Imagine it’s two days before the Super Bowl.
It’s Feb. 2, 2018, the Friday before the Eagles-Patriots Super Bowl in Minneapolis.
Doug Pederson comes out for his press conference at the Mall of America in Bloomington and announces that Jason Kelce has left the team.
Imagine finding out that Kelce had been spotted across the border in Canada drinking when he should have been preparing for the biggest game of his life. Imagine if Stefen Wisniewski, who hadn’t taken a snap at center in two years, had to move from left guard to center and Isaac Seumalo, who had been benched two weeks into the season, had to start at left guard.
Now imagine learning that Kelce was being treated for mental illness in a nearby hospital while the Eagles were playing that Super Bowl.
Do the Eagles still beat the Patriots?
That’s pretty much exactly what happened with the Raiders in 2003.
Barret Robbins had been the Raiders’ center for eight years and was coming off the best season of his career, resulting in his first Pro Bowl and first-team all-pro honor. He was 29 years old and in the prime of his career.
But he went AWOL from the Raiders’ team hotel prior to the Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego and was hospitalized in the San Diego area and being treated for bi-polar disorder and depression.
The Raiders were forced to start long snapper Adam Treu at center and lost 49-21, scoring seven points fewer than their season average against Tampa’s No. 1 defense.
How much did Robbins’ disappearance hurt the Raiders? It’s impossible to say. But Robbins did later blame himself for the loss.
Both head coaches - Tampa’s Jon Gruden and Oakland’s Bill Callahan – were assistants with the Eagles under Ray Rhodes and were neighbors in Mount Laurel.
Robbins played one more year for the Raiders before he was released after his name surfaced on a list of clients at BALCO and he tested positive for performance-enhancing steroids.
After football, his life has been marked by arrests, prison stays, parole violations and drug problems.
It’s been 17 ½ years since Robbins went AWOL in San Diego, and there have been numerous unanswered questions in the years since.
Many of them are answered now.
In the fifth installment of the Sports Uncovered podcast series, “The Mysterious Disappearance That Changed a Super Bowl,” NBC Sports Bay Area examines Robbins’ Super Bowl disappearance through numerous interviews with Raiders players and others who knew him.
We’ve come a long way since 2003 in terms of being open about mental health and depression and how important it is to get help. Brandon Brooks is proof of that.
And the Robbins story is evidence of what can happen to a football team when one of its key players disappears 48 hours before kickoff.
The Raiders lost that day, Callahan was fired just one year later, they didn’t have a winning record again for 14 years and they haven’t won a playoff game since.