Ronde magic preserved
The kick sailed the length of a city block, and just like that, Ronde Barber was reborn. The ball flew straight and high and impossibly long, and by the time it came down, Barber was a star again. The joy had returned to his face, and the life was back in his legs. Barber bounded across the turf, fresh and forgiven. His arms were raised in triumph. His face was pointed toward the sky.

As for the agony that had engulfed Barber moments before, well, Matt Bryant kicked that away, too. Amazing how much a single kick can erase, isn’t it? For the Bucs, Bryant’s 62-yard field goal won a game and salvaged hope. Most of all, it restored order to Ronde Barber Day.

For most of the afternoon, Barber had done everything a player can do to win a football game, and still, it seemed as if it wasn’t going to be enough. Barber had intercepted two passes and returned them both for touchdowns. He forced a fumble. He made seven tackles. He made plays with his hands, with his feet, with his head.

Despite all of it, what Barber felt with 33 seconds to go was a lot like torture. It was gone, the lead and the satisfaction and the chance to get back into a season. Brian Westbrook had trumped all of it with one play, bouncing off an assembly line of bad tackling for a 52-yard touchdown to take the lead. One of the missed tackles belonged to Barber, and if you wish to freeze the moment, yeah, it was killing him.

“It was … despair,” Barber said. “It was like all the good work we had put in for three quarters was going to be wasted. You don’t hang your head, because we don’t do that around here. It was a sickening feeling.”

It says a lot about football, and a lot about Barber, that a play here or there can change so much about a performance. For most of the day, Barber was having one of those magical afternoons. Barber scored the Bucs’ only touchdowns, and his 103 yards worth of returns would have been a good day for Tiki, his brother. It is safe to assume that the last person who made McNabb feel this ill was Terrell Owens. Probably, McNabb has nightmares about both.

He offered a few pardons around himself, Barber. The awful offense? The sloppy tackling? The 506 yards that the Eagles piled up? The fact the Bucs forced so few turnovers over their first five games? Barber took an eraser to all of that.

This was a game to compare with Barber’s best performances. Yes, that includes the ’02 NFC Championship Game, when his 92-yard interception return clinched the game. Somewhere, you get the feeling that John Lynch is smiling. And Warren Sapp and Joe Jurevicius and the rest of the boys. “They’ll hear about this, and it will bring them back,” Barber said, his cell phone buzzing incessantly in his locker as he spoke. “I’m just glad I have some plays for you to remember.”

For most of the day, Barber was the counterpunch coming off of the ropes. The Eagles spent the day looking as if they were about to score, only every time they got to the edge, Barber ruined the moment. In the first quarter, Barber stopped an Eagles threat when he chopped the ball out of receiver Jason Avant’s hands.

In the second, he played a hunch —“I cheated,’’ is how Barber put it — and left his receiver open to pick off a pass and return it 37 yards for a touchdown. In the third, he made a nice break to intercept another pass. That one, he returned 66 yards for a score. “Football above the neck,’’ Barber called it. “I’m an opportunist,” Barber said.

Not a bad afternoon, in fact. If you are measuring Barbers, this one put Ronde ahead of Tiki, ahead of Red and ahead of Figaro. Still, it was the late play that almost ruined everything for Barber. He was gassed at the time, if you want to know. The Bucs defense had chased the Eagles around for 72 plays and 454 yards, and Barber admitted that his legs felt like rubber.

Derrick Brooks had the first shot, and the best one, at Westbrook. It surprised Barber as much as the rest of us when Brooks missed. Then came Bolden and Jermaine Phillips. Westbrook made a move, and Barber stuck out a leg in a futile attempt. It didn’t work, either.

“You play this game to win,” Barber said. “The individual plays don’t matter. If we had lost this one, it would have hurt. I told Derrick, 'You and I are better than that.’ No matter what else we did, that’s what we need to talk about on Monday.”

Always, there has been a perspective to Barber that matches his passion. He knows the standards. It has made him a great player in this league. This year, the talk about Barber has been about slow starts — his own and his team’s. Sunday was different. It was about opportunity. It was about forgiveness. For a player. Perhaps, for a season.

Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times 23 October 2006