As Buccaneer fans know, CB Ronde Barber doesn't save all of his big plays for the postseason
Ronde Barber has been through this all before. The intensified media scrutiny. The extra hours of preparation. The heightened sense of urgency.
It's the playoffs. Win, or go home.
But even though the whirlwind of excitement that comes with postseason football has blown into town, Barber remains as calm as ever.
That's not surprising, perhaps, given that this is a man who has played extremely well when the lights were the brightest. Look no further than his 92-yard interception return in the 2002 NFC Championship Game against the Eagles, an iconic play that sealed the Bucs' first trip to the Super Bowl.
Barber has always come up big in big games. But as he talks about the Bucs' latest foray into January, it's clear that his success relies on sticking to his routine, which already includes intense preparation on any given week.
"You've got to do your best to make it just another football game," Barber said. "Obviously there's a lot more attention, and there is added preparation, because there's no chance for tomorrow if you lose. That aspect of it does change a little bit, but really, you've got to stay to your routine. You spent 17 weeks doing this for a reason – so you could do it seamlessly in the next four, hopefully."
It is this level-headed mindset that has carried Barber throughout his career, especially in the nine postseason games he has played. In those nine playoff contests, Barber has tallied 43 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, 11 passes defensed and two interceptions, one of them which he returned for that memorable touchdown. His other pick also went the distance against San Francisco earlier in that same playoff run, but much of the return was called back on an unrelated penalty.
You'll hear no gloating from Barber, though, about being a "big-game player" or anything of the sort.
"There's no difference; I've made some big plays in the regular season too," Barber said. "There's just a lot more emphasis on everything that you do in the playoffs. If you score, if you break up a pass, even something as simple as downing a punt inside the 20, it's considered a huge play. I'm just doing my job, man. It just shows up sometimes in the playoffs and gets a lot more attention. I've made some big plays over the years, but it's just me being in the place I'm supposed to be in and making the play."
Barber is one of the veterans a young Buccaneers team will be looking to for guidance as it navigates its way through the 2007 playoffs. Nine regulars will be making their first appearances in the postseason, including five on the defensive side of the ball. But as one of the Bucs with the most playoff experience under his belt, Barber is doing what he can to help keep the first-timers on an even keel.
"It's always a concern when you get young guys in the playoffs that don't know how to react to a pressure situation, or what's perceived to be a pressure situation," Barber said. "The old guys, they're even talking about it out on the practice field, saying, 'Lean on the older guys, let their experience shine through.' If we do it right, and everybody comes together the way we think we have been doing all year, then we should be alright.
"I control the guys I can, the guys in my room, the young guys on defense who I can really put a bug in their ear on. But you don't want to put too much pressure on them, really. You just emphasize doing your job the way you've been doing it for the past 17 weeks and I think that'll be enough."
Barber admitted that due to the lack of postseason experience, the makeup of this year's defense is slightly different than some playoff teams of which he's been a part, especially the Super Bowl crew in 2002. But he also expressed confidence in his defensive teammates, saying that the youngsters have done everything that has been asked of them this season.
"It's different, especially the 2002 defense, when you compare it to this one," Barber said. "It's starkly different. That team had a lot of veterans on it, a lot of guys that were poised to win and had been doing it for a lot of years, whereas this one is very young. At least four guys that have never played in the NFL have contributed big time for us, and that's something that me, personally, I have to get used to, here going into the playoffs, especially. That's made us a really good team, because the young guys have played well. You need them to play well. We've trusted them and they have."
Even though this year's squad stacks up a little differently, Barber said all he cares about is what happens at the end of the day.
"Different qualities to the defense, but the same result – that's all that's important," he said.
While he exhibits a calm demeanor on the outside, don't think that Barber is blasé about another Super Bowl run, or that playing in the postseason has somehow lost its luster over the years.
As teammate Derrick Brooks put it earlier in the week, "The longer you play, the more you appreciate winning. It's all about appreciating the moment. You never know the next time you'll be in this situation."
Barber has been in the league for 11 years now, and said he also understands just how important the chance to play in the postseason is.
"I spent the first 10 years of my career going to the playoffs seven times, and three that I didn't go have all been in the last four years," Barber said. "That's frustrating, especially when you start with such early success. It is a precious opportunity, and you have to take advantage of it. You have to be prepared to deal with whatever extra variables there are, whether it's the media attention or just 80 percent more of the population watching you because you're the only game in town. There are some things you have to get used to, but that also brings a lot of excitement. To not be able to take part in that some of those years was definitely frustrating. I'm glad we're back."
As he looked forward to Sunday's matchup against the Giants, Barber also took a moment to gaze back and reflect on his postseason experiences. He's certainly come a long way from that untested rookie that took the playoff field for the first time way back in January of 1997.
"It's different now," Barber said. "The first time is always a little shock. I remember my first playoff game was in Green Bay my first year. I had no idea what to expect. Once I started playing, I had no idea what I was doing. I don't want to say it's old hat now, but this is definitely my job and I have fun doing it now."