Two years ago in a previous SR’s Fab 5 column I said that legendary Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber deserved to be in the Bucs Ring of Honor and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
After an illustrious 16-year career in which he rewrote Tampa Bay’s record book and helped take his team to the Super Bowl with the greatest signature play in Bucs history – a 92-yard interception return for a touchdown at Philadelphia in the 2002 NFC Championship Game – Barber is the latest player to be inducted into the Bucs Ring of Honor.
Up next is the Hall of Fame.
And yes, Barber had a Hall of Fame worthy career.
Perhaps even more so than former teammate and legendary safety John Lynch, who has been a finalist for the Hall of Fame over the last couple of years.
All Barber needs is a chance – just as a Top 15 finalist – to have his candidacy presented to Hall of Fame voters by Ira Kaufman, a former NFL reporter for The Tampa Tribune and a current columnist at JoeBucsFan.com, and No. 20 will rise to the occasion as he did so often donning the red and pewter for so many great years. Kaufman is Tampa Bay’s Hall of Fame voter and is charged with the responsibility of presenting candidates for the Buccaneers.
While it’s been a struggle getting Lynch into the Hall of Fame after a few years of being a finalist, Kaufman might have an easier time with Barber, whom he calls “a walking statistic.”
Kaufman is right, and you can read my exclusive interview with the man charged with helping to make the Hall of Fame case for both Lynch and Barber in Fab 2 on the next page.
Former Tampa Bay head coach Tony Dungy, the most recent former Buccaneer to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and last year’s Bucs Ring of Honor inductee, believes both Barber and Lynch deserve to join him in Canton, Ohio.
“I definitely feel that and I hope that Ronde and John don’t fall victim to the ‘Oh well, we’ve got a couple of Buccaneers in already. How many can we put in?’” Dungy said. “Not only two tremendous players – but tremendous people. They were a big part of what we did, and the numbers that those guys put up are numbers that are Hall of Fame worthy. But more than that, how they played the game, how they led and what they meant to our team – they should be there and I’m confident that they will get there.”
Let me refresh the column I wrote two years stating the case for Barber’s induction into the Hall of Fame with previous quotes from Bucs legends as well as some new ones that drive the argument home.
First, let’s start with the facts.
The first unique fact is that Barber was the first cornerback to make the 40-20 club in terms of interceptions (47) and sacks (28). Future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson joined that elite club in his 17th season in the NFL in 2015 as he reached 20 sacks to go along with his 65 interceptions.
Yet bump it up five more spots and Barber becomes the only cornerback with at least 45 interceptions and 25 sacks – a unique position in the NFL for a cornerback.
But Barber wasn’t just a cornerback.
He was a football player with over 1,428 tackles in his career – nearly 1,000 more tackles than Hall of Famer Deion Sanders had in his 14-year career.
“His numbers say what they say, and he played a long time,” said former Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice, who played with Barber from 2001-05. “On that alone, yeah, he’s a Hall of Famer. The fact that he played so long and he was able to accomplish what he was able to accomplish, you have to put him in. With the defense that he was in and what he was asked to do, you have to say that he was able to do some awesome stuff and become a special player. If you look at Russell Westbrook and what he is able to do – that’s Ronde, especially playing corner. He has all these unique statistics. How many sacks did he have? He had more sacks than some defensive linemen in the Hall of Fame. You have to look at him as a football player. I know he wasn’t beating somebody off the edge – he was blitzing – but being able to get there? Name another cornerback with that many sacks. And there were timely sacks, too – on third downs.
“Ronde had a unique set of numbers. You can’t ignore them. Well, you shouldn’t. To his detractors or people that don’t want to legitimize him, they shouldn’t. The Hall of Fame is about having a special career, right? That’s what it’s about. It’s not about being the best corner that ever played because those guys get in. It’s about having a Hall of Fame career. It’s about having Hall of Fame numbers. If he doesn’t get in, it’s personal then. The numbers are the numbers. The numbers don’t lie. He has the numbers to get in.”
Barber also had a signature play that defined his career – the 92-yard interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter at Philadelphia in the 2002 NFC Championship Game that sent Tampa Bay to its first and only Super Bowl. The Bucs had lost two straight playoff games at Veterans Stadium in Philly in 2000 and 2001, but Barber’s play was the dagger through the heart of the Eagles, who closed down the Vet for good in with a loss to Tampa Bay in the final game.
The pick-six was classic Barber, who was one of the smartest defenders in Tampa Bay history.
Barber, who had sacked Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb earlier in the game on a nickel blitz, had showed blitz during McNabb’s pre-snap read inside Tampa Bay’s red zone but backed out of it at the last minute after McNabb audibled. Barber’s film study showed that when given that blitz look McNabb would audible to a quick slant behind the blitzing nickel cornerback.
The only problem for McNabb is that Barber didn’t blitz and instead jumped the slant, picked off the pass and turned in the most important play in franchise history.
“That’s a play that he should play at the Hall of Fame,” former Bucs cornerback Dwight Smith said. “It epitomized his career. He was always at the right place at the right time and when he got the ball in his hands he was trying to score with it. That’s the type of head games he would play. Ronde Barber, Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp – if one of them three didn’t know the play before it was run then it was a play that had never been run before. Playing with those three guys made playing football very easy.”
So Barber, who is a member of the NFL’s All-Decades 2000s Team, deserves a gold jacket like Sapp and Brooks, right?
“You heard the three guys I named, right?” Smith said. “When I first got to the NFL I didn’t know what studying film was. My thing in college was to find out what a team ran on third down and get ready to sit down for a curl route on third down. I got in the league and learned about film study because of Ronde Barber. I wanted to understand how a guy that wasn’t as physically gifted as I was, that couldn’t run as fast as me, would be in the right place all the time. Ronde taught me how to study film.”
Barber, a five-time Pro Bowler, had a Tampa Bay-record 14 non-defensive touchdowns in his career, which ranks fourth all-time in NFL history behind Rod Woodson (18), Deion Sanders (19) and Devin Hester (20).
“He not only had interceptions, but timely interceptions,” Rice said. “Interceptions that iced games. He took us to the Super Bowl by icing the game for us in the NFC Championship Game with that pick-six. He had so many pick-sixes. That’s a Ronde thing – taking it to the house. He was a playmaker. That’s the one thing about Ronde – he was a playmaker.”
Barber has the unique stats, the accolades, the Super Bowl championship and the signature play, but there is still one more point that needs to be made to the Hall of Fame voting committee. Barber wasn’t a Cover 2 system cornerback – he was a unique cornerback.
In base defense, Barber would play right cornerback in Monte Kiffin’s Tampa 2 scheme and then move inside to nickel cornerback on third downs or obvious passing downs and play a completely different position – seamlessly. Barber never came off the field.
“Stylistically, was he that match-up corner – that nightmare corner? No, and that’s what [Hall of Fame voters] might look at,” Rice said. “But to a football team, he was a complete football player. He wasn’t the prototypical, 6-foot-2 cornerback that some were looking for, but he would still come up and hit you. He didn’t have that smallness that some cornerbacks played with. In our defense, he was a run supporter and a blitzer. He was a complete player.”
Rice said the “system cornerback” label that some have placed on Barber is nonsense.
“The detractors are going to detract,” Rice said. “You can speak to them, but they are there to detract. Ronde was an unbelievable football player. I know this is about the Hall of Fame and you’re speaking to a body of people that is judging you on merits that they are not stimulated by because if you look at the numbers – he has unique numbers. He was a quasi-linebacker, a quasi-safety playing inside and a quasi-corner. He represented so much as a player for us.”
If Hall of Fame voters can’t hold Barber being a “system cornerback” against him any more than they can hold being a “system quarterback” against Hall of Famer Joe Montana, who engineered Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense and won four Super Bowls.
Former Bucs cornerback Donnie Abraham, who started in Tampa Bay from 1996-2001, thinks the “system cornerback” label that some place on Barber is disingenuous.
“It shouldn’t work against him, but I could see if guys might have arguments about that because the only thing they could say that was negative about him was that he wasn’t a true corner,” Abraham said. “But to me, you can’t fault a guy for that because of his versatility. He had versatility where he could play outside or go inside and he did most of his best work from the inside. You can’t hold that against him. The numbers are the numbers. He had 47 interceptions and over 20 sacks. He was the only defensive back to have those numbers, and it’s hard to argue against those numbers.”
Barber was a revolutionary player that became the prototype nickel cornerback in the NFL much the way that Brooks became the prototype coverage linebacker and helped break through a Hall of Fame voting process that previously favored sacks from linebackers and not interceptions. Barber shouldn’t just be judged on his interceptions. Judge the player on his sacks because they are a vital, game-changing statistic, too.
Just ask any defensive lineman or linebacker trying to make the Hall of Fame on sack totals alone.
“It’s funny you bring that up because Warren Sapp was at my house and I don’t remember which year it was but five or six games into the season Ronde was leading the team in sacks,” Smith said. “He went back and watched those third downs and there was a whole bunch of Ronde blitz calls. When you have a guy like that who is a special blitzer, you get a little trigger-happy because you know if Ronde gets a one-on-one with a back he’s going to beat him. The guy was a talent.”
That year was 2000 when Barber had 4.5 of his career-high 5.5 sacks in the first month of the season and did lead Tampa Bay in sacks into October. Barber made blitzing out of the slot look cool and easy and redefined the importance of the role of the nickel cornerback in the process.
“There are defensive tackles in the Hall of Fame that don’t have as many sacks as Ronde Barber, do you know what I mean?” Rice said. “I’m going to leave it at that because that’s real.”
Tampa Bay played nickel defense just over 50 percent of the time in Barber’s early years, but as the NFL has transformed into more and more of a passing league that figure has climbed to nearly 70 percent in recent years. In a day and age of match-up football more and more teams are placing greater significance on finding a great nickel cornerback that has the talent to support the run game as a quasi-linebacker and the ability to cover big tight ends off the line and down the seam, and small, quick receivers in the slot, too.
That’s why nickel cornerbacks like Tyrann Mathieu was so valuable to the Arizona and Houston defenses, and why Lamarcus Joyner was so important in the Los Angeles Rams defense.
“Everybody refers to Ronde as the original nickel corner, and he was,” Smith said. “People don’t understand how smart he was as a football player with him being able to read keys and tendencies. That’s what you need at that position. It takes a lot of film study and preparation and toughness, and he made it look easy.
“People don’t really remember but that’s how we started the Super Bowl. We were in nickel. That was the type of game Oakland ran. They wanted to get Jerry Rice, Tim Brown and Joey Porter on the field at the same time. Most of the days these tight ends aren’t true tight ends. They’re big receivers and you have to put somebody on the field who can match up. That nickel position is becoming more and more important. Ronde started it all.”
Barber wasn’t the first nickel cornerback, but he was the first star nickel cornerback.
Back in the day, it was the third-best cornerback on the depth chart that was brought in when needed. Barber’s greatness changed the way teams think about the importance of the nickel position into the modern day.
Barber wasn’t a system guy. He was the prototype for the Cover 2 – or Tampa 2 as the Bucs famously called their scheme. Barber never left the field, playing outside on first and second down and moving inside on third downs. Today’s nickel corners rarely play every down, as they are more or less nickel sub package specialists.
Barber wasn’t a specialist.
He was just plain special.
“Break it down like this, ask any cornerback if they would like to have Ronde’s numbers?” Rice said. “Yes, they would, because those are unbelievable numbers. Do you know what hypes that up to the umpteenth power? Media. If the media celebrated everything he did he’d be in. The media is what makes the numbers sing. If he played in New York and did that, without a doubt he would get in. If he played in Chicago and did that, no doubt he’d be in. We were a small market team, but we did big market stuff. Nonethless, he should be able to enjoy the spoils of his career.
He should get all of the things due to him, but sometimes it doesn’t work out.”
Perhaps even more impressive than Barber’s interceptions, sacks and touchdowns is the fact that he didn’t miss a start in his final 13 years. He was truly the Bucs’ iron man, enduring a steel plate in his forearm, a plate in his thumb and six pins in his foot during his career.
Former Tampa Bay head coach Raheem Morris had a picture of Barber up in the training room as a reminder to his players to rehab quickly and get back out on the field like No. 20 always did. Another one of Barber’s head coaches, Jon Gruden, loved his tenacity, toughness and competitiveness.
“He’s a savage,” Gruden said. “He is a bad ass. He’s like a savage, man. Do you know what I mean? He’ll fight you for a quarter. He’ll fight you for an inch. One of the great competitive savages I’ve ever had the chance to be around. I love that guy.”
Barber’s competitiveness and toughness were on display as he ran back his 92-yard pick-six at Philadelphia with a torn knee ligament, and played through that injury throughout the postseason in 2002, including Super Bowl XXXVII.
Earlier that season, Barber broke his thumb and was supposed to be out four weeks. Instead, Barber told the team doctor he would play with a cast and not miss a game. In fact, Barber didn’t miss a practice.
“I looked at him and said, ‘Let’s have surgery on Monday because I’m practicing on Wednesday,’” said Barber. “He put a plate in there, put eight pins in there, put a little soft cast on and a splint, and I went and practiced on Wednesday.
“I can’t say it enough. I never wanted to see anybody else do what I knew I could do better.”
No other NFL cornerback did what Barber did by affecting quarterbacks in the two most harassing ways possible – with interceptions and sacks.
Forty-seven interceptions and 28 sacks to be exact.
Barber’s career-high 10 interceptions in 2001 led the league, and set a Buccaneers’ single-season record.
Barber’s career numbers weren’t just rare, they were unique.
Barber wasn’t just a cornerback or a nickel cornerback, he was a versatile football player, the likes of which the NFL has never seen before.
He has the stats.
He has the franchise records.
He has the NFL records.
He has the timely, game-changing plays.
He has the signature play in Tampa Bay history.
He has the Super Bowl ring.
He has the longevity.
He now has the induction into the Bucs Ring of Honor.
What’s next for Ronde Barber is an induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“He does belong in Canton,” Abraham said. “Whether he gets there is up for discussion, but his stats are better than guys that are in the Hall of Fame now. One thing Herm Edwards always told us is if you want to be remembered put your name in the books. That’s something that he’s done.
“If you take his name off of it and just put his stats out there and tell anybody to look at his numbers and ask if he belongs in the Hall of Fame. I think 100 percent of the people you would ask would say that he belongs in the Hall of Fame. I do think he deserves to be there. Only time will tell if it happens for him or not.”
It’s time for Hall of Fame voters to open their eyes and take a fresh look at the storied career of Tampa Bay’s Ronde Barber, one of the toughest, most versatile, most unique play-making football players in NFL history.