The pinnacle of Ronde Barber's NFL career – so far – was when he shared in the raising of the Lombardi Trophy with this teammates on the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. From the standpoint of personal honors, one might choose any one of his five Pro Bowls or three Associated Press First-Team All-Pro selections, or perhaps his inclusion on the NFL's All-Decade Team for the 2000s. From a purely statistical standpoint, one might best sum up Barber's career as such: He is the only player in league history to record at least 25 sacks and at least 40 interceptions.
However, if you ask most Buccaneer fans what they most remember from Barber's illustrious career (again, so far), and it won't be any of those things, at least not specifically. The most unforgettable image of Barber in a Buccaneer uniform is him streaking down the sideline in Philadelphia, in the final game ever played in Veterans Stadium, carrying with him the intercepted football that was going to take his team to the Super Bowl.
This Sunday, Barber will make his 200th consecutive start for the Buccaneers, and the team is celebrating the occasion in a number of ways, including half-priced food and non-alcoholic drinks, free parking in select lots and a special giveaway item. While that particular streak started in 1999, and has lasted longer than any other such run by a cornerback in league history, Barber actually started making a big impression at the end of the 1997 season. Overall, he has played in 225 regular-season games and started 216, the former a franchise record the latter just five shy of catching Derrick Brooks for the top mark.
Obviously, some of those games have been better than others. Some, like the night in Philly, are the stuff of legend. While winning the Super Bowl is any NFL player's crowning achievement, and postseason awards help define a competitor's career, a fantastic single-game performance can come at any point in the season. With Barber, there are plenty such outings to choose from, but as we begin the countdown to his 200th consecutive starter, we're going to identify what we consider the five best games of the future Hall of Famer's career.
And, yes, we may have already spoiled the drama regarding which game will be Number One on the list, but read on anyway to relive Barber's biggest moments.
5. September 10, 2000, vs. Chicago
The Bucs had high hopes as the 2000 season started after they fell just a few minutes short of making it to the Super Bowl in 1999. Shaun King was getting the job at quarterback from Day One and they had invested heavily in star wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, but the Bucs still knew they would be led by their defense. At the time, Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and John Lynch were seen as sort of a Defensive Big Three at the core of that unit, but Barber served notice early that there was at least a fourth superstar in the mix…and not just in pass coverage. Two weeks into the season, the Buccaneers also served notice on the league in general with the most lopsided win in franchise history, a 41-0 thrashing of long-time rival Chicago at Raymond James Stadium. They did so in part by unleashing Barber on the backfield. In addition to his three tackles in that game, Barber also forced a fumble, recovered a fumble and, amazingly, recorded 2.5 sacks. He had two of those sacks before the first quarter was even half over, and on the second one he forced a fumble that Shelton Quarles recovered in Chicago territory. In the second quarter, he keyed a 20-point outburst by picking up a fumble and returning it 25 yards for a touchdown.
4. December 11, 2005, at Carolina
The Buccaneers went to Charlotte in Week 14 of the 2005 season in the midst of three straight road games in the span of 14 days. They had won the week before in New Orleans but were underdogs against the Panthers, and a loss would essentially eliminate Tampa Bay from the NFC South title race, especially with a trip to New England looming. An inspired Buccaneers team jumped out to a 13-0 lead and then took it to 20-3 in the fourth quarter, but the home team kept trying to rally. Early in the final period, Jake Delhomme drove the Panthers to the Bucs' 12-yard line then tried to hit noted Tampa Bay-killer Ricky Proehl for a touchdown that would have made the score 13-10. Instead, Barber intercepted the pass and returned it almost all the way to midfield. That set up Cadillac Williams for his second touchdown run of the game. Carolina promptly drove back into Bucs territory again, but on third-and-10 from the 27 a blitzing Barber sacked Delhomme for a loss of 12 yards, killing the scoring chance. He also spread around eight tackles during the course of the game as the Bucs won 20-10 and went on to take the division title. The sack was the 20th of Barber's career, which made him the first 20-sack, 20-interception cornerback in NFL history, and he was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts.
3. December 23, 2001, vs. New Orleans
Aaron Brooks and the Saints would probably prefer to have never seen Barber again after this game. Brooks threw for over 300 yards and hit three TD passes, but the Bucs still swamped the Saints, 48-21, because Barber was everywhere. Before the game was over, the Bucs' cornerback had become the first player in franchise history to pick off three passes in a single game (a feat he would match again in 2005, amazingly also against the Saints). Barber's first interception came on Brooks' very first pass of the game, and he returned it 15 yards to the New Orleans 12-yard line to set up Tampa Bay's second TD in five minutes. Barber got him again just before halftime, intercepting another pass in Saints territory, but time ran out during his return to the Saints' 16. Finally, in the fourth quarter, Barber finished off the hat trick by snaring another Brooks pass and this time taking care of the scoring by himself, returning it 36 yards for the Bucs' last points of the game.
2. October 22, 2006, vs. Philadelphia
This game is most remembered – and rightfully so – for Matt Bryant's 62-yard field goal that provided the winning points in a 23-21 decision in the final seconds. After all, that remains the second-longest game-winning field goal in NFL history. However, the Bucs never would have been in position to win without the ridiculous contributions of Barber, who contributed six tackles, a forced fumble, two interceptions and two passes defensed. If that sounds like just another day at the office for the Pro Bowl DB, well, he also happened to return those two interceptions for a total of 103 yards and two touchdowns. The Philly quarterback victimized was Donovan McNabb, and that made it all the more reminiscent of a certain game in…oh, wait, can't spoil the surprise. On this afternoon, Barber started matters off by forcing wide receiver Jason Avant to fumble on the game-opening possession, spoiling a drive that had moved inside the Bucs' 20-yard line. Three plays into the second quarter, Barber sniffed out a quick slant to Hank Baskett and cut in front of it to pick it off and return it 36 yards for the game's first touchdown. In the third quarter, McNabb looked down the left sideline for Greg Lewis but Barber got to the ball first, got away from Lewis and raced 66 yards right down the line for his second score and a 17-0 lead. Obviously, the Eagles rallied to take the lead before Bryant's heroics, but it was Barber's opportunistic plays that helped the Bucs overcome a 506-196 edge in total yards on the day.
Before we move on to the top game of the list (and kill the incredible suspense that has built up since this selection is such a mystery), we must point out a number of other single-game performances that didn't quite make this list. Perhaps this should have been a Top 10, rather than a Top Five.
Honorable Mentions: (11/29/98 at Chicago) Only four tackles and a pass defensed but also returned a deflected punt 23 yards for a touchdown, earning his one NFC Special Teams Player of the Week Award…(12/7/98) In a thrilling Monday Night Football win over arch-rival Green Bay, in which the Bucs' defense sacked Brett Favre eight times and caused eight fumbles, was in the middle of all the action, recording nine tackles, a sack and two forced fumbles…(11/11/01) Won NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors after crucial play in a tight 20-17 win at Detroit, recording seven tackles, four passes defensed and two interceptions…(12/29/01) In the Bucs' 22-10 win over the defending-champion Baltimore Ravens, broke the club record with his 10th interception of the season and broke up an incredible five passes to go with seven tackles…(1/12/03) In a brilliant performance overshadowed by the win in Philadelphia the next weekend, helped the Bucs demolish San Francisco, 31-6, with four tackles, an interception and a pass defensed, though his long return for a touchdown was erased by a post-turnover penalty away from the play…(12/4/05) Matched his own Buccaneer single-game record by picking off three passes against New Orleans and returning them for a total of 70 yards…(11/23/08) Sparked an incredible comeback win at Detroit and earned another Player of the Week award with two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown…(9/25/11) Did it all, and again was named Player of the Week, in the Bucs' win over Atlanta, combining four tackles with a tackle for loss, an interception, a fumble recovery and five passes defensed.
1. January 19, 2003, at Philadelphia
Like it could be any other choice. Even if it was the only notable play Barber made in the whole game, his interception and 92-yard return for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter of the 2002 NFC Championship Game would put this game at the top of the list. Though the Super Bowl win the following week is obviously the most important win in franchise history, this one is a close second, and many regard Barber's clinching pick as the single best play in team annals. On the play, a first-and-goal snap from the Bucs' 10-yard line with the visitors clinging to a 20-10 lead, Barber came up to the left edge of the line to fake a blitz. He hoped to bait McNabb into a similar hot-read throw he had made to the left flat on an earlier blitz, and in fact that's exactly how the Philly quarterback responded. By this point, Barber had dropped back into coverage and was anticipating the throw, so he was able to break on it immediately, cut in front of Antonio Freeman on a dead run and get well past all the potential Eagle tacklers before they could even react. He ran the rest of the way untouched and held the ball above his head as he loped into the end zone on the opposite end of a suddenly very quiet Veterans Stadium. Of course, that wasn't Barber's only big moment of the game. He also contributed three tackles, a forced fumble, four passes defensed and even a sack. That sack of McNabb was almost as important of a play as his interception. Tampa Bay's lead was just 17-10 at halftime, and on their first drive of the third quarter the Eagles moved just past midfield before Barber blitzed on a second-and-eight play. Barber came around behind McNabb and swatted the ball out of his hand and it was recovered by the Buccaneers at the Eagles' 47. Philadelphia wouldn't threaten again until that drive down to Tampa Bay's 10 in the fourth quarter, and thanks to Barber's signature moment, it would be too late.