TAMPA — Shortly after Tony Dungy arrived as the Bucs head coach in the 1990s, he was able to make suitable comparisons to members of the Steel Curtain defense he played with in Pittsburgh with some of his young stars.
Derrick Brooks could become the next Jack Ham. Warren Sapp could rush the passer like Joe Greene. John Lynch had the speed, physicality and instincts to match Donnie Shell.
“When I talked to Derrick (Brooks) and I talked to Warren (Sapp) that first week I was here, I told them, ‘If you guys do what I think you can do, you should be multiple All Pros, you should be Hall of Famers because you have the skill sets and this defense is set for you,’” Dungy said.
“With John Lynch, you could kind of see it. And John had the same mold, ‘You’re Donnie Shell in this defense.’ I couldn’t go to Ronde Barber and say that. There was no prototype for him. But now, I can go to someone else and say, ‘You could be Ronde Barber.’”
The 5-foot-10, 184-pound Barber revolutionized the slot cornerback position, and his versatility as a pass defender, run stopper and blitzer was unmatched by any player his size.
It is reflected in some of his incomparable stats: 47 interceptions, 28 sacks, 15 forced fumbles, 12 fumble recoveries, 12 touchdowns and 1,251 tackles.
Of course, almost more impressive than Barber’s ability was his durability. He played 16 seasons, which included 215 consecutive games, the most of any defensive back in NFL history.
Two years ago, after enjoying the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony and party for Lynch, former Jets and Chiefs head coach Herm Edwards ran into Barber at the airport in Akron, Ohio.
“I looked at him and said, ‘You’re next!’” said Edwards, who was Barber’s first defensive backs coach when he was drafted in 1997. “He said, ‘Man, I don’t know.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry about it. You’re going to get in.’ And you think about that team, and I’ve always said, you build great teams in the middle. You had Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, John Lynch and Barber. All inside players. In my opinion, four Hall of Famers on one defense.”
Barber, who is a finalist for the third straight year, could get his call to the Hall during Thursday’s night’s NFL Honors program from Super Bowl 57 in Phoenix, Arizona.
His first year of eligibility came in 2018. But Barber knows something about being patient.
‘We grew with him’
After being drafted by the Bucs in the third round out of Virginia, Barber was inactive for all but one regular-season game as a rookie.
Donnie Abraham and Anthony Parker were the Bucs’ starting cornerbacks in the second year under Dungy. What’s more, Edwards didn’t believe Barber was ready for the transition to the NFL.
When he did play in a game against the Cardinals, receiver Rob Moore caught eight passes for 147 yards, including a 41-yarder, and a touchdown in the Bucs’ 19-18 win.
Barber wouldn’t play the rest of the regular season. But in the NFC division playoff game at Green Bay, Edwards felt Barber was ready.
“It was funny because he came in and he wasn’t in shape,” Edwards said. “I went to Tony (Dungy) and I said, ‘We’re not dressing him. He’s got to learn how to be a pro.’ I walked up to him and said, ‘Ronde, here’s the deal, man. You’ve got to learn how to be a pro football player. Studying, coming to work. That’s the deal right now.’ And he practiced and he did what he did.
“I remember we were getting ready to play Green Bay and I walked up to him and I said, ‘You’re ready now, man. You’re going to play against Green Bay. ... You’re ready for Brett Favre. Let’s go.’ From that day on, he never missed a snap.”
Dungy admits it took the coaching staff time to discover all the incredible traits Barber possessed in order to determine the best ways to utilize him.
“He had a special skill set, but I don’t think we knew that going in,” Dungy said. “We looked for certain characteristics and he had them all. He was tough, he was smart, he had ball skills, he had moxie — so that’s why we drafted him. As he practiced more, you could see it come. You knew he was going to be a good player. But I don’t think we said, ‘Oh, this is the prototype for what we were looking for.’ But the more he played, the more things we found out he could do.
“Yes, he can blitz. Yes, he can cover people. Yes, he has a great feel for zone. Man, he can cover people. We can do this or that with him. The more he was in there, the more we were able to do. And the more we gave him, the more he accepted it and was phenomenal. But I think we grew with him and it was really neat to see.”
A transcendent talent
Barber is a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame for the third straight time in six years of eligibility. Only two players would appear to be first-ballot candidates this year: Browns tackle Joe Thomas and Jets, Bucs, Patriots and Chiefs cornerback Darrelle Revis.
Barber hit all the mileposts to become a member of the Hall. He was a five-time Pro Bowl player, three-time All Pro, member of the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 2000s and a Super Bowl champion.
You want a signature moment? He provided what still ranks as the biggest play in franchise history, a 92-yard interception return for a touchdown to seal the Bucs’ upset win at Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game that sent them to Super Bowl 37 in San Diego during the 2002 season.
“The most dangerous position is the slot,” said Hall of Famer Sapp. “Ricky Proehl, Julian Edelman, Cooper Kupp, Andre Reed — they live in there. Cris Carter used to come from outside and get in the slot because the middle of the field is the most precious territory in the National Football League and your slot corner has to be an SOB. No one uses a fullback anymore. They put the third receiver in there.
“We were the first defense that had to deal with that with the Vikings using Cris Carter, Jake Reed and Randy Moss. You know who went in the slot, right? Cris Carter. You’ve got one of the baddest, 130-catch receivers willing to go in the slot. And for us, the way we played that Cover 2, the middle of the field only had (linebacker) Shelton Quarles running down the middle back.
“We needed a nickel if you pushed up and went out, because that’s what most people liked to do. … Ronde ate that up.”
Barber’s longevity is even more startling when you consider his ability to avoid 300-pound blockers and root out running backs, along with his ability to beat offensive guards off the line of scrimmage.
“It was different how we used Ronde,” Edwards said. “He was basically playing (strongside) linebacker and he was the nickel. With three receivers, he’s in the game.”
Barber became a film junkie, helping him understand route combinations and run-blocking schemes that would give him an advantage while preserving his body. He was one of the league’s best tacklers and rarely failed to get the ballcarrier on the ground.
“Oh my God, yeah. It’s his tackling ability,” Edwards said. “Him and (Lynch), what they could do, they understood formations, they understood blocking techniques. They studied that stuff. Ronde was an also a great blitzer. I remember walking in there one day saying, ‘It’s one thing to knock the ball down, it’s another thing when you catch it. You’ve got to catch the ball, man, because that’s big. That’s how the game changes, when you take possessions away from the offense.’ He had great hands and instincts.”
Later in his career, the twin brother of Giants running back Tiki Barber switched to safety, playing his final two seasons there under coach Raheem Morris.
“He’s one of the most iconic players in the history of the game,” said former Bucs coach Bruce Arians. “He transcended cornerback to nickelback and the Tampa 2 defense; if you don’t have a nickelback, you don’t have a defense and this was one of the best defenses of all time.”
If Barber becomes the fourth member of the Bucs’ Super Bowl champion defense to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Thursday, that would cement their status among the best of all time.
The Steel Curtain defense has five.
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