then that the coach made his infamous “dumbest team in America” remark.

We cannot know for sure what Callahan’s intent was here, but if a coach wanted to alienate his team, anger the front office, and potentially get himself fired, that would be a good way to do it. This quote was made with six games left to play in the 2003 regular season. After that, it was clear that the season was over and that Callahan’s time in Oakland was likely running out. The team only won one more game that season, and Callahan was fired just days after the team’s final game. However, it did not take Callahan long to find another job…

In Search for Greener Pastures

In just about 10 days after being let go by the Raiders, Callahan became the head coach at the University of Nebraska. That is a blisteringly fast turn of events. Typically, when a coaching hire happens that fast, it is safe to assume that both parties had been talking longer than the public timeline would have us believe. The way Mark Davis brought Jon Gruden back to the Raiders is a good example of this sort of thing. Remember, Nebraska fired Frank Solik back in November 2003, so the program had already been searching for a head coach for a month before Callahan was technically available. Is it possible Callahan was secretly in talks with the Cornhuskers while still under contract with the Raiders? We will never know for sure.

If Callahan was eager to get to Nebraska, it is easy to see why. He got a significant raise by moving to college. In his last year with the Raiders, Callahan made just $1 million, making him one of the league’s lowest-paid head coaches. His six-year deal with the Huskers was worth $1.5 million annually. If the 50 percent pay increase was not enough to make him want to jump ship, the job security was. Prior to Callahan’s arrival, Nebraska’s football program was a juggernaut. From 1994-2003 Nebraska football:

  • Won three National Championships
  • Won four Big 8/Big 12 titles
  • Had double-digit wins in eight out of 10 seasons (worst record was 7-7 in 2002)

In terms of being able to have immediate success, Nebraska was about as good of a situation as it gets, especially with a long term deal. Had Callahan been able/willing to stay in Oakland, he would have had to navigate a much more unstable situation. Contract-wise, Callahan and the Raiders would have likely operated on a year to year basis for at least the next two seasons. Also, this was at a point where it was clear the Raiders were a team that was aging and needed to rebuild, something that Al Davis never had the patience for. One has to wonder if Callahan knew back in 2003, or earlier, that he might not be in the most secure situation. Could he have been planning to be done with Raiders after two years since the day he was promoted? If so, it makes more sense why he would not be that worried about throwing away a chance at a Super Bowl ring in the name of helping out an old friend.

Stay tuned for the second part of this post Raider Nation!

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*Top photo: Bob Donnan

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