Buccaneers welcome Monday night lights
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - Ronde Barber leaned back and then forward in his seat, pondering the question before finally concluding he had no recollection of the first time he played on Monday Night Football.
Didn't have a clue where, when or even who the Tampa Bay Buccaneers faced.
What he recalled was playing in primetime meant a lot. Still does for a team craving national attention.
"It's the only game in town that night,'' Barber said. "Everybody's watching, and you get a chance to showcase yourself. ... If you have swagger, it will come out when the lights go on.''
At 36, the five-time Pro Bowl cornerback is the oldest player on the NFL's youngest team. He even has 17 months on 35-year-old Raheem Morris, the league's youngest head coach.
The Bucs won 10 games last season and were rewarded this season with a schedule featuring two primetime games, including Monday night against the Indianapolis Colts.
Barber said regardless of how old or accomplished you are, playing on Monday night is a big deal.
"We've been toiling down here in Tampa for a long time, unrecognized. That's somewhat our fault, but you've got to relish the opportunity to play in front of everybody,'' the twin brother of retired New York Giants running back Tiki Barber said.
"I'd be lying to say I wasn't excited about it. I know what it's like to succeed under that spotlight, and I know what it's like to fail under that spotlight.''
Since Barber entered the NFL as a third-round draft pick in 1998, Tampa Bay has appeared on MNF 16 times, including one Saturday night edition.
The Bucs and Colts were involved in a memorable MNF matchup in 2003, the season after Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl with a stellar defense.
That is until that Monday night when Peyton Manning came to town. Barber returned an interception 29 yards for a touchdown that gave the Bucs a 35-14 lead with five minutes left in the fourth.
While Barber had difficulty remembering details from a lopsided loss to Barry Sanders and the Detroit Lions in the first Monday night game in which he played in 1998, he said he'll never forget the horrible feeling he walked out of the stadium with after Manning led the Colts back from a 21-point deficit to beat Tampa Bay 38-35 in overtime.
The Bucs began that season with expectations of repeating as Super Bowl champions. Instead that loss began a downward spiral, and Tampa Bay hasn't won a playoff game since.
"To be honest with you, that showed a chink in our armor. We were a really good football team. At least I thought we were a really good football team with a lot of returning guys,'' Barber said.
"And to have somebody really just dismantle us in five minutes kind of showed some weakness on our part, and for whatever reason it snowballed into not a very good season. ... You don't ever want to say you lose your swagger, but we definitely didn't have the same demeanor or didn't display the same demeanor after that loss.''
To this day, Barber finds it difficult to watch highlights of that game.
Still, it's not the only painful primetime memory for the 15th-year pro, who's the only player in NFL history to have at least 40 interceptions and 25 sacks in his career.
Three years ago, Tampa Bay took a 9-3 record to Carolina for a Monday night game with first place in the NFC South on the line.
The Panthers pounded the defense for 299 yards rushing, handing the Bucs a lopsided loss that began a four-game, season-ending slide that helped keep the team from the playoffs and also cost former coach Jon Gruden his job.
"They steamrolled us,'' Barber said. "I was as embarrassed as I've ever been.''
Monday night will be Tampa Bay's first primetime game since then.
With 23-year-old Josh Freeman blossoming at quarterback and just three players who are 30 or older, the Bucs have a promising future.
And Barber, whose streak of 187 consecutive starts is the longest among active players, wants to be part of it. He has his 41st interception and also recovered a fumble during last week's 16-13 victory over Atlanta, earning recognition as NFC defensive player of the week from the league.
Coming off the field, Morris joked with Barber that he had played a great game but hadn't earned a game ball because he didn't score a touchdown.
When the league announced its weekly honors, the coach changed his mind.
"All the things he does on the field for us, he's special. He's one of those figures that for us has just been unbelievable,'' Morris said. "He's Cal Ripken ... Derek Jeter, whoever the case may be. He's all that for us.''