Ronde Barber's quiet greatness

Ronde Barber left the NFL in exactly the same way he thrived in the league, without nearly enough people understanding his significance.

The story broke last week, Barber gave a news conference and, just like that, his career was over. It didn't generate the same buzz as Ray Lewis hanging up his shoulder pads in Baltimore. It definitely didn't drive discussion on drive-time radio. It was simply another reminder that Barber was the most underrated defender of his generation.

You can argue there were better cornerbacks when Barber was in his prime, including Charles Woodson, Ty Law and Champ Bailey. What can't be denied, however, is that Barber belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame someday.

Along with playing in five Pro Bowls and being named to five All-Pro teams, the man produced 47 interceptions and 28 sacks over his 16-year career. No defensive player in league history has posted that many picks and quarterback takedowns. Numbers like those should have people raving about a player's legacy. In Barber's case, they get lost in the haze of a career that peaked when he was surrounded by other stars and ended with him languishing on a bad team.

It's easy to underestimate Barber's value to a Bucs defense that became dominant in the late 1990s and led that once-woeful franchise to a Super Bowl victory in the 2002 season. One of the defining moments of Barber's career happened that championship year, when his 92-yard interception return for a touchdown clinched the NFC title game victory over Philadelphia.

That turnover was typical Barber. He was in the right place at the right time, and he made a play that gave his team a huge lift. The Bucs needed his quiet presence that afternoon, and they valued it even more when coaches started bouncing through the organization. Regardless of who was roaming the sideline in Tampa over the past few years -- whether it was Jon Gruden, Raheem Morris or now Greg Schiano -- Barber was the class act who stabilized the locker room. He was the face of the franchise even when few people outside of Tampa actually could see it.

What most observers likely remember about Barber is how the spotlight never really found him during his prime. When the Bucs started turning their franchise around in the late 1990s, it was head coach Tony Dungy who first made the nation pay attention.

Then came rambunctious defensive tackle Warren Sapp, outspoken wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, the never-ending questions of who should be playing quarterback and the eventual arrival of Gruden after a trade with the Oakland Raiders. There was so much drama around Tampa at certain points that even perennial Pro Bowlers Derrick Brooks and John Lynch didn't receive enough recognition at times.

Then there was Barber. He struggled gaining recognition at first because he'd always been part of a package deal. He and his twin brother, Tiki, were stars at Virginia. When they entered the NFL in 1997, it was Tiki who was more valued, as the New York Giants used a second-round pick on the running back who would become their all-time leading rusher. Ronde went in the third round to the Bucs and didn't become a full-time starter until his third season.

The easy knock on Barber was always that he was more a product of Tampa's Cover 2 scheme than a gifted lockdown defender. He wasn't asked to shut down one half of the field, and nobody ever saw him as the second coming of Deion Sanders. The truth is that Barber was plenty effective at what the Bucs did demand from him on a weekly basis. He played within the defense, displayed a knack for the big play and never shied away from contact. Few defensive backs with his size -- he was listed at 5-foot-10 and 184 pounds -- were as willing to throw their bodies around the way Barber did.

These are the parts of his game that should be best remembered. The reality is that it will be harder to measure Barber's excellence once he's eligible for the Hall of Fame. The NFL is tilting so much toward offense these days that defensive players will have a tougher time being immortalized. Iconic talents like Sapp, Woodson and Ray Lewis don't have to worry about such issues. Understated stars like Barber face an entirely different problem.

It might be easier to see this another way if Barber had Sapp's brashness or Lewis' charisma. It also would've helped his cause had he played in a bigger market, as his brother surely could attest. The beauty of Barber's game was that he was so consistently adept at the little things that result in big moments. He impressed you more with his savvy than he ever did with sensational highlights.

So here's hoping that Barber's career ends with more people realizing his brilliance. The game has become so dominated by offense that it's easy to forget how hard it is to succeed as a cornerback in the NFL. Barber spent 16 years -- with his final season being played at free safety -- proving that he could do his job as well as anybody else in the league. For those who couldn't see that when he was playing, they really missed something special.