Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber is one of the most well-spoken, well-informed and well-rounded members of the Buccaneers. The great thing about the four-time Pro Bowler is that he shoots straight from the hip and no topic is out of bounds. With the Bucs traveling to Indianapolis to play former Bucs head coach Tony Dungy and his Super Bowl-champion Colts on Sunday, PewterReport.com's Scott Reynolds spoke with Barber about several interesting issues related to Dungy and the infamous Colts-Bucs clash on Monday Night Football. That game ended in a 38-35 overtime defeat for the Buccaneers after QB Peyton Manning led a furious rally, scoring three touchdowns in less than five minutes to send the contest into OT.
Barber sounds off on the Dungy years in Tampa Bay, the collapse of the Super Bowl-champion Bucs in 2003, and how Jon Gruden's arrogance helped the Pewter Pirates win their first and only Super Bowl in 2002, a year after Dungy was fired.
You once shared with me something that I thought was pretty interesting. Not taking anything away from what Tony Dungy built here and putting this team back on the map, but I once asked you about that stretch from 1999-2001. You guys got close to the Super Bowl in 1999, obviously, but I asked you about that period of time and you said it was a “wasted opportunity.” Really, the Super Bowl window for this team didn’t start in 2002. It started in 1999, right?
“It started initially in 1997 and ’98. The end of that first year in ’97. In 1998, it was a little disappointing. In 1999 we really started rolling.”
When I went with that “wasted opportunity” quote, it kind of opened some people’s eyes. It was almost sacrilege, and it was like, 'How could you say that about Tony Dungy?' But really, you just didn’t have the offense during those years to complement the defense.
“No. Not at all.”
If you had that – I’m not saying that you would have more rings on your finger – but you would have had more Super Bowl appearances.
“Anybody that was here that watched us knew that we weren’t a complete team. Monte said this all the time – and I don’t know if he was joking or if he was being real serious – that people came to watch us play defense. They didn’t come to watch us score points. They came to watch us try to shut people out.”
And to get sacks and picks and all of that kind of stuff.
“Yeah, exactly. We had a lot of fun on that team, don’t get me wrong, but we were kind of succeeding in spite of ourselves as a team. It was a little frustrating. Like I said, it was some wasted opportunities with some really good talent there.”
You’re someone who does read the newspapers to a degree or at least has the pulse on what is being said out there in the public. You have your own radio show – nationally and locally, too. When Jon Gruden came here and won the Super Bowl, he was the Governor of Florida. But three losing seasons and with you guys being 4-12 last year, Jon is getting raked over the coals by some in the media and some fans. Meanwhile, Tony Dungy wins the Super Bowl and comes back to Tampa for his book signing tour. It’s almost like there is more Dungy fans in this town than Gruden fans right now. You and I both love Tony. He’s a fantastic guy.
But isn’t that just a little weird how people say that Dungy should never have been fired? Doesn’t this revisionist history kind of diminish what you guys did in 2002 with Jon?
“You can’t revise history. Whatever decisions were made when Tony left, were made. I don’t really know the reasons, and don’t particularly care, to tell you the truth. I know that he went on to success and we found a small window of success in 2002 and have since struggled.”
But really, you guys had a window of opportunity and you took advantage of it in 2002 and then it closed.
“Yeah. Are you trying to ask me about Tony or are you trying to ask me about the perception of either coach?”
Kind of both, really.
“Tony is just revered in a sense because people really related to Tony. I think people have a hard time relating to Jon, for whatever reason.”
Why? Why do you think that?
“Partly because he’s Tony. Their personalities are so starkly opposite. They are at the complete opposite ends of the spectrum. You respect both. You don’t have to be the nicest guy in the world or the most approachable guy in the world to be a successful head coach. That’s not the case. Both have been successful. But [Gruden] was so incredibly different. This team was somewhat arrogant in 2002.”
You took on Jon’s personality and won with it. You needed that arrogance to push you over the top, didn't you?
“Yeah, we really did. Even if that arrogance was there in years before, it didn’t really show because we were tempered by Tony being our head coach and that was the message that he portrayed to everybody.”
I saw it in the assistant coaches. I didn’t see Rod [Marinelli] going ballistic like he did in 2002 and 2003.
“It was there, but you just respect the man in charge. That’s why it didn’t show. I think some people were turned off by arrogance, especially when you gloat it some. We gloated it as a team, there’s no doubt about it. We talked big, and as much as we wanted to back it up and we tried to, we didn’t. You know how that balance can be so easily swayed.”
There was a sense in 2001 when Dungy was fired that it kind of was time for a change. You even heard the fans say, ‘All he does is cross his arms on the sidelines. Show some emotion and scream and yell!' When Jon came here, he was what the fans wanted at the time. It worked in 2002. Now that Tony has had success and Jon hasn’t recently, it’s kind of like, ‘We should have never let Tony Dungy go! That was a big mistake! Look what he’s done for the Colts!”
“Hindsight is so clear for everyone, isn’t it (laughs)? Like I said, the decision was made. Everybody felt like we were stuck in neutral.”
“In 2001 and in 2000. We couldn’t win the big game for whatever reason, and that ultimately is a reflection on your head coach even if it shouldn’t be. That’s just the way it is. Good coaches get fired every year, without question. It was not like Tony was going to go anywhere and not have success. He’s a great coach. He’s a great leader. That’s what he is. He’s a great leader and he can motivate guys probably as good as anyone I’ve ever been around. That’s what it takes to win a championship. It’s not that Tony didn’t believe in what we were doing on offense, it just wasn’t that good. It’s not like Tony didn’t believe in Indianapolis’ defense when they were bad. They just weren’t doing it that well. They won a lot of games on offense.”
Here’s the big question. Would you have won a Super Bowl if Tony Dungy had stayed on in 2002 or 2003?
“That is the question, isn't it? I tend to think that we would have won a Super Bowl if I were the head coach that year. We were primed to.”
But here’s the thing. If Tony Dungy was there in 2002, Clyde Christensen would have been your offensive coordinator. You probably wouldn’t have signed Michael Pittman and some of those other guys that fit what Jon was doing on offense. Do you think the offense under Tony would have ever gotten to the level it did in 2002?
“That’s a tough hypothetical question because you really can’t tell. I would have liked to think that our momentum on defense was carrying us there regardless of whether Tony would have stayed on as our head coach, but I don’t know. With our lack of production on offense, something would have had to change. Who knows if the change wouldn’t have worked. It’s too easy to second-guess that decision.”
I think the whole fandom thing regarding the Bucs changed the next year when Tony Dungy came in here and beat you guys on his birthday.
“For the record, they had no business beating us that day.”
Well, of course.
“We were a dominant team – still. That showed some cracks in our armor or maybe some cracks in the psyche about us, probably internally. I think some guys stopped believing in what we were doing. What happened we didn’t think was possible.”
You never really recovered from that game all season.
“Not that season. We also lost B.K. (cornerback Brian Kelly) for the first time for a year.”
You also had a hangover the following year and went 5-11.
“We had some other issues that hamstrung us that year, but I thought we were a really good team in 2003. I honestly thought we would not lose a football game. It was kind of like the mentality that the New England Patriots have right now. We had that kind of mentality.”
You know what Roman Oben told me? He said that the worst thing that could have happened to you guys was going into Philly and winning 17-0 on opening day. You didn’t have the training camp you did in 2002.
And you were full of yourselves, himself included.
You kind of slept-walked through the preseason that year and everyone was saying, “I know, coach, I know. I’ve got a ring.” He said the worst thing that could have happened was you going out to Philly and kicking their ass because it validated that you could kind of skate through the season because you were talented enough, but it kind of caught up with you.
“Yeah. It did, until the last four minutes of that Indy game, to be honest with you. Watch the first three and a half quarters of that game. It was dominating. We made Peyton Manning not Peyton Manning-ish if that’s possible. But he really showed his true colors at the end. We still felt like a team that was on a high and there was nothing that was bringing us down. Unfortunately, he did.”
In this day and age as a cornerback, is there any other quarterback you would rather play against than Peyton Manning, maybe besides Tom Brady? Do you just relish this as a big game hunter?
“Yeah, if you are going to prove yourself, you have to do it against someone like him. You can prove yourself against some of these lesser quarterbacks, but to have good games against Peyton, sometimes they define your season. Sometimes they define what kind of player you are. You relish it. It’s a tough chore. It’s nothing you can take for granted in any sense. You have to get yourself up for it.” As one of the few guys remaining around here from 2003, do you want to look back at that Colts game and kind of make amends for it?
“I don’t know if I’ll ever watch that Colts game again.” But do you want to make amends for that game with this game that’s coming up?
“That’s really so far gone in our history that I try not think about it. It’s where it should be – in the past, and not on our collective conscience. What we’ve really tried to prove this year is that this is a new season for us and it’s a lot of new beginnings and a lot of new starts for us. We’re going to try to keep it that way.”
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Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: email@example.com