By ROY CUMMINGS rcummings@tampatrib.com
Published: Oct 14, 2004






TAMPA - Bucs coach Jon Gruden has been talking all season about finding a way to get cornerback Ronde Barber involved in his offense.
As it turns out, the only thing Gruden had to do to get some offense out of Barber was leave him on defense.

It may be more of an indictment of the Bucs offense than an example of the veteran's versatility, but Barber leads the team with two touchdowns.

``Hey, I'm just doing my job,'' Barber said. ``If you look at the board that lists our job descriptions on defense, it says score and get the ball back for our offense.

``I take that literally.''

Good thing. If not for Barber's latest TD - a fumble return Sunday against New Orleans - the Bucs (1-4) might still be winless.

Though their offense had its best game of the season against the Saints, it was Barber's second-quarter score that gave the Bucs a lead they never lost.

``It's plays like that that win you games,'' Gruden said. ``And in the last few years Ronde Barber has made a lot of them for us.''

He's made eight to be precise - more touchdowns than any defender ever to wear a Bucs uniform.

Nevertheless, Barber, 29, can't seem to shake the image of a player who excels only because he works well in the Bucs' zone-based system.

The label ``system guy'' has hung with him like a shadow. If you need proof, check out the 2004 Sporting News Pro Football Scouting Guide.

``In any other scheme,'' the guide says, ``Barber would not be nearly as productive.''

What's supposedly holding Barber back, according to the scouts, is the fact he lacks ideal speed and strength.

But at least one former foe doesn't buy any of the knocks. Not anymore, he doesn't.

``In Oakland we didn't really hear that much about him, not even during Super Bowl week,'' former Raiders receiver Tim Brown said. ``All anybody ever really said was that he was a good corner.

``But since I've been here I've developed a whole new level of respect for him. ...

``There's more to being a cornerback than knocking down balls and that kind of stuff, you know, and he has it all. He has cover ability, he can tackle you, he has the ability to digest formations and play intelligent football.

``Believe me, I've been around a long time and seen a lot of guys and you see a lot of guys with one or two of those skills, but you rarely see guys with all of them. He's got all of them. And on top of that, he's tough as nails.''

Mentally tough is what Bucs defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin calls Barber, who admits it took him a while to get over the knocks that scouts delivered in evaluating him.

``It used to bother me,'' he said. ``But now, I don't mind being considered the best scheme guy in a league where everybody's playing the same scheme. I take it as a compliment.''

Rams coach Mike Martz gave Barber a compliment.

``He doesn't get the credit he deserves,'' said Martz, who watched the 5-foot-10, 184- pounder record 10 tackles against the Rams two years ago. ``He's all over the field.''

It's not unusual for Barber to have as many sacks, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries as he does interceptions in a season. But that is mostly by design.

``In our system he's not always going to be in a position to make a lot of interceptions,'' Gruden said. ``That's because he comes inside a lot and plays the slot in the nickel. He blitzes a lot. In our system he's not going to be around the ball as much as he would be in some other systems. But I can tell you this: I want him on my team. He's going to be in my Pro Bowl every year.''

Ah yes, the Pro Bowl. The opportunity to play in the league's all-star game so far has eluded Barber, and like the ``system'' tag, that fact gnaws at him a bit.

``The thing we always talk about here is Pro Bowl-caliber play,'' Tomlin said. ``We ask that you give us that because that's something you can control and Ronde is a guy that does it week in and week out.''

He certainly gave it to them last week. In addition to returning that Deuce McAllister fumble for a touchdown, he recorded seven tackles, including one on special teams, and batted down a pass.

``I think he's taken his game to another level,'' Gruden said. ``And one of these days we are going to use him on offense, because he can play offense or defense. He's just a great football player. He's one of those guys. Some guys got it and he's one them. He's got it.''