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Bill Callahan: Saboteur Of A Super Bowl?

In an offseason that has already become very hectic and quite remarkable for the Dallas Cowboys, things have taken a turn towards the surreal with statements by former Oakland Raiders receivers Tim Brown and Jerry Rice accusing offensive line coach and play-calling heir apparent Bill Callahan of deliberately undercutting his own team in Super Bowl XXXVII.

Robin Marchant

It almost sounds like the plot for a bad movie about ridiculous conspiracy theories, but Tim Brown and Jerry Rice, who both played under Bill Callahan when he was the head coach of the Oakland Raiders, have now come out and claimed that Callahan deliberately sabotaged his own team prior to playing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVII.

The claim Brown initially made is basically this: After preparing to go into the game with Tampa Bay, coached by the former head coach of the Raiders, Jon Gruden, who was traded away by Al Davis (yes, he did trade a head coach), Callahan completely changed the game plan on the Friday just before the game from a run-focused attack to an almost totally pass-oriented approach. This not only caused the Raiders to get beaten 48-21, but drove starting center Barrett Robbins, who was bipolar, over the edge, causing him to wander aimlessly around Tijuana and miss the game.

After Brown came out with that rather breathtaking accusation, Jerry Rice chimed in and basically agreed with the whole premise.

As it turns out, the story is not a new one for Brown. For a long time, it has been felt by many that part of the problem for the Raiders was that they were using the same playbook they had used when Gruden was still with the team, which basically made them an open book for the Tampa Bay defense. Brown has been one of the players from that Raiders team, along with Jon Ritchie and Zack Crockett, who have long blamed Callahan for the loss. But Brown has upped the ante with his claim that basically states Callahan was trying to lose the game out of some inner hatred for his own organization. The main thing this more sinister claim is based on is that there is no possible reason for throwing out a game plan two days before a game and trying something different.

This, of course, has now sucked the Dallas Cowboys, no stranger to odd claims and outrageous pronouncements themselves, right into the middle of the controversy, since Bill Callahan is widely assumed to be taking up the play sheet that Jason Garrett is no longer going to be holding on the sidelines.

It is almost to be expected. It seems that the Dallas Cowboys can't do anything without controversy. The more bizarre the better.

Of course, this probably has less to do with Callahan likely getting a promotion than it does with the tenth anniversary of the loss by the Raiders in the all-pirate Super Bowl. And the fact that Tim Brown is eligible for the Hall of Fame, but does not have a Super Bowl ring to increase his chances.

It also is hardly a universal view. The quarterback of the team, Rich Gannon, doesn't buy it. Nor does Bill Romanowski. And, as luck would have it, I caught a few minutes of an interview on ESPN Radio with Rod Woodson, another Raiders teammate that year. Woodson did not buy the argument at all. He said there was no problem with the team or in the locker room, and brings up the idea, also mentioned by others, that Brown may have the cart before the horse with Robbins. Although things get a little fuzzy over the years, some recall that the issue with the center came up first, and Callahan then had to go with a different approach because the long snapper now had to handle the job for the entire game. The pass blocking assignments were seen as something he could handle, but there was not as much confidence in him handling the running assignment, or perhaps he just did not have the athletic ability to handle the running game. Either way, the team had to go with a simplified plan because of Robbins, and his issues that weekend were not caused by Callahan's evil master plan.

It seems absurd that an NFL coach would deliberately throw a game and thereby risk his entire career. And the truth is that Callahan had four consecutive years in Oakland when his offense was very good. It was only in the first year and last year with the team that he had issues. The first year is understandable, since he is hardly the first coach who had to get his system in place and coach the players up on how to run it. The last, again according to the interview I heard with Woodson, was largely because of a belief with the Raiders that the rest of the league had figured out the West Coast passing attack and the team had to go more to a vertical game. That transition did not go well, and Callahan's tenure as head coach came to a rapid end.

This brings up something largely ignored in the accusations, and that is the Al Davis factor. Davis was known for his direct input to the play calling, and it is hard to completely discount the possibility that the change in the final year and perhaps even the Super Bowl game plan came from Davis himself. Of course, the implication in what Brown and Rice said is that it was Callahan's hatred of the Raiders organization, which would to a large degree mean animosity towards Davis himself, that led to the alleged throwing of the game.

And in the end, that is hard to fathom. To become a head coach in the NFL is the pinnacle of the profession for someone who chooses that career. To beat the man you used to work for is a singular mark of distinction among the few who get to that level. For a man with the drive and ambition to reach such a point to just throw it all over out of pique with the team that he works for implies a level of dysfunction that would surely make it highly unlikely he could continue in his field. Yet Callahan came back and has now gotten himself in position to possibly get another shot at the top job with some team in the not too distant future.

I cannot understand what led to this belief, which does seem to be sincerely held by Brown and Rice, but it is a belief that does exhibit a certain amount of evolution over the years. At least, no previous statements about the role Callahan played in the loss to Gruden implied outright sabotage. But now that is the way some former players remember it. Time does alter our perception of events, and perhaps ten years of simmering anger over an embarrassing loss has hardened and warped memories.

Statements like this would not be expected to go unanswered, and Callahan released his reply late Tuesday.

"There are many people who are disappointed by the outcome of Super Bowl XXXVII, but none more than me. 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. To leave no doubt. I categorically and unequivocally deny the sum and substance of their allegations. Like every game I ever coached on the professional or collegiate level, I endeavor to the best of my professional ability to position my team to win. To suggest otherwise, especially at this time when it involves the Super Bowl, is ludicrous and defamatory. I have always honored the spirit of competition that drives us to sport as children and, for the lucky few, sustains us in adulthood. Any suggestion that I would undermine the integrity of the sport that I love and dedicated to my life to, or dishonor the commitment I made to our players, coaches and fans, is flat out wrong. I think it would be in the best interests of all including the game America loves that these allegations be retracted immediately. I want to extend my personal and my family's deep appreciation to the coaches, players and fans who have come forward and thoughtfully spoken out against these ill-conceived allegations."

Did Callahan do a bad job coaching his team in the Super Bowl? Almost certainly. Was that typical of his coaching ability, at least at the professional level? Not really. Did he commit outright sabotage?

I can't say that with any personal knowledge or certainty. However, everything I know, based upon my admittedly limited knowledge, but also on a long time reading omnivorously about football and everyone associated with the Dallas Cowboys, says: Hell, no.


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