The clock started ticking on Ronde Barber on Monday, December 31, the day after his Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the Atlanta Falcons in the 2012 regular-season finale. The question is, which clock?
Whenever Barber, the amazingly ageless NFL player who has already started more consecutive games than any other defensive back in league history, chooses to hang up his cleats, the five-year Pro Football Hall of Fame waiting period will begin. There are many who consider him a lock for a bust in Canton – being the only 25-sack, 40-interception player in league annals helps – including Buccaneers General Manager Mark Dominik.
"He just tied Alan Page for sixth all-time in consecutive starts," Dominik accurately pointed out after Barber's streak reached 215 games in Atlanta. "If you're old enough to know who Alan Page is, that's an incredible name to be associated with. What's exciting about Ronde is this: This guy's a Hall of Fame player. There's no debate about is. I hope it's a five-year window whenever that window starts, because it should be. He's been a playmaker for us since the first year he stepped on the field."
But neither Dominik nor Barber nor anyone else knows whether that five-year window will begin this offseason, making him eligible for the Class of 2018, or whether the five-time Pro Bowler (and 2012 Pro Bowl alternate) will return for another season. Perhaps we should say, at least one more season. The only clock ticking right now might be the one counting down until his next offseason workout begins.
The decision will begin with Barber himself. A year ago, as the Buccaneers transitioned from Raheem Morris to new Head Coach Greg Schiano, Barber took several months to decide whether he was going to come back for a 16th campaign. Eventually, he did, and he was on board with the team's plan to try moving him to free safety, and the end result was outstanding. Barber adapted well to the new coaching staff and the new position, leading the team with four interceptions (including yet another one returned for a touchdown) and providing some solid footing for a secondary that was constantly in flux.
Dominik understands that Barber, who would become an unrestricted free agent one more time in March, needs time to think about it again. In fact, he thinks that's the only way to go about it.
"Does the player want to play?" asked Dominik. "That's the biggest step. We try to step back from what just happened over the last 17 weeks, regain ourselves, our composure, our evaluation of where the football team is, and make sure we do it the correct way, the methodical way. He has had a blessed career and he has a beautiful family. If you asked him today, I'm sure he'd say, 'I'd like to play,' because he's been playing. But he just needs time to decompress, also. It's only fair to him. We would never rush this decision as an organization.
"There will be a moment, but it's not going to be fast. It's going to be something where we'll sit down when the time's right, when we've had a chance to evaluate everything that went on during the season, and meet with him privately. I know Coach Schiano will sit with him, I'll sit with him, and then we'll get together [on a decision.] Obviously, a lot has to do with Ronde Barber, and that's the bottom line."
Barber's resume doesn't really need any more entries to make it Hall-worthy. He has played in 241 games, already top 20 in league history among non-specialists. Because he has never missed a game due to injury, he has appeared in 240 consecutive outings, tied for seventh in league history. Again, he's sixth in consecutive starts, tied with Page, the former Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle, and he's got the next three players on the list in his sights. He has 47 interceptions and 28 sacks, not to mention nearly 1,500 tackles, which is perhaps even more remarkable for a cornerback. He's got the five Pro Bowl trips, three first-team and two-second team AP All-Pro honors and a spot on the NFL's All-Decade Team for the 2000s. He's also got a Super Bowl championship ring and he was the author of one of the most iconic plays in postseason history, his game-sealing 92-yard interception return for a TD in the 2002 NFC Championship Game.
But adding to those numbers isn't really what drives Barber. He has stayed in the game so long because he is the ultimate professional, always doing exactly what he knows must be done to keep his body in playing shape. He takes pride in that, there's no denying it, and he may feel the need to prove to himself and everyone else that he can continue to function in the NFL at a very high level.
After all, he did so in 2012, at a brand new position no less.
"What a great season for him," said Dominik. "I thought it was really a great start by Coach Schiano to let Ronde start that 200th game at corner, so he had 200 consecutive starts, and then you think, he got 15 more starts at safety, completely changing positions. And still playing it well enough where he's an alternate to the Pro Bowl, where your peers and the fans all look at you and say, 'Boy, this guy's really playing at a high level.' I think that gets lost. He's an alternate for the Pro Bowl. There are only three safeties that get to go, not like four or five that some teams have on their roster. When you think about the NFC, there are 32 safeties you're debating on, and if you're an alternate that means you're one of the top five, six players in the NFC [at that position]. That's what's impressive about Ronde Barber."
Those things will certainly be discussed again when Barber's Hall of Fame candidacy begins. Whether or not that's in 2018 or some later year remains to be seen.