The Bucs' Ronde Barber knows that cornerbacks prove themselves during the regular season, not in the Pro Bowl
As he warmed up for Friday's practice with the NFC's Pro Bowl squad in sunny Honolulu, Ronde Barber noticed a trend. Each morning, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' all-star cornerback realized, his team was spending less and less time stretching.
Actually, that was a pretty easy trend to spot, because NFL football teams, in general, are fanatically routine about their pre-practice stretching program. Every workout starts with a precisely regimented and very thorough stretch that loosens up muscles all over the body and thus lessens the chance for injury. It's not unusual for teams to spend 20 or 30 minutes in this manner.
But this is the Pro Bowl, where the talent level exceeds an ordinary game but the competition is less extreme. Each conference wants very much to win, but the contest's rules are designed to minimize injury risk and maximize scoring. There's very little room for coaches to actually out-think each other, and none of the complexity that marks a normal NFL game plan on either side of the ball.
Barber says the NFC defense has three fronts and three coverages they will use on Sunday against the AFC and its roster of all-star runners and receivers. The cornerbacks will almost always fall back into deep zones or loose man coverage, and they are not allowed to press or re-route receivers until the ball is inside their own five-yard line.
So there really isn't much to practice, which means the entire team is on the field for about an hour, less as the week progresses. Less work, less exertion, less need to stretch.
"It's not just a walk-through, but it's not like a normal practice," said Barber after Friday's NFC session. "We do have periods for the offense and defense. I think we practiced about 10 offensive plays. On defense, we go through our three fronts and a couple coverages. We're just going over the little details...and there really aren't many of those."
Like his teammates, especially on defense, Barber knows there's only so much preparation he can do, given the game's rules. He can come to the game in good shape and let his natural talents take over, but he can't really expect to play the kind of defense he does during the season.
Imagine trying to cover Marvin Harrison and Chad Johnson...well, we could stop there. That in itself is challenge enough. But imagine trying to cover Marvin Harrison and Chad Johnson when they know exactly where they are going to go before the play begins, and they also know exactly what kind of defense you're going to play. In a regular-season game, Barber would attempt to get the job done not only through pure coverage but by knocking a receiver off his route, disguising a zone or relying on intense pressure up front to rush the play. Those aren't really options in the Pro Bowl, so cornerbacks like Ronde Barber know what they're in for. Barber has played in two previous Pro Bowls and, yes, he's been beaten for big plays. He wouldn't be surprised if it happened again this weekend.
"It's impossible, really," he said with obvious good humor about the situation. "You're going to get beat – we know that as cornerbacks. But we still want to compete a little bit. These games definitely glorify passing, but that's what people want to see. They want to see high scores. We understand that. We know we're judged on our accomplishments during the year, and we're not trying to prove ourselves on Pro Bowl Sunday."
The two times Barber has played in the Pro Bowl, after the 2001 and 2004 seasons, the AFC scored 38 points each time. Peyton Manning threw three touchdowns last February, leading the AFC to an 11-point victory. Barber hasn't been on the winning side of the all-star game yet, and the AFC has taken seven of the last nine Pro Bowls. Barber doesn't think that's an indication of a talent gap between the two conferences, but he does think the AFC's star passers have been a big part of the difference.
"I'm not sure why [the AFC has dominated recently]," he said. "Well, the AFC is more of a passing conference, there's no doubt about that. They may have great runners over there, especially in the Pro Bowl, but they always seem to showcase they're passing talent. I mean, they have great passers, like Peyton and [Tom] Brady. They put up great numbers during the season and they come here trying to prove that all over again."
Manning will start for the AFC again this year, and he'll be backed up by Kansas City's Trent Green and Tennessee's Steve McNair (Brady, Carson Palmer and Jake Plummer all had to pull out due to injury). They held their own brief practice on Friday, with fans allowed into the stadium to watch, and to get autographs. The NFC's Thursday practice was similarly open to the public.
"I would say there were a couple hundred people there – I'm not really good at estimating that kind of thing," said Barber. "They were all on one side of the stadium, and they seemed to enjoy it. A lot of them wanted autographs, too, just like back in the [contiguous] states. Of course, I think a lot of them were tourists from the states. It was just like at home."
The sights, however, are nothing like at home. On Thursday, for instance, Barber and his traveling party drove across Oahu to get to a famous golf course called Koolau in Kaneohe. The roadside scenery as they traversed the island's volcano was spectacular.
"The drive through the mountains was just beautiful," said Barber. "It was amazing, just the vegetation growing on the side of the volcano. The drive itself was worth the trip."
The destination wasn't bad, either. Koolau bills itself as the toughest golf course in the United States, perhaps in the world. It's very long – between 6,800 and 7,300 yards, depending on the tees – and it has breathtaking mountain and rainforest views. Views or distractions, depending upon your determination to score well.
Koolau, in fact, has a "slope rating" of 155 , indicating its difficulty to bogey golfers. Slope rating was devised by the USGA to mirror "course rating," which tells a scratch golfer how difficult a course is. The thought is that a harder course will increase the score discrepancy between stronger and weaker players, leading to a steeper "slope" between scores if plotted on a graph. Minimum slope rating is 55 and maximum is 155, so Koolau's rating seems to back up its claim of toughness.
On Friday, Barber was happy to report that he had handled that 155 just fine, thank you.
"I played pretty darn well," he insisted. "Of course, I've played three days in a row since we got here, so that helps. I mean, by the third day you're starting to figure out how to play your game."
It might even be said that his golf game has seen more work than his primary occupation this week. But that's okay. Maybe another 18 holes can substitute for the lack of stretching.