CB Ronde Barber wants to back up his big-play reputation on the Pro Bowl stage
Most NFL players love playing golf only a bit less than they love playing football.
Given the usual rigors of their job during the season, however, it's rare that those two adored activities can happen on the same day. Time and energy are in short supply at the end of the usual NFL work day, so golf is relegated to the offseason and a few happy Tuesdays.
But the Pro Bowl is indeed a rare situation, at least for most NFL players. Some, like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Ronde Barber, go often enough (three times in Barber's case) to know that there is more than enough time to spend on the gridiron and the links in a single Honolulu day.
And that's exactly what Barber did on Wednesday, after the NFC's second practice of the week. The team meetings with Head Coach John Fox of the Carolina Panthers and his staff started at 8:30 a.m., and practice kicked off at 9:00. It was over by 9:45, too, meaning Barber had no trouble making his scheduled noon tee time at the picturesque golf course that frames the team hotel.
Still, even though it was short, Wednesday's practice wasn't meaningless. Barber and his NFC teammates do very much want to win Sunday's game, for several reasons. There's the "significantly" higher bonus money that goes to the winning team's players, there's conference pride, and there's the little matter of an NFL player's innate competitiveness. (That last one comes out on the golf course, too. Barber joked that Buc teammate Josh Bidwell pulled out of their Wednesday foursome due to strong winds, because he didn't want Barber to "whip him.")
So, yes, the Pro Bowl players want their practices in Hawaii to be short, but they want them to be useful, and that's what they got on Wednesday morning.
"John Fox is a cool guy, he's a good coach for us over here," said Barber. "He's trying to take it seriously enough because he wants us to win...he knows that we want to win. But he's also having fun with it. We had a good practice today."
If it's strange to take marching orders from a different head coach, it's even more unusual to be suddenly depending on players whom you've battled with over the past five months, sometimes bitterly. For this week, Barber is teammates with a handful of Panthers and Atlanta Falcons, the two squads the Bucs dueled dramatically in November and December to win the NFC South. Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall is Barber's fellow starter on defense, and Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith might be the NFC's most dangerous weapon on offense.
"Yeah, it's a little weird, especially the guys on those two teams," Barber admitted. "We were talking about that this morning. But it's not hard to put that aside. It's a chance to build some camaraderie among peers. And it helps that all of these players over here from those teams are great guys. We all get along really well."
Besides, the better the Pro Bowl Falcons and Panthers play, the better chance the NFC has of earning the victory and the superior bonus money. Barber might actually enjoy a Steve Smith breakaway for once, and the offensively-slanted rules of the all-star game might make the ultra-quick Panther an even bigger threat.
"It's nice to have them on your side for once, actually," said Barber. "I was lining up across from Steve Smith today and saying, 'Man, didn't I get enough of this during the regular season?' But he'll be making plays for my team on Sunday, and I'm looking forward to that."
Barber took Wednesday's practice seriously because he too wants to be a threat for the NFC. He is one of the conference's most consistent defensive play-makers during the regular season – he is, in fact, the first 20-sack, 20-interception cornerback in NFL history – and he would like to give a taste of that on the all-star stage. To that end, he spent most of his afternoons over the last two weeks at Buccaneer headquarters, making sure he was in shape to give his best on Sunday. The rules make it difficult for cornerbacks to completely prevent big plays, but that won't stop Barber from trying.
"I think I'm ready to go," he said. "Last year, I kind of went to the game cold turkey. I really didn't work out in the five weeks after the season, when we didn't make the playoffs. This time, I took two weeks off and then I spent the last two weeks working out at One Buccaneer Place, getting ready. Last year, I felt bad [after the game]; all my joints were aching and I was tired. This time, I promised myself I was going to be ready to put on a better show."
Still, the Pro Bowl is also a vacation, a reward for exemplary service. Barber is planning to extend his, staying in Hawaii with friends and family for much of next week to see the sights and, yes, play some more golf. He's also hoping to play off his veteran status in reducing some of the week's demands. For instance, he wouldn't mind turning over much of the second half on Sunday to young corners Hall and Nathan Vasher of the Chicago Bears.
He also isn't planning to participate in Thursday and Friday's Pro Bowl Skills Challenge. A handful of Pro Bowlers will be running through obstacle courses, lifting weights and catching passes between obstructions, but Barber will probably be using that time more wisely.
"Nah, I'm too old for that," he said with a laugh. "If they would have called me, I would have turned them down."
After all, those are hours that could be spent on the fairway.