Even at age 36, cornerbacks are still waiting to replace Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Ronde Barber

Cornerback Ronde Barber, playing around with kicker Connor Barth, this season can set the Bucs record for games played.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Cornerback Ronde Barber, playing around with kicker Connor Barth, this season can set the Bucs record for games played.

Let me tell you a story, the old man said. This is one that no one knows.

It was long ago, but already he was very old in a young man's profession. Critics said he wasn't making the plays he once did, and fans were falling out of love, and his coaches decided it was time for someone new.

This is the story of the week Ronde Barber was benched.

This is the story of when he felt the NFL pushing him toward the exit.

Barber folds his hands over his shaved head and stares at the ceiling. He is fresh off the practice field, still in his football pants and cleats, still damp with sweat.

But the memory has not faded.

It was late November 2008, early in the week, when Barber, 33 at the time, got the news. Monte Kiffin, in his final season as defensive coordinator, wanted to start Aqib Talib, the talented rookie, in his place alongside Phillip Buchanon. Barber, the Bucs' right cornerback since the invention of third down, was benched.

The bench? For an aging veteran, the bench is the NFL's checkout desk. Former starters don't hang around on the bench for long. They get the number of the local alumni chapter.

"I remember thinking, 'If I can just make it through this year, I'll accept my fate,' '' Barber said. "That was the closest I ever felt to being out of the league."

As it turned out, it was a false alarm. By game time, Kiffin had changed his mind, and Barber started against the Lions. He had two interceptions, returning one of them 65 yards for a touchdown.

Now at 36, younger corners are still waiting to replace him.

It may be a while yet.

•••

There have been so many big plays at big moments in big games. When Barber finally leaves — if he ever leaves — they will talk about his plays.

He has been so good so often for so long. That, too, will be part of Barber's legacy. With the exception of Derrick Brooks, has any Buc ever sustained excellence for as long as Barber?

This, however, might be the ultimate compliment to Barber's career:

Amazingly, he has made the fans love him all over again.

This rarely happens in sports. When a player falls out of favor, the fans usually find someone else. Someone younger, someone fresher.

For a while, it got nasty with Barber. A great many fans seemed to feel he should have gone in the great purge of 2009 that took away veterans such as Brooks, Warrick Dunn and Joey Galloway.

The past two seasons have changed that. Barber has played well, and those rare instincts of his have been on display again. He has played more man coverage than at any point in his career.

This year, Barber can become the Bucs' all-time leader in games played (he is currently 15 behind Brooks). He has 40 career interceptions. He has 26 career sacks. He has 13 career returns for touchdowns, which is impressive for a guy who doesn't return kicks.

When comparing him to other corners, Profootballreference.com brings up 10 names. Eight of them are in the Hall of Fame. Still, the national impression of Barber is that he has always been just on the outside of greatness. For all of his versatility, for all of his impact, he remains an afterthought when the conversation turns to the great corners of his era.

"I'll remember him as one of the most underappreciated Buccaneers of all time,'' is the way general manager Mark Dominik puts it. In other words, as highly regarded as Barber has been, perhaps he should have been regarded even higher.

Why hasn't Barber been more valued? Perhaps it is because of the way he has played. Kiffin rarely played man coverage, which left Barber far off the line. He never looked like the classic drape-and-deny corners like Mark Haynes or Deion Sanders or Champ Bailey.

Barber feels the lack of regard, too. Push him, and he admits that it can be a little frustrating. Doesn't every player want to be appreciated?

"Outside of my few (five) Pro Bowl years, I don't even think people consider me,'' Barber said. "All of the talk is about Charles Woodson, who does the exact same thing as I do, and the bigger-market corners. I take pride in outplaying these guys.

"There are some guys who put up a lot of numbers and get a lot of attention. A lot of guys started to do the things I was doing. I say that with complete confidence. I wasn't asked to do the things that some of those other guys were.''

So, Ronde, do you consider yourself among the top five cornerbacks of your era. "Yes,'' he said.

The top three? "Yes,'' he said.

•••

When he is on the field, Barber says he feels the same as he did in his late 20s. Ah, but there are times the years and the mileage gang up on him.

On Mondays, the day after games, his shoulders feel as if there are tiny animals gnawing away inside. His quads are sore, and his hips are stiff.

There are the times — daily — when fellow players refer to him as "Mr. Barber.'' Times the music sounds strange. Times when he walks into the cafeteria and realizes the people his age are the scouts and coaches.

So why is Barber back for a 15th season? After all, he spent a month this season pondering whether he wanted to return, whether it was time to hang it up and head to the golf course.

"I didn't accomplish everything I wanted last year,'' he says. "I'm not ready to give up on it. I'm not ready to say I've accomplished everything. Either they tell you you are done, or you decide you've accomplished everything. I'm not there yet.''

There is another reason Barber is back. He has been on some great teams here and on some bad ones. He has been in locker rooms where the entitlement was overwhelming. This team, he says, is different.

"I love this team,'' he said. "Last year wasn't just fun. It was a whole lot of fun.''

When you get down to it, that's why he's here. That's why he cannot bring himself to say that this may be the final chapter.

It's fun. He still loves running with the kids. He still loves watching tape with the rest of the team and hearing his name singled out for praise. He still loves winning over the doubters.

"When I leave here, I want it to be undisputed that I wasn't just a guy," he said. "I think a lot of people nationally think I'm just a guy.''

Around here, people know better. Around here, most acknowledge Barber as one of the top five Bucs of all time. Maybe more.

Enjoy him while you can. Who knows? Seven or eight seasons from now, he may have had enough.

.Fast facts

Barber on …

Always a voice of perspective, Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber talked to Times columnist Gary Shelton last week about several topics.

On coach Raheem Morris: "I wouldn't still be playing if someone else was the coach. He has this ability to be on the same level as everyone he's around. When he's 40 (in five years), he'll still be the same guy."

On quarterback Josh Freeman: "Of the 175 or so quarterbacks I've played against, I would already put him in the top 10 or 15. For a 23-year-old, it's unbelievable how composed he is. He just gets it. You feel like he can do anything. He has this assurance: 'I'm going to win this game, and if you don't want to, I'm going to drag you along with me.' "

On the Bucs' secondary: "There are guys on this roster who will be able to replace me. (E.J. Biggers) is a really good player. (Myron Lewis) is a player. The young kid, (Anthony) Gaiter, I love his movement. There is some real talent there.''

On departed linebacker Barrett Ruud: "We have so many guys who are hungry. I know we have some huge shoes to fill to replace Barrett. I understand the business, but if we had to play a game right now, we're not the same team we were on January in New Orleans just because he's not there. We need a dominant (middle) linebacker to emerge in the next couple of weeks. You talk about underappreciated? Barrett was underappreciated.''

Even at age 36, cornerbacks are still waiting to replace Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Ronde Barber 08/05/11 [Last modified: Sunday, August 7, 2011 1:16am]

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