The Tampa Bay Buccaneers wanted him back. Buccaneer fans undoubtedly felt the same way. Recently-signed cornerback Eric Wright publicly lobbied for him to return. New Buccaneers Head Coach Greg Schiano valued the veteran's leadership and playmaking skills.
The only remaining question: Did Ronde Barber, whose professional accomplishments are already enough to warrant a call from Canton, want to play a 16th NFL season?
On Thursday, that critical answer was revealed, and it's the one all parties were hoping it would be. Barber, an unrestricted free agent since last Tuesday, has agreed to terms on a one-year deal to play for the Buccaneers in 2012.
Barber, who has played under three different head coaches during his tenure with the Buccaneers, obviously feels comfortable with where the team is headed under its new leader, Head Coach Greg Schiano, and is eager to contribute to the team's return to prominence. Schiano and General Manager Mark Dominik had met with Barber before the start of free agency to let him know they would like to have him back in 2012, but the veteran defender had asked for a little more time to make his final decision. The Buccaneers willingly obliged.
"I'm pleased to announce that I'll be back for my 16th season as a Buccaneer," said Barber early Wednesday evening. "Coach Schiano, Mark Dominik, and the Glazer family have been terrific throughout this process. I'm really excited about the direction of the team, the moves we've made, and I can't wait to get back to work."
Barber is, quite simply, one of the most accomplished cornerbacks in NFL history and among the best players ever to suit up for the Buccaneers. In addition, he was still playing at a high level in 2011, his 15th season after entering the league as a third-round draft pick in 1997. He was the team's leader with three interceptions and he added 77 tackles, 11 passes defensed, one sack, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
It was the 12th straight season in which Barber has started every game and the 14th straight that he has played in every contest. He has played his entire career for Tampa Bay and has appeared in more games than any other player in franchise annals.
There are many ways to break down the impact that Barber has had on the Buccaneers and the NFL over the past decade and a half, but the following three points provide focus to how amazing his still-developing career has been:
- Barber has started the Buccaneers' last 199 regular-season games, the longest streak in the history of the NFL by a cornerback
- Barber is the only player in NFL history to record at least 40 interceptions (he has 43, and counting) and at least 25 sacks (he has 27, and ditto). He has more sacks than any other cornerback ever to play the game.
- With 13 return touchdowns, Barber is tied for fourth in NFL history in that category, and he has never lined up as a primary kick or punt returner
In other words: production, durability and big plays. Those have been the hallmarks of Barber's career, and the Buccaneers expect more of the same in 2012. So far, Barber is just the second of Tampa Bay's own unrestricted free agents to re-sign with the team (joining Jeremy Zuttah, who re-upped before the market opened), and it wasn't for the purpose of a farewell tour. The Buccaneers expect Barber to remain a key part of their defensive efforts in 2012.
Barber has been one of the Bucs' most important players for a decade and a half. He appeared in only one regular-season game as a rookie but was able to win the nickel back job just before the end of the campaign, playing extensively in the team's Divisional Playoff Game at Green Bay in January. He was active for the 1998 season opener and has not missed a game yet; he has never missed a contest due to injury. On Nov. 21, 1999, Barber opened a home game against the Atlanta Falcons, the 18th start of his career. He has not missed a start since.
Barber bounced between nickel back and the starting lineup in his first full season of play in 1998, and the big plays that would become his signature began to occur almost immediately, including three sacks and two interceptions. His first career interception sealed a Week Four win over the New York Giants; three weeks later, his third-down sack of Randall Cunningham did the same in a victory against Minnesota. He even scored the first of his many touchdowns in a rather unexpected way, picking up a deflected punt in Chicago and weaving 23 yards through traffic to the end zone.
Barber became a full-time starter in 1999 and helped the Buccaneers advance to the NFC Championship Game. In 2000, he scored two more times (one fumble, one interception) starting a run of recording at least one touchdown in 10 of his 15 seasons so far. He also posted a career-high 5.5 sacks in 2000. In 2001, he earned the first of his five Pro Bowl selections after breaking the franchise single-season record with 10 interceptions. In 2002 he was part of one of the greatest defenses in NFL history, helping the secondary intercept 35 passes and allow only 10 touchdowns as the Buccaneers captured the first Super Bowl title in franchise history.
And so on, right up to and through 2011. Since 1998, Barber has filled up the stat line and ranked as one of the team's most productive players every year. He went back to the Pro Bowl after the 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2008 seasons. He was an Associated Press first-team All-Pro (an honor even more exclusive than the Pro Bowl) in 2001, 2004 and 2005 and a second-team selection in 2002 and 2006. He has been named the NFC's Defensive Player of the Week a franchise-record eight times, and has even raked in one NFC Special Teams Player of the Week award. In January of 2010, Barber was named to the NFL's All-Decade Team for the 2000s, along with long-time defensive teammates Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp.
Barber's latest Player of the Week Award came just this past season, after a Week Three win over the Atlanta Falcons in which he made four tackles, one for a loss, recovered a fumble, intercepted a pass and knocked down five passes overall. His three picks overall in 2011 gave him a total of 43 in his career, 12 more than the next man on the Bucs' all-time list (Donnie Abraham). That's one of many career marks Barber holds for the Buccaneer franchise. Here are his key stats and where they rank on the team's all-time lists:
Rank in Buc History
In addition to his record-setting 10-pick campaign in 2000, Barber also owns two of the three three-interception games in franchise annals (Aqib Talib owns the other). Amazingly for a cornerback, he has topped 100 tackles six times, and in six of the last nine seasons. He has had at least 90 tackles in 10 of the last 12 campaigns. And the aforementioned 13 return touchdowns, while incredible, do not even include his postseason work. Barber's 92-yard interception and return for a touchdown to seal the 2002 NFC Championship Game in Philadelphia is considered by many to be the single greatest play in franchise history.
Obviously, those statistics need no additions to put Barber into the pantheon of all-time Bucs and to gather serious attention from Hall of Fame voters when he becomes eligible. The clock on that eligibility hasn't started ticking yet, however. Barber has chosen to return for the 2012 season, to the only NFL team he has ever known, and who knows? Perhaps his greatest NFL moments are still to come.