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Bucs' ageless Barber proving NFL isn't just a young man's game

He was a third-round draft pick who registered barely a blip on the radar as a rookie -- "I played one game," Ronde Barber said, "and I didn't play very well" -- and quite honestly wondered if he would survive the length of his first NFL contract.

So much for self-doubt. Ronde Barber laid that encumbrance to rest a long time ago.

Now in his 16th season, Barber not only has survived, but also is still playing at a high level. The most recent example was his pick-6 in the Buccaneers' 38-10 victory over the Chiefs Sunday. Barber reached down and snatched a deflected pass that was within six inches of touching the ground and then, escorted down the field at Raymond James Stadium by cornerback E.J. Biggers, returned it 78 yards for his eighth regular season interception return for a touchdown.

Looks like those 37-year-old legs still have a burst of speed in them.

"It's not the getting to the top end," Barber said, laughing. "It's recovering after getting to the top end that's harder now."

It's been almost 10 years since Tampa Bay defeated Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVII and a lot about the Buccaneers has changed, but Barber lining up in the secondary has been one of the few constants. He has started 204 consecutive regular season games, a remarkable streak that goes back to the middle of the '99 season, and it would be even longer if he had been more selfish. In November of that '99 season, Barber had a slight hamstring injury and the team asked if he wanted to start that week's game against the Chiefs, but he deferred to Brian Kelly, who had taken most of the snaps in practice that week.

It was the last time Barber turned down an opportunity to start a game.

"Let me qualify what I'm about to say," Barber said. "I love my teammates. I love everybody I play with. I don't want to see anybody else do my job. It has kind of been a mentality of mine since I first got an opportunity to start in '98."

After 15 seasons at cornerback (his 200 straight starts, including the season opener this year, is an NFL record for cornerbacks), Barber is now playing free safety. He made the position switch during offseason OTAs at the suggestion of first-year coach Greg Schiano.

Barber had anticipated the move. Bucs general manager Mark Dominik had been talking to Barber for a few years, only partly tongue-in-cheek, about switching to safety and perhaps prolonging his Hall of Fame-worthy career. When Tampa Bay signed ex-Lions cornerback Eric Wright in free agency in the offseason, the move appeared to be a fait accompli.

"I was actually all right with it," Barber said. "It was kind of like the natural evolution of me. It's not that big of a deal."

Well, it kind of is a big deal. While Barber can still be a big playmaker, playing safety instead of cornerback, which demands so much more than man-to-man coverage, puts less stress on his legs. And Barber has noticed.

"I feel great after, what is this, Week 6?" he said. "I feel better right now than after Week 6 in any of my previous years."

There is a moment in every great football player's career when he realizes he has established his credentials. The moment for Barber came after the 2000 season. He was a free agent, and although he looked at his options -- he visited the Bengals and "had a line in the water in Seattle" -- he really wasn't serious about departing Tampa. It was more a case of him trying to create some leverage in contract talks with the Bucs.

At the same time, Mike Tomlin came to Tampa as the new defensive backs coach, replacing Herm Edwards, who had taken the head coaching job with the Jets. Tomlin told Barber that he had studied film of the Bucs' defense and that there was no player better than Barber to get the job done. "You'd better get your butt back to Tampa," Tomlin told Barber.

Barber had a career season in 2001. He finished tied for first in the league with 10 interceptions, helped lead the Bucs to the playoffs and was selected to both the Pro Bowl and the All-Pro team for the first time -- honors he would earn four more times each, either as a first- or second-teamer.

His 28 sacks as a corner (including one in this year's opening game against Carolina) rank first in NFL history among cornerbacks. He's the only NFL defensive back to start every one of his team's games for 11 consecutive seasons since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. He picked off then-Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb twice in a 2006 game and returned both interceptions for touchdowns. In the NFC Championship Game victory over Philadelphia before Super Bowl XXXVII, Barber forced a fumble, had a sack and sealed Tampa's 27-10 victory with a 92-yard interception for a touchdown.

According to Dominik, there are two traits that define Barber as a special player.

"I think it's his instincts, number one," Dominik said. "His whole career has revolved around instincts to be able to make plays, and at crucial times for our team. The second one, obviously, is the toughness. Corners-slash-safeties don't play 200-plus consecutive games in this league. Their bodies aren't built for it, especially a 185-pound corner. He's got phenomenal toughness, and he's got the statistics to back it up. He's been willing to go out there and throw his body around for 16 years and help this team win in any way possible."

What's left on Barber's NFL bucket list before he transitions into retirement?

"If you asked me even 10 years ago would I have gotten to where I have, I'd have been more than happy," he said. "So there's not much that I want to do. I've been to Pro Bowls, I've been to the Super Bowl, I've had votes as defensive player of the year. I don't know what's left. Have another chance with the guys, being with the guys and trying to put something together as a team, that's irreplaceable. So that's always on the list."

Barber, who has lasted six seasons longer in the NFL than his twin brother, Tiki, is the last remaining personification in Tampa of the glory years (1999-2002), when the Bucs went a combined 42-22 in the regular season, won two division titles and went to the postseason four consecutive times, topped by that Super Bowl victory. The Bucs have gone to the playoffs only twice since then, and they lost both of their postseason games.

"A lot of the older fans, I guess middle-aged Bucs fans, still bring up the memories of those years," Barber said. "That [championship] game against Philly was a defining moment for a lot of us. And, obviously, that whole Super Bowl run. It doesn't come up as much as it used to, and I don't think about it hardly at all.

"It's over 10 years now. It's a completely different team. The organization looks completely different than it did back then. That's bygone. That's just history. Nice to have been a part of it, but to be honest, I think the organization has moved on to try to create some more history of its own."

While he's still there, Barber will contribute as much as he can to that history. Except for when his first contract expired after the 2000 season, he has never really considered leaving Tampa. And the Bucs never let him flirt again with free agency. Barber said the organization has always been open about its expectations for him and what the contracts were going to look like.

"There was never any thought that I would go anywhere else," he said, "because I didn't need to go anywhere else. I was comfortable here, my family is here. They wanted me, I wanted to be here. It was pretty mutual."

Barber is playing on a one-year contract for the third straight season. It will be like that again if he returns next season. That decision won't be made until later.

"Literally, [each of] the last three years, this could have been it," Barber said. "And I'm sure I'll do the same thing this year. The season will be over and I'll have to make a decision. And I don't know what that decision will be.

"I'll go until I can't do it anymore, or they don't want me anymore."

That time hasn't arrived. Even as the team continues to evolve into a new generation, the Bucs are happy to have Barber be part of it.

"He's a GM's dream," Dominik said. "He's a great football player, he shows up every Sunday, makes plays, never is in trouble. He's the epitome of what you want an NFL player to be."

That's a quite an upgrade from the self-portrait Barber would have painted 15 years ago.

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