The 2002 Oakland Raiders were hoping for some redemption. They’d won the AFC West in 2001 before suffering a controversial loss in the divisional playoffs against the New England Patriots. Playing in a Saturday night blizzard in Foxboro, the Raiders led by three late in the game when Tom Brady appeared to fumble on a sack with Oakland recovering. Upon replay, the officials ruled Brady’s arm had been moving forward.
It became known as the “Tuck Rule”—common sense told you it was a fumble, but the letter of the law said it was not. It was an aggravating moment for Raider fans, as the national consensus was both that they were robbed, but the call was probably right. It got worse when Patriot kicker Adam Vinateri nailed an impossible 45-yard field goal in the heart of the blizzard to tie the game and then won it in overtime. In the offseason, Oakland coach Jon Gruden went to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Bill Callahan took over the coaching reins.
Oakland’s offense was built around the passing game, with Rich Gannon being a veteran who found his form late in his career, and giving inspiration to all of us who were slow starters at some point in life for whatever reason.
Gannon had quite a cadre of veteran receivers—40-year-old Jerry Rice was cut loose by the San Francisco 49ers and found a home across the Bay. Tim Brown was 36 and still playing well in a career that was spent entirely in silver-n-black. And 24-year-old Jerry Porter provided some youth. The offensive line was respectable, with All-Pro center Barrett Robins, but was nothing spectacular. The defense was similarly lacking in playmakers, with another aging vet and future Hall of Famer having to carry the load, in safety Rod Woodson.
Callahan’s team would live or die on the arm of Gannon. And the quarterback answered the bell. A 4-0 start kicked off what would be an MVP year for Gannon. The Raiders finished September at 3-0, and then opened October by hanging 49 points on the board in a road win at Buffalo. Oakland was sending a message that they intended to contend again.
The Raiders lost their first game of the year on October 13 to the St. Louis Rams, who had been to two of the past three Super Bowls behind Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk and a high-powered offense, although this would ultimately be the year that ended their postseason run. The season’s first really big game came the following week at home against the San Diego Chargers.
San Diego was 6-2, as Marty Schottenheimer rejuvenated the organization and built a strong running game behind LaDanian Tomlinson and brought young quarterback Drew Brees along. The Chargers were unintimidated by the road atmosphere in Oakland. Brees threw two TD passes and built a 14-0 lead.
Gannon took until the second half to get going, but eventually hit Rice for one score, Porter for another and eventually threw the touchdown pass that forced overtime. But Tomlinson scored on a 19-yard run and the Chargers won 27-21. Oakland lost again the following week at Kansas City and was reeling when they hosted San Francisco on the first Sunday of November.
Jerry Rice’s faceoff with Frisco was the dominant storyline of this game, and his old team was still very good and on its way to an NFC West title. Gannon and Jeff Garcia traded TD passes in the first quarter, but the Niners added a field goal from Jose Cortez and led early, 10-7. Raider kicker Sebastian Janikowski hit two field goals in the second quarter to give Oakland the lead. The game was tied 13-13 in the third when Garcia led a touchdown drive to give the Niners a 20-13 edge. Playing at home, Oakland rallied, and running back Charlie Garner went ten yards to tie. But overtime was again unkind, and Cortez’ 23-yard boot won it for Frisco.
Oakland’s dependence on the pass was exposed in these games. They lost the rushing yardage battle by huge margins to both San Diego and San Francisco. While Garner was a decent back, the team didn’t have a great offensive front, nor could they stop the run defensively.
It was all on Gannon to carry the team. And that’s exactly what he did in a big Monday Night game at Denver. The Broncos were challenging the Chargers and Raiders in the division race, but Gannon gunned them down with a razor-sharp 32/38 performance for 352 yards and a 34-10 win.
The challenging schedule stretch of November continued as a grudge game awaited at home against New England. This time the Raider run defense was ready, taking away any ground game and Brady being held reasonably in check, and 18/30 for 172 yards. Gannon threw for 297 yards, and a pair of second quarter TDs opened up a lead. New England kept the game close with touchdowns on defense and special teams, but the Raiders won 27-20.
Two more wins set the stage for a December 8 game in San Diego that would determine control of the AFC West. The Raiders weren’t able to run the ball, but this time they stopped Tomlinson. The Chargers got only 65 yards on the ground and at this point in the careers of Gannon and Brees, the Raider signal-caller could win a straight-up shootout.
Gannon threw for 328 yards, Brees was intercepted three times and with two third-quarter rushing touchdowns from Zach Crockett and Tyrone Wheatley, the Raiders had a 27-7 win. They ended the regular season with a 24-0 shutout of Kansas City, clinching the AFC’s #1 seed behind a rare game that was all about the rushing attack, with Garner getting 135 yards and the team racking up 280.
The AFC bracket was not overwhelming. The league’s best three teams were Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Green Bay based on record and the fact that the NFC’s #4 seed was San Francisco, who’d beaten the Raiders in Oakland, made it a credible argument that no AFC team would be any more than a wild-card in the opposite conference. But when you make a Super Bowl, no one cares about the particulars
Oakland’s run started against the New York Jets, who started the season 1-4 before turning things around. The teams traded field goals in the first quarter, touchdowns in the second quarter and were tied 10-10 at the half. Then Gannon stepped it up, hitting Porter on a 29-yard TD pass and Rice from nine. The Raiders were in control and two Janikowski field goals put the finishing touches on a 30-10 win. Second-seeded Tennessee won an overtime game against Pittsburgh to set up the AFC title matchup.
Tennessee had won the AFC crown in 1999 and still had Steve McNair at quarterback and a strong running game behind Eddie George. Gannon and McNair swapped touchdown passes early, then Gannon hit Charlie Garner on a 12-yard scoring play to give the Raiders the lead. Undeterred, McNair first led a drive for a field goal, then ran in the go-ahead touchdown himself. But before the half was over, Gannon flipped a 1-yard scoring pass to Doug Jolley, Janikowski hit a 43-yard field goal and the Raiders led 24-17 at the half.
Another Janikowski field goal appeared to give the Raiders some breathing room, but McNair took it back by scampering 13 yards for the touchdown that cut the lead to 27-24. It went to the fourth quarter in what was a classic Raiders game, circa 2002. Tennessee was winning the battle on the ground, Oakland was winning the battle in the air, particularly to Brown, who would end up with nine catches for 73 yards. And there would be no overtime heartbreak this time around.
Gannon ran in from two yards out to open the lead back to ten, and Crockett blasted in for a 17-yard touchdown run that put the finishing touches on a 41-24 win. The Raiders were in the Super Bowl for the first time since winning it in 1983. But that took place during their bizarre interlude when they played in Los Angeles. For the people of NoCal, it was the first time since the 1980 Super Bowl win over Philadelphia.
The Super Bowl matchup itself was filled with irony, as it was Gruden and Tampa Bay who made their way out of the NFC. The storyline added a sad component to it, when Robbins disappeared the day before the game. He hadn’t taken medication for depression and when he was found, he was incoherent and unable to play. Callahan left him off the roster.
Tampa Bay’s defensive front was overwhelming under any circumstances, with Warren Sapp anchoring the middle, Derrick Brooks at linebacker and a ballhawking secondary behind them. The Raiders would have been hard-pressed to win this game under ideal circumstances. Putting Sapp against a backup center further aggravated the problem.
The game was never close. Tampa Bay was up 20-3 in the second quarter, cornerback Dwight Smith returned two interceptions for touchdowns and Brooks returned another. Asking Gannon to carry the load against a defense this good was too much and he threw five interceptions trying to play catchup. The final was 48-21.
While the Super Bowl loss was disappointing, it was still a great year. What was more disappointing is that the Raiders have not only not been back to the postseason since 2002, they have not even had a winning season. The 2002 Oakland Raiders were an explosive team, a fun team for the fans to watch. But unless their successors in the silver-and-black turn it around, they stand to make history for all the wrong reasons.