When teams don't show up

This year's Super Bowl blowout raises the perennially mysterious question: What makes a team go flat?

Published January 31, 2003 8:15PM (EST)

Just out of curiosity, I leafed through my stack of pre-Super Bowl prognostications, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Times, the San Diego Tribune, the Chicago Sun Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, Sports Illustrated, the Sporting News, and ESPN.com. I also threw in my own for good measure. (I picked the Raiders to win "one of the most evenly played Super Bowls in the game's history.") About one-third of the writers picked Tampa Bay to win by anywhere from one to four points. Nowhere did I find anything even remotely resembling what happened on the field last Sunday.

The biggest upset in Super Bowl history was probably not the 1969 Jets-Colts game. That happened in the Stone Age, before analysts really had any yardsticks of comparison to work with. (There were no other AFL vs. NFL games to judge by.) The biggest upset was probably last year's New England-St. Louis game, which may also have been the best championship game in pro football history. But there was a huge difference between that game and what we saw last week. Last year, the Rams so outgained the Pats from scrimmage that if one or two plays or calls had gone the other way, the Rams would not only have won, they would have won by at least 10 points. If perhaps three had gone the other way, the Rams would have won in a blowout. Reverse three, reverse four, reverse five calls in last week's game, and you wouldn't have put a dent in the outcome.

With the possible exception of the 1984 Raiders-Redskins match, no Super Bowl blowout was played between two teams that were so evenly matched. Both teams had the same record, two impressive playoff victories, and several Pro Bowl players on offense and defense.

Everyone knew that the Joe Montana-led 49ers were going to swamp the Denver Broncos in 1990. Everybody pretty much agreed that the Chicago Bears were going to beat the living hell out of the New England Patriots in 1986. In '93 and '94 everyone thought that the Buffalo Bills would find some way to get creamed by the Dallas Cowboys. But this year's game was supposed to be something altogether different.

John Madden took some flak from listeners, particularly from Raiders fans, for his harsh comments about the Raiders' seeming lack of interest in the game. Was he simply being overly critical because the Raiders were his old team? I don't think so. The Raiders came out of the tunnel crawling; they looked as if they had been collectively punched in the head before the game and never got their heads cleared. What does this to a team?

We have a fairly good idea of how winning teams psyche themselves up, but we never hear enough from the losing side to understand why teams that are flat as a pancake start that way and stay that way. Oakland receiver Jerry Porter's comments about "Not being impressed" with the Tampa Bay secondary might provide a clue in this case. It may seem kind of ridiculous for Porter to single out for criticism a group that picked off a Super Bowl-record five passes, returning an incredible three for touchdowns. (Before this game, only six interceptions had been returned for touchdowns in the entire history of the Super Bowl.) Still, Porter may have had a point: All the balls on those interceptions were poorly thrown, and all were caught by defensive backs cutting in front of receivers who had stopped dead and were waiting for the ball. None was thrown particularly far downfield.

In fact -- and this is exactly the kind of oddball stat you don't notice immediately after a game but by chance when sifting through the rubble in retrospect -- the Raiders threw just two passes longer than 35 yards all afternoon and both were completed, to wide-open receivers, for touchdowns (39 yards to Porter, 48 yards to Jerry Rice). Clearly the Tampa Bay secondary was the weakest tier of its defense, and just as clearly the Raiders were having no success throwing short slants and sideline passes. Yet they didn't attempt to deviate from their game plan until there were just about three minutes left in the third quarter with the score 34-3 against them. Why? Who can say? One team was mentally right, the other wasn't.

I have no trouble believing that Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden knew pretty much what plays the Raiders were going to run before they ran them. I do have trouble with the idea that somehow Gruden "got inside the head" of Rich Gannon and Raiders coach Bill Callahan. That's voodoo analysis that really doesn't explain anything. What was odd about the Raiders' performance on offense was how they did not play like the Raiders, meaning they did not mix up the short passes with long ones to try to stretch the Tampa Bay defense out. Until it was too late, they never tried to attack the Bucs at what was thought to be their most vulnerable point: downfield coverage.

And it wasn't just on the offensive side of the ball that the Raiders were stoopid. Far from it. Late in the second quarter, with the score still 13-3 and a chance to get back in the game if they could get the ball before halftime, the Raiders committed a ridiculous total of three defensive penalties, including one on a third down that saved the Bucs from having to punt. The three penalties helped the Bucs to march downfield and score a cheap touchdown to make the score 20-3 at the half.

For sheer embarrassment, one Raider play stands out best in my mind, which is saying something since there were so many to choose from. Remember when the Raiders blocked a punt late in the third quarter to make it 34-15? There was still plenty of time for some kind of comeback. You'd expect that this is where the Oakland defense would have asserted itself, where the Raiders defensive brain trust would have called for an all-out blitz or at least for the cornerbacks to jam the Tampa Bay receivers at the line of scrimmage while the down lineman and linebackers tried to stuff them up the middle. So what happened? The Bucs lost a yard on first down, and on second down Brad Johnson did a simple rollout to his right and lobbed a short pass to Keyshawn Johnson, the Bucs' primary receiver, who didn't stop running until he was knocked out of bounds at the 43 for a 20-yard gain. There wasn't a Raiders defensive back close enough to Johnson to identify him in a police lineup. John Madden, watching the replay in stupefaction, observed, "No one covered him. There wasn't anyone covering Keyshawn Johnson. How can you not have somebody covering him?" How not, indeed?

"Got inside their heads?" That means you practically know in advance what the other team is going to do. However, except for faking the end around and handing off up the middle about five or six times, most of Tampa Bay's offense could have been looked up in the Yellow pages. Repeatedly on third and short Brad Johnson simply took a three-step drop and lobbed a duck to a wide-open receiver who was cutting across the field under the coverage. Everyone watching on TV knew it was going to happen; why didn't anyone connected with the Raiders' defense?

Here's another one that puzzled me: Five times Brad Johnson rolled out to his right and flicked the ball to fullback Mike Alstott for a total of 43 yards. Johnson and Alstott are the only two players in the game that I am faster than. Yet, each time Johnson rolled to his right, thus limiting his possible receivers to someone who was directly in the flat ahead of him -- I mean, who else can you throw to when you're rolling to your right, unless you're Brett Favre or John Elway? -- he completed his pass. Not once in those five plays was there a Raider anywhere near Alstott until after he caught the ball. Five straight times an Oakland linebacker dropped off coverage to go after Johnson, leaving Alstott wide open. This makes the kind of plays we ran as kids in touch football seem sophisticated, but apparently no one on the Raiders had ever played touch football.

I rank Tampa Bay's defensive performance in this Super Bowl higher than the Chicago Bears in '86 or the Baltimore Ravens in '01 because they were playing against a better offense than either of those teams. But nothing that the Bucs did in the course of the game can account for the stupor with which the Raiders came into the game.

Tampa Bay was great, but their offense was often sluggish -- Brad Johnson, despite the post-game plaudits, played poorly enough to lose just about any Super Bowl. He completed just three of his first 19 passes for 37 yards and one interception, and he was only six of 19 midway through the second quarter before the Bucs defense took over. Despite appearances, the Bucs actually ran the ball quite poorly, getting just 3.6 yards per carry, which is below their seasonal average. They missed a field goal on a fumbled snap and had a punt blocked, and their downfield pass coverage, when tested, was terrible.

It hardly mattered, because when it mattered, one team came to play and the other team didn't.

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A point after

I want to check in on this beer commercial, the one where the two Penthouse Pet types are tearing each other's clothes off in the water fountain. Sure it's stupid, but boys will be boys, and boys like what boys like. That's not what is truly offensive about the commercial. The truly offensive part is the sop thrown to women at the end after one of the guys says "Now who wouldn't want to watch that commercial?" and their dates stare at them in blank-faced horror. That's supposed to appease the women viewers by winking at them and saying "You and I, we really know how dumb this commercial is." If the gimmick has worked on any woman so far, I haven't met her.

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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