TAMPA, Fla. — For about a month, Ronde Barber knew this moment would come, the long list of thank-yous with a cracked voice after a 16-year career in red and pewter that could send him to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The defensive back’s goodbye to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday was the official cut from a former era, a time of John Lynch and Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp that seems more distant with each passing fall.
The five-time Pro Bowl player’s emotion was clear at One Buc Place before friends, family and former colleagues. During a 30-minute event that included words like “bittersweet” and “once-in-a-lifetime player” from co-chairman Joel Glazer, so was the reality that Tampa Bay has begun something new.
Coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik are preparing for their second season together, and granted, stalwarts like Lynch and Brooks and Sapp have been absent from these halls for some time. But moves of the past three months, specifically the signings of safety Dashon Goldson and cornerback Darrelle Revis, have made obvious a new vision has formed.
“It was time,” said Barber, who retires as the only player in NFL history to earn at least 25 sacks and at least 40 interceptions. “There were a lot of factors. … What would it take for me to get back in there, for my body to take another pounding – 17th year of pounding? I woke up a month or so ago, when I officially made this decision. It wasn’t worth it. It’s nothing against the guys in this room, signing guys, making moves. That’s a necessity for this organization. I understand that. I respect that. I’ve fought off competition for years, so it’s not about that. This is what I was supposed to do because of where I am. I’m ready to be home.”
This was always Barber’s decision. An unrestricted free agent, he had an invite from Dominik to return, though the veteran’s role likely would have been reduced with the additions of Goldson, Revis and cornerback Johnthan Banks, the Bucs’ second-round draft pick in April.
This is Barber’s city. This is his team. The Bucs would have welcomed him back with open arms.
Still, Tampa Bay has parted with a significant piece of its history, a player who made 200 consecutive starts at cornerback and 215 consecutive overall, the seventh-most in NFL history. Barber was both an iron man and a sage mentor. He served as a bridge, a bond, in recent years between the modern Bucs and a championship era.
“For young players … it’s always exciting for them to walk in and say, ‘Where’s Ronde Barber’s locker?’” Dominik told FOX Sports Florida. “Even the young guys who walk in, they walk in and they’re like, ‘Where’s Ronde’s locker?’ That’s a hard thing to replace, let alone his expertise in terms of, ‘I’ve been in that position before. I’ve seen that play before. Here’s what to expect.’ That’s tough. That’s difficult. Hopefully, our young guys are stepping it up and the guys we brought in in free agency and the (Revis) trade can bridge that gap this year.”
That’s the largest question with Barber’s departure: How will the Bucs evolve on defense without him? Dominik and others around the franchise said Barber’s retirement wasn’t a move toward the future as much as recognition of the past.
Yet starting in the fall, this will be Goldson’s and Revis’ secondary. Banks and safety Mark Barron, the seventh overall pick in 2012, are promising and could develop into assets. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is a growing leader as well.
But Barber will never be completely replaced. The void left by him is too large: 1,428 tackles (second-most in franchise history, behind Brooks); 47 interceptions; 28 sacks and eight interceptions returned for touchdowns.
Time catches everyone, including the greats. It’s the Bucs’ challenge to move past one of their best. It’s their challenge to remember but build on Barber’s influence.
“Ronde is the last link to the championship teams,” said Tony Dungy, the Bucs’ coach from 1996 to 2001. “Guys are going to have to define it themselves. He has been here to help them and mentor them and show some young guys the way. But now there are some young guys who are going to have to lead.
“It always happens, especially when you’ve got great teams. You’re going to have guys who have longevity and everybody kind of looks to (them). But to stay good, Steve Young’s got to take over for Joe Montana. You’ve got to pass the torch. That’s what’s happening today.”
On Thursday, it was easy to find intersections between the past and present. Schiano and Dominik sat in the front row near the stage, both flashing grins throughout the ceremony. They chuckled after Barber said, regarding future Bucs success, “There’s no reason we shouldn’t be consistent. I expect them to. Now, will I be pissed if they do it (go deep in the playoffs) this year? Probably.”
That shows Barber’s fire. He has said he has a little football left in him, but his mind caught up with his heart. Such is the way with a star’s drive. It never completely goes away.
The former third-round pick was never afraid of competition. Not from fresher legs. Not from younger hands. Not from players with fewer scars.
Now, the Bucs have begun a new era without him.
“I think we’re putting the pieces in place,” said former safety Jermaine Phillips, who played for the Bucs from 2002 to ’09. “Nobody knows it better than Ronde. He has been in the room. He has been with the guys. He knows what’s there. He knows what it takes to be a champion because he was one.”
He’s a champion who will be hard to replace. Probably never.