Last call for the Raider Nation.

The stadium scene.
Jan. 27 2003 11:04 AM

Last Call for the Raider Nation

How Oakland, ABC, and the refs choked at the Super Bowl.

The defining moment of last night's Super Bowl came roughly midway through the third quarter. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had just taken a 34-3 lead over the Oakland Raiders, and the Lombardi Trophy was already halfway back to the Gulf of Mexico. Early in ABC's telecast, there had been loads of shots of those wacky fans, known collectively by the tired nickname Raider Nation, dressed to the nines and hyped all week as the 12th Man that would propel Oakland to victory. As Tampa seized control, those cutaways trickled to a halt, but now there was a quick shot of a stunned member of the Oakland faithful, and his expression said it all:

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"We've been drinking since Thursday for this?"

The game had been touted as the most compelling Super matchup in several years, but Tampa Bay's suffocating defense and balanced offense killed that hope. The game was competitive for only a little longer than it took Celine Dion to wade through "God Bless America." Tampa played perhaps its finest offensive game of the year, as its underrated o-line overpowered the Raiders' front four; the Bucs receivers easily escaped Oakland's press coverage; and quarterback Brad Johnson was more accurate with his reads and his timing patterns than his opposite, newly crowned MVP Rich Gannon.

Meanwhile, Oakland's passive game plan was lamer than Saturday Night Live's halftime special. One would have thought the Just Win Baby crew would prepare for the eventuality that Tampa coach Jon Gruden, formerly of the Raiders, would be familiar enough with the playbook to pose a problem. Yet there were no wrinkles in Oakland's attack, no misdirection plays to blunt Tampa's speed, no adjustments to Buc defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's cagey shadings on his patented Cover Two scheme. The Raiders seemed vowed to live or die with what their veteran players do best—dink the ball up the field—and once that proved inadequate, there was no Plan B.

On the broadcast side, ABC hoped Super Bowl XXXVII would be a triumphant close to a season that saw the "Dream Team" of Al Michaels and John Madden lead a ratings revival. This was not the case, as Monday Night ratings slumped yet again (as predicted by Sports Nut in August), proving that viewers don't tune in for game announcers or, in Big John's case, even beloved hardware salesmen. ABC's production of the big game was decent, if at times shoddy. Lynn Swann's microphone audio came and went during his pregame interview of Bucs safety John Lynch, and at game's end, four long hours later, the problem still wasn't fixed. Al and John, as they had been all season, were saddled with a blow-out, but when the game got briefly interesting near the end, Al was all over the questionable clock management on the Raider sideline.

ABC was handed a gift story line, potentially an important one, on the eve of the game when Oakland center Barrett Robbins was sent home under mysterious circumstances. Somehow, the production team, despite a budget that could afford several Jon Grudens, failed to have an isolation camera on Robbins' replacement, Adam Treu. The impact of Robbins' absence is arguable—Oakland's usually stalwart offensive line looked confused on blocking assignments on several plays, but the Bucs' speed and complex blitzes make most teams look bad. Unarguable, though, is the fact that it was worth seeing what Treu was or wasn't doing against Warren Sapp and Co. Perhaps it's for the best, as ABC's camera work was generally below Super Bowl standards, often falling for pump-fakes that the Bucs defense did not.

On the other hand, the Alphabet Network scored big with the miking of Tampa safety John Lynch, a technique pioneered (and perfected) by NFL Films. Most of what the mike caught was generic grunting and high-fiving, but at one point, Lynch told a teammate that the Bucs had practiced against everything the Raider offense was running, proof positive of what many observers suspected: that Gruden's intimate knowledge of his opponent was a major edge. Unsurprisingly, Jerry Rice yanked his own wireless set off as he trudged to the locker room at halftime.

Both Oakland and ABC had a better game than the officials. Paul Tagliabue and the other league suits should at this very moment be doing tequila shots, toasting the fact that the game was a rout because if it had been close, the screaming would still be echoing in the back alleys of Tijuana. The tone was set on an early kick-off return when the officials, so emasculated by instant replay that they seldom make a definitive call anymore, overlooked an obvious down-by-contact situation and forced a challenge by the Bucs. (The incident came seconds after a Budweiser ad mocking "zebras" and the replay process.) And when a ref finally stood his ground and stuck with a call, the force-out on the final Raiders two-point conversion, it was a) patently wrong and b) conveniently not reviewable. Other follies: A throw sails well out of bounds, yet pass interference is called; Rice is sent flying out of bounds on the Raiders' last-gasp drive, yet the refs keep the clock rolling. So much for the commish's new strict standards on officiating.

On the whole, the game of games seemed to play second banana to San Diego's version of the American Music Awards, starring Dion, the Dixie Chicks, etc. If I were a Bucs fan, I'd be pretty upset that the presentation of the Lombardi Trophy, the moment that made a quarter-century of acute psychological pain worthwhile, had to wait for a performance by Bon Jovi.

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