CB Ronde Barber became the first NFL player to return two interceptions for TDs in the same game in four years
With all due respect to Terrell Owens, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb has never been tortured by a fellow NFL player the way he has by Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber.
The way Barber victimized McNabb Sunday – picking off two on-target but doomed throws and returning them both for touchdowns – was more than solid defense; it was borderline cruelty. Up until those two moments on Sunday in Raymond James Stadium, this was looking for all the world like Donovan McNabb's year.
Free of the Owens circus, McNabb was piloting the league's number-one ranked offense. It had been 23 years since a quarterback started a season with as many big plays as had McNabb this year. No other quarterback this season had thrown more completions of at least 20-plus yards, and the Eagles' offense led everybody in plays of 10 or more yards. Somewhere along the way, McNabb might have invented sliced bread. And on top of it all, the Eagles were in first place in the NFC East, already having vanquished their arch-nemesis, the Dallas Cowboys. Accolades were heaped on, MVP talk buzzed and life, in general, for McNabb was good.
Against the 1-4 Buccaneers, McNabb was supposed to hit some big plays, get the always respectful Philly faithful chanting E-A-G-L-E-S and leave with first place in the NFC East firmly secured. Instead, though he did throw for 302 yards and three touchdowns, he just as often found himself starring in his own personal nightmare, courtesy of Barber. And it was a nightmare he had dreamed before.
Flashback to the 2002 NFC Championship Game between the Eagles and the Buccaneers: During the fourth quarter of that game, McNabb and the Eagles had mounted a drive deep into Buccaneers territory, trying to cut the Buccaneers' lead to three points. Nearing the end zone and an avenue back into a game the Bucs had dominated for three quarters, McNabb fired a quick pass, expecting a blitz from Barber who had shown that look by crowding the line. Instead, Barber dropped back just before the snap and stepped in front of McNabb's hot read, making the interception and returning it 92 yards for a game-sealing touchdown. Barber's bluff had worked, and the Buccaneers would go on to win the Super Bowl a week later.
One had to wonder if that memory flashed in McNabb's mind as he looked at Barber sprinting 37 yards down the field Sunday for the first score of the game. If it didn't he would have another chance to recall the vision two quarters later when Barber again bullied the All-Pro quarterback, this time snatching a pass out of the air and returning in 66 yards for another defensive touchdown.
If McNabb had thrown T.O. touchdown passes on that consistent of a basis, the two might still be best buds.
"You get opportunities," Barber said. "We've had a bunch of them in the course of the season – in the secondary, especially – and we haven't taken advantage of them. I told these guys it's not alright anymore to leave these opportunities out there. I talked the talk, I guess I walked the walk."
He certainly did. His two touchdown returns off of interceptions not only gave Barber two more touchdowns than his running back brother, Tiki, has this season for the New York Giants, it marked the first time in the Buccaneers' 31-year history that a player had accomplished such a feat in a regular-season game. He is the first player with two INT TDs in the same game since Houston's Aaron Glenn in 2002, and only the 23rd player ever to accomplish that feat, tying an all-time NFL record.
Among active players, Barber now has the most interceptions (30) with his current team. And he's second among active players with eight defensive touchdowns during regular-season play, trailing only Darren Sharper's nine (Barber owns a ninth touchdown on a return of a deflected punt in 1998). He also moved into second all-time in interceptions as a Buccaneer, moving just one behind the all-time leader and his former teammate, Donnie Abraham (31). Most importantly, Barber's performance buoyed a Buccaneers team whose offense struggled, helping a dig a deep hole for the Eagles.
Of course, McNabb and company did climb their way out of that hole, scoring three straight touchdowns in the second half to grab a 21-20 lead with 33 seconds to play. Matt Bryant's stunning, 62-yard field goal saved the day for the Buccaneers as time expired, but the Bucs would never have been in position to win it that way without Barber's heroics.
The impressive thing about both picks was that Barber didn't luck his way into either of them. On both plays, McNabb put the ball where he wanted it but Barber simply read the play too well. On the first interception, he left his man in the slot to cut underneath a slant pass to outside man Hank Baskett. On the second, he sniffed out a comebacker and took the perfect route to cut in front of Greg Lewis at the last second.
"I just tried to put it in a position where Lewis was going to be able to catch it and get out of bounds, but Ronde did a great job of reading it," McNabb admitted after the game. "Actually, both interceptions. The first interception was man coverage and he was taken up by Jason Avant, but he peeled off as I was going outside. The second was a great read on his part by jumping in front of the out cut, and taking it the distance."
In the days prior to McNabb's meltdown at the Barber-shop, Ronde and Tiki were guests on a national morning show where they promoted their new children's book on teamwork. As the interview was wrapping up, a question was posed to Tiki about what the storyline would be in Week Eight when the brothers meet in New York. A joking Tiki said it would be whether or not the Buccaneers had their second win of the season by then. He then acknowledged he had taken a low blow at his Buccaneer brother, but Ronde just sat back and grinned sheepishly.
Maybe he knew something the rest of us didn't, or maybe he just knew his favorite quarterback was coming to town.