The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2010 season finale at New Orleans was the 209th game of Ronde Barber's incredible NFL career. It will not be his last.
On Tuesday, the Buccaneers announced that they have re-signed the five-time Pro Bowl cornerback to a one-year deal, extending Barber's professional career into a 15th season. That's exceedingly good news for the Buccaneers, who value Barber's strong play, experience and leadership on a predominantly young roster.
Tampa Bay surprised the NFL by compiling a 10-6 record in 2010 despite fielding the youngest team in the league. And while rising young stars such as Josh Freeman, Mike Williams, Aqib Talib and Gerald McCoy may represent the future of the franchise, Barber remained one of its top performers last year.
In fact, at season's end, General Manager Mark Dominik compared Barber's efforts during the playoff stretch drive to those of Freeman, the second-year quarterback who was one of the NFL's hottest hands in December.
"If you want to talk about how Josh Freeman played at the end of the season, I think you could say the same thing about how Ronde Barber played at the end of the season," said Dominik in January. "For as many years as he has in the National Football League, to play at that level and to feel like he already knew what Drew Brees was going to do on a majority of the plays, was phenomenal. I was really impressed with the way he played his 2010 season."
Barber, a third-round draft pick out of Virginia in 1997, is the only remaining player from the Buccaneers' 2002 Super Bowl championship team; in fact, he is one of only four current Buccaneers who were on the 2005 division championship squad (also Earnest Graham, Barrett Ruud and Cadillac Williams). Since taking over the team in January of 2009, Dominik and Head Coach Raheem Morris have engineered a plan designed to replenish the roster with young talent and produce a team that could compete for the playoffs on an annual basis.
There has been room for Barber in that plan, however, because he has continued to operate at a level uncommon for NFL cornerbacks in their mid-30s.
"Ronde Barber, at his age, is a phenomenal football player, and he defies the position because of how well he takes care of his body and his mind week-in and week-out during the offseason and regular season," said Dominik. "He just defies logic, and he does that because of his commitment to his training, and then his instincts and his ball skills take over. It's always fun and it's exciting to continue to see him play at such a high level, and he's really a guy that I felt could have had a Pro Bowl opportunity [in 2010], or certainly should have been an alternate, in my opinion. So I'm really proud of him, because corners don't play in the National Football League at his age, but he does. You can't tell if he's 30 or if he's 35. You wouldn't know the difference."
That was certainly the case in 2010, when Barber racked up 102 tackles to finish third on the team and added three interceptions, one sack, nine tackles for loss and one forced fumble. His 16 passes defensed were a team-high and they marked the fifth time in the last six seasons he has reached at least that level. Barber also has six 100-tackle campaigns in the last eight years – a plateau few cornerbacks ever reach even once – and at least three interceptions in five of the last seven seasons.
Of course, Barber needs no further padding of his stats to put together a compelling case for eventual induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He is the Buccaneers' all-time leader in both interceptions (40) and return touchdowns (13, plus one more in postseason play) and he ranks second in tackles (1,260), games played (209) and games started (200), trailing only another likely Hall of Famer, Derrick Brooks, in those latter three categories. Barber is even the franchise's eighth-leading sack artist, with 26.
A combination of Barber's interception and sack totals reveals his unique place in NFL history. He is the only player ever to record both 40 interceptions and 25 sacks in his career. A skilled pass-rusher out of the slot, Barber could join Ray Lewis and Rodney Harrison as the only 30/30 men in NFL annals with four more sacks in 2011.
While Barber's strong play in 2010 may have been somewhat overlooked, his overall exploits have drawn plenty of attention. He made the Pro Bowl following the 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2008 seasons). In 2001, he was named a first team Associated Press All-Pro, an honor even more exclusive than the Pro Bowl, after leading the NFL with a career-high 10 interceptions. He was a first-team choice in both 2004 and 2005, as well, and a second-team selection in 2002 and 2006.
In January of 2010, Barber was one of four cornerbacks named to the NFL's All-Decade Team for the 2000s. He joined Champ Bailey, Ty Law and Charles Woodson in making the team, which was voted on by the Hall of Fame Selection Committee.
Barber's career has been marked by two rare traits: durability and a nose for the end zone.
He played in just one regular-season game as a rookie in 1997 as he learned the Buccaneers' Cover Two defensive scheme, in which he would prove to be a natural. However, he developed quickly enough to be promoted to the rotation during the '97 playoffs, previewing his sudden emergence as a playmaker in 1998. He has not missed a game since that 1998 opener, playing in 208 straight. He has also started the last 183 outings in a row, in the process breaking Dick LeBeau's NFL record for most consecutive starts by a cornerback. If Barber appears in all 16 contests in 2011 he will break Brooks' Buccaneer record of 224 games played by one. Appearing in just one regular season will make Barber the first man in franchise history to play in 15 different seasons.
Barber's 13 regular-season touchdowns make him one of the most prolific scorers among defensive players in NFL history. Only three men have scored more non-offensive touchdowns than Barber: Deion Sanders (19), Rod Woodson (17) and Devin Hester (15). While Hester has racked up his amazing total on kickoff and punt returns (and one runback of a missed field goal), Barber is tied with Darren Sharper as the active leader in non-offensive scores. He and Hester are the only players in league history to score at least 13 non-offensive touchdowns while playing for only one team.
Of course, Barber's 14th touchdown, the one scored in the postseason, is his most famous single play, and one of the most memorable in Buccaneers history. On January 19, 2003, Barber sealed the Buccaneers' win in the NFC Championship Game in Philadelphia with a 92-yard interception return touchdown off a Donovan McNabb pass. That sent Tampa Bay to Super Bowl XXXVII, which they won by a score of 48-21 over the Oakland Raiders.
Exploits such as that may eventually land Barber in Canton. Now, however, it will be at least one more year before the Hall can start calling.