Monday, July 21, 2003 Updated: August 6, 1:22 AM ET
Gruden taking at look at Barber at RB
By Len Pasquarelli ESPN.com
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- In the latest example of how the fertile imagination of Jon Gruden runs deep, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach has taken a dive into the genetic pool, apparently hoping that the athletic traits shared by the NFL's most celebrated twins extend to running with the football.
Ronde Barber had another strong season in 2004, with two interceptions and three sacks last season.
Halfway through the opening session of training camp on Saturday morning, Gruden had cornerback Ronde Barber, one of the league's best coverage players over the last couple seasons, line up for a few plays at tailback. Barber's twin brother, Tiki, is a star tailback, of course, for the New York Giants.
It marked the first time since he shared the backfield with his brother at Cave Spring High School in Roanoke, Va., that Ronde Barber had lined up on the offensive side of the ball. How long the training camp experiment lasts probably depends on whether Ronde Barber can actually make a splash at tailback or if he is just a half-(ground)-gainer in a move he acknowledged was "a dive into the unknown."
The move was prompted, in part, by the possibility starting tailback Michael Pittman could be facing jail time, and by the Bucs' fairly mundane running attack.
"He's calling me the 'Robo Barber,' because he says I can do it all," Ronde Barber said. "He talked to me about it some during the offseason. You know, he gets you all pumped up on this stuff, because he gets excited by the (possibilities). Is he serious about it? You have to ask him. But he doesn't do stuff just to do it, you know, so we'll have to see how far it goes."
Tampa Bay had just two runs of 30 yards or longer in 2002 and Barber might provide the team some so-called "long speed" in the rushing game. Then again, Gruden will have to consider what effect the dual role might have on Barber, 28, even if just used sparingly at the tailback position.
The six-year veteran had 10 interceptions in 2001 and earned his first Pro Bowl berth for his performance that season. While his interceptions dropped to two in 2002, some league observers feel Barber played even better than in the previous season (despite a strained posterior cruciate ligament), and probably should have gone to the Pro Bowl again.
The handful of plays run by Barber at tailback on Saturday and Sunday were relatively rudimentary ones. Gruden and quarterback Brad Johnson emphasized that Barber would not be used at tailback just for gimmick-type plays, but that he would operate from a scaled-down running game menu.
Gruden's latest brainstorm apparently kicked up when he was watching film of Thomas Jones in college. Acquired from the Arizona Cardinals in a trade last month, Jones was a star tailback at the University of Virginia, where he was a teammate of Ronde and Tiki Barber. Watching the tape somehow fueled Gruden's curiosity about how good a running back Ronde Barber was in high school.
Good enough, apparently, to have piqued Gruden's interest.
"It's just something to think about," said Gruden, an inveterate offensive tinkerer. "We'll evaluate it and see if it might be worth our time."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.