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Ronde Barber Retires: Tampa Bay Buccaneers Great Deserves Hall Of Fame Honors

Cold, Hard Football Facts for May 10, 2013



By Scott Kacsmar
Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)

Ronde Barber retired this week after a 16-year career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

Naturally, we have to immediately decide his fate: should he be allowed to live a life of serene bliss, or must we walk him off the plank into obscurity?

In other words, is Barber getting a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, or will he just be remembered fondly in the mythical Hall of Very Good?

The short answer is that, yes, Barber has the look and feel of a Hall of Fame player. He deserves a bust in Canton.

The political and logistical reality of the Hall of Fame process, however, means he will probably wait quite some timet to get the honor that he certainly deserves.

Some years ago it looked like his twin brother Tiki was in better shape for Canton, but a surprising early retirement squashed that idea.

Ronde lasted six more seasons than Tiki, only making the “old-man defensive back” switch to safety in 2012.

With much debate going on about Barber and the Hall of Fame, let’s examine his case for Canton. It is one that includes important questions about the value of statistics for a defensive back.

 

The “Fame and Stats” Argument

Whether or not we statheads like to abide by it, there is a “fame” aspect to a player’s case for Canton. Joe Namath would never be anywhere close to it without the massive following and hype he created during his career.

Despite being a low-key (but “nice”) guy, Barber has a solid fame argument. Being the identical twin brother to Tiki is a great story that will live on in NFL history. If not for the success of the Manning family, the Barber’s would be right at the top.

Both brothers went to Virginia. Tiki was drafted 36th overall as a running back in 1997 by the Giants where he rushed for 10,449 yards and 55 touchdowns. Ronde went 66th in the same draft to Tampa Bay.

Barber will be remembered as the first premiere cornerback in the “Tampa 2” defense utilized by Tony Dungy. That helped turn the Buccaneers into contenders. Barber was part of the historic 2002 defense, which allowed a 48.4 Defensive Passer Rating on the way to a Super Bowl title. It was the best pass defense any NFL team has fielded since 1989.

Barber has the ring and he has a signature play from that postseason. Who can forget his game-sealing interception touchdown off Donovan McNabb in the fourth quarter of the 2002 NFC Championship? Barber went 92 yards to cap off the stunning 27-10 win in Philadelphia.

Tampa Bay was not very competitive following that championship, but Barber still played all 16 years of his career there, setting a NFL record with 215 consecutive starts at defensive back.

Those are the types of things people will remember a player for, should they not memorize his stat sheet.

Barber also has plenty of regular season statistics:

  • He intercepted 47 passes, which oddly ties him for 47th on the all-time list.
  • He returned those 47 interceptions for 923 yards, which ranks 16th. So he was pretty good with the ball in his hands.
  • He led the league with 10 interceptions in 2001, tied for the most by any player since 1981.
  • He scored 14 non-offensive touchdowns, which is the fourth most in NFL history.
  • Barber’s eight pick-sixes are tied for the seventh most in NFL history.
  • Barber’s four fumbles returned for touchdowns are tied for the third most in NFL history.
  • Barber also returned a punt for a touchdown in 1998, and he returned a blocked punt for a score to help a big comeback win against the 2009 Packers.
  • Barber forced 15 fumbles and recovered 12 more.
  • Barber’s 28.0 sacks are the most ever by a cornerback, and the second most by a defensive back (Rodney Harrison had 30.5).

The “official” numbers are a mystery, but it’s safe to say Barber made over 1,000 tackles in his career.

Barber made the Pro Bowl five times, was first-team All-Pro three times and is a member of the NFL’s 2000s All-Decade Team.

If you have longevity, won a ring, were part of a legendary defense, made a signature postseason play, set NFL records for your position and made it to an All-Decade team, then you probably belong in the Hall of Fame.

 

The Case Against

But some of Barber’s accolades can (and will) be used against him, especially his longevity.

By intercepting 47 passes in 16 years, that’s an average of 2.94 interceptions per season. Is that really anything special? That includes a season with 10, with his next best being only five, while in 10 years it was either two or three. That’s it.

If a player like Sam Madison played as long as Barber did, he would likely have very similar interception numbers along with winning a ring on the 2007 Giants. Would he deserve a bust too?

How about the 28 sacks in 241 games? That’s one sack every 8.6 games, or less than two per season. More on that later.

As for the streak of 215 starts, the iron-man streaks are always impressive, but you don’t see Jim Marshall (270 consecutive starts) in the Hall of Fame.

The “Tampa 2”/legendary defense could also end up being used against Barber. He wasn’t shadowing the opponent’s best receiver on an island like Darrelle Revis will be expected to do often in Tampa Bay moving forward.

The Buccaneers had better Hall of Fame talents than Barber, including Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks, both drafted in 1995, in the front seven. John Lynch was a decorated safety. Simeon Rice was a very good player as well.

Just how many Buccaneers will they want to put in Canton?

Then there’s the fact that a similar player in Aeneas Williams is still waiting to get in. He had just as many first-team All-Pro’s as Barber, but had three more Pro Bowls (eight total). He intercepted 55 passes and returned nine for scores. He played in a Super Bowl with the Rams after having a signature game with two interceptions returned for touchdowns off Brett Favre in the 2001 NFC Divisional. He has 13 non-offensive touchdowns, or just one fewer than Barber. They are tied with 15 when including playoffs.

Yet Williams waits after being a finalist the last two years. He is likely to get in soon, but you never know for sure.

The case against Barber may not keep him out, but it likely will make him wait. He’s not the first-ballot sure thing like a Deion Sanders or Rod Woodson.

 

All-Pro Honors Since the Merger

One of the (bad) Hall of Fame arguments people like to use for a player is to ask if he was ever considered the best at his position.

It’s a bad argument, because you could technically be a top-five player for a decade without ever being first or second. That still is an incredible achievement for what was obviously an elite player deserving of the Hall of Fame.

A way to quantify a top-two season is by looking at first-team All-Pro selections based on Associated Press voting. Obviously these honors aren’t always “right” but at least it allows for a comparison.

But first we need to make the comparison more valid, which is why we only looked at All-Pro selections for cornerbacks since the 1970 merger. It is harder to be a top-two player at your position when you have 25-31 other teams to compete with compared to just seven or 15.

That’s probably why some of the players who dominated the smaller AFL with numerous All-Pro selections have not been invited into the Hall of Fame, such as Kansas City Chiefs’ safety Johnny Robinson.

We also know the passing game has changed after 1978, so it’s better to compare Barber to someone like Asante Samuel instead of Dick LeBeau.

Finally, we only wanted to count All-Pro selections that came at cornerback. Ronnie Lott had six All-Pro selections, but only the first was at cornerback. The other five were for safety. No safeties here. LeRoy Irvin had two selections, but one was for being a return man.

Barber had three first-team All-Pro selections (2001, 2004-05), which puts him in very elite company. A total of 20 cornerbacks have earned multiple All-Pro selections at their position since 1970:

Multiple 1st-Team All-Pro Selections, CB (1970-2012)

Rank

Player

1st-Team All-Pro Selections

HOF?

1

Deion Sanders

5

Yes

2

Rod Woodson

4

Yes

3T

Darrelle Revis

3

Active

3T

Champ Bailey

3

Active

3T

Charles Woodson

3

"Active"

3T

Ronde Barber

3

Eligible-2018

3T

Aeneas Williams

3

No

3T

Roger Wehrli

3

Yes

3T

Jimmy Johnson

3 (4 in career)

Yes

10T

Louis Wright

2

No

10T

Sam Madison

2

Eligible-2014

10T

Albert Lewis

2

No

10T

Ty Law

2

Eligible-2015

10T

Robert James

2

No

10T

Mike Haynes

2

Yes

10T

Mark Haynes

2

No

10T

Hanford Dixon

2

No

10T

Mel Blount

2

Yes

10T

Nnamdi Asomugha

2

Active

10T

Willie Brown

2 (5 in career)

Yes

Notes: Rod Woodson (six total) was All-Pro as kick returner in 1989; All-Pro as safety in 2002. Deion Sanders was All-Pro as kick returner in 1992 (six total). Jimmy Johnson and Willie Brown each earned All-Pro selections in their career prior to the 1970 merger.

Barber is tied with six other players for the third most. It is very possible Darrelle Revis moves to the next tier, but this is where it stands now.

Of the 13 players eligible for the Hall of Fame, seven are in. The only eligible player with at least three All-Pro selections not in is Williams, who could just be a matter of time.

Barber doesn’t have to be better than Woodson or Sanders to get into the Hall of Fame, and this list speaks highly for him.

 

The Value of Cornerback Sacks and Interceptions

The lack of Hall of Fame defensive backs could be one of the major hurdles Barber and other players face for induction. Just 23 defensive backs are in, while only 16 played cornerback.

There is one thing all 23 players have in common: they intercepted at least 40 passes.

That has become an unwritten law to gain entry into Canton as a defensive back. Though nearly halfway there (19 interceptions) and hopefully just halfway through his career, it will be interesting to see what happens if Darrelle Revis fails to hit that mark while still being considered the best in the game for an extended period of time.

Meanwhile a player like Asante Samuel (50) could end up with 60 interceptions and not get in. Current players will increasingly be judged by advanced statistics that a player like Barber really does not have to worry about as they were not tracked during his prime.

Barber hits the mark fine with 47, though even if it’s not impressive by the number of games he’s played, it is still impressive for his era:

Most Interceptions Since 1997

Rank

Player

Interceptions

1

Darren Sharper (S)

63

2

Ed Reed (S)

61

3

Charles Woodson

55

4

Champ Bailey

52

5

Asante Samuel

50

6T

Ronde Barber

47

6T

Ty Law

47

8

Dre' Bly

43

9

Sammy Knight (S)

42

10

DeAngelo Hall

39

Since 1997, Barber’s 47 interceptions are tied with Ty Law for the sixth most in the league. You can see three of the top 10 players have been safeties.

Interceptions are harder to come by thanks to all the short passes in today’s game. Here you can see the decline in interception percentage over the decades:

Years

Interceptions

INT %

1950-59

2721

7.01

1960-69

3094

5.53

1970-79

5332

5.25

1980-89

5624

4.16

1990-99

5034

3.33

2000-09

5216

3.14

2010-12

1485

2.83

We mentioned Barber’s 10 interceptions in 2001. No player in the NFL has had more than 10 interceptions in a season since Everson Walls had 11 in 1981.

With only 11 seasons of 10 interceptions since 1983, you have to give Barber a lot of credit for that 2001 season. It’s just not supposed to happen anymore.

So even if you’re not overly impressed with Barber’s 47 interceptions, that’s a number that holds up very well for his era.

Now we know people love interceptions because it’s a turnover, but sacks are a different beast. The fact that they have been an official stat only since 1982 negates some of the historic impact of any sack record.

When you talk about a cornerback getting sacks, that’s really a rare thing. Barber is the master with 28 of them, which is probably why it gets more attention than his interceptions.

But should it?

A corner blitz, when executed properly, can be very effective to force a rushed throw and incompletion (or better). Smart quarterbacks will not take the sack, while the smartest will often throw to the spot the corner vacated on a hot route with the receiver.

Not many teams will ask their top corner to do this, if only because they are supposed to be guarding a very good wide receiver. Safeties are much more likely to get sacks. Think of Troy Polamalu playing tight at the line.

But in the “Tampa 2” Barber had the freedom to get after the quarterback. To give you an idea of Barber’s sack dominance, here are his 28 sacks up against the career totals from some other cornerbacks that started their careers after 1982 (not an inclusive ranking):

Cornerback Sacks

Player

Sacks

Ronde Barber

28.0

Charles Woodson

17.0

Ray Crockett

15.5

Deshea Townsend

15.5

Rod Woodson

13.5

Albert Lewis

12.5

James Hasty

10.0

Samari Rolle

9.5

Corey Ivy

9.5

Ronnie Lott

8.5

Shawn Springs

8.5

Antoine Winfield

7.5

Patrick Surtain

7.5

Ty Law

5.0

Champ Bailey

3.0

Aeneas Williams

3.0

Eric Allen

3.0

Sam Madison

2.0

Nnamdi Asomugha

2.0

DeAngelo Hall

2.0

Darrell Green

1.0

Deion Sanders

1.0

Aaron Glenn

1.0

Darrelle Revis

1.0

Asante Samuel

0.0

Now you can see why Barber gets so much attention for being the only cornerback with at least 20 interceptions and 20 sacks. Some even say 40 interceptions, but what’s the point? No other cornerback has 20 sacks.

Without all the video available to review, we don’t know if Barber was really this good at rushing the passer, or if it’s a unique situation of absurd opportunity. Maybe no cornerback even comes close to having as many plays where he rushed the passer as Barber did.

There is something fishy about this, but we can only settle for raw data right now. Still, are 28 sacks in 16 years worth putting someone in the Hall of Fame for? Barber had his highest total (5.5 sacks) in 2000.

In his career Barber likely took the field for well over 10,000 snaps. It definitely had to be a five-digit number. Just last season at age 37 he had 1,101 snaps according to Pro Football Focus.

Even if we pretend just 50 percent of those plays were passes, that is still a lot of opportunities to get sacks, but only if you take your cornerback out of his natural position of defending beyond the line of scrimmage.

Here is Barber’s career sack log. You can see every quarterback he sacked, the quarter (QT) it happened, the scoring margin (SM) for Tampa Bay at the time, which down it occurred on (1-4), the result of the opponent’s drive, and the win probability added (WPA) as calculated at Advanced NFL Stats.

Note: The WPA in italics (first three sacks) were estimated values due to no specific play time listed.

Ronde Barber's Career Sack Log - Win Probability Added (WPA)

Sk#

Date

Opp.

Result

QB

QT

SM

Down

Result

WPA

1

11/1/1998

MIN

W 27-24

R.Cunningham

4

-4

3

Punt

0.08

2

11/15/1998

at JAX

L 29-24

M.Brunell

3

0

2

FG

0.07

3

12/7/1998

GB

W 24-22

B.Favre

1

0

3

Punt

0.05

4

12/6/1999

MIN

W 24-17

J.George

4

7

2

Downs

0.10

5

9/3/2000

at NE

W 21-16

D.Bledsoe

1

-3

1

Punt

0.05

6

9/10/2000

CHI

W 41-0

C.McNown

1

0

2

Punt

0.08

7

1

0

2

Fumble

0.17

7.5

4

41

1

End Game

0.00

8.5

10/9/2000

at MIN

L 30-23

D.Culpepper

4

2

1

TD

0.04

9.5

10/29/2000

MIN

W 41-13

D.Culpepper

2

21

1

FG

0.01

10.5

10/28/2001

MIN

W 41-14

D.Culpepper

4

33

1

TD

0.01

11.5

11/3/2002

MIN

W 38-24

D.Culpepper

3

21

1

TD

0.01

12.5

12/15/2002

at DET

W 23-20

J.Harrington

1

3

3

Punt

0.08

13.5

12/23/2002

PIT

L 17-7

T.Maddox

3

-17

3

Punt

0.01

14

9/8/2003

at PHI

W 17-0

D.McNabb

1

0

3

Punt

0.06

15

10/19/2003

at SF

L 24-7

J.Garcia

2

-14

2

Punt

0.01

16

11/7/2004

KC

W 34-31

T.Green

4

3

1

Downs

0.25

17

11/21/2004

SF

W 35-3

T.Rattay

4

32

2

Punt

0.00

18

12/19/2004

NO

L 21-17

A.Brooks

3

7

1

Punt

0.06

19

10/2/2005

DET

W 17-13

J.Harrington

3

7

3

Punt

0.03

20

12/11/2005

at CAR

W 20-10

J.Delhomme

4

17

3

Downs

0.01

21

12/2/2007

at NO

W 27-23

D.Brees

4

-1

3

Punt

0.07

22

9/21/2008

at CHI

W 27-24

K.Orton

1

0

3

FG

0.07

23

11/16/2008

MIN

W 19-13

G.Frerotte

1

0

2

Punt

0.02

24

9/13/2009

DAL

L 34-21

T.Romo

1

0

1

FG

0.07

25

11/29/2009

at ATL

L 20-17

C.Redman

3

7

2

FG

0.06

26

11/14/2010

CAR

W 31-16

J.Clausen

4

15

1

Downs

0.00

27

10/23/2011

CHI

L 24-18

J.Cutler

4

-3

3

FG

-0.02

28

9/9/2012

CAR

W 16-10

C.Newton

2

13

2

Punt

0.02

Sacks by quarter: 1st QT (8.5), 2nd QT (3), 3rd QT (6), 4th QT (10.5)

Average Scoring Margin: 6.4 PTS. Trailing (6), Tied (8), Leading (15)

Sacks by down: 1st (9.5), 2nd (9), 3rd (9.5)

Opponent Drive Results:  Punt (14), FG (6), Downs (4), TD (3), FUM (1), Clock (1)

Approximate Win Probability Added: 1.47

Sure, Tampa Bay was 19-8 (.703) in the games Barber registered a sack. But how much impact did those 28 sacks really have on the game?

Win Probability Added (WPA) is a great statistical tool because it will not treat all sacks as equal. Making a team lose 12 yards on a sack is better than a two-yard loss. Forcing a fumble and having your team recover it is really helpful. Stifling a team on fourth-down late in the fourth quarter could be a game-ending sack. Getting a sack that makes the opponent lose a yard when they are down by 30 points? That doesn’t deserve much credit.

WPA will account for all of those situations appropriately.

With the 28 sacks, Barber added 1.47 WPA for the Buccaneers. Keep in mind had he allowed a 12-yard completion on a 3rd-and-10 pass at any point in his career, that would be about a -0.05 change in WP depending on the score, time and field position.

So the sacks really are not a huge deal when you look at it this way. Teams still scored nine times on the 29 drives.

Sure, Barber had a few nice sacks. His best (WPA of +0.25) came in 2004 against the Chiefs. Holding onto a 34-31 lead, Barber and the Buccaneers watched Trent Green march to the TB 43 with 1:50 to play. At this point the Chiefs had a WP of 0.38. Barber then sacked Green, forcing a fumble which was recovered by Will Shields. Still, it was 2nd-and-18 with the Chiefs out of field goal range.

Kansas City’s WP was now 0.13, so Barber gets a +0.25 on that play. Green ended up getting sacked on 4th-and-18 to end the drive and clinch the win for Tampa Bay.

But that’s not your typical sack. The average WPA for Barber’s sacks was 0.05. He even had one negative play (Sack 27) thanks to Aqib Talib picking up a taunting penalty, which gave Chicago an automatic first down instead of forcing the field goal.

Though, let’s be honest, Helen Keller had a chance to make that sack:

Interestingly enough, the one game Barber had multiple sacks (2.5 vs. 2000 Bears) saw him pick up his cheapest one ever on the game’s final play: a takedown of Cade McNown at midfield with a 41-0 lead.

Sacks like that are so insignificant the WPA is not even 0.01. Ignoring the sack with Talib’s penalty, Barber had nine sacks that were 0.01 WPA or smaller.

The record for sacks by a cornerback makes for a much better trivia answer than a significant part of Barber’s Hall of Fame case.

Frankly, he should have enough without it.

 

Conclusion: See You in Canton, Ronde…Eventually

Barber’s career has the feel and look of a Hall of Fame career, especially on paper, though it is likely he will wait for enshrinement. It could be a long wait too.

We know there is a storm of epic proportions brewing at the wide receiver position that could take years to resolve. There are also going to be players eligible a year before Barber such as Jason Taylor, Hines Ward and LaDainian Tomlinson.

For defensive backs, Ty Law (eligible in 2015) could be directly competing with Barber, as well as Tampa Bay teammate John Lynch.

Then you look at the players who will be eligible with Barber in 2018. There is no doubt Ray Lewis is taking one of the five spots. Some of the other players not guaranteed to be eligible (they all haven’t officially retired yet), but are possibilities include Randy Moss, Charles Woodson, Brian Urlacher, Dwight Freeney, Jeff Saturday and Matt Birk.

Moss deserves a first-ballot induction, while Woodson is direct competition that could be a thorn in Barber’s side for several years. Woodson was voted to the first team on the 2000s All-Decade Team. Barber was second team. Urlacher is probably ahead of Barber as well.

With the retirements of Barber, Lewis and Detroit kicker Jason Hanson, that leaves Tony Gonzalez as the oldest draft selection (1997) still in the NFL. Yep, he’s the only player left that was drafted before 1998, and he wanted to retire himself this year before giving it one more shot. If he follows through on his retirement, you can bet he’ll take one of the spots in 2019 that Barber could still be waiting for.

So it’s a complicated process, but it looks comfortable to say that one day Ronde Barber will be in the Hall of Fame. It could be a long wait, but on the bright side, it’s not like his hair is going to fall out over it.

 

Scott Kacsmar is a football writer/researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive. Please send any questions or comments to Scott at smk_42@yahoo.com, or you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.


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