Raiders legendary Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Brown dies at age 78


Raiders legendary Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Brown dies at age 78

Legendary Raiders cornerback Willie Brown has died, the Raiders confirmed on Tuesday. He was 78 years old.

“Willie Brown will forever be cherished as a true Raider," the Raiders said in a statement. "He exemplified the Raider spirit, originally entering the AFL as an undrafted free agent out of Grambling State before joining the Silver and Black in 1967. He remained an integral part of the organization through six decades. His legendary performance on the field changed the way the cornerback position was played and his valued guidance as a coach, mentor and administrator permeated the organization and touched countless individuals both on and off the field. Willie’s loss will leave a tremendous void, but his leadership and presence will always be a major part of the fabric of the Raiders Family.”

Brown’s health had declined in recent months, as he took a less active role with the team after years as a public face of the franchise. He was a mainstay in the Raiders' secondary for 12 seasons during a golden era where the Silver and Black won their first Super Bowl. He was a Raiders defensive backs coach for 10 seasons after that, and recently was an ambassador heavily involved in the community and with the team as a staff member over the last two decades.

Brown was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1984 and is a member of the All-Time AFL team and the NFL’s team of the 1970s. He played 204 games as a member of the Broncos and Raiders, recording 52 interceptions and two touchdowns.

His pick-six in Super Bowl XI against Minnesota stands as one of several iconic moments in his illustrious career.

Brown stands among the best defensive backs to ever represent the Raiders, exclusive company considering how many excellent cover men have worn silver and black. Considering his contributions to the organization over the years, he should be counted of the most prominent figures in Raiders history.

He was extremely close with owner Mark Davis and the Raiders alumni base, and his passing comes but a few months after receiver Cliff Branch died unexpectedly. That’s a real blow to the entire Raiders family, which values history and tradition and player contributions as much as any team in the NFL.

Brown was an undrafted free agent out of Grambling State, originally signed with the Houston Oilers in 1963. He was cut and landed with the the Denver Broncos, where he played from 1963-66. Late Raiders owner Al Davis acquired him in trade in 1967 in what was the best moves in franchise history. Brown played physical, bump-and-run man coverage that Davis preferred, and became a superstar defensive back that was difficult to catch passes against. Brown was a five-time All-Pro and a nine-time Pro Bowler. 

Why Barret Robbins mysteriously missed Raiders-Buccaneers Super Bowl

Why Barret Robbins mysteriously missed Raiders-Buccaneers Super Bowl

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.

Super Bowl week is unlike any other in sports. It’s five days of media sessions, interviews, announcements and, for the two teams, preparation. Finally, on Saturday, with game plans completed and kickoff one day away, there is time for everyone to exhale.

For Barret Robbins, the eve of Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego, featuring his Raiders against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was a time to get drunk.

After making 11 p.m. curfew Friday night, the Pro Bowl center climbed out of bed early Saturday and quickly began waging war within himself. He lost every battle, ultimately plummeting to such emotional depths that he was powerless to fight off his demons.

[SPORTS UNCOVERED: Listen to the latest episode]

Robbins, diagnosed with depression nearly a decade earlier while attending Texas Christian University, got up early that morning, hopped into a car of men he barely knew and left the team hotel, the La Jolla Hyatt. He missed the team breakfast. His teammates were puzzled. He also missed the team’s final afternoon walk-through session.

“We jumped on the bus and waited for a bit,” right tackle Barry Sims says on the latest episode of the Sports Uncovered Podcast: "The Mysterious Disappearance that Changed a Super Bowl."

"And couldn’t find him. And it was really surreal to be out there doing walk-throughs and, you know, missing our guy. Missing our Pro Bowl center.”

The Raiders had no idea and even wondered if Robbins had been kidnapped. Team executive Bruce Allen remembers fearing for B-Robb’s life and informing the NFL, which contacted area law enforcement agencies.

Robbins was miles away, so immersed in a spree of debauchery he barely knew his name. A mountain of a man at 6-foot-3, 325 pounds, he rolled into countless bars in and around San Diego and even as far as Tijuana, Mexico, 20 miles south. He drank away the day and continued into the night and beyond. He engaged with prostitutes. He moped. He sobbed at the thought of his wife, Marisa, and their two daughters. He talked to himself and, according to some witnesses, pondered suicide.

The more he drank, the more his spirits sank. When coach Bill Callahan made last-minute changes to the game plan, abandoning the power running game to incorporate more passing, against the wishes of Robbins and many others, B-Robb felt undermined. He thrived in the power running game, and two days before the biggest game of his life it had been ditched.

It didn’t take long for Robbins to become separated from reality and completely separated from professional obligation.

“I was aware of all that, but I wasn’t,” Robbins recalls in a 2011 interview with NBC Sports Bay Area broadcaster Greg Papa, who also was the radio voice of the Raiders. “I wasn’t able to do the right things to get ... you know ... I don’t know. I just made some bad decisions, obviously.”

Robbins concedes that he’s unable to recount where he went, when he went, or even with whom he shared company. The one detail was clear even eight years later is that he spent the day drinking.

The first member of the team’s traveling party to run into B-Robb was ex-Raider Calvin Branch, who put him in a cab back to the La Jolla Hyatt. When Robbins returned to the hotel Saturday evening – after an absence of roughly 14 hours – he was incoherent, didn’t know where he was and even mumbled something about the Raiders having already won the Super Bowl.

“He had told me he was excited about that we had won the game,” Allen recalls. “And he asked to catch a plane for the Pro Bowl (in Honolulu) the next morning.

“We left the doctor (the late team doctor Robert Albo) with him, and (Albo) was concerned. And the doc was right, because Barret later told me everything he had drank and done. And I was like, ‘Oh my goodness.’”

Albo quickly realized Robbins was intoxicated but didn’t know to what extent – or whether it was simply alcohol or a combination of drugs and alcohol. Head coach Bill Callahan was moved to downgrade Robbins’ game status from “questionable” to “out.” After examining Robbins that night and into the morning, Albo checked the big man into a hospital for observation.

Robbins spent Super Bowl Sunday at an undisclosed hospital. The Raiders lost the game, 48-21, and his teammates were annoyed and concerned. Some, feeling betrayed by their best lineman and the man who called out offensive assignments, were furious.

Sad as it was, Robbins was undone by mental illness, alcohol and his impaired physical condition – all of which were enhanced by the stress of the Super Bowl. A hospital bed, being monitored, was the best place for him.

The only place for him.

Patrick Mahomes' contract puts pressure on Raiders for perfect rebuild

Patrick Mahomes' contract puts pressure on Raiders for perfect rebuild

When Jon Gruden arrived back in Oakland armed with a 10-year contract for his second tenure as Raiders head coach, he knew the Kansas City Chiefs were setting the pace in the AFC West and that the Raiders had to be rebuilt from the foundation up in order to catch them.

Two years later, Patrick Mahomes has won an MVP and a Super Bowl title, becoming the face of the league in less than 24 months. During that time, Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock have stripped the roster down and started a careful rebuild by drafting prospects from championship programs, with an emphasis on closing the gap between them and their division rivals.

Some might get impatient when seeing a five-game gap between the two teams last season. With last year's 40-9 embarrassment at Arrowhead Stadium still lingering in the back of the mind, it's easy to push for more drastic moves that could help close the gap on Mahomes and the Chiefs sooner. But Mahomes isn't going anywhere, not for a long time, and that means the Raiders must avoid the usual rebuilding pitfalls as they construct Gruden and Mayock's vision.

On Monday, the Chiefs and Mahomes agreed to a 10-year contract extension that will make the star quarterback the richest player in the NFL at $450 million, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

With Mahomes set to be the king of the AFC West for the next 11 to 12 years, it's more imperative now than ever before that the Raiders stay the course of their rebuild and not go off-book, jeopardizing what is a successful foundation with risky moves meant to make up ground fast.

That means no Antonio Brown-style trades that send out draft capital for the promise of someone missing a few nuts and bolts walking the straight and narrow. The Raiders did the right thing by not chasing after Tom Brady, dolling out a giant contract to make a splash acquisition. They will have to do the same thing if Aaron Rodgers becomes available next offseason.

[RAIDERS TALK: Listen to the latest episode]

The Gruden-Mayock method to this point has been sound. They nailed a 2019 draft class that saw them select a feature running back, an up-and-coming slot receiver, a cornerback with lockdown potential and two edge rushers who will be long-term staples. That 2019 class has a dynastic vision for the future of the Silver and Black. They know they are the foundation and the key to a successful rebuild.

Gruden and Mayock then went to free agency this spring and spent heavily on defense, spreading out the money to address several problem areas that plagued a team with the 31st ranked defense by DVOA in 2019. In the 2020 NFL Draft, they went back to the blue-chip program well and added Alabama receiver Henry Ruggs, Ohio State cornerback Damon Arnette and South Carolina wide receiver Bryan Edwards, among others.

Stacking talented draft classes on top of one another is imperative when undergoing a full tear down and rebuild. One miss can set a franchise back half a decade.

But the Raiders have been lucky in that most of those catastrophic misses come when rebuilding teams either reach for or pass on a quarterback. The Raiders have not had to play quarterback roulette in the draft. Not yet. Having Derek Carr has allowed Gruden and Mayock to focus on building up the rest of the Raiders' roster without having to gamble a top pick on a quarterback like Daniel Jones or Jordan Love. They've restocked the offensive arsenal, crafted one of the best offensive lines in football and started to fortify a defense was an atrocity during the past two seasons.

It's unclear if Carr is the quarterback of the future, but having him, a capable signal-caller with undeniable arm talent, has given the Raiders a luxury not normally afforded to teams ripping everything down to the studs.

Mahomes' extension and extended presence in the AFC West will make the Raiders' quest for a division title worlds more difficult. Of that, there is no doubt. But it also allows Gruden and Mayock the ability to be patient and strategic as they head into Phase 2 of the rebuild.

With the ground floor laid, the Raiders have set themselves up for future success. If all goes according to plan, their offensive arsenal is locked in for the next four to five years. Ruggs, Edwards, Josh Jacobs, Darren Waller and Hunter Renfrow, all are cemented in silver and black and four of the five are on rookie contracts. Gruden and Mayock appear to be doing the same thing in their secondary with Arnette, Trayvon Mullen, Amik Robertson and Johnathan Abram all being drafted in the last two seasons.

To catch and contend with the Chiefs, you'll need the firepower to match the Legion of Zoom and a secondary capable of beating up and running with the track team assembled by Andy Reid. Gruden has been jealous of what his friend has at his disposal in Kansas City. So he drafted a Tyreek Hill of his own in Ruggs. They found a matchup nightmare at tight end in Darren Waller, matching what the Chiefs have in Kelce.

Next, the Raiders must mold a secondary that can hold up when extreme pressure is applied by Mahomes and his horsemen, and develop a pass rush that can get in his face, pressuring him off his spot. The 49ers, while surrendering 21 points in the final six minutes to lose the Super Bowl, showed the blueprint to make Mahomes look somewhat human. You need a fierce pass rush generated by four and corners and linebackers who can cover and tackle in space. That's why the Raiders signed Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski and have invested heavily in the secondary.

The Raiders' focus is the Chiefs. Building an offense that can match them blow for blow and a defense that can step on Superman's cape every now and again.

[RELATED: Clowney-Raiders rumors more fantasy than reality right now]

The quarterback question still will remain for the Raiders. it's the most important and sexiest position in professional sports. Carr was on an island with few weapons in 2019. He still put up solid numbers, but the Raiders must see more to determine whether or not he's a franchise quarterback. Entering Year 3 in Gruden's system, the Raiders have given Carr a whole new arsenal of weapons and signed Marcus Mariota to push Carr to new heights or take the reins should Carr stumble. The 2020 season will be a prove-it year for Carr and he's set up to have a career year.

Mahomes' massive contract extension gives the Raiders time to fully determine whether or not Carr is the future under center and how best to address it if he is not. Should Carr flop in 2020, the Gruden and Mayock still have built a roster filled with budding young talent which will be ready to win once the rebuild is finished.

The Raiders slowly are building steam as they craft a roster that can compete with the reigning Super Bowl champions. But making the right moves becomes even more important for Gruden and Mayock with Mahomes set to be a Chief for the next decade.

One impulsive move to make up ground on Mahomes quickly and it all can come tumbling down. To catch the king, the Raiders now must play the long game.