The 2002 Oakland Raiders were an offensive force to be reckoned with, and when you see the roster they had on paper, it was truly jaw dropping.
Led by NFL MVP Rich Gannon, ageless Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Tim Brown at WR, and Charlie Garner at RB, the talent on the roster was legendary (add Rod Woodson on defense, and you begin to understand the absurdity of talent on this roster).
Gannon, Rice, Brown, Garner, and Woodson were already household names-- players who had established their legacies on other rosters (save for Brown) and came to Oakland as a hodgepodge of elite players intent on winning in the twilight of their careers.
Amidst the stardom on the roster, Center Barret Robbins, an eight year veteran of the Oakland Raiders quietly had a career year that earned him his first (and only) Pro-Bowl nod.
To the casual fan, understanding quality play of a Center can be difficult to discern with the naked eye, but the easiest means to see his effectiveness is how easily blitzing players are getting to the QB. In the 2002 AFC Championship between the Raiders and the Titans, Gannon was sacked 0 times as the Raiders hung 41 points and over 350 yards of offense, largely in part due to Robbins' astuteness at picking up blitzes.
For the first time in 12 years, the Raiders were on their way to a Super Bowl, where they would face Jon Gruden and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVII at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego in what many have now deemed "The Pirate Bowl." (Gruden, incidentally was the Raiders coach from 1998-2001 before being traded to the Bucs before the 2002 season).
The Raiders came into the Pirate Bowl as four-point favorites over the Buccaneers with a loaded, healthy roster in place that was equipped to win.
There was just one small problem that would ultimately derail the Raiders gameplan:
Barrett Robbins was AWOL
Many analysts will point to Gruden's familiarity with the Raiders offense and Gannon as the key contributing factor to the Raiders' 48-21 loss. Indeed, Gruden practically wrote the playbook that led to the team's success, and even stood in as Gannon during scout team practices to mimic the MVP's reads.
But Robbins' absence was felt as the Buccaneers sacked Gannon five times and intercepted him five more, returning three for a TD.
So what happened to the Pro-Bowl center on the eve of the biggest game of his career? The short answer is, he was partying in Tijuana, Mexico. The long answer is a little more complicated.
Robbins missed the team walk-through on Saturday. Leaving without his wallet and cellphone, Robbins vanished into thin air, and when he returned to the hotel, Head Coach Bill Callahan noted Robbins was "incoherent" and benched him the night before the game.
Robbins, it was later revealed had been suffering from bipolar disorder and depression, and a combination of pain, stress, and going off his medications triggered an episode that would put him in Tijuana, Mexico, convinced that the Raiders had already won the game and that he was out celebrating.
"At that point of time when we were going to the Super Bowl I was having to shoot my foot up, going through acupuncture, going through a lot of pain. It was a lot of stress. Pain is a big trigger when it comes to Bi-Polar and that was something I was going through along with self-medicating." [Source]
In a recent interview with Bryant Gumbel, Robbins discussed the tumult of thoughts going through his mind: "I was in a very bad state of mind at that point," Robbins said. "In my mind we had already won the Super Bowl and we were already celebrating." [Source]
It's hard to say if the outcome of the Pirate Bowl would have been the same with Robbins in place. The seemingly explosive offense led by the league MVP and two future Hall of Famers was not only stifled, but utterly destroyed as Gannon was terrorized the whole game from every which way.
Robbins' NFL career ended after the 2003 season. His post football life was marked by multiple arrests, including an altercation with Miami police in which he was shot three times at point blank range. He spent much of the early 2000's in prison before being released in 2009. He's remained in the Bay area since.
The Super Bowl has traditionally been a distraction-free event. You have oddities like Irving Fryar being knifed by his wife and Eugene Robinson getting caught with prostitutes, but the Robbins story will forever be remembered as the strangest Super Bowl story in league history.