Let’s be clear here: We’re playing zone, not man-to-man coverage.
We’re not putting Saints S Darren Sharper and Buccaneers CB Ronde Barber against each other straight-up and declaring that one or the other has a better shot at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. We’re just lumping these two veteran NFC South defensive backs together and exploring their chances of one day being enshrined in Canton, Ohio. (For what it's worth, voters in our recent NFC South poll think Barber has the edge.)
Fans may think Sharper and Barber already are locks for the Hall of Fame because each has put up impressive career statistics. But it’s not nearly as easy as you might think to make the Hall of Fame when you’re a defensive back, especially when you’re a safety like Sharper.
Take a look at this list of Hall of Fame members. It’s broken down by position, and defensive backs are one of the most exclusive clubs. When Deion Sanders goes in later this summer, the Hall of Fame will be home to 22 defensive backs. That number includes cornerbacks, safeties and guys who were a combination of the two. It also includes some guys like Sanders who were more than defensive backs. Sanders also was a return man, occasionally a wide receiver and, in his prime, one of the most famous athletes on the planet.
Barber and Sharper each have had excellent careers, but I don’t think you can look at either of them and say they’re sure-fire, first-ballot Hall of Famers. If they’re going to get in, it might take some time and some effort in the voting room. It also might take some more work by each of them.
Let’s start with Sharper. He’s property of the New Orleans Saints for the moment, but can become an unrestricted free agent once the lockout is over. We don’t know if Sharper will re-sign with the Saints or move on. but we do know he has already put up huge numbers in a career that’s been divided between the Packers, Vikings and Saints.
Sharper has 63 interceptions, the most among active players and No. 6 on the all-time list. Sharper’s been to five Pro Bowls and made the all-decade team for the 2000s. But he is a safety, and even his spectacular numbers might not be enough.
You want evidence? I give you Paul Krause, a safety with more career interceptions (81) than anyone in history. Krause went to eight Pro Bowls, was All-Pro eight times, and put up his numbers in an era when teams didn't throw nearly as often as they do now. He finished his playing career in 1979, but didn’t get into the Hall of Fame until 1998.
Statistically, Krause might have been the best centerfielder safety ever, but voters haven’t given easy passes to guys who were pure safeties. Besides Krause, there are only four other enshrinees who played their entire careers at safety. Guys like Ronnie Lott and Rod Woodson spent much of their careers at safety, but also played some cornerback.
Sharper is tied with Lott in career interceptions, and four of the five guys in front of them are in the Hall of Fame. But wherever Sharper plays this season, he needs to keep adding to his numbers to improve his chances at the Hall of Fame.
Sharper played on some good teams in Green Bay and Minnesota, but he didn’t win a Super Bowl until he joined the Saints. Another Super Bowl title, or at least a good playoff run, would help. Sharper’s biggest strength, besides his interception total, might be what he’s done after he’s intercepted passes. He’s returned 11 interceptions for touchdowns, which puts him second in history.
Still, if Sharper’s going to get to Canton, he needs to keep building his numbers this year and maybe even beyond that.
It’s a similar story for Barber, who has spent his entire career playing cornerback for Tampa Bay. He’s got strong career numbers -- 40 interceptions, 26 sacks -- and Bucs fans will proudly tell you Barber is the only player in history to register at least 40 interceptions and 25 sacks.
That’s a neat little bit of trivia, but I don’t think being the best pass-rushing cornerback ever will be enough to get Barber automatic entry into the Hall of Fame. That title may be nice, but it sort of equates to being the first baseman with the strongest throwing arm in baseball history. Strong arms for first basemen and pass-rushing skills by cornerbacks aren’t bad things to have, but they’re not really part of the job description.
Besides, even if you focus just on Barber’s interception total and skills in coverage, which is what Hall of Fame voters generally do with cornerbacks, he might be sitting on the bubble at best.
There are scouts, coaches and players who will tell you Barber never has been a dominant shutdown corner. They’ll tell you he’s a very nice player, but, in his prime, was a product of a Monte Kiffin defense that was built around DT Warren Sapp and LB Derrick Brooks. They’ll also tell you offenses never spent a lot of time worrying about Barber because their focus was on Sapp and Brooks.
Those two guys and others also could present another hurdle for Barber. Tampa Bay fans seem to think Brooks, Sapp, Barber, safety John Lynch, fullback Mike Alstott, defensive end Simeon Rice, former coach Tony Dungy and probably even tight end Tyji Armstrong will all waltz right into Canton.
Well, it doesn’t quite work that way. The Bucs of that era won precisely one Super Bowl title. They were not the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s and voters take that type of stuff into strong consideration. Brooks should have no problem getting into the Hall of Fame and Sapp’s right on his heels. Dungy probably gets in, but a good bit of his work was done later with the Indianapolis Colts.
That might be it for a Tampa Bay team that was known for its great defense in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Barber and Lynch each have a shot. But, at absolute best, maybe one of them gets in someday.
It should be pointed out Barber has transcended eras. He’s continued going strong since the departure of Kiffin after the 2008 season and has provided stability as Tampa Bay has gone through a youth movement.
Barber is 36 and has committed to at least one more season. Durability counts for something, but Barber might need a big 2011 season and maybe more to really get his résumé shining for the Hall of Fame.
Barber’s 40 career interceptions rank No. 75 on the all-time list. I’m looking at the guys ahead of him and seeing names like Terrell Buckley, Troy Vincent and Dre' Bly. I seriously doubt any of those guys will be in the Hall of Fame. When it comes down to voting time, Barber's going to have to deal with contemporaries like Champ Bailey, who has been viewed as a shutdown corner most of his career.
Like Sharper, one of Barber’s strengths is what he’s done after intercepting passes. He has seven career interception returns for touchdowns, which ranks No. 8 in history, and also has returned four fumble recoveries for touchdowns.
There’s one way Barber can make himself a clear Hall of Famer: put up big numbers for another season, or several seasons, and help the Bucs build another great defense. If he can get to somewhere around 50 career interceptions, add a few more playoff wins and maybe even another Super Bowl ring, then Barber’s path to the Hall of Fame will be much easier than it is right now.