TAMPA, Fla. The massive red-and-black digital clock hanging inside the Tampa Bay Buccaneers locker room has been counting down the days, minutes and seconds to the teams first regular-season game under new head coach Greg Schiano.
But theres another important count in progress beyond the one ticking toward the 1 p.m. Sunday contest against the visiting Carolina Panthers.
Its one that continues to climb, defying time itself, steadily taking measure of a rare player in the NFL and a noteworthy career accomplishment that continues to unfold.
When defensive back Ronde Barber steps onto the field in Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, the magic number in the progression will be 200 the almost unfathomable number of consecutive starts Barber has made in his illustrious 16-year tenure with Tampa Bay, and an ongoing NFL record for defensive backs, at that.
In a sport known for the physical toll it takes on players at every position especially players not known for their size its hard to comprehend how the 5-10, 184-pounder from the University of Virginia has never been knocked out of the starting lineup by injury. But season after season, game after game, the chiseled 37-year-old and twin brother of long-since retired New York Giants tailback Tiki Barber has been a constant fixture for the franchise and its fans.
Ive been fortunate not to be hurt, certainly, No. 20 said this week at One Buc Place. But I dont believe in luck. Im a guy who takes care of the things I need to take care of and prepare myself every week.
The Bucs plan to commemorate Barbers remarkable streak Sunday with free parking and half-price concessions (other than alcohol), along with a custom Barber gym bag for all fans in attendance. For the record, Barber has played in 225 games as a pro (a Buc record) and started in 216, just five behind Tampa Bays all-time mark set by linebacker Derrick Brooks. Two years ago he surpassed the previous NFL mark for defensive backs 171 set by Dick LeBeau.
But 200 straight is a special milestone for more than the enormity of the number. It will feature Barber, a cornerback his entire career, playing free safety in Schianos defensive scheme for the first time in a regular-season game. From the start of offseason workouts, Barber embraced the challenge of learning a new position in the twilight of his career, mentoring first-round pick and strong safety Mark Barron and allowing the Bucs to man the corners with young standouts: Aqib Talib on the left and free agent acquisition Eric Wright on the right.
I think its going to be hard for another corner to get 199 straight starts, so I dont mind going to safety, he quipped.
Barber had given serious consideration to retiring after last years 4-12 season, but the Bucs front office coaxed him into returning in 2012, a year that could well be his last. Whatever happens, he insists that Sunday isnt different from any other season opener, other than all the ticket requests hes getting from friends and family who want to be on hand for the big day.
To me, its another start. Ive been fortunate to be able to do this for a long time, he said. Ive got an organization thats believed in me for 14 years, or however many years the streak covers. So its a little bit of an honor, but Im preparing for it like any other week.
Meanwhile, here are some of Barbers thoughts on his 16th season, the Panthers team that routed the Bucs twice last year (38-19 and 48-16) and the new defense hes still a key part of after all these years:
On how different the Buc defensive under Schiano and coordinator Bill Sheridan will be compared with 2011, and how it will handle Carolina quarterback sensation Cam Newton:
Its completely different, a completely different scheme. Theres some elements that everybody does across the league that well see just like last year. But this is a whole new preparation for this team. We have different ways were going to play Cam, different ways were going to play every situation that they beat us with last year. So were looking forward to it. We studied that film from last year and theres some crossover but I think well be prepared.
On how important it is to establish a defensive identity quickly, even against an explosive Panther offense:
For me, and everybody on this defense, it starts with the run. I dont remember or care to remember what that yardage was last year. We (need to) stop all facets of the run game. Youve got two great backs (DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart) and the most dynamic running quarterback in the league right now. But we take care of (the run) first, and the rest will take care of itself, I think.
On whether he still gets excited to play the game:
Absolutely. I get excited for every game. As coach likes to say, this is one of 16 opportunities we have. So if you put it in context, its a very minimal number of chances you get to strap up and go play. You never know when youll get another opportunity.
On whether hes ever faced a multi-threat in his career like Newton:
There arent many. There have obviously been some guys. Michael Vick back in the day was almost equally impossible to deal with. But (Newton) brings another element, just with his size and his speed. His attributes and ratios are off the charts. It showed itself in college; it showed itself last year in his rookie year. I only expect him to be better this year. Its a big, big start for us. We judge ourselves on how we play this football game against them, and weve got them twice every year.
On his feelings that the game may be blacked out locally:
Thats something we have absolutely no control over. Obviously, were in the entertainment business. You dont ever want to let that escape you. And Ive been here when teams were on the field and everybody was hankering to get into the stadium, and I was also here when they werent. So I think we all know what needs to happen and for that to replicate itself. If its not a sellout, its not a sellout. People who are there will definitely enjoy the show.
If nothing else, they can catch the longest-running act for defensive backs in pro football history.