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10 and counting

Ronde Barber enjoyed a breakout season in 2001, tying for the NFL lead in interceptions. But the standout cornerback insists he will get even better.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 12, 2002


photo
[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Ronde Barber runs with his seventh interception of the season, a first-quarter pick of Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks on Dec. 23.
PHILADELPHIA -- It's a number that defines the metric system. Or Bo Derek. Or Commandments. Or what surfers hang.

Take a look at that figure, all nice and round, with double-digits.

It's simply so many interceptions, that Ronde Barber can't remember all 10 of them.

"The first one was at Minnesota. That was when Daunte (Culpepper) just tried to throw it to Cris Carter in the flat and I broke in front of him and intercepted it," said Barber, the Bucs fifth-year cornerback. "God, I can't remember the second one. Three and four were in Detroit, and those were probably the most athletic ones. The one-handed catch. Five was Chicago. Six? I can't remember where six was. Seven, eight, nine were New Orleans. Then 10 was against Baltimore, which was a gimme.

"It's been a ride, man. There was never a point when I felt like I was just going to start racking up interceptions. They just started coming. I just wanted to be in position to make plays. I just try to focus on my job play in and play out. It seems like when I do that, the plays come to me."

And it's how the Buccaneers came to make the playoffs. Defense still rules with a heavy hand in Tampa Bay, and Barber was the NFL's interception king.

His performance is why the Bucs led the NFC (and was second only to the Jets) in turnover ratio at plus-17. The Bucs' 28 interceptions were just four short of a team record set in 1981.

What's so strange is prior to the 2001 season, Barber had never recorded more than two interceptions in a single season, and his career total was six.

photo
[Special to the Times]
This undated family photo shows future NFL stars Ronde and twin brother Tiki chumming around.
Then for some unexplained reason, quarterbacks started throwing footballs toward him. More importantly, he started catching them.

"I made a lot of plays. I had a lot of pass breakups before," said Barber. "It's just a matter of catching them. Really, before, especially in '98 and '99, it was never an issue of saying "Let's go get interceptions.' Yeah, I talked about it. But I was too worried about doing my job. I had a lot to do in cover two. My brain was wracked for the first couple years. I was playing that nickel position. I was just trying to get that down as best I could.

"Pretty much at the end of last year, and definitely going into this preseason, I felt like I knew there was everything I needed to know about any situation you could come up with. That frees you up mentally and lets you go be an athlete, and I think that's come out."

It's funny, but just 11 months ago, Barber had trouble even getting nibbles from other NFL teams.

An enticing free agent, and the less famous of the Barber twins (brother Tiki plays running back for the New York Giants), he even had to wait until the sunset of the free agent period to receive a new multimillion deal from his own team.

10 and counting
Ronde Barber enjoyed a breakout season in 2001, tying for the NFL lead in interceptions. But the standout cornerback insists he will get even better.

Barber's interceptions

Famous ahtletic twins
In addition to the Barber brothers, there have been many accomplished twins in the world of sports. Here are some notables with the help of Twinstuff.com.

Not that Barber didn't generate interest. But most teams were severely limited by the salary cap. And on the surface, Barber didn't appear to be the best cornerback on his team. How much do you spend on a 5-foot-10 cornerback who plays a predominately zone system and isn't a speed burner?

"It's the immeasurables," said Bucs secondary coach Mike Tomlin. "You can't measure instinct and desire. Those are probably his two biggest attributes. He's got tremendous instincts for the game. When he plays inside, he's a linebacker. That's how he plays, it's how he feels and moves. He's just a football player. Some people have it. He's blessed and has it."

That's not to suggest that Barber has skated through his NFL career. In his rookie season, the third-round pick from Virginia saw action in only one game and was so shaky that he was inactive for each contest until the second playoff game at Green Bay.

"It's been a long damn road. It wasn't like I jumped on the Veterans (Expressway) up in Citrus County and ended up down here," said Barber. "I took the whole trip. There were a lot of growing pains. Definitely some tough times, even amid the good times, there were some tough times for me. But it just made me a better football player."

What makes Barber unique is that he's even a better person. He greets people with a smile as big as a cantaloupe slice and is the laid-back version of Tiki, who is seven minutes younger.

Together, the Barbers adorned the pages of at least three national magazines this season -- Sports Illustrated, Gentleman's Quarterly and People. The latter named the Barber twins the sexiest athletes.

Both are married. Ronde exchanged vows in the offseason with Claudia, the beneficiary of his romantic side. For her birthday, he covered the bed in rose petals.

A year ago, it was Tiki who carried the torch into the playoffs. Ironically, he ended up at Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa, where the Giants lost to the Baltimore Ravens.

Ronde lived the experience through his brother, and now it's Tiki's turn to root for the Bucs in the playoffs. Last week, Ronde became the first Barber to be named to the Pro Bowl.

"He definitely is living through me this time," said Ronde. "We talked about that a little today. I asked him if he was going to Philly. He said, "Hell, no. They're the worst fans in the . . . league.' He's been living through me a little bit, and I think he's excited."

It happens just about every time he turns on SportsCenter and watches Ronde return another interception. Barber credits the explosion of pickoffs to the lessons he learned from former Bucs and current Jets coach Herman Edwards and Tomlin.

"I've said it 100 times, I've been coached as well as any player could possibly be coached," said Barber. "Herm laid the foundation in fundamentals and in scheme. Mike comes in here and shores up technique that I haven't even paid attention to. All that combined made me into a good corner."

So what is Barber's pick of the picks?

"The touchdown (against New Orleans)," said Barber. "It's always good to score. That's one of our objectives, to score or get the ball back for our offense. So yeah, that one meant a lot.

"Numbers-wise, they all look great at the end of the season. It doesn't matter how you got them. The ones in Detroit were huge because they both stopped scoring drives. They at least get a field goal out of those, and that game ended up being overtime. That ended up being two game-deciding plays for us, so those obviously mean a lot."

Tampa Bay's first-team defense has allowed one touchdown or less in four of its past six games, and Barber said the Bucs' swagger is back -- just in time for today's NFC wild-card matchup against the Eagles and quarterback Donovan McNabb.

"Absolutely, man," said Barber. "I was telling Monte on the sideline of the Baltimore game when Mike scored that last touchdown. He was like, "God, he should've just knelt on it (and run out the clock).' I was like, "Monte, that swagger is back, man. This guy (Elvis Grbac) is not going to beat us. I was really confident saying that at that time.

"I think statistics say a lot of things. But if people look at our defense the last five or six weeks, I think we've been the best in the league. I think a lot of other teams probably realize that, too. It has a lot to do with a lot of great individual play. More or less, it's come down to guys doing their job and not trying to do too much. Nail your details and your teammates do their jobs too and we'll be great.

"You look at guys like Darrell Green, who have been playing in this league forever. His level of play, his standard, has never dropped. I'm sure now it's not where it started. It's the same way for me. My standards have continued to go up, and they'll continue to go up. Even when people say I can't get any better. I'll say, "You know what? I can.' I think that's what's going to drive me and make me into the best player I can be."

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