Nickelback stigma holding back Ronde Barber in Hall vote

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TAMPA, Fla. -- For the third year in a row, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber did not advance beyond the semifinalist round of the Pro Football Hall of Fame voting. Maybe the Bucs’ lack of national relevance over the past decade plays a role. Maybe it's because only 13 of the 326 Hall of Famers spent all or the majority of their careers at cornerback (16 players are listed as having played both cornerback and safety).

But Barber won't get Hall of Fame recognition until football purists and decision-makers understand not only his unique role in the Tampa 2 defense but the value he brought to the nickelback position.

“He’s probably one of the best nickelbacks to play the game,” former Bucs position coach Herm Edwards said. “And he was a starting corner. A lot of people don’t realize that because we’d move him inside with three wide [receivers].”

Brother Tiki Barber, who played 10 years in the NFL, took it one step further.

“He revolutionized the position,” Tiki Barber said. “People don’t give him credit for it. He was 10 years ahead of his time. The nickel corner is the most important position on the football field these days. You’ve gotta be part linebacker, part cornerback, part rush player, and he did it with excellence.”

What is a nickelback?

Traditionally, the nickelback was the third and weakest cornerback on the team.

“We did it completely opposite,” said Ronde Barber, who was often used to blitz in defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s zone pressures. “You needed kind of a cerebral, short-space, quick, tough guy to do it. That was me.”

The nickelback serves as a fifth defensive back -- hence the word “nickel.” He’s responsible for covering wide receivers, running backs and tight ends. At times, he’ll be asked to rush the quarterback.

“That guy has to be versatile. He has to be able to blitz, he has to be able to tackle, he has to be able to cover -- short and deep,” said Bucs cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross, who played in the NFL for 10 seasons and is in the Kansas City Chiefs’ Hall of Fame.

“I give Monte Kiffin a lot of credit here because he allowed me a chance to pioneer a position,” Ronde Barber said. “People took the nickel for granted for a lot of years prior. But he treated it like I was Derrick Brooks. I went to linebacker meetings. When they ran the ball, they expected me to make tackles. And it really came to define what Tampa 2 was. You didn’t have to put your weakest corner in there. You put your best corner in there and let him go make plays. I made a ton of plays.”

While the two outside corners can use the boundary to their advantage, the nickelback has more area to cover and has to play both inside and outside release, meaning he must not only be quick but mentally sharp, especially against slants, digs and post routes, where receivers are breaking in the middle of the field. Guess wrong and you give up a big play.

The numbers

When you look at the recent cornerbacks being voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, 50 interceptions is the sweet spot.

“I’ve always said this -- if you get 50 interceptions, you’ve got a really good chance getting in,” Edwards said.

“I think he should go,” former Bucs safety and Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson said. “When you look at the defense and the position he played and the way that he played it, he was the best. And that’s what it’s about. Who was the best at that time? And for the 15-, 16-year period, Ronde was the best at playing nickel corner. Yes, he played outside and made plays. Yes, he was outside covering the best receiver. Ronde was able to do all those things and still be successful.

Ty Law, who was inducted in 2019, had 53 interceptions. Champ Bailey, who was inducted in 2019, had 52. Ronde Barber came close with 47, but that’s right there with a pair of Hall of Famers -- Jimmy Johnson, who had 47 with the San Francisco 49ers, and Mike Haynes, who had 46 with the New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders.

But Ronde Barber did so much more than his peers at the position. He was the first and only NFL player to record at least 45 interceptions and 25 sacks (28 career sacks). His 197 career passes defensed are second most in NFL history behind only Bailey (203). Barber also registered 1,231 combined tackles (1,028 solo), 88 tackles for loss, 12 forced fumbles and 12 fumble recoveries.

By comparison, in 15 seasons, Law had 839 combined tackles (703 solo), 5.0 sacks, 169 passes defensed, 53 interceptions, seven touchdowns, seven forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. In 15 seasons, Bailey had 908 combined tackles (812 solo), 3.0 sacks, seven forced fumbles and six fumble recoveries.

His longevity

While Ronde Barber doesn’t have the 12 Pro Bowl selections of Bailey or the three Super Bowl rings of Law (Barber was a five-time Pro Bowler and won a Super Bowl with the Bucs in 2002), his longevity and toughness in the sport -- not just how long he played but the fact that he rarely missed games -- can’t be overlooked.

In 2002, he recorded an interception against Brett Favre with one hand the same week he had surgery on a broken thumb.

Ronde Barber told the doctor, “'You've got two days. I'm gonna practice on Wednesday,’” he said. “The hard part was that it was my left thumb and I was on the right side of the defense, so he was throwing into this hand, so I had to use my body and right hand [to make a one-handed interception]. But I found a way.”

He holds the record for most consecutive starts by a cornerback (209) and most consecutive starts by a defensive back with 215 (Ronde Barber switched to safety in 2012).

"When he got to 14 years, I’m like, ‘How the hell are you doing this?'" Tiki Barber said. "'You’re 36 years old right now. How are you still playing?'"

Ronde Barber said, “I never wanted to see anyone else do my job.”

His legacy

Tiki Barber believes a lack of understanding about his brother’s position has made it more challenging for him to garner respect.

“It’s a shame because people who don’t know football well enough are judging football,” Tiki Barber said.

Jackson agreed.

“A lot of the people who try to [discredit] nickel corners are people who have never played the game,” Jackson said.

Ross sees value in what Ronde Barber did.

“The nickel is now a starting cornerback in the NFL. There are always three wide receivers out on the field. That guy, he’s no longer what you call your ‘third corner.’ He’s a starting corner in the NFL right now,” Ross said.

Many teams now list their starting defense with three cornerbacks instead of two, so the position is slowly generating more respect, which you can see with players like Chris Harris being voted to the Pro Bowl.

“They will,” Ronde Barber said. “They will eventually. They have to.”