Ronde Barber might be the steadiest, most dependable presence the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have ever had. A rock. Sure, he would probably have to share that distinction with long-time teammate Derrick Brooks, but the franchise would have been blessed to have had one such player, let alone two.
Barber has played in more games than any other player in franchise history and may soon usurp Brooks' record for games started, too. He's started 199 consecutive games, the most by a cornerback in NFL history. He has never missed a game due to injury. He's had at least two interceptions in 13 of the last 14 seasons. He has simply always been there for the Buccaneers over the last decade and a half, and he'll be there again in 2012 after signing a new one-year contract on March 21.
Barber has been such so unerringly steady for the Buccaneers for one almost contradictory reason: He embraces change.
Always has, always will.
In fact, Barber would not be back for a 16th NFL season if he was afraid of the unknown. There's a new Head Coach at One Buccaneer Place, Greg Schiano, and a whole new staff under him. A new defensive backs coach in Ron Turner, who comes from the college ranks. The promise of a whole new culture. Big-dollar free agents joining the mix. Players being asked to win their starting jobs all over again, or potentially to step aside. For a player who spent his first 12 seasons under the exact same coordinator, there are sure to be some significant new wrinkles on defense.
Barber shrugs these concerns off like he dismisses any notion that there is something he cannot handle.
"Change isn't that traumatic," said Barber on Wednesday, after the third day of the first week of the team's offseason conditioning program under Schiano.
"I mean obviously the scheme that Monty [Kiffin] ran for all those years and the scheme that Raheem [Morris] ended up running the past couple of years, I've been in that since the get go. In the year that Jim Bates came here and ran his system, we ended up falling back on the old scheme that we had. This is the first year I've been here where everybody is new. I'm getting to know these guys and getting to know this system like I was a first year in the NFL. I like the challenge. I'll accept that challenge. I think everybody in our room accepts that challenge."
Barber wasn't even promised a specific role by Schiano or General Manager Mark Dominik when he met with the two back in February, during the period he had given himself to choose between returning and retirement. He wouldn't have wanted a hollow promise anyway. It was his college coach in his freshman year at the University of Virginia, Rick Lance, who cemented Barber's attitude about how a player finds himself in his desired role.
"He [said], 'The position doesn't belong to you. You're going to have to win this next year as well.' That's the way I've always approached my job so we'll see."
Barber has been the Buccaneers' starting right cornerback for, essentially, the last 14 years. For as long as any Buc fans can remember, he's been moving into the slot when the team goes to a nickel package with three corners, which gives him a chance to rush the passer and use his experience to create turnovers in traffic. He may do exactly the same thing in 2012, or he may not. If not, it will be because those roles have been transitioned to some very good hands.
"That will play itself out," he said. "I'm no stranger to competition at my position. I'm not scared of that. They been trying to replace me since '98. I welcome that, you know. At the very least it makes me better; at the very worst the guy that's better than me, he's going to get everything I got. So hopefully it comes out better. That is what it is, man. I don't make those decisions."
Since Barber has occasionally played a safety-like role in some specific defensive formations, and because it has long been speculated that he might one day shift more significantly to the safety position, that question arose on Wednesday as well. Barber joked that he was undersized for a safety, but he is one of the best tacklers in team history and obviously has the football intelligence to play the position. There has been no indication yet that Schiano's staff will ask him to do that, but it won't bother him if they do.
"I'm too small to play safety," Barber laughed. "C'mon dude, I'm like, tiny. I'll fit in where I fit in. They know that I'm here to help this team win no matter what role that's in."
That's a sentiment one hears a lot in an NFL locker room, but it's often coming from a young player who is eager to carve out any role of substance that he can. It's not every 16th-year veteran who is secure enough in his own self-image that he can walk into a room with a brand new coaching staff and tell them to use him however they like. Barber is also not worried – but rather encouraged – by the signing of free agent cornerback Eric Wright, who started all 16 games for Detroit last year, played very well in 2011 and is 10 years younger than his famous new teammate.
"I've met him; he's a great guy," said Barber of Wright. "He'll help us, there's no doubt about it. You don't get very many opportunities to pick up guys like him, especially after the year he had last year, so we'll welcome this. You can never have too many good ones at our position. It's the way this league works. We'll end up with six, seven DBs on the grass at times. It's nothing but positive for us that we get guys like that."
Most of all, Barber embraces change when it comes to the team's on-the-field fortunes in 2012. He's counting on it. Barber has already been on three Buccaneer squads (1999, 2005 and 2007) that went from .500 records or worse the year before directly back to the playoffs. As recently as 2010 he helped the Buccaneers rattle off a 10-win season just one year after compiling just three victories. It didn't concern Barber that in 2011 he was on a very young team that ended the year with a 10-game losing streak. He thinks the Bucs can win again in 2012, and he's decided he wants to be a part of it.
"There's no reason you can't," he said. "That's the one true thing that I appreciate about this game even through change, and we've had a bunch of change here. If we can get 53 guys eventually to have singularity of purpose, be able to stay focused on that job, there's no saying it can't be us. That's why I'm playing, another reason why I'm playing, and I think it can be us. I hope that everybody in the building thinks it can be us too."