With the official word coming from the Indianapolis Colts on Wednesday that quarterback Peyton Manning won’t start in Sunday’s season opener at Houston, Buccaneers defensive back Ronde Barber will now carry the torch as the NFL’s unofficial “Iron Man.” Manning’s streak of 208 consecutive starts ends Sunday, and next in line is Barber and his 183 consecutive starts.
Not many coaches or fans that watched Barber in his first two NFL seasons could have envisioned the streak.
The Buccaneers’ longtime captain came to Tampa Bay as a third-round draft pick in 1997 from the University of Virginia. But Barber struggled early in Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin’s Cover 2 scheme, only managing to play in one game in his rookie season. Barber’s streak of 183 consecutive starts began in Week 10 of the 1999 season when the then third-year cornerback got the starting nod against the Atlanta Falcons.
Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris spoke about the streak with the media Wednesday afternoon in his press conference.
“Ronde is phenomenal – and I’m not hoping that Peyton doesn’t play so Ronde can get that title,” Morris said. “You never want to see anyone not be able to play, especially when you’re talking about a great player like Peyton Manning.
“But Ronde, he’s already legendary in our eyes anyway. You talk about the cornerback position, playing that long, is certainly difficult. He’s 46 years old (joking) and he still goes out there and play corner. He’s older than his coach, GM, and everybody in the organization. He’s one of our elder statesmen, who we respect, (and who) we love. And he plays the game fearlessly, relentlessly and like it’s supposed to be played. That’s something he can be proud of – even at 46.”
While Morris poked fun at Barber's age – he's actually 36 instead of 46 – a streak of that many games takes a lot of luck to achieve, but Tampa Bay's head coach said it hasn’t all been fortune.
“I think its all Ronde. The way he prepares himself, the way he takes care of his body, all those things,” Morris said. “Ronde Barber has been on few injury reports, by his choice. He forces his will on his body and he forces his will on his opponents every week, which he has to do. He’s one of the toughest guys I’ve ever been around. I’ve watched him finish the season with a torn knee ligament. I’ve watched him play through broken thumbs. He’s certainly earned his 'Iron Man' status.
“There’s a reason his picture is in our training room, blown up and big, because he doesn’t go in there. He’s certainly become our 'Iron Man' for Todd Toriscelli, the trainer. He’s setting the example for all our young guys when they go in there. It’s the first thing Todd says to them, ‘Ronde will practice with that.’ And it’s clear. The message hits home and those guys play and they practice; the ones that can and have that quality.”
While the 183-game streak is impressive, Barber still trails former teammate Derrick Brooks, who holds the team record with 221 consecutive starts. Over his 15-year career the 5-foot-10, 184-pounder has amassed 1,260 tackles while adding 26 sacks and 40 interceptions. Barber is the only player in NFL history to have reached those combined sack and interception totals.
The five time Pro Bowler wasn’t commenting on the streak in the locker room after practice today, instead choosing to focus on the upcoming season opener against the Detroit Lions.
“Their quarterback looks good, looks healthy, “ Barber said of Lions signal caller Matthew Stafford. “They have a lot of weapons on offense.”
Barber, who last season had 102 tackles, one sack, three interceptions, one forced fumble and led the Bucs with 16 pass breakups, went on to comment on whether Aqib Talib can make a difference in a match-up with a talent like Calvin Johnson.
"Absolutely (it makes us better)," Barber said, referring to Talib. “No one appreciates premium match-ups more than that guy.”
While fans are no doubt excited about the Talib-Johnson match-up, Barber thinks the defensive front will also be a factor.
“I love our defensive front,” Barber said. “I love our coaches first of all. Grady [Stretz] and Keith [Millard] are unbelievable. They have those guys playing defense the way it should be played. Fast, penetrating, causing disruption. They have great schemes. They are on it.”
And Barber will be on top of the NFL consecutive streak mark on Sunday when Tampa Bay kicks off the season against Detroit.