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Barber has team singing his praises

Cornerback shows Pro Bowl voters what Bucs coaches, players already know in one of the best games of his career.

By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 20, 2003


PHILADELPHIA -- At the start of the season, Ronde Barber was playing so well that coach Jon Gruden routinely pointed it out to the rest of the Bucs players and challenged them to play like his starting cornerback.

But no one in the NFL noticed. No one, at least, who had a hand in deciding who goes to the Pro Bowl.

In setting an NFC Championship Game record with a 92-yard interception return for a touchdown Sunday and playing, arguably, the greatest game of his career, the sixth-year player set the record straight.

"I was feeling it all day," Barber said. "I came out with a lot of energy. I had my good eye on the Super Bowl and my bad eye right here trying to deal with this."

Free safety Dexter Jackson said: "He's a Pro Bowl player in our minds. They had all the Pro Bowl players didn't they? Who would you choose right now? I don't know how many of their guys made big plays today. I don't know. But I know he did."

Like he has so many times this season, one in which he had 95 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions and 21 passes defensed, Barber made several critical plays. He tapped away balls on third down, stepped up to the line of scrimmage and stopped the runner, had a sack and a forced fumble. He even gained extra yards on a penalty while fielding a punt.

"I don't know if I've ever seen a defensive back, or one single player for that matter, make as many plays as he did today," defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "Some times I have to watch the film to see what a player did, but it was so obvious with him. He was right there, every single time he puts his hands on the ball, knocks it down and doesn't get a pass interference call."

General manager Rich McKay said Barber's play, including the interception that silenced the Vet, helped cap a season that was almost as special as the one Derrick Brooks had. Brooks was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

"He is the right guy to make that play," McKay said. "With the season he's had, he played so well at the start of the season. Had he just kept his hands on a couple of balls that slipped away, he would have been looking at a magical season as it is. He didn't get the credit he deserved. I'm happy for him."

No one was more happy than twin brother Tiki. The Giants running back was on hand Jan. 12 to see his brother's interception against the 49ers called back. Sunday they shared in the victory.

"If I can't be (in the Super Bowl), I want him to be," Tiki Barber said. "I feel for him. I live vicariously through him."

A number of Barber's teammates did as well.

"He's a winner," Jackson said. "He's the ultimate player who loves to win and leaves everything on the field. I love him. Before the game started, I looked at him and I said, "I love you man! I love you like a brother!' I guess he had a lot of brothers out there."

With the Bucs ahead 20-10, the Eagles began a furious rally. With first and goal at the Bucs 10, Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb tried to hit receiver Antonio Freeman on a slant. Barber read it perfectly, stepped in front for the interception and ran 92 yards into playoff history.

"It's been a great year," Barber said. "Everyone will point to my numbers and say I didn't have the picks. I didn't have the numbers and that's why it didn't seem like a great year (to Pro Bowl voters), but as a total player and doing what I was supposed to be doing, and executing what I was supposed to execute, this was the best year I ever had."

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