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. In case you missed it, you can catch up on the first part of this investigation here.
How to Throw a Super Bowl
Hypothetically speaking, IF Bill Callahan wanted to throw the Super Bowl, how would he do it? Could a coach really impact the game that much? What would they have to do to ensure their team’s defeat?
The Game Plan
According to Tim Brown, the original game plan for the Super Bowl was to attack the Buccaneers with a power run-game:
“We get our game plan for victory on Monday, and the game plan says we’re gonna run the ball… We averaged 340 [pounds] on the offensive line, they averaged 280 [on the defensive line]. We’re all happy with that, everybody is excited. [We] tell Charlie Garner, ‘Look, you’re not gonna get too many carries, but at the end of the day we’re gonna get a victory. Tyrone Wheatley, Zack Crockett, let’s get ready to blow this thing up.’”
Then, all of a sudden, the Friday before the game, Callahan allegedly decided to make some changes, switching to a more pass-heavy offense. This is evidenced by the fact that the Raiders ran the ball just 11 times the entire game. While that could be attributed to the team being behind for most of the game, keep in mind that there were several instances in the first half where the team threw the ball on three or four consecutive plays. Both Tyrone Wheatley and Jon Ritchie went the entire game without a carry. This last-minute changing of the game plan was not well received, as Brown said,
“… less than 36 hours before the game we changed our game plan. And we go into that game absolutely knowing that we have no shot. That the only shot we had if Tampa Bay didn’t show up.”
He also claimed that this move by Callahan triggered center Barret Robbins, and may have contributed to him going AWOL. Remember, being the center, Robbins has to make line-calls, so he went from preparing for mostly run-blocking schemes, he now had about 36 hours to get ready to call out pass-protections. This is a tall order, and potentially a trigger for someone like Robbins, who was known to be unstable. Brown gave some insight on how Robbins reacted to the change,
“Barret Robbins begged Coach Callahan, ‘Do not do this to me. I don’t have time to make my calls, to get my calls ready. You can’t do this to me on Friday. We haven’t practiced full speed, we can’t get this done.”
Brown went on to clarify that he did not know for sure if this change directly caused Robbins to go wandering off in Tijuana, Mexico that night.
Also, in regards to the game plan, it was not all that shocking that Callahan ultimately opted for a pass-happy offense. That was largely how the Raiders got to the Super Bowl in the first place. That year, Callahan’s offense led the league in passing yards, completions, and completion percentage. The way Callahan seemed to go back and forth on what his offensive scheme should look like during Super Bowl week is what was most peculiar. However, one could argue that was not the most egregious error Callahan made that week.
While changing the game plan that close to kickoff almost certainly hurt the offense. it does not explain why the Tampa Bay defense seemed to constantly know where Rich Gannon wanted to go with the ball before it was even snapped. Per the New York Post, a couple members of the Raiders offense mentioned that the Tampa Bay defense recognized some of the audibles and verbiage. Adam Treu, who replaced Barret Robbins at center mentioned the audibles:
“They knew what was coming… I know a couple plays in the first half we had audiblized and they knew what it was. Obviously [Jon] Gruden spent time with that defense.”
Quarterback Rich Gannon echoed this sentiment, explaining how Gruden used his prior knowledge of the language of the Raiders offense to Tampa Bay’s advantage,
“There’s a lot of familiarity with what we do. I mean their head coach runs the same exact offense – same verbiage, the same terminology.”
This might be the most damning evidence that Callahan had this team doomed before the ball was even snapped. Obviously, it begs the question, why didn’t Callahan change some of the terminology before going against the coach that installed it? Was it hubris? A lack of common sense? Or, something more nefarious?
Others That Back Support Brown’s Claims
Rice, who spent the twilight years of his career with the Raiders, including the 2002-03 season, was one of the first people to back up Brown, and even went on to theorize why Callahan threw the Super Bowl. After Brown’s comments started going around, Rice went on ESPN’s NFL Live and said the following:
“I was very surprised that he waited ’til the last second, and I think a lot of the players they were surprised also, so in a way maybe because he didn’t like the Raiders he decided, ‘Hey look, maybe we should sabotage just a little bit and let Jon Gruden go out and win this one,'”
This was a shocking statement from one of the greatest player’s in NFL history. Rice had been to, and won, three Super Bowls in San Francisco prior to joining the Raiders, so he would be someone who would know if something was seriously off about Callahan’s Super Bowl prep.
Ritchie was a fullback for the Raiders for five seasons, Super Bowl 37 was his last game with the Raiders. He told ESPN’s Chris Mortensen something similar to what Brown and Rice said, but with a twist:
“I’ve said it for years. What we practiced heavily during the week is not what we ran in that game. Could have been due to Barrett’s absence. It was never explained to me. I believe I said it on the record every year we talked about the Super Bowl (when he was with ESPN for four years). I always thought it would get sensational like this,”
This is really interesting because it contradicts what Brown said about Robbins leaving because of the changes Callahan made. This chicken-egg type situation could be the crux of this whole Bill Callahan conspiracy. If the changes were due to Robbins’ absence, it is then hard to call it sabotage. Who better to get to the bottom of things than the former Pro Bowl center himself?
Barret Robbins’ Recollection of Events
After the Brown interview, Robbins went on a radio show and told what he remembers of that Super Bowl and Brown’s accusations. Due to his struggles with bipolar disorder and substance abuse, his memory is a bit hazy:
“I would be absolutely wrong to tell you that that was the case… If Tim Brown goes on record and says that he changed the game plan on Friday, I don’t remember. Because you’ve got to understand, I was going through a manic episode that had lasted more than two weeks. At that point in time, when we went to the Super Bowl, I was having to shoot my foot up, I was having acupuncture, going through a lot of pain. It was a lot of stress. Pain is a big trigger when it comes to bipolar (disorder) — that was something I was going through, as well as self-medicating… I’m not going to say that I remember the exact meeting that took place, but I haven’t heard anybody deny it,”
I think there are two things to take away from Robbins’ words. First, he may have run off regardless of the change of game plan, which is something he had a history of doing before. That being said, I do not think that exonerates Callahan because he could have still been trying to sabotage the team without necessarily trying to trigger Robbins. The second thing is the timing of Callahan’s changes. Robbin’s comments do not give us any clarity as to whether the changes happened Friday or Saturday. It is unfortunate that Robbins has been unable to recollect more of what happened that weekend.
Callahan’s Denial And His Defenders
When we are looking at serious accusations like the ones Brown is making about Callahan, it is important to hear for the accused. Not surprisingly, he has fiercely denied those accusations:
“While I fully understand a competitive professional football player’s disappointment when a game’s outcome doesn’t go his team’s way, I am shocked, saddened and outraged by Tim Brown’s allegations and Jerry Rice’s support of those allegations made through various media outlets over the last 24 hours… To leave no doubt, I categorically and unequivocally deny the sum and substance of their allegations.”
This does not really tell us much. Of course, he is going to deny throwing a Super Bowl. That is not something to be proud of. Also, I think it is worth noting that Callahan did not address any of the specific claims made by Brown. While doing research for this article, I found nothing of Callahan addressing the changing of the game plan at the end of the week, or his failure to change the offensive terminology.
So, while Gannon was quoted earlier in a way that was critical of Callahan, most of his comments on the subject were in defense of his former coach. He spoke about it on a radio in a radio interview back in 2013. The first comment I want to look at was his thoughts on Brown’s insinuation that Callahan had a motive to throw the game:
“In terms of Bill Callahan, let me just say this: He was a good football coach, he was a good man… We all wanted to win.”
This is important because it shows that not every member of the team believed Brown’s and Rice’s assertions that he had a motive for sabotage. The emotive aspect of this conspiracy was always next to impossible to prove, and Gannon’s comments here are a great example of why. The next thing that Gannon addressed was the game plan, he mentioned two things:
“I think what happened was that we came out and tried to run the football early in that game, we didn’t have a lot of success… We fell behind in the game and at that point we started throwing the ball too much.”
“I don’t know that the game plan really changed,”
I touched on this idea earlier, but with Gannon’s comments, I wanted to look a little further into it, specifically that they still maintained the run-first game plan going in but had to change course when they fell behind. Looking at the Raiders’ first offensive drive, they started out with three passes, followed by runs by Garner and Gannon, finishing with a Gannon sack leading to a field goal. The Raiders actually had a total of six drives in the first half BEFORE they got down by two scores. In those six drives, the Raiders ran just six run-plays as opposed to 15 pass-plays. One could point to the team only gaining 11 yards on those six runs as to why they abandoned the run, even so, that ratio shows, at best, a half-hearted attempt to run the football. So, either Callahan decided before the game to come out throwing, or he intended to pound the rock and abandoned that philosophy wildly early. Gannon’s argument here seems pretty weak. In this last quote, he does not even try to defend Callahan:
“So much of our verbiage and terminology was a carryover from what Jon Gruden had installed in terms of our run checks, and so we were calling certain plays and guys like Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks were calling out the runs… So it kind of took us out of our no-huddle plan at the line of scrimmage.”
Again, this is the part that makes no sense. Why did Callahan think that he could get away with not changing the terminology? All of Gannon’s comments suggest that while he believes Callahan made some mistakes, he was still coaching to win. That last mistake just feels like almost an unbelievable level of ineptitude.
Sabotage? Or Just Incompetence?
This whole conspiracy, in my opinion, boils down to a key question: Is Bill Callahan a competent head coach? If he is incompetent, it would explain the terminology and game planning gaffes, and it would mean that he probably would not be capable of such sabotage. However, if we decide that he is a competent head coach, it makes his actions before and during the Super Bowl that much more inexplicable, and sabotage becomes a more reasonable explanation. So in order to judge Callahan’s ability as a head coach, we have three samples to look at: his two years in Oakland, his four year Run at Nebraska, and his stint in 2019 as interim head coach with the Redskins.
Ironically, the best sign of Callahan’s competence as a coach is his two-year stint as the head coach of the Raiders. In his first year, he took the Raiders to their first Super Bowl in 20 years. One could argue that he did it with Gruden’s players and Gruden’s offense, but Callahan was the coach to actually get the team there. The next season, the team completely imploded, but a lot of that could be blamed on losing Gannon for most of the season, along with backup Marques Tuiasosopo, leaving Rick Mier to start almost half of the season. However, this does not excuse Callahan from allegedly losing the locker room that season. Ultimately, I think Callahan’s brief tenure in Oakland could have been worse, but there are certainly some red flags.
Callahan’s time in Nebraska needs to be looked at with some context. Remember, as I mentioned earlier, Nebraska was an absolute powerhouse program before Callahan arrived. So, when you look at Callahan’s record at Nebraska, keep in mind that this was a program accustomed to being in contention for National Championship on an annual basis:
2005: 8-4, won Alamo Bowl, ranked #24
2006: 9-5, lost Big 12 title game, lost Cotton Bowl
While your average program would probably find these results acceptable, one ranked team in four seasons is inexcusable when you are recruiting with Nebraska’s reputation and resources. Nebraska has not had a top 10 program since before the Callahan era. I think it says a lot about how the football world feels about Callahan’s head coaching ability that he did not get another head coaching job until this past season, and even that was only an interim gig.
Five weeks into this past season, the Redskins fired Jay Gruden and named Callahan the interim head coach. Callahan took over an 0-5 team and went 3-8 the rest of the way. In the 11 games that Callahan coached, the team had a point differential of -91. I think we can safely assume that he will never be asked to be a head coach ever again.
Did Bill Callahan really throw the Super Bowl? Maybe, only he knows for sure. If he didn’t do it, then he is incompetent, and there is decent evidence to suggest that. However, IF you did want to sabotage a team’s chances of winning a game, a good way to do it would be to do the following:
- Use the opposing coaches offensive verbiage (that he taught to his defense) in your offense
- Change the game plan at the last minute to one that your team did not practice
- Abandon a power-run game when you have a massive size advantage on the line of scrimmage
- Make your mentally unstable center have to change his line calls at the last second
Basically, we can’t prove that he did it, but if he did, he executed his plan perfectly.
You May Also Like: Mount Rushmore of Raiders Offensive Linemen
*Top photo: David J. Phillie/Associated Press