Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Kaufman: Does Ronde Barber belong in the Hall of Fame?
For Buccaneers fans who had the privilege of watching No. 20 report to work for the past 16 seasons, his new title appears to be “Hall of Famer Ronde Barber.''
Not so fast.
Barber, who switched from cornerback to safety for his final NFL season, certainly has powerful credentials as a candidate for the Canton, Ohio, shrine of excellence.
In addition to the five Pro Bowls and 1,428 tackles, Barber defined the position of slot corner, and he boasts a signature moment — that 92-yard interception return at Philadelphia that clinched the 2002 club's NFC title.
The pick was vintage Barber, baiting Donovan McNabb on a fake blitz and then dropping into coverage.
Earlier in the conference championship game, Barber came around the right edge and knocked the ball out of McNabb's hand for a fumble that was recovered by teammate Ellis Wyms.
That one game, Tampa Bay's stepping stone to the Super Bowl, showcased Barber's unique versatility.
But before Bucs fans guarantee Barber a place in Canton, the reality is that it's exceedingly difficult for modern-day defensive backs to crack open those Hall of Fame doors.
There are only 23 defensive backs in the Hall, and among defensive backs who have retired in the past two decades, only four have been inducted: Darrell Green, Ronnie Lott, Deion Sanders and Rod Woodson.
That's the kind of scrutiny Barber faces when he first becomes eligible for the Class of 2018.
Barber has thrived while facing down competition for 16 NFL seasons, but the 2018 Hall of Fame class could feature a killer group of other first-time eligibles: Ray Lewis, Randy Moss, Charles Woodson and Brian Urlacher.
And don't forget about returning candidates who fall short in 2017.
Nothing has come easy for Barber, a third-round draft pick out of Virginia in 1997 who struggled in his early career under coach Tony Dungy.
“There are some physically tough guys who aren't mentally tough and vice versa, but Ronde had the combination of both,'' Dungy said. “Mentally, he was as good as anybody.''
So was Aeneas Williams.
An eight-time Pro Bowler, Williams also made a deft transition from corner to safety late in his career.
Like Barber, Williams was selected to an NFL All-Decade team, and he also scored 12 defensive touchdowns in his career.
With 55 interceptions and 23 fumble recoveries, Williams leads Barber in two key categories.
And Williams, who retired after the 2004 season, is still awaiting his day in Canton.
For the past three years, Williams has longed to join the greats of the game.
His day will probably come, but when?
Williams played for some lousy Arizona teams before joining the Rams in 2001 and helping St. Louis reach the Super Bowl.
Barber was outstanding in the clutch, but he's got nothing on Williams in the postseason.
In his first four playoff games, Williams registered six interceptions.
Still, no Hall of Fame bust.
As the only player in NFL history to post 25 or more sacks and at least 40 picks, Barber boasts plenty of Hall of Fame ammunition. That streak of 215 consecutive starts is a testament to his toughness, and Barber's football intelligence is off the chart.
But the Hall hasn't been kind to defensive backs, and Barber has to share credit for Tampa Bay's elite defensive run with Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and his mentor, John Lynch.
“I don't mind being in the (Hall of Fame) conversation,'' Barber said.
When the Hall of Fame panel gathers to vote on the Class of 2018, Ronde Barber will be 42 years old.
And itching for his next fight.
Ira Kaufman is the Tampa Bay representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee