CB Ronde Barber and the Bucs were all smiles after his two interceptions helped Tampa Bay win at Detroit
There is something a bit odd about Ronde Barber's NFL career.
Though 2001 is just Barber's fifth year in the league, it somehow seems as if he's had not one, not two, but three breakout seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
On Wednesday, Barber was named the NFC's Defensive Player of the Week in recognition of his superb performance in the Bucs' win in Detroit on Sunday. It is the third player of the week award in the cornerback's ever-improving career (two defensive, one special teams) and it would put the cap on the first half of perhaps Barber's finest season yet.
Against the Lions, Barber combined seven tackles with four passes defensed and two diving interceptions deep in Tampa Bay territory, the second of which was stunningly acrobatic. Barber seemed to catch up to receiver Bert Emanuel impossibly quick on that play, surprisingly taking away a sure big play.
Similarly, Barber always seems to be bursting onto the NFL scene.
The former Virginia star was drafted by the Buccaneers in the third round in 1997 with high expectations, given that the team had hit so marvelously on a third-round cornerback, Donnie Abraham, the year before. However, Barber played in only one regular season game that year and was only becoming significantly involved in the offense by the final playoff game in Green Bay.
Thus, there was much less buzz surrounding his sophomore campaign, particularly after the team drafted USC cornerback Brian Kelly in the second round in 1998. However, it was Barber that eventually took the right cornerback job away from Anthony Parker and became a major catalyst of the Bucs' strong second-half playoff push.
It was considered a breakout season for Barber, who put together a seemingly endless string of high-profile plays in Buc victories over the last six weeks or so, from a punt return touchdown at Chicago to a one-sack, two-forced fumble game against Green Bay to a long interception return at Cincinnati.
The Bucs' big 1999 season followed, and Barber started all but one game at right cornerback, generally improving on his numbers from the year before. The flashy plays, however, weren't as evident and he was a bit overshadowed by other standout Buc defenders like Abraham (seven interceptions), Warren Sapp (12.5 sacks) and Derrick Brooks (180 tackles).
So, when Barber exploded out of the gates in 2000 with 5.5 sacks and another run of game-turning plays in the first half of the season, it was once again called a breakout season. By the end of the year, he had that astounding sack total plus a career-best 97 tackles, two interceptions, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and 20 passes defensed.
It was his best season yet, but when the Pro Bowl berths were announced, Barber was not among the four Buc defenders (Abraham, Brooks, Sapp and S John Lynch) named to the NFC squad. Though he was highly valued in Tampa, it was posited that his relatively low total of interceptions – the 'it' statistical category for cornerbacks – was the thing holding him back from Pro Bowl consideration.
Barber considers himself and the other Buc cornerbacks 'complete' players who can defend the run, play man-to-man coverage and execute a zone defense. Still, 100-tackle, two-interception seasons would probably never earn him the recognition he probably deserves.
Problem solved in 2001. Barber leads the Buccaneers and is third in the conference with five interceptions over the first eight games, already a career-high for him and the main reason he is once again having a 'breakout' season. He is on pace for 10 picks over a full year, which would set a Buccaneer single-season record and he has had a remarkable four passes defensed in two consecutive games.
He is also the man some teammates are calling the team's defensive MVP so far, and he is the first Buc of the season to win a conference player of the week award. While that is hardly a failing, it is still a trend-buster. Tampa Bay players won such an award three times in the first three weeks last year and six times overall. They won three times in the first half of 1999 and seven times overall (including the playoffs) and they garnered weekly honors twice in '98 and five times in '97.
The 'drought' is over, though, with Barber's Week Nine award. The only question now is, What will he do for an encore?