Patience contributes to Barber's success

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The life expectancy of an NFL running back is, in the scheme of things, a hiccup. The shelf-life is an average of 2.57 years, the shortest span of all the league's positions.

But Tiki Barber has never followed the typical trajectory of an NFL running back.

He rushed for a total of 935 yards in his first three seasons with the New York Giants, making his mark as a third-down back and kick returner. At 5-foot-9½, 200 pounds, he was thought to be too small as an all-down running back, and yet he played in his first Pro Bowl last year after breaking records at the age of 29. This season, at 30, when most NFL running backs are breaking down if, indeed, they are still in the league at all, Barber is having the year of his life. On Wednesday, he was named to his second consecutive Pro Bowl.

Barber has rushed for more than 200 yards twice this season. Barber has produced a total of 1,998 yards rushing and receiving, 210 yards ahead of Colts running back Edgerrin James and 258 yards clear of Seattle's ethereal Shaun "24 Touchdowns" Alexander. Barber has inserted himself into the MVP debate, alongside those players as well as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

"It's good living," Barber said on Tuesday at Giants Stadium. "I wasn't really the player I am until five or six years ago, so I'm hitting my peak because I took so long to start."

Here is all you need to know about Barber: In less than nine seasons, he has produced 14,840 yards -- the highest total for a back in the franchise's 81 seasons. Frank Gifford is second, 4,978 yards behind, and getting smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror.

Ask him how he has done it and he offers a single word: patience.

"His whole career, he's been all about beating the odds," center Shaun O'Hara said. "When people tell Tiki he can't do something, it makes him want it even more."

"My career has been as long as it has," Barber said, "because I've been reinvented so many times."

Barber was a second-round draft choice out of Virginia in 1997, Jim Fassel's first year as head coach. He actually earned the starting job, but a torn knee ligament limited his production. In 1998, he lost the starter's job to Gary Brown and became the third-down back and a part-time kick returner. Barber only started one game in 1999, but accumulated 1,639 total yards -- 258 rushing, 609 receiving, 506 on punt returns and 266 on kickoff returns.

In 2000, he started 12 games and responded with his first 1,000-yard rushing season. After only nine starts in 2001 and 865 yards rushing, Barber shook loose for three consecutive monster seasons: He produced 1,984 offensive yards in 2002 and followed that up with 1,677 in 2003 and a crazy 2,096 in 2004.

"There have been a few [running backs] that have had good careers after 30," Barber said. "Curtis Martin led the league in rushing last year. Unfortunately, he hit that breakdown point [this season], which is invariably going to happen to me -- but it hasn't happened yet."

Barber did some serious power lifting in the offseason and currently weighs more -- 206 pounds -- than he has at any point in his career. This might explain why, despite the pounding he takes, he is healthier than ever; he has started 59 of his last 62 games.

"When it seems like everyone gets tired, he seems to continue to have the energy to keep those legs going and make more yards and more plays," said Giants defensive end and fellow Pro Bowler Michael Strahan.

This concept works on several different levels. On Barber's first 10 carries against the Chiefs Saturday, he gained a total of only 13 yards. His last 19 carries netted him 207 yards. A statistical breakdown of Barber's combined rushing and receiving yardage, calculated month by month, shows he also gets stronger as the season progresses.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Barber's numbers progress this way:

August/September (2,724 yards), October (2,902), November (3,627), December/January (3,860).

Strahan's eyes widened when he heard the figures.

"He's a finisher," Strahan said, laughing. "He's a closer."

Said O'Hara, "There's no explanation for that other than the guy is clutch. People say that about other players -- Tom Brady, clutch, Derek Jeter, clutch, Mariano Rivera, clutch. Tiki Barber is right up there."

"I learned early in my career that the games at the end of the season count more than the games at the beginning," Barber said. "They set you up early, but the ones that matter are the games in December."

Physiologists say that the human body reaches its physical peak around the age of 30. And while this is true of many Olympic athletes, discus throwers, marathon runners and ice skaters, they are not getting hit repeatedly by blitzing 250-pound linebackers.

Strahan, who was named to his seventh Pro Bowl, and with 129½ sacks is only three behind the Giants' career leader, Lawrence Taylor, has traced a similar curve. In 2001, when he set an NFL single-season record with 22½ sacks, he turned 30.

For Barber and Strahan -- even in the violent context of the NFL -- life begins at 30.

"I think for the first time in his career he's more comfortable," Strahan said. "He has confidence every time they give him the ball that he can make something happen. When the game is on the line, he wants the ball."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.