It’s been 20 years since Donovan McNabb snapped the ball on a chilly 26-degree night on the Northeast corner of Broad Street in Philadelphia, having taken eight plays down the field on a crucial drive to mount a comeback. As he threw a red zone pass intended for Antonio Freeman, it was a Tampa corner that quieted Philadelphia as, who else per Joe Buck, Ronde Barber snuck in front of the former All-Pro receiver. Legendary Tampa broadcaster Gene Deckerhoff exclaimed “it’s intercepted, at the 10, at the 20, going, Ronde Barber to the 50, to the 40, nobody’s going to touch him, Ronde Barber, 10, five, touchdown!”
As Barber waltzed into the end zone setting up a Martin Gramatica extra point, the Bucs had punched their ticket to the first Super Bowl in franchise history. On a night where Sylvester Stallone, who had portrayed Philadelphia icon Rocky Balboa in five film installments up to that point, hyped up Veteran’s Stadium as an overwhelming favorite to play Rich Gannon and the Raiders, it was Ronde who notoriously shut down the Vet and quieted the Philly faithful.
When they played in the Super Bowl against a vaunted offense that featured Jerry Rice, unequivocally the greatest wide receiver to ever play the game of football, and Hall of Famer Tim Brown as its receiving corps, the Tampa Bay defense that featured now-four Hall of Famers led the way for a 27-point Tampa Bay victory.
But the contributions to the Buccaneers weren’t just the 2002 campaign. On a defense with Warren Sapp, John Lynch and Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber was perhaps the most dynamic player of the group. Sapp was one of the best interior pass rushers the NFL has ever laid eyes on, Lynch had the physicality to match his incredible in-game instinct and Brooks? Brooks was a superstar with more poise than any other outside linebacker of his era. Yet, beyond all three of them being the focal points of the Bucs defensive nucleus from 1996-2003, including Sapp and Brooks being tabbed the Defensive Player of the Year in 1999 and 2002, respectively, was the most crucial cog in the machine. Tony Dungy put the machine together in his first year in Tampa, telling Sapp, Lynch and Brooks that they were evident future Hall of Famers comparable to Donnie Shell, Jack Ham and Joe Greene of the legendary Steel Curtain defense he molded the Bucs after. In a recent interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Dungy noted that he ‘couldn’t do that with Ronde.’ Ronde was unlike anything he’d ever seen and ultimately the piece that finished the puzzle in making the Bucs one of the most elite defenses in NFL history.
At 5’10, Ronde wasn’t expected to be an elite blitz, run stopper or defend the pass nearly as well as he did. That’s what allowed him to drop to the third round for the Bucs out of Virginia in 1997. As of the day he got the call to Canton, Ohio in February of 2023, he puts on a gold jacket as the only player in NFL history with at least 25 sacks and 45 interceptions. It seemed as though Barber, despite what he lacked in size, always made it up for it ample amounts of tackles. Lynch noted in the Bucs social media video that the teammates called him ‘the chihuahua’ because he was the toughest player on the field despite his stature. He had 88 tackles for a loss and his fourteen defensive touchdowns are fourth-most among defensive players in NFL history. Barber was a staple for the Buccaneers because he was an automatic gamechanger regardless of setting because you weren’t going to get by him, but if the ball was in his direction, he would be by you faster than Jorge Masvidal can knockout Ben Askren.
Ronde saw the game at a broader level as if it were a chess match and he’s thinking two or three moves ahead. The Tampa 2 defense, designed with the intention to bend, but never break, was only a successful entity because of Ronde. For years, critics have argued that Ronde’s success was playing with players the caliber of Sapp and Brooks, yet the Tampa 2 focuses primarily on highlighting the strengths that Barber brought to the team. The most important aspect of the defensive scheme beyond the surface is how it prevents the run game: keep the run inside. With how potent Ronde was as a corner, he forced the run game to stay inside, not allowing the run up the field and in turn, playing into the strengths of players such as Sapp and Brooks. Beyond that, it allowed Barber to jam the wide receiver, allowing for Lynch to get more opportunity to make a play. These concepts don’t mention the corner blitz, something that Ronde excelled it. He has the most sacks of any corner in NFL history and second most of any defensive back.
Perhaps the biggest intrinsic quality of Ronde is the intangible he brought to the table. While Ronde was a down to earth player and human being, he had a confidence in himself that exuded at the highest possible level, presenting a knack for competition unlike anybody he played with. This led Brooks to coining the phrase “humble cockiness.” Not only was Ronde the ultimate competitor who studied both in-and-out of games to an unfathomable extent, he was the grittiest player on the field. More importantly, he never took a snap off. His 215 consecutive starts is an NFL record for defensive backs, providing Tampa with an extra layer of security when devising their game plans. It didn’t matter if the head coach was Tony Dungy, Jon Gruden or Raheem Morris, they all counted on the same variable being at play every game they coached at Raymond James Stadium and that was that Ronde Barber would not only play, but dominate.
For the Bucs, he was an integral piece of the Championship team. He set the wheels in motion whenever they formed in a Tampa 2. He was a staple that bridged generations of Bucs fans. He was the hardest worker on any field he played on and he did more for the city of Tampa than perhaps any other player. The Bucs social media team called him the ‘ultimate Buccaneer’ when describing him following the announcement at tonight’s NFL Honor’s festivities and they nailed their description. For football, he changed the game. He changed how teams schemed, he changed what his position meant and he opened doors for players of his size going forward.
“During his legendary 16-year-career as a Buccaneer, Ronde established himself as one of the most iconic players in team history and his selection today to the Pro Football Hall of Fame further solidifies him as one of the greatest players of all-time,” said the Glazer Family in a press release. “Ronde was the embodiment of a true professional, a fierce competitor and a student of the game. He was a natural leader who always found a way to leave his mark on the game and was responsible for some of the most memorable moments in our franchise history. We look forward to celebrating his legendary career later this year when he takes his rightful place alongside other Buccaneers Hall of Famers in Canton.”
It was a patient wait for Barber, but one that means the world. He is joined by Darelle Revis, who played cornerback for the Bucs in the first year following Barber’s retirement among players to be elected in the 2023 Hall of Fame class. Others include long-time Browns LT Joe Thomas, late-Chargers coach Dan Coryell and 9x Pro Bowl DeMarcus Ware among the nine to be honored.