When Ronde Barber broke into the league as the 66th overall pick of the 1997 Buccaneers draft, he hoped to have half as good a career as...Anthony Parker?
"I remember when Anthony Parker was here. He had a pretty good career man. He scored a bunch of touchdowns, had a bunch of interceptions, played about 10 years. I told myself then, if I had half that career, I would be happy" Barber said.
Safe to say Ronde is pretty happy with his legacy. The numbers are gaudy but pale in comparison to his love for the game, love for winning and his desire to compete to the death on every play. Where did this inextinguishable roaring fire come from? How did a diminutive 5-10 185 pound, slow 4.69 Forty running, 3rd round pick, "Zone" corner make such a compelling case for the Hall of Fame?
Well over the past 16 years I've had the pleasure to cover all of Ronde's games and host his TV show on NewsChannel 8 for many years. I also got a rare glimpse inside the man behind the jersey and I'm lucky enough to call him a friend. I think I have an insightful (and admittedly non-objective) perspective on the man they call Twenty.
First let's look at the quantifiable numbers...and frankly they are off the charts. If you must consider each player by their excellence at their position, then how can you not vote yes for the HOF? Also consider, when looking at the numbers it's Ronde's versatility at a hybrid position that made him so valuable and ultimately helped the Bucs defense be so dominant for a decade ultimately winning a Super Bowl.
The ONLY corner with 25+ sacks and 45+ interceptions meaning...he could beat 300 pound tackles or shifty backs on a blitz then on the next play cover a number one receiver lined up in the slot or outside? He finished with 28 Sacks and 48 picks which in the days of specialization and shorter careers is a stat that may never be approached...let alone broken.
His most important and telling stat to me is his 1,423 tackles (Tackles are a very much disputed stat as official post game film study counts often can change a 5 tackle game into a 13 tackle game). But by most comparison measures Ronde' is the top tackling corner by over 300 tackles! Consider Deion Sanders, a Hall of Fame corner only had 492...in his career! We can talk about flash and big plays all we want (and we will) but still basic tackling is the foundation of defensive football. Ronde's superior instincts, intelligence and dogged film study not only put him in position to make game changing plays but also put him in position to make the Blue Collar plays that are the foundation of solid Tampa 2 defense. Keeping the 2 yard gains from becoming 8 or 80 yard plays.
These numbers prove his incredible versatility. But watching every one of his approximately 16,500 plays I've seen him take on 270 pound Brandon Jacobs in full stride. It didn't end well but he got him down! I've seen him hold his own 1 on 1 with Magatron Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones, Marcus Colston...guys that are almost a foot taller...and compete for jump balls. He didn't always make the play but more often than not he did. He has unselfishly played special teams over the years blocking punts and returning them for scores. The fact is...you can't find players in this league who can do all those things or are even willing to do all those things.
I asked him a few weeks ago if he felt he redefined that Nickle corner position in the Tampa 2 and in a rare moment of boasting he said...no doubt. He also told me that as Tony Dungy and his position coach Herm Edwards started to realize this small in stature 3rd round pick's unique and versatile abilities, the position morphed into a critical part of thier Tampa 2 scheme.
"I think it was unceremoniously initiated, no fanfare. It wasn't like...this guy is a cant miss player...it was a grind. Over the course of my second, third and fourth years the position that nobody else really played, evolved. You heard the argument...oh he's only a system guy...can only do this...well...in a defense that everybody started playing, I did it better than anybody else."
Barber says other teams tried to find players to do what he did...but couldn't.
"A lot of people try to find me in their defense because obviously I could rush the passer, play the slot, play multiple positions....on a defense that was simple...that required play-makers. I think I stood out in that regard. It would be entirely too humble for me not to acknowledge that."
I think those comments really capture his career progression and eventual induction into Canton.
Now let's talk big plays that win games. Remember...winning and losing in the NFL is a razors edge difference and usually comes down to who makes the most big plays. A defensive or special teams touchdown tilts the odds of winning to near 80%. Ronde is 4th all time in non-offensive touchdowns with 15 and really was never a primary return guy like the two defensive backs ahead of him Deion (19) and Charles Woodson (17). So you can make the case, with the picks (28) sacks (48) Forced fumbles (13) and fumble recoveries (16) he was the most impactful defensive player of all-time in terms of big, game changing plays. Dominating games defensively with big plays usually earns you the coveted Defensive Player of the Week honor. Ronde won that 9 times, tied for the most ever with Hall of Famers like Lawrence Taylor, Bruce Smith and future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis. How can you possibly argue he doesn't stand shoulder to...well his helmet...with those guys.
And about his size...well I think frankly it's part of what drove him to such success. He told me he would never be outworked or out-thought on the field. In my humble opinion I think he used his Napoleonic/Inferiority complex to drive him relentlessly. He always appeared humble but there was an inner arrogance that fueled his uber-confidence. I will never forget our close up TV shot of him on the sidelines (caught full natsound by our crack Channel 8 videographer Bob Hanson) after his indomitable pick 6 at Philadelphia sealed the 2002 NFC title game. This was just after Ronde had been snubbed for the Pro Bowl. He screamed into the camera...(see part of the clip here) https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10151482682462615&set=vb.560362614&type=2&theater
"Tell me I ain't the best...tell me I ain't the best...Screw the Pro Bowl...we're gong to the Super Bowl!"
Classic Ronde! Few know he is. pound for pound, the best trash talker in NFL history! In his private moments Ronde would voice some of his frustration at not being put in the elite category but he would never say it publicly...and frankly that is extremely hard to do when you're as proud and as accomplished as Ronde is. 5 Pro Bowls and 3 All_pro teams were not nearly enough in my opinion...and secretly his opinion as well.
I once had the opportunity to watch him do film study at his home...where he was constantly studying tape. This was back in 2001 before they played the Eagles and Donovan McNabb. He was going back and forth over the tape, like Dexter doing forensic blood work, showing me how McNabb turned his head on 3rd down and short and sometimes telegraphed where he was going with the ball. And so it was...a YEAR plus later that Ronde used that information...baited McNabb into throwing the ball...and stepped in to make what many call the biggest play in Bucs history. He was doing intricate and exhaustive film study before it became the obsession it is today. Another winning edge.
Finally let's talk toughness and longevity. Of course his record 215 consecutive starts at corner is incredible especially when you factor in how physical and productive a player he was at his size. Many know the story of how he played the last part of the Super Bowl season with a torn PCL in his knee. He also played parts of at least 2 other seasons with a torn MCL...an injury that sidelines most every other player. He played with torn ligaments in his thumb and a dislocated shoulder. Yes he was lucky...but he was also incredibly tough and his love and desire to play hard and never let his teammates down was unprecedented in my experience.
So when I asked him a few weeks ago...are you satisfied with your career? Did you accomplish everything you wanted to...his answer was interesting.
"If you would have asked me this question in 1998...absolutely I overachieved and far outmatched my ambitions."
"Ive always have high goals. There are a lot of things I didn't accomplish but you stack your goals on top of one another. You don't want to pass them and say...I'm done. There are some things I could have done. I'm happy. The merits rest on themselves. Let's see how people judge me in the end...hard to judge people while they're still here. Most people are generally more appreciated when they're gone."
Ah...Ronde still looking to see if he will be judged fairly. I think nationally his story will take time to sink in. To really appreciate what he brought to the game. But in the end...he is more than satisfied and at peace with his career and this retirement decision. He also feels blessed he was selected by the Bucs and played his whole career in Tampa.
"Its been more than I could have ever hoped for. I have great friends, great support from my family... yeah man, this town has been very good to me. I cannot lie. Of all the 31 other franchises and cities...I got in the right one for me."
And Ronde plans on making his permanent home in Tampa Bay.
"Absolutely..I'm not going anywhere...golf is too good, the schools the girls are in good, my adult friends we hang out with are here, people we vacation with...Tampa is where Barbers will reside."
So Ronde goes out on his terms...his way. Leaving the game playing at a Pro Bowl level. Few players and even fewer legendary Bucs have had such an appropriate send off. His considerable on field accomplishments don't begin to surpass the loving husband and father he has become. He is the personification of class, character and left a blue print of true professionalism that will leave an indelible mark on this franchise and this city. Congrats Ronde...now let's tee it up!