CB Ronde Barber had the game's biggest defensive play with a fourth-quarter interception, then later added his 20th career sack
We'll get to the money stats in a moment, the ones that have official tallies in official databases. The ones that are, truth be told, the reason for this story. They are numbers that few men in National Football League history have seen attached to their names, and they now belong to Ronde Barber. Oh, they're definitely worth our attention, in just a moment.
First, though, let us introduce a new quasi-statistic that applies not only to Barber's role in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' rousing 20-10 win in Carolina but also to his illustrious career as a whole. Actually, it's more an experience than a statistic, something that references the joy of watching Barber as much as it does the hard numbers of his weekly performances.
Let's call them "jaw-dropping moments." Has any Buccaneer ever been responsible for more of those than Ronde Barber?
What is a "jaw-dropping moment?" Here, we'll help you recall the experience. Picture yourself watching a Buccaneer game, with a buddy on the couch or in the stadium seat next to you.
There you are, enjoying various moments of excitement during the game. There are plays that make you cheer lustily: Cadillac Williams breaking three tackles and running for 22 yards. There are moments that make you jump out of your seat: Joey Galloway sprinting down the sideline while a pass hangs in the air above him like a pregnant opportunity. There are points in the game when you nod confidently at your friend: Matt Bryant lining up a field goal or Mike Alstott getting set to take a handoff at the one-yard line.
And then there are those rare plays when all you can do is turn to your friend, your eyes wide and your jaw hanging at half-mast, and say, "Can you believe what you just saw?" You find your buddy staring back at you the same way.
That's a Ronde Barber specialty. Except usually what you're saying is, "Can you believe he did it again?"
Barber, of course, is responsible for the single most jaw-dropping moment in franchise history, the interception and 92-yard return in Philadelphia that sealed the Bucs' NFC Championship Game win in 2002 and propelled them to the Super Bowl. He came up big at the biggest possible moment; that's what Ronde Barber does.
He did it again Sunday in Carolina. On this day, the Bucs had dominated most of the game and built a 13-0 lead that held up more than halfway through the third quarter. Carolina had turned one long Steve Smith catch-and-run into a field goal and was driving again, threatening to make it 13-10. Any Buc fan who has witnessed the way this series has unfolded over the last three years knows that a one-score lead in the closing minutes is reason for high tension against the Panthers.
From the Bucs' 12, with 12 minutes left in the game, quarterback Jake Delhomme tried to throw a hard pass to wide receiver Ricky Proehl at the five-yard line. According to Delhomme's postgame comments, the route was perfect, the read was perfect and the pass was right where he wanted it. Despite all of that, it ended up in Barber's hands.
In this case, Barber was camped on Proehl's right hip, and he stuck his hand in front of the receiver at the right moment to deflect the ball. He also managed to bat it upward in the air, making it a fairly easy second move to grab the deflection. He returned his 28th career interception 35 yards to the Bucs' 42, setting up the game-clinching touchdown drive.
After the game, Barber said he was somewhat surprised that Delhomme threw that pass, considering his position on Proehl. But it was an opportunity, and big-play makers make the most of their big-play opportunities.
"I found a way to get my hand on it, it stayed up in there and I caught it," said Barber. "It ended up being a game-changing play for us because Chris [Simms] and Cadillac [Williams] went down and made it 20-3 on that drive and ate up a bunch of the clock. Those are the things that good teams do to win games at the end of football games."
He would know. He has made a habit of it. The Bucs were winning before he stuck his hand in front of Proehl, but they were in danger of losing the momentum and maybe their chance to win the NFC South. Everything changed with his one big play, and there wasn't much one could do as an observer but stare in disbelief. A jaw-dropping moment.
"That was huge, that was huge," said cornerback Brian Kelly. "They were in a driving position late in the game, trying to get points on the board, and he stepped up and made a huge play. You could tell it took a lot of breath out of them."
Just a week ago, Barber tied his own team record with three interceptions in a win over New Orleans in Baton Rouge. The Saints were driving for the potential game-tying touchdown when Barber intercepted a pass at the goal line in the game's final minutes. His teammates have come to expect the best out of him in crunch time.
"He's the ultimate pro," said Simms. "He's one of those guys, you walk into the DB room and he's sitting there watching film. You walk in another coach's office and he's sitting there on the computer watching film. He's just a tremendous worker who can really play the game. He just has great feel out there. He's a guy you can play in the slot, you can play outside and if he gets his hands on the ball he's going to pick it off. He's awesome."
Barber makes a lot of his plays from the slot, where he moves when the Bucs go into a nickel package. When he's in that position, he becomes a very serious threat to rush the passer, as the Panthers found out during their desperation attempt to get back into the game in the fourth quarter. With Carolina facing a third-and-10 at the Bucs' 27, the Bucs let defensive end Simeon Rice drop into coverage on Smith and Barber blitzed to the right of the center. He shot through untouched and dropped Delhomme for a loss of 13.
It was less game-changing than his interception, but it was a watershed moment for Barber. It was his 20th career sack, which made him the first cornerback in the history of the NFL to record at least 20 interceptions and 20 sacks. The overall list is pretty exclusive, too. He's the seventh member of the 20-20 club, joining linebackers Seth Joyner, Wilber Marshall, William Thomas and Ray Lewis and safeties Rodney Harrison and LeRoy Butler.
Barber obviously knew he was on the verge of that historic moment, but it was still special for him when it finally happened. He raised his hands in triumph at the moment and was mobbed by his teammates.
"It's nice; it's been a long time coming," he said. "I kind of had a feeling that it would come in a two-minute situation. For the offensive linemen, it's a little hectic to find their blocking schemes, so you just beat one guy and you've got a free shot to the quarterback.
"It's been a long time coming, like I said. It's been in the back of my head. Actually, it's been in the front of my head, I'm not going to lie. The list is short, and a lot of those guys are Hall of Famers. It's an honor definitely for myself, my teammates, the coaches, the organization. It's special."
Barber's an unusual kind of NFL star. He's extremely confident in himself, but that's almost a prerequisite for the job. Apart from that, he's about as down-to-earth as one could imagine from someone in his position. So when you ask him why he has proved to be such an exceptional pass-rusher from the cornerback position, his answer is almost clinically detached.
"I don't know," he said. "I wish I knew. It's something that I like to do. When I first got into this league, playing in there [in the slot] was the only way I was getting on the football field. I had to find a way to make my niche there before I turned into the player that I am now. I'm glad I did.
"I don't think anybody else plays the position like I do."
The numbers back him up. He's a unique weapon. And, as he is only too quick to point out, Buccaneer coaches have figured out how to make the most out of his talents over the years.
"As I've evolved as a player, our whole package – whether it's our zone package or our zone-blitz package – has kind of evolved, too," said Barber. "We've drawn up some stuff over the years to get me to the quarterback. It's really a credit to Monte [Kiffin], the secondary coach and the linebacker coach to give me an opportunity to wreak havoc in there, and it's something that I enjoy doing."
One week he intercepts three passes, something nobody else in team history has ever done, and he basically gives a fourth one away in a scrum with teammate Dexter Jackson. The next week, he comes up with something no other player at his position has ever done. The weight of his accomplishments has made his teammates and coaches redefine his standing in the league. Defensive tackle Chris Hovan matter-of-factly calls Barber a Hall-of-Famer. Head Coach Jon Gruden refers to him as "a legend."
No one knows what to expect next. But they do expect him to be in the right place at the right time when it matters.
"He came on big time," said Rice. "He's stepping up right when you need him to right at the right time. He's made a lot of big plays at the right time. They are not just [insignificant] plays. They are crucial. That plays that much more of a factor. That's what he's all about."