TAMPA — Bucs CB Ronde Barber will play in his 200th career game today at Arizona, which is a nice symmetry considering his first pro appearance came against the Cardinals.
But almost nobody would've guessed the rookie who looked so overmatched in his pro debut Sept. 28, 1997, would play at least 14 seasons, be selected to five Pro Bowls and win a Super Bowl title.
As a third-round pick from Virginia, Barber struggled as a rookie and did not play until Week 5 against the Cardinals. To say Barber played poorly would be an understatement.
Barber got spun around in coverage by Cardinals WR Rob Moore, who had eight catches for 147 yards that day, including a 21-yard touchdown and a 41-yard bomb, both coming against you know who.
"I got my shot and gave up like two go balls to Rob Moore," Barber told the Associated Press. "I think (defensive coordinator) Monte (Kiffin) hated me every day after that. It was shaky for a good two or three years."
Despite Barber's performance, the Bucs beat the Cardinals 19-18 to go 5-0, matching their best start. But Barber covered only the bench the rest of the regular season.
When the Bucs went to Green Bay to play the Packers in an NFC division playoff game, then-defensive backs coach Herm Edwards decided it was time to put some pressure on Barber by playing him in the biggest game of the year.
"I told him he had to go play," Edwards said. "He didn't expect it, and he didn't have time to think about it."
Barber played well, and despite losing 21-7 in Green Bay with a wind chill of 13 degrees, his confidence soared.
The next season he eventually replaced Anthony Parker at right cornerback, starting nine of the final 10 games.
Every year since, it seems, the Bucs have signed or drafted another cornerback who was supposed to take Barber's place. But at 35, he is still making plays and is the only cornerback in NFL history to record 25 sacks and 39 career interceptions.
He's third in consecutive starts with 173, behind only QBs Brett Favre and Peyton Manning.
"Ronde, since I have been here at least, has been one of the tougher guys," coach Raheem Morris said. "He won't allow you to put him on the injury report unless it's something that is going to keep him out for an extended amount of time. He's been extremely tough, he prepares well, treats his body right, does everything that he needs to do in the offseason, eats well, and he is just a pro athlete.
"When I bring the young guys up in my office, I talk to them about nutrition, and I talk to them about what they eat when they leave the building. I told them if they want to play in this league for a long time look at a guy like Ronde Barber. When he goes home, he eats right and he works out. He is always thinking about and taking care of his body. … These guys that understand that play for a long time and stay away from injuries. … You have to be a really good player to play that long."
Considering how the Bucs ask their cornerbacks to support the run and tackle, it's remarkable Barber's 5-foot-10, 184-pound body has withstood the rigors of so many seasons.
At 35 and in the final year of his contract, Barber has said this likely will be his final year. Then again, everyone should know better than to put any limitations on the Bucs' captain.
Rookie at the top: Syracuse WR Mike Williams is looking like the steal of the draft in the fourth round. Williams leads all rookies in receptions (28) and receiving yards (365) and is tied with Cowboys WR Dez Bryant (first round) with three touchdowns. Bryant has 22 receptions, and Bengals WR Jordan Shipley (third round) has 21.
Getting in gear: The Bucs know they can't always count on fourth-quarter comebacks.
Tampa Bay has been a notoriously slow starter this season. After six games, the Bucs have scored just 16 total points in the first quarter.
"We've got to start faster," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "Three of our first four drives (against the Rams) started with a penalty, and that's a problem. We need to address that. The false starts, those can't happen. We've been very good. We talked about it as a team last week. We've been pretty clean in terms of our penalties, in terms of our sacks given up and the things that help you win games. And the turnovers, we've been good turnoverwise. So that was very uncharacteristic of us."