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.
The Raiders were in the midst of a championship window when Jon Gruden got traded to Tampa Bay during the 2002 offseason. It was a shock to the locker room to be sure.
Gruden was beloved in the locker room, someone who cared about his players and took the Raiders from the AFC depths to the Super Bowl.
Raiders players didn’t care about future draft haul, even if it came in the massive sum of two first-round draft picks and two more in the second round. The $8 million went in owner Al Davis’ pocket, not theirs.
Losing Gruden was a real blow.
“When you lost Gruden, you lost a guy that, as a player, I would stop a bullet for,” former Raiders offensive lineman Mo Collins said in NBC Sports' latest episode of the “Sports Uncovered” documentary podcast. “I mean, that’s how much I want to play for Gruden. You knew that, when things got hot, he had your back.”
[SPORTS UNCOVERED: Listen to the latest episode]
The Raiders promoted offensive coordinator Bill Callahan to replace Gruden, and it didn’t go well despite reaching Super Bowl XXXVII. Gruden’s Buccaneers walloped the Raiders 48-21.
The Raiders never recovered from that loss. They fell on hard times during the 2003 season under Callahan, finishing with a 4-12 record that was the worst by a team that was in the Super Bowl the year before.
Callahan's fate was sealed after a Nov. 30, 2003 loss after a mistake-riddled loss to Denver when he called the Raiders the “dumbest team in America in terms of playing the game,” in an epic postgame rant.
NBC Sports Bay Area’s Greg Papa, former longtime voice of the Raiders and an Al Davis confidant, said that was the last straw.
“Al was seething,” Papa said of the longtime owner. “You don’t call his team dumb. That was it. He was done.”
Callahan was fired at season’s end, proving the selection didn’t work. It looked good at first, considering how bad the players wanted continuity.
They didn’t want a major setback to follow the Gruden trade, so team leaders Lincoln Kennedy, Tim Brown, Rich Gannon and Charlie Garner went to Davis to find a replacement on the current coaching staff.
“We said, ‘Look, we have to hire from within because we have a good thing going,’ ” Kennedy said. “Knowing this, another coach is going to bring in a different philosophy and we take two steps back. We were right on the cusp of doing something. I think he took our word for it.”
Davis apparently agreed with his players -- whether or not that talk swayed him is unknown -- promoting Callahan to head coach.
While veteran leaders wanted continuity, some didn’t like the ultimate selection. Brown remains vocal in his disappointment in the hire, saying on “Sports Uncovered” that Callahan was the worst thing that happened to the Raiders organization.
“Callahan didn’t care about us,” Brown said. “He could care less about us. It was a job for him. With Gruden there were relationships there.”
That didn’t stop the Raiders from reaching the Super Bowl in Callahan's first season as head coach. Several interviewed for NBC Sports' podcast blamed Callahan for losing the Super Bowl to Gruden’s new team, but there were ultimately several factors at play.
That included the disappearance of center Barret Robbins during Super Bowl week, which led to him not playing in the game and is the primary focus of the latest Sports Uncovered episode.
[RELATED: Party culture led to Robbins' downfall]
What happened in that Super Bowl ultimately impacted what happened with Callahan the following year.
“When we lost to [Tampa Bay in the 2002 season], it was to Jon Gruden and this West Coast offense, which [Al Davis] didn’t like," Papa said. "He loved Bill Walsh but he didn’t like the offense. He lost to Monte Kiffin and the Tampa 2 defense and he didn’t like that.
“So the next year in training camp, we completely changed the offense. And it was more of an Al Davis vertical passing, down-the-field team, but it did not suit Rich Gannon’s skills. It did not suit a 40-year old Jerry Rice and a mid-to-late 30s Tim Brown. It just didn’t fit what we had. There’s no question that Al wanted that done. But where Callahan lost everything is when he had that epic rant after one of those losses where he said, ‘we’re the dumbest team in America.’”