Editor’s note: Sports Uncovered, the newest podcast from NBC Sports, shines a fresh light on some of the most unforgettable moments in sports. The fifth episode tells the story of "The Mysterious Disappearance that Changed a Super Bowl," chronicling Barret Robbins' absence from Super Bowl XXXVII.
Al Davis hated to lose, no shock for someone synonymous with “Just win, baby.” The Raiders' longtime owner and football chief enjoyed plenty of success, building a perennial playoff contender with three Lombardi Trophies in the case.
Davis’ last chance at a fourth particularly hurt, especially after the Raiders got robbed by the Tuck Rule and lost in the AFC title game the two previous years.
A 48-21 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVII wasn’t painful just because of built-up frustration.
There were several factors at play.
The first, and most obvious: The Raiders got trounced.
The pre-game setback (and massive distraction): his Pro Bowl center Barret Robbins wasn’t available after going on a bender the two days before -- Robbins's mental health made things more complicated than it originally seemed -- in a story that broke not long before the game.
The real stinger: they lost to Jon Gruden, a head coach that Davis traded to Tampa Bay roughly a year before.
All that influenced a disastrous day at the office for Davis. It's discussed in great detail on Thursday’s episode of NBC’s “Sports Uncovered” podcast, which focuses on Robbin’s disappearance and its root causes, while looking at all reasons why the Raiders lost that Super Bowl.
[SPORTS UNCOVERED: Listen to the latest episode]
Part of that analysis was Davis’ reaction to the end result. As you'd expect, he took it to heart.
NBC Sports Bay Area’s Greg Papa called Super Bowl XXXVII on the radio and was entrenched with the Raiders leading up to the game. The former, longtime voice of the Raiders was close to Davis and knew how much this loss hurt the late Raiders owner.
“Al was a sore loser to the highest level,” Papa said. “He didn’t tolerate losing. It just wasn’t part of his mentality … He was a fierce competitor, so whenever he lost, you could see it all over his face. He was a sore loser; a pissed-off loser, but this look on his face, it was the kind of look if someone told you that you had terminal cancer, your wife or husband was going to die or had died.
“It was just the look on his face. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was the most painful expression. I honestly thought, he’ll never get over this. He’ll never -- even if they come back next year and win, he’s never going to get over this game.”
Papa knew that losing to Gruden exasperated that sentiment. Tampa Bay made an insane offer for Gruden: two first-round draft picks, two second-round picks and $8 million. For a coach. That’s insane, and Davis took an offer that would've been hard to logically refuse. The popular coach hoping for a contract extension with the Raiders was shipped across the country, only to lead his new team to victory over his old one. Locking horns and eventually losing to an ally-turned-motivated opponent was particularly difficult.
“I really believe he changed forever after that game,” Papa said. “He was never the same person. His body began to break down. … And he became maniacal, increasingly maniacal, about trying to over--, you know, to change it. To the day he died, I don’t think he ever got over that loss.”