TAMPA, Fla. — No play defined cornerback Ronde Barber’s career more than his iconic pick-six against the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2002 NFC Championship Game.
The play helped seal the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 27-10 victory, earning an organization once called the “Yucks” its first Super Bowl appearance.
“Ronde’s play — of all the plays I’ve made or seen being made in this organization — that is still my top play, really, of all time,” former Tampa Bay linebacker and Pro Football Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks said.
And up until that point, the play also happened in the biggest game in the franchise’s history. It was Barber’s crowning highlight en route to Canton, Ohio, where Barber will be enshrined as part of the 2023 Pro Football Hall of Fame class on Aug. 5.
“[It was] easily, by far, the most dominant football game I’ve ever played,” Barber told ESPN, “and that play just kind of personified it.”
Before Barber’s interception sent them to the Super Bowl, the Buccaneers had accumulated more losses than any team since entering the league in 1976. All those years of pent-up frustration and being the laughingstock of the NFL ended with a moment of sheer elation.
Barber, undersized at 5-foot-10 and 183 pounds, swooped in on Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb’s pass intended for slot receiver Antonio Freeman and dashed 92 yards in the opposite direction to score.
“All these Buc fans that obviously suffered through the early part of this team’s existence and then watched us grow and succeed and become competitive,” Barber said. “It was like a cumulative act.”
Eagles fans sat in stunned silence before clamoring for the exits in what was supposed to be the swan song of Veterans Stadium, which had hosted Eagles games since 1971 and was set to be torn down.
Former Bucs linebacker Shelton Quarles, now the team’s director of football operations, believes the magnitude of the moment extended beyond Buccaneers history.
“It’ll go down as one of the greatest plays that the world’s ever seen,” Quarles said.
PRIOR TO THAT day in January 2003, the Bucs were 0-6 in road playoff games, and Philadelphia had been their house of horrors.
Tampa Bay had been unable to score an offensive touchdown in its previous three games there, and Philly also was the place where the Bucs’ playoff hopes had recently died.
“We’d lost to Philly two years in a row,” Barber said. “We knew if we were going to make it, we were going to have to beat Philly. … It made me prepare better than I’ve ever prepared in my life.”
Barber, who admits that no amount of preparation would have been enough for that NFC Championship Game, said it’s hard to quantify how much prep work he actually put into that week, but he estimates it was 10 times the amount of normal prep.
Not to mention, Tampa was 1-21 in games played in temperatures below 40 degrees coming in, and the temperature at kickoff that day was 26, with a windchill of 16.
“A lot of people, especially all the experts that you see on TV, the analysts, they didn’t give us no chance to win,” former Bucs running back Michael Pittman said.
The Eagles themselves had already planned a Super Bowl XXXVII send-off before the game.
“I remember going to their stadium for our walk-through, they had a big banner at the top, and it said, ‘The view to San Diego looks great from here!'” Quarles said. “And I’m like, ‘They already think they’re going to win.'”
“Statwise, playwise, if I could play [baseball], it’d be the equivalent of me pitching a perfect game, if I was a pitcher. … The interception for a touchdown would be like striking out the last batter of the game.”
THINGS LOOKED BLEAK early on for Tampa Bay. The Bucs surrendered a 70-yard opening kickoff return to Brian Mitchell and a 20-yard touchdown run on second down by Duce Staley 45 seconds into the contest.
Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson then threw an interception on the second drive. But things would begin to settle down after Johnson found wide receiver Joe Jurevicius for a 71-yard catch and run late in the first quarter, before a 1-yard scoring run from Mike Alstott punctuated the drive.
The Bucs took a 17-10 lead into the half before extending it to 20-10 with 1:06 to go in the third quarter.
Still, the game felt within reach for the top-seeded Eagles as they were marching down the field. Until Barber ended all hope.
On first-and-goal with 3:27 to go in the game, the Eagles were on the Bucs’ 10-yard line. Barber faked a blitz, baiting McNabb into attempting a pass to his left to Freeman.
“Ronde did an amazing job of reading Donovan McNabb and understanding what they was trying to do to us at that moment,” former Tampa Bay safety Dexter Jackson said.
Freeman ran a quick out, and McNabb looked to him, failing to see Barber dropping into coverage and undercutting the route. As Barber jumped in front of Freeman, Freeman fell backward and Barber raced to the end zone.
“I knew it was over,” Jackson said, “and I was running behind Ronde watching him go score saying, ‘Finally. Finally we have this off our back.'”
Angered by his recent Pro Bowl snub and adamant that the world know his name, Barber slowed down only to point to the name on the back of his jersey as he shouted, “F— the Pro Bowl. I’m going to San Diego!”
Barber said the occasion wasn’t just about him, but his teammate Brian Kelly, whom he believed also should have been in the Pro Bowl. Barber led the league in interceptions the year prior, but he felt his 2002 season was stronger and that he didn’t “have the stats in terms of takeaways” to back it up. But fellow cornerback Kelly was tied for tops in the league with eight picks on the season.
“They gave three Philadelphia Eagles Pro Bowl spots — the other safety [Pro Football Hall of Famer Brian] Dawkins, obviously — and both of their corners [Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent] made the Pro Bowl that freaking year,” Barber said. “So my outward exuberance in that moment was really speaking to the frustrations of both myself and Brian Kelly, who should have been at the Pro Bowl and should have had a getting-on-the-map type of year.
“It just didn’t happen. So it worked out perfectly for us. And I’m glad I could speak for Brian and I by saying that after that play.”
BARBER IS STILL greeted by people who weren’t even born in 2002 that come up to him and make that famous gesture of pointing to him pointing to his back as he scored the touchdown. As Quarles put it, “Everybody does it now, but Ronde started the trend.”
Brooks went on to score his own pick-six in the Super Bowl win against the Raiders in 2003, but he knows without Barber’s play, he might not have even gotten the chance.
“People get surprised when they think I would pick my own [interception] of the Super Bowl as my favorite play,” said Brooks of his 44-yard interception return. “But honestly, just seeing that play unfold in the type of game that Ronde was having, I told him, ‘Man, I’m sure you’re going to score.'”
Quarles simplified the impact of the play in his own words: “It put us on the map.”
“We were on a big stage at a crucial point in the game, and I think it changed [perception],” Quarles said. “We had an opportunity to make some plays in ’99, and it didn’t quite go our way when we played the Rams in St. Louis. … But we knew we had something special here. We just needed a little jump-start, and Ronde was the spark plug.”
Even though he prepared for it, Barber said he couldn’t have conjured up that outing, even in his wildest dreams.
“The interception is what kind of personified that day, but if you watch the entirety of that game — man, I did just about everything you could possibly do in terms of like a defensive player,” said Barber, who finished the NFC Championship Game with the pick, a sack, a forced fumble, four pass breakups and a slew of open-field tackles.
“Statwise, playwise, if I could play [baseball], it’d be the equivalent of me pitching a perfect game. If I was a pitcher — that’s what that whole football game was like. And the interception for a touchdown would be like striking out the last batter of the game.”
IT WAS FITTING the play was made from the nickelback position — where Barber made arguably his greatest contribution to the game.
A nickel corner plays in a formation where a third cornerback is on the field instead of the traditional two, and the position was typically occupied by the third-best cornerback on a team, but the Bucs had Barber — their best corner — line up outside in their base defense and inside during nickel passing situations.
They believed his instincts and toughness were best suited for the position, which, unlike the outside, means players can’t rely on the help of the sidelines to act as an extra defender.
“There was a time, probably before our defense changed the method of playing in there, that your weakest corner was playing inside –your third corner played inside,” Barber previously told ESPN. “And we did it completely opposite. But we were also in a time when [then-defensive coordinator] Monte [Kiffin] was experimenting with a lot of zone pressures. They were around before, but we were really doing them and innovating them.”
That’s why his statistics look much different than other Hall of Famer cornerbacks like Champ Bailey (52 interceptions, 3 sacks), Ty Law (53 interceptions, 5 sacks) or Darrelle Revis (29 interceptions, 2 sacks), who also was voted in this year.
“It’ll go down as one of the greatest plays that the world’s ever seen.”
Former Bucs linebacker Shelton Quarles said of the pick-six.
Though it took Barber six years to get in, he is the only player in NFL history with 25 or more sacks and 40 or more interceptions. His 28 sacks are also second most among defensive backs, behind only safety Rodney Harrison (30.5).
“He’s known for being a nickel, [but] he’s not just a one-trick pony,” Quarles said. “He can do multiple things, whether it’s rushing a pass or catching inceptions or tackling. He was fearless as a tackler as well … because in our coverage, you had to tackle or you weren’t going to play.”
In today’s game, the nickelback position is considered part of football’s base defense. Players who primarily, or exclusively, line up there are getting voted to the Pro Bowl. And it’s not just a third cornerback or safety, but in many instances, it’s a team’s biggest playmaker, like Tyrann Mathieu, Jalen Ramsey and Marlon Humphrey have done at times.
“The evolution of the position, the variability of the player that needs to play in there, I would not be shy to admit that that happened on my watch,” Barber said. “And at the time, I was definitely the best at doing it.”
BARBER FINISHED HIS career in 2012 with the most consecutive starts (215 regular season, 224 including playoffs) for a defensive back and five Pro Bowl selections. He was also named to the 2000s All-Decade team.
Current Bucs linebacker and longtime team captain Lavonte David, who was Barber’s teammate, admires what Barber did for the position saying he thinks “the nickel position got defined by Ronde.”
“His last year, he played free safety and had like [four] picks,” David said. “It just shows how versatile he [was]. No matter where you put him on the field, he made plays.”
Barber said he didn’t need Hall of Fame validation, but he recognizes the honor is a nod to his contribution to the game and his enshrinement in August will insert an accolade in the history books next to his name that not many who played in the NFL can claim.
But still, when he was running 92 yards on that January day, he knew what that moment would mean for his legacy and for the franchise. He knew that moment helped take the organization to a place it had never been.
“I remember running down the field, getting ready to score that touchdown and thinking about what people were thinking about watching that game in Tampa,” Barber said to ESPN. “I like to envision what people were doing and hearing the stories of what people were actually doing — probably the most warming thing to my heart ever.
“I was glad to be the center of attention, to be honest with you. It helped justify — it helps to still justify, the player that I was — that not a lot of people gave me credit for being.”