What significance does the number 224 have to Ronde Barber's sublime NFL career? If you didn't know before today, you have something in common with at least one man: Barber himself.
On Saturday at Bank of America Field in Charlotte, Barber will play in the 224th regular-season game of his career, all with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Once he has recorded his first snap, he will have officially played in as many games as any person in franchise history.
Barber's 224th game played will tie him in Buc annals with linebacker Derrick Brooks, who was so good and so unbreakable for 14 straight seasons that he essentially became the face for a franchise that has been playing football for 36 years. Only a few other men could possibly usurp Brooks for that spot, perhaps Lee Roy Selmon or John McKay.
And now, it has to be said, Ronde Barber. Everything that made Brooks so instantly recognizable as one of the Buccaneers' all-time greats – his out-sized production, his iron will, his never-miss-a-day-of-work mentality, his unshakable character, his team-first attitude – applies just as perfectly to Barber. Now that Barber has caught Brooks at the top of the one stat that speaks most directly to what a player means to a franchise, there is even more reason to mention those two players in the same breath.
"He was the consummate pro," said Barber. "It's an honor just to be in that conversation. You talk about professionalism, coming in and doing your job every day – that's Derrick. I guess things like this are part of the reward for doing that, or an acknowledgement of that. So, yeah, it's cool."
Those who know Barber will not be surprised to hear that his praise of Brooks was by far the most effusive he got about this particularly milestone. The franchise's all-time leader in interceptions was honestly not aware, until informed after practice on Thursday, that he was on the verge of catching his former teammate. Of course, Barber will go on to break Brooks' record in the 2011 season finale in Atlanta, but even that is not likely to get much of a reaction from a player who has never been into self-promotion.
"I guess I'll look at it as: 'It is what it is,'" Barber said. "I've been able to do my job for a long time. It's somewhat of an honor, I guess, but it comes with me doing my job day-in and day-out. I've been lucky, man. I haven't been hurt. I've got a bunch of people that believe in me in the organization."
Often when discussing a player who is closing in a milestone, one uses a qualifier to account for the possibility of something unexpected happening. In other words, we might have phrased the above note as, 'Assuming Barber is able to play in the season finale in Atlanta…" It's hardly worth bothering with here, however. (Although, yes, we just knocked on wood.) Barber has played in every single game the Buccaneers have staged since the 1998 opener, a span of 14 grueling NFL seasons. You could probably count on one hand the number of times he's even appeared on the team's injury report in that span.
Which is not to say Barber has never been hurt. This is the NFL, after all, and virtually every player on the roster is dealing with some sort of ache or pain in late December. But Barber has toughed through such aches every time, and helped himself avoid anything more serious with his unyielding approach to his craft.
"Ronde's one of those guys that takes care of his body," said Head Coach Raheem Morris, who has also previously served as Barber's position coach. "He eats the right things, does the right things, practices the correct way. He doesn't even want to miss practice. He's one of those types of guys. He wants to go out there and go through his deal. In the offseason, he has a plan and he sticks to it."
Morris wasn't aware of Barber's impending milestone before Thursday, either. Not that he needed another big number to convince him of the veteran cornerback's place in franchise history.
"Ronde, without a doubt, in Buccaneer history is one of the greatest, and arguably, if not the NFL, in the history of the game," said Morris. "He's certainly one of those guys. He's the Ironman, our Cal Ripken, Jr., so to speak. Way before [his 224th game], he had already had a significant role. He made one of the premier plays that we all remember in Buccaneer history – I'm talking about the interception in Philly in 2002, really sealing that game away and sending us to the Super Bowl."
There are pictures of that play all over the walls at One Buccaneer Place, and Tampa Bay fans everywhere can recall the moment vividly. Barber's interception and 92-yard return off Donovan McNabb in the 2002 NFC Championship Game halted a furious Philadelphia comeback and salted away the Bucs' 27-10 victory. A week later, Tampa Bay would win its first Super Bowl title.
There have been many other milestones along the way, of course, and it's perhaps fitting that this one will occur in Carolina. A half-dozen years ago, Barber hit another milestone on the Panthers' field that backs up Morris' contention about Barber's spot in the NFL record books. On December 11, 2005, Barber sacked Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme and became the first cornerback in league history with both 20 career sacks and 20 career interceptions. He also had an interception off Delhomme in that game, and has continued to pile them on in the years since. At the moment, Barber has risen to 42 interceptions and 27 sacks, a simply incredible pairing of statistics. He is now the only player at any position in NFL history with at least 40 picks and 25 sacks.
Barber is also second only to Brooks in franchise history in tackles, with 1,332 and has scored more non-offensive touchdowns – 14, including the playoffs – than any other Buccaneer. Eleven of those TDs have come in the regular season on interception or fumble returns, tied for fourth-most in NFL history. He has started more consecutive games (197) than any other cornerback ever to play the game.
Certainly, there are plenty of other amazing career statistics that could be added here, but to go on at length in that vein might give the impression that those numbers are about to be capped. Morris said that Barber has had a very good 2011 season – his 15th in the NFL – and he doesn't have to ponder whether or not he would like Barber to be playing again in 2012.
"Ronde's had a good year," said Morris. "If we've got anybody that potentially go to the Pro Bowl, he's certainly one of those guys. If Ronde wants to play, we're going to want him to come back. I put a lot of pressure on [General Manager] Mark [Dominik] when I say that, but good. If he has the ability to play and we can work out a deal, I'm sure we'll do those things. That's something I don't have to hide, and it's a nice feeling."
Barber doesn't need another season to surpass Brooks; the one game he played in as a rookie in 1997 gives him the cushion to break the franchise's games-played record on New Year's Day in Atlanta. But there's no reason to believe he won't add to that record next fall. As tuned in as Barber is to his body and his career, he'll know every year whether it should continue. And he'll have help, as well.
"He told me I should be the first person to tell him he can't play," said Morris. "And when I tell him that, he'll walk away. I'm not prepared to tell him that yet."