The NFC All-Stars walked out of Aloha Stadium with 40 rather than 20 on Sunday, and they have the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 30-somethings to thank for that, in large part.
The National Football League’s 2006 Pro Bowl was played Sunday in Honolulu, and much was made of the young men and the newcomers in the game, the Larry Fitzgeralds and Nathan Vashers. Several of those all-star neophytes were instrumental in the NFC’s 23-17 victory, but few came up as big as the Bucs’ veteran contingent of Derrick Brooks,
The 32-year-old Brooks, playing in his ninth consecutive Pro Bowl, was voted the Player of the Game thanks to a 59-yard interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter that proved to be the contest’s decisive play.
Barber, 30 and in his third Honolulu hoe-down, was a big reason the game was about 40 points behind its usual scoring pace, breaking up one touchdown pass and denying several other long bomb attempts by the AFC.
And Bidwell, while still a few weeks shy of his 30th birthday and playing in his first Pro Bowl, helped out that veteran Buc duo by averaging 48.4 yards on five punts, including one that was downed at the AFC’s one-inch line by Carolina’s Steve Smith in the third quarter.
The game was locked at 10-10, a far cry from the scorefests of the last six years, when Brooks slid in front of a Trent Green pass intended for Antonio Gates 10 minutes into the second half. Re-enacting a scene Buccaneer fans have seen many times in the past, particularly during the team’s 2002 Super Bowl season, Brooks intercepted the aerial and turned on the jets, outrunning the AFC offense-turned-defense and juking Green near the 20-yard line. The AFC would later tie the game but would not be able to match two fourth-quarter NFC field goals.
“How about our guy?” said Barber with glee after the game. “He came up big, didn’t he? That was just Derrick being Derrick.”
Indeed, it wasn’t even Brooks’ first Pro Bowl touchdown, as he had a 20-yard interception return for a score in the 2000 game, after the 1999 season. He is, memorably, the only linebacker in league history with three interception returns for TDs in a single season, which he accomplished in ’02 before adding another one in the Bucs’ Super Bowl victory at the end of that campaign.
Brooks’ 2002 touchdowns might have been in support of something a little more meaningful, but his efforts on Sunday were appreciated by about four dozen NFC teammates, too. The players on the winning team in the Pro Bowl take home twice the individual bonus of those on the losing team – this year, $40,000 to $20,000 – and the AFC had been dominating recently, winning seven of the last nine. Conference pride was fed on Sunday, too, but the bigger payoffs helped many of the players balance the books after bringing large traveling parties with them to Hawaii.
“Yeah, now I can break even on the trip,” laughed Barber.
He had something to do with that, too. Though cornerbacks in particular and the defense in general are at something of a disadvantage in a game designed to minimize injury risk and maximize the scoring output, Barber managed to stem the offensive onslaught somewhat this February. The previous six Pro Bowls had averaged a combined 74 points per game, but Sunday’s all-star game featured “just” 40 points as many of the AFC’s downfield forays were thwarted.
Barber actually deferred quite a bit of playing time to younger cornerbacks Vasher and DeAngelo Hall, of the Chicago Bears and Atlanta Falcons respectively, but it didn’t seem like it. The camera seemed to find Barber whenever he was in the game, perhaps because the AFC quarterbacks kept looking in his direction.
“It seemed like every time I was out there, they were throwing the ball at me,” said Barber, who tied for the game lead with three passes defensed to go with two tackles.
It wasn’t a particularly effective strategy. Early in the second quarter, with the AFC up 7-0, Indianapolis’ Peyton Manning tried to get Barber on a pump fake, eventually lofting a deep pass to the Cincinnati Bengals’ Johnson up the right sideline. Barber didn’t bite, and he was there when the bomb came down, acrobatically leaping over the tall receiver’s head to get his hands on the pass.
A few minutes later, still up 7-3, Manning and the AFC crew were threatening again, facing a second-and-seven at the NFC’s 13. Manning looked for Gates, the San Diego Charger tight end and one of the league’s ultimate red zone weapons. Barber managed to deny the completion to the 260-pound tight end on a physical play that left Gates lying on the end zone turf. Immediately after breaking up the pass, Barber helped Gates back to his feet. That exchange summed up the Pro Bowl experience...the two sides played hard for the victory but were equally concerned with showing their respect for their fellow all-stars.
“It’s all in good fun,” said Barber of the league’s annual postseason talent showcase. “It’s a game that has some meaning, a little bit here and there, but it’s not like the regular season. If this would have been a normal game, I would have left [Gates] on the ground, let him get up by himself. But there’s a mutual respect at play in the Pro Bowl. This game represents the best of each conference, and sportsmanship is paramount.”
So, too, is scoring, usually. Barber played in the games following the 2001 and 2004 seasons, and was on the losing end of 38-30 and 38-27 decisions. The last time the NFC won, it was a wild 55-52 game following the 2004 campaign. The Pro Bowl rules force defenses into very basic fronts and coverages, and the exhibition nature of the game often prompts coaches to air it out. Notably, despite the abundance of outstanding running backs in the game, including Barber’s brother Tiki of the New York Giants, no individual had more than 33 rushing yards in the campaign.
But nobody had a completion of more than 33 yards, either, and that was a departure from recent Pro Bowls. The AFC had touchdown passes of 62 and 41 yards before the first quarter was over last year, and the 2004 game opened with a 90-yard touchdown catch by Johnson on the game’s first play.
“Yeah, we managed a couple of breakups down the field,” said Barber, who joined with Dallas safety Roy Williams in knocking down three passes. “We got the feeling early that they were going to air it out, and they weren’t messing around. They weren’t even using double moves, they were just flying deep. Unfortunately for them, the ball was a little slick due to the [first-quarter] rain. You saw Peyton having some problems where the ball just got away from him. That and six or seven interceptions made the difference in the scoring output.”
Vasher, Hall, Williams and Minnesota safety Darren Sharper all joined Brooks in picking off passes, three of them thrown by Manning, who definitely had problems controlling the slick ball in the firs quarter. Kansas City’s Green and Tennessee’s Steve McNair followed, but the trio of passers completed only 20 of 45 passes for 203 yards against an inspired NFC defense.
San Diego running back LaDainian Tomlinson, one of only five players in league history to have a passing, running and receiving touchdown in the same game, might have joined that trio in the passing chart if not for a fumbled snap in the fourth quarter. The NFC took a 20-17 lead on Neil Rackers’ 22-yard field goal seven minutes into the final period, and the first play of the ensuing drive by the AFC was one chosen by online fan voting. McNair was supposed to hand off to Tomlinson, who would throw an option pass, but the exchange from center was fumbled and the NFC recovered. They would do the exact same thing on the AFC’s next drive, killing the late comeback attempt.
Barber wasn’t aware until later that the play voted by the fans was the one that went awry. The NFC’s fan-selected play resulted in a short completion to Atlanta tight end Alge Crumpler earlier in the second quarter.
“Really? Well that explains what LaDainian was doing,” said Barber, laughing again. “After that play, he was really animated as he was running off the field. I guess he thought that play was going to work.”
Considering the AFC had just one touchdown pass, a 16-yard strike from Manning to Miami wide receiver Chris Chambers in the first quarter, it’s safe to say that the game didn’t work out the way the Super Bowl-winning conference expected. Still, the strategy was as air-it-out as usual. In fact, the game’s most exciting offensive moment came on a pass that never would have been thrown during a normal NFL game.
Five minutes into the second quarter, the NFC was facing a third-and-13 at the AFC’s 40, trailing 7-0, when Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick dropped back to pass. The AFC’s pass-rushers got to Vick quickly and, as he fell, he blindly launched a high and deep pass down the field. It was a remarkable feat of athleticism, the distance and height Vick was able to get on the ball while being dragged down, but it was also a moment of hubris that would have been out of place in a more serious game.
Downfield, the Arizona Cardinals’ Fitzgerald leaped over Denver cornerback Deltha O’Neal to make the catch, first deflecting the ball upward and then grabbing the rebound as he fell to the turf. The 32-yard completion put the ball at the AFC’s eight-yard line and set up a 32-yard Rackers field goal for the NFC’s first points.
“You don’t throw that ball in a regular season game, no way,” said Barber. “Of course, [Vick] is a heck of an athlete, and you could see it on that play. He’s going down on his back but he just launched it. Really, it was bordering on the ridiculous. Only in the Pro Bowl, man.”
That may be so of Vick’s completion to Fitzgerald, but several of the key defensive plays turned in by Buccaneer all-stars were all too familiar. The NFC regained some bragging rights, the elder conference’s players broke even on their Hawaiian vacations and the Buccaneers’ trio of veterans had a lot to do with that.