Ronde Barber may be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' new starting free safety this year, but on Sunday he made history at the position he has made into an art form for the last decade and a half.
In the Buccaneers' season opener against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, Barber was on the field for the first defensive snap, as usual. With the Buccaneers starting in a nickel package, Barber moved down into the slot corner spot with which he is so familiar, with Ahmad Black taking over at free safety. The Panthers happened to start the game in a three-receiver set, but the Bucs would have been in a nickel for that first play no matter what Carolina came out with.
And, thus, it marked the 200th straight game that Barber has started at cornerback for the Buccaneers, a streak that started in 1999. That extended his NFL record for consecutive starts by a cornerback, which he actually has held for roughly two seasons since breaking the old mark of 171 by Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau.
"He told me before the game that he was going to give me the opportunity," said Barber after the game. "He asked if it was important and I said, 'Well, 200 is a nice round number.'"
Head Coach Greg Schiano obviously recognized the weight of Barber's achievement, but the 16th-year veteran also appreciated that his new coach didn't make him the focus on what was an important week in many other ways.
"It was just another opportunity for me to go do my job," said Barber. "Coach Schiano didn't say anything about it all week, not one mention of it, and I appreciated that. Not one guy is more important than any other on this team. It was fun to watch this defense go out and play the way we played. It's something to be proud of. My individual performance is just a reflection of the way the defense played as a whole."
The Buccaneers celebrated Barber's accomplishments throughout the day. Such former teammates and coaches as Derrick Brooks, Shelton Quarles, Mike Alstott and Tony Dungy wished Barber well on the BucVision Videoboards at various points during the afternoon. During a stop in play in the second quarter, the videoboard cameras caught him on the sideline and a modest fist raise drew a big cheer from a crowd that has grown accustomed to his heroics.
Buccaneer fans even shared in the spoils, enjoying half-priced concessions, free parking and a giveaway Ronde Barber Gym Sack as part of a day devoted to the Hall of Fame-bound defender.
"This is a good one," he said. "It's nice to be recognized for something. If you play long enough, you have opportunity to do something you can be recognized for. This was a heck of a game."
Barber had reason to be cheering. Tampa Bay's new defense – with him playing primarily at free safety but also moving all over the field in certain packages – held Carolina to 10 points and, most impressively, just 10 rushing yards. The Bucs also had the game's only two turnovers and were particularly hard on Carolina's unique weapon at quarterback, Cam Newton.
"It felt like old times," said Barber of playing in the Bucs' 2012 defense. "When we were a great defense back in the day, guys played so fast. That's what it felt like out there. They have some very talented players [on the Panthers' offense] and we swarmed on them all day long. When you can limit this team, that completely dominated us last year on the ground, to 10 yards, you can say we did something right."
Barber has now played in 226 regular-season games overall, all as a Buccaneer. That is already a Buccaneer record, as he surpassed former teammate Derrick Brooks (224) in last year's season finale. He also now has 217 starts overall, second in team history only to Brooks' 221.
Barber helped the team get off to a fast start Sunday, pitching in with a key pass break-up on third down to stop Carolina's second attempted drive. On the second play of the second quarter, he used his veteran experience to sniff out a complicated fake-end-around screen pass and was able to drop RB Mike Tolbert in the backfield for a loss of six.
Close to halftime, he chased QB Cam Newton out of bounds for a loss of two yards, resulting in the 28th sack of Barber's career. Barber is the only player in NFL history to record at least 40 interceptions and at least 25 sacks. To make the day even more perfect, he recorded his 44th career interception in the third quarter. Surprisingly, this marked just the second time that Barber has had a sack and a pick in the same regular-season game; the other one was also against Carolina, in 2005.
And finally, he was right in the middle of the team's last big play on defense. With the Bucs leading 16-7 and Carolina trying to put the ball in the end zone for a second time late in the fourth quarter, the Panthers lined up in a shotgun on third-and-goal from the three. Barber later said he was anticipating a designed Newton run at that moment, and sure enough the Carolina quarterback took the snap and then darted directly towards the goal line. He made it back to the line of scrimmage but was then met by a gang of Buccaneer tacklers. The first player to hit him: Ronde Barber, of course.
"I was the inside 'backer and I've got to fit in there," he said with a laugh. "I put all my 180 into whatever he weighs and we got off the field. It was a big stop for us."
And it was a big night for one of the most important players in franchise history. Ronde Barber's 200th consecutive start is both a franchise and an NFL milestone, and it further solidifies his resume for eventual Hall of Fame inclusion. For Barber, though, the best part about it was that it ended in victory.