Oakland Raiders

Ex-Bucs claim Barrett Robbins' absence just excuse for Raiders' loss

Ex-Bucs claim Barrett Robbins' absence just excuse for Raiders' loss

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.

A number of factors went into the Raiders' demoralizing defeat at the hands of Jon Gruden and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVII. The story behind the mysterious disappearance of Pro Bowl center Barret Robbins is revealed in NBC Sports' latest Sports Uncovered podcast, which was released Thursday.

Robbins missing the biggest game of his life no doubt played a role in the 48-21 thrashing the Raiders suffered. As did coach Bill Callahan's puzzling decision to alter the game plan at the last minute. But some Raiders believe Gruden and the Bucs knew their plays and formations, making the rout all but a certainty, blaming Callahan for giving the game to his former boss.

To a few former Buccaneers, though, all of that is just a bunch of excuses.

"The fact that your center went to Tijuana and got lost, and all of a sudden, um, he's not the quarterback," said Booger McFarland, who was a defensive tackle for the Bucs. "He's not the star wideout. He's not the star defensive player. He's the center."

"I've seen [Bill] Romanowski at a couple different events," Shelton Quarles said. "I've seen Rich [Gannon] at a couple of different events. And we've had conversations, and they're like, 'Oh, well you guys got lucky because Barret Robbins was out. We had a backup center, and our game plan was to run the ball down your throat.' OK, well, then just run your game plan. If that's something you practiced all week then run that."

[SPORTS UNCOVERED: Listen to the latest episode]

As for the charge that Gruden and the Bucs knew the Raiders' plays, Tampa Bay had seen the scheme before. Every day.

"It's the same offense that Jon Gruden ran when he was there," McFarland said. "So, we practiced against the same offense for a year. So, if you're not going to change any of the same audibles that Gruden uses in Tampa, then that's on you."

In the end, Robbins' absence didn't play a huge role in the Bucs' romp. Gruden and the Buccaneers were ready for anything and everything the Raiders were going to throw at them, and Callahan was outmatched from the opening kick-off.

The Raiders approached the matchup as if they had already won the Super Bowl. Owning the league's No. 1 offense and facing a Bucs team no one expected to be there, some members of the Silver and Black were ready for the parade.

"I was like, 's--t, I'm about to get my second ring,'" defensive tackle Sam Adams said. "We about to drag these jokers. They ain't doing nothing against us. Nothing. We about to whoop these jokers."

But once Callahan made the last-minute game plan switch, Tim Brown and the rest of the Raiders entered Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego knowing they weren't bringing home the Lombardi Trophy.

"We go into the Super Bowl knowing that we don't have a chance to win," Brown said.

[RELATED: How Davis told Trask of Robbins' Super Bowl disappearance]

The Raiders' defeat at the hands of Gruden and the Bucs can be laid at the feet of many people.

Barret Robbins was an easy scapegoat at the time. The center went out and partied too hard and missed the game, so it's his fault. Years later we know better. The Raiders knew better in the moment.

Even if he had suited up, the Bucs were prepared to slow down Callahan's offensive attack. Almost like they knew what was coming.

How Raiders' Al Davis told Amy Trask of Barret Robbins' Super Bowl absence

How Raiders' Al Davis told Amy Trask of Barret Robbins' Super Bowl absence

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.

Amy Trask had a conversation with Barret Robbins on the morning of Super Bowl XXXVII. The brief exchange between the then-Raiders CEO and Pro Bowl center didn’t raise any red flags.

A phone call with owner Al Davis a short while later, however, indicated that something was very wrong.

“Quite early that morning, I had gone out on a run and saw Barret in the lobby,” Trask said. “I ran into him, went up to my room and not long thereafter, Al called me and said, ‘Barrett’s not playing.' I said, ‘I just saw him in the lobby. He can play. I just had a conversation with him. He can play.’ And Al shared with me that others had made the decision to send Barret home. I hung up the phone, looked at my husband and I said, ‘We just lost the game.’ ”

[SPORTS UNCOVERED: Listen to the latest episode]

The Raiders ended up getting trounced by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that night at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, and losing their top-notch center just before the game didn’t help. The distraction of Robbins' disappearance the night before, while on a bender that carried from Friday through Saturday evening, certainly didn’t help.

Neither did the fact that coach Bill Callahan changed the game plan at the last minute, or that Jon Gruden was on the other sideline and used his knowledge of the Raiders’ scheme and personnel against the team that traded him to Tampa Bay during the 2002 offseason.

All of those topics are discussed during Thursday’s episode of NBC’s “Sports Uncovered” documentary podcast, which delves deep into Robbins’ sudden disappearance and the root causes of it, exploring the role his mental health played in that period and over his entire life.

Robbins admitted that he wouldn’t have been able to play in the game. He was not mentally able to do so after a night of partying and a mental-health episode that put him in a bad state. The Raiders evaluated Robbins after he returned to the team hotel Saturday evening and decided he wasn’t able to play.

Team doctors concluded that he wasn’t in a proper mental state to play in the biggest game of his life.

“On [Sunday] morning, I woke up and stretched and walked with Willie Brown and saw the doctors and everything,” Robbins said in an archived interview with NBC Sports Bay Area’s Greg Papa. “And, if they would have told me I could have played, I don’t know if I could’ve at that point. To be honest with you, I was sick.”

The Raiders sent him away and checked him into the Betty Ford Clinic in Riverside. It was only there, for the first time in his life, that Robbins was accurately diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He wasn’t properly treated for the condition before then, which led to problems off the field with substances of abuse.

Robbins was transported to a hospital on Sunday and barely watched any of the game.

“I saw a couple of plays on TV,” Robbins said. “They were watching it when I got there, but I didn’t sit up and watch it. I was there while I was, you know, on suicide watch. … It was a bad situation, obviously, and to recover from that, I don’t know if I have.”

[RELATED: The real reason why Barret Robbins missed Super Bowl XXXVII]

The Raiders haven’t gotten over that loss, either. It ended a short but dominant run and ushered in an era of futility unlike any in Raiders history. The Raiders have made the postseason only once since losing the Super Bowl.

The loss was difficult for those heavily invested in it. Among others, Trask took it particularly hard.

“When we lost, I cried myself to sleep that night wearing the same clothes I wore to the game,” Trask said. “I put my head on my husband’s shoulders and cried myself to sleep. But I never, ever lost sight of the fact that Barret Robbins is a human being. As badly as I felt, and as miserable as I was, and as hurt as our fans were and our organization was, I can only imagine Barret’s pain.”

How Raiders' party culture tradition led to Barret Robbins' downfall

How Raiders' party culture tradition led to Barret Robbins' downfall

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.

Party hard, play with a vengeance. Under strong-willed owner Al Davis, the Raiders of the 1960s and ‘70s crafted an image of rebelliousness, with a touch of villainy. They got away with it because they won.

That mentality faded over the years, but never fully left the owner’s suite. Davis believed, until his last breath, that talent would overcome detrimental characteristics. Because he saw it.

Which is why the Raiders were a comfortable environment for Barret Robbins, the football player -- but perhaps the worst of NFL franchises for Barret Robbins, the man.

“We used to drink the night before, get IVs and yeah, played some great games, some of our best games,” Robbins recalled in a 2011 interview with Greg Papa of NBC Sports Bay Area.

“That was the Raider Way, you know,” said Rod Coleman, a Raider from 1999-2003. “You work hard, you play hard. That was the mindset.

“That culture was very dangerous, looking back now because when you’re in your 20s and the world expects you to win every day, every week, every season, it’s a lot of stress and pressure on you. And if you had no one to talk to about it, then, you know, any type of underlying mental issues you have, they’re going to come out sooner or later.”

[SPORTS UNCOVERED: Listen to the latest episode]

When Robbins was drafted by the Raiders in the second round of the 1995 NFL Draft, he was two years removed from being diagnosed with depression during his time at Texas Christian University. The 6-foot-3, 325-pound center would later be diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Failure to receive proper treatment would play a significant role in Robbins’ infamously mysterious Super Bowl 37 disappearance in January 2003 and, 18 months later, also be a factor -- along with injuries -- in the end of his NFL career at age 30.

In the meantime, there were games to win. With Robbins anchoring a potent offensive line, the Raiders dug out of mediocrity and back toward the elite status they once took for granted. After going 4-12 in 1997, Davis hired Jon Gruden as head coach and the team narrowly missed the playoffs in 1998 and ’99.

Oakland went 12-4 in 2000, reaching the AFC Championship Game. The Raiders were winners, again, and Robbins was literally and figuratively in the middle of the revival.

By 2002, they were back in the Super Bowl, for the first time in 19 seasons. Just winning, baby.

“When anything went on in this town -- good, bad or indifferent -- we were above it because we were winning,” recalled left tackle Lincoln Kennedy. “We had Charles Woodson getting arrested for DUIs, drunk and disorderly conduct. And we had guys that were getting in bar fights and guys that were hitting women. We had all this stuff going on, like any other dysfunctional family in the Bay Area, in any area. You know what I mean?

“And when it was all said and done, when you look in the win and loss columns, we had more wins than we had losses. So, what can you do?”

The Raiders offered no counseling or other therapeutic outlet for Robbins’ struggles with mental illness, which led to emotional swings that were greatly exacerbated by drugs and alcohol, both of which were part of his routine, according to the late Mo Collins, the guard who lined up next to him.

“You couldn’t go out and just have a beer with Barret -- or two beers with Barret,” Collins recalled in 2011, three years before he died. “He would never let your glass be empty. It was an all-night event.”

That’s how it was throughout the 2002 season as the Raiders cruised toward Super Bowl 37. If didn’t matter much if Robbins was late to meetings or missing them altogether because he was destroying opponents on game day. Barely raised eyebrows if he was late to practice or missing them altogether because he was marching toward All-Pro honors.

He was dipping deeper into the Raider spirit than any of his teammates and still dominating. The team for a while made attempts, according to wide receiver Tim Brown, to monitor Robbins’ prescribed medication.

“When he showed up at practice every day, the first thing he had to do was come in the training room and take his medicine,” Brown recalled. “They actually kept the medicine there. So, they knew that he was taking it. They didn’t even let him take it home. Once he became that player, that Pro Bowl player, they didn’t make that mandatory anymore. Why? I don’t know.

“But I think, when they look back on it -- not that you blame anything on them -- I think they would have probably done things a little differently.”

The 16 years since Robbins retired have brought considerable advances in awareness and also a broader variety of treatment options regarding the challenges of mental health in society. Most NFL teams, realizing the millions they pay players, now have at least one individual whose role is to help cope with off-field issues.

[RELATED: New details on how Branch found missing Robbins before Super Bowl]

The Raiders now understand this.

In March 2012, five months after Davis died and seven weeks after ex-Raider Reggie McKenzie was brought in to direct the football operation, the Raiders hired Lamonte Winston as their first director of player engagement. One of his core duties was to be available “24/7” for crisis management for players, coaches, staff and families.

Times have changed, even with the Raiders. Unfortunately for Robbins, many years too late to be of any help.