Reggie McKenzie

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.

Ex-Raider James Jones was at Taco Bell when informed of his release

Ex-Raider James Jones was at Taco Bell when informed of his release

Don’t you hate when you’re trying to enjoy a nice meal, and you’re told the Raiders have released you?

It’s a tough situation, but veteran wide receiver James Jones went through it after hearing from former Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie ... while at Taco Bell.

Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner doesn’t appear to be a fan of the fast-food chain.

Back when Derek Carr was a rookie in 2014, Jones signed a three-year, $10 million deal with the Raiders. 

The wide receiver and San Jose native brought a veteran presence to the Silver and Black after spending seven seasons with Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.

James even nicknamed Carr “Baby A-Rod,” with some of the throws he would initiate.

[RELATED: Carr claims 'united QB room' with Mariota addition]

Jones appeared to be looking forward to what could happen in Oakland, but obviously, that didn’t last long. In one season with the Raiders, Jones made 73 receptions for 666 yards and six touchdowns. He announced his retirement in Sept. of 2017. 

Oakland saved $3.43 million off their cap by cutting Jones, which could have bought them a lot of Chalupas. 

[RAIDERS TALK: Listen to the latest episode]
 

2020 NFL Draft: Raiders must do better with No. 12 pick than years past

2020 NFL Draft: Raiders must do better with No. 12 pick than years past

The Raiders last gained possession of the No. 12 overall NFL draft pick not long before they used it. Then-general manager Reggie McKenzie gave the Miami Dolphins the third pick for No. 12 and a second-round selection back in 2013, trying to recoup draft picks previously traded away in deals producing a lackluster return.

McKenzie used his new first-round selection on Houston cornerback D.J. Hayden and then revealed something truly shocking.

If the Dolphins deal didn't come about, McKenzie would’ve taken Hayden at No. 3 overall.

“We targeted him,” McKenzie said at the time. “To pick up an extra pick was a bonus.”

The Raiders targeted a talented cornerback who underwent major open-heart surgery just months before. It was necessary after Hayden tore a major artery during a padded practice that nearly killed him.

McKenzie called the incident a non-issue, but another surgery was required after the draft that kept him out of the offseason program and the start of training camp.

Scary medical issues aside, Hayden was an undersized cover man owner Mark Davis was shocked to find so short when they first met. He never turned into the dominant cover cornerback McKenzie thought he would be, his progress continually slowed by other, more typical football injuries.

The Raiders didn’t exercise Hayden’s fifth-year option and let him walk in unrestricted free agency. While Hayden’s still an active player and has carved out a role as a journeyman slot cornerback, the bust label is easily attached.

To make matters worse, standout defensive tackles Sheldon Richardson and Star Lotulelei were taken with the next two picks, both of which would’ve been better than Hayden and filled a major positional need.

Even if the Raiders were hell-bent on taking a cornerback, Tyrann Mathieu, Xavier Rhodes and Desmond Trufant were all still on the board and would've been long-term solutions at a premium spot.

The Raiders hope for better results from this year’s No. 12 overall pick, earned with a 7-9 record in 2020. Many believe the Raiders will target an elite receiver or cornerback at that spot, with Alabama wideout Jerry Jeudy going to the Silver and Black in NBC Sports Bay Area’s latest mock draft.

The No. 12 overall pick has some recent hits and misses. That’s common at this stage of the first round, just outside the window where truly elite college prospects are taken.

Quarterback Deshaun Watson (Houston Texans, 2017), receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (N.Y. Giants, 2014) and defensive lineman Fletcher Cox (Philadelphia Eagles) were the best No. 12 picks over the last decade.

Buffalo took Oakland native and former Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch 12th in 2007, with nose tackle Haloti Ngata and edge rusher Shawne Merriman occupying that slot the previous two years, respectively.

[RELATED: Raiders roster analysis: Defense still needs help after major upgrades]

The Raiders have missed big in the two times they’ve selected at 12. The Hayden experiment didn’t go well. Drafting safety Patrick Bates in 1993 went way worse.

The UCLA and Texas A&M product played just two seasons for the L.A. Raiders, with just nine starts and one interception in that span. He stepped away from football in 1995, choosing to retire over playing for the Silver and Black. He was traded to Atlanta the following year for a second-round pick and was out of the league after one season with the Falcons.

Mike Mayock and Jon Gruden need to make a smarter selection that helps the 2020 Raiders right away at one of several positions of need.