Barber is the first player in Tampa Bay's 26-year history to intercept three passes in a single game
Excuse us if we took this one for granted.
Really, it had all the suspense of the 1994 Academy Awards. After Tom Hanks won the Best Actor Oscar for Philadelphia in '93, were they really going to turn him away for Forrest Gump in '94?
Ronde Barber won the NFC Defensive Player of the Week Award in Week 10 after he stung Detroit with seven tackles, four passes defensed and two interceptions. So how was the NFL Academy going to turn him away after a three-interception, one-touchdown day against the New Orleans Saints this past Sunday, particularly when that performance was a key element in the Bucs' most important win in years?
Answer: They weren't.
On Wednesday, Barber collected another statuette (he has four Player of the Week awards now, three defensive and one special teams) when he took the conference's defensive award for Week 15. In addition to his three picks – one of which came on QB Aaron Brooks' first pass of the game, one of which came on the last play of the first half and one of which resulted in the Bucs' final score in a 48-21 excoriating of the Saints – Barber turned in two tackles, three passes defensed and a quarterback pressure.
Before Sunday's game, there had been 43 previous occasions on which a Tampa Bay player had picked off two passes in the same game, including a pair this year by Barber. Never in the franchise's 26-year history had one of those men managed to grab a third interception on the same day. One of the longest-standing records in the team's ledger has finally been broken.
And another may follow. With his three-pick day, Barber graduated quickly from 'challenging' Cedric Brown's 1981 season record of nine interceptions to tying it. He has two games to try to become the first player in team history to hit double digits. He is also tied for the NFL lead in that category with Arizona's Kwame Lassiter and Cleveland's Anthony Henry.
"He's had an exceptional year," said Bucs Head Coach Dungy. "It probably started last year where he made a lot of big plays. He had some opportunities where he is playing inside in the nickel and also on the corner. He's worked at it, everything he's gotten it's because he works hard and he studies and prepares and plays hard. Some of the (time), you don't get a chance to intercept nine or 10 balls but he's taken advantage of his opportunities and he hustles. He's around the ball a lot, and when you are, good things happen."
Last year, Barber had 97 tackles, outstanding for a cornerback, two interceptions, 5.5 sacks and a pair of touchdowns. He also had a big-play season in 1998, his first as a regular. But it is this season that the fifth-year veteran has traded in his supporting actor position for a lead role, and the nation has taken notice.
Last week, even before his record-setting day against the Saints, Barber took another step up in the balloting for the 2002 Pro Bowl, moving past New York Giants cornerback into second place in the NFC voting at that position. His early-season heroics had won Barber a strong showing when fan votes began to pour in, as he spent some time behind Carolina's Doug Evans and Sehorn and in a scrum with Washington's Champ Bailey for the third and fourth spots. Now Barber ranks second and is closing on Evans for the top spot (113,000 votes to 102,000 as of December 19). Fan balloting online ends on December 31.
Barber may have given himself the final push he needed in that portion of the voting. Composite ballots by coaches and players will complete the three-way process in the coming days, and it's hard to believe that Buccaneer opponents will be able to forget Barber's impact. Certainly the Saints will remember number 20.
Even if Barber is home for the Pro Bowl this February, which seems unlikely, he still has some new hardware for his trophy case. He has two of the Bucs' four Player of the Week awards of the season, all occurring since Week 11. Martin Gramatica won special teams honors in conjunction with his brother, K Bill Gramatica of the Cardinals, in Week 13 and Warren Sapp was the defensive choice in Week 12. Barber also won defensive player of the week honors in Week 2 of last season and special teams honors in Week 13 of 1998.
For the season, Barber has 84 tackles, one sack, seven tackles for loss, nine interceptions, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, 24 passes defensed and a blocked punt.