Barber leads NFC in rushing

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- A tiny figure in the distance, he walks slowly and precisely down the concrete corridor under the west end zone at Giants Stadium.

But even when Tiki Barber approaches the door of the visiting locker room where an ESPN crew is waiting on Thursday morning, the running back somehow seems smaller than his listed 5-foot-10, 200-pound frame.

For eight seasons now, Barber has been one of the league's most consistently exciting players. He entered the 2004 season as the Giants' all-time leader in total yardage (10,746), more than Frank Gifford, Rodney Hampton, Dave Meggett and Joe Morris. He was also the franchise's career leader with 422 receptions.

In 2002, his finest season to date, Barber rushed for 1,387 yards and caught 69 passes for another 597 yards -- a total of 1,984 yards. Last year, despite playing for a team that won only four games, Barber produced another 1,677 combined yards.

But amid the statistical pyrotechnics there was a dark number that mitigated all that production, a big ugly asterisk: 35.

That was how many times Barber fumbled the ball in the four seasons from 2000-2003 -- the highest total in the NFL. No fewer than 17 of those balls were lost to the opposition. Last year, Barber led all NFL running backs with nine fumbles, six of which were lost.

Jim Fassel always had a deep faith in Barber, but when Tom Coughlin replaced him as head coach after the 2003 season a collision seemed imminent. Coughlin, a bottom-line guy, has an aversion to turnovers that borders on an allergic reaction. People who follow the Giants wondered whether Barber might lose his job as workhorse if he continued to give the ball away.

In their first meeting in early 2004, Coughlin challenged Barber.

"The losing of the football and the subsequent losing of football games and the mentality of letting the wind or the air out of the sideline when it happens, instead of uplifting your football team, that is something that he wanted to desperately get rid of," Coughlin explained Thursday. "I noticed studying him on film what the cause of some of his problems were and that we were going to make this correction."

"Well, he's ah, very direct," Barber said earlier. "He's right at me with what he wanted me to do. It was no secret he wanted me to stop fumbling and he had a philosophy on how to do that.

"I'm not averse to coaching. I haven't been around this game long enough to know what it takes to do everything. There's always room for change, there's always room for improvement."

And so, Barber came to grips with his problem, as it were.

Previously, Barber carried the ball in one hand with his arm cocked at a 90-degree angle. This put the ball in play for opponents, who -- knowing Barber's fragile history -- went out of their way to knock it loose. Now, he carries it at a 45-degree angle with the ball clutched closer to his chest. For good measure, he wraps his left wrist around his right wrist to make it harder for tacklers to pull the ball loose.

What a difference 45 degrees makes.

Initially, Barber admits he was worried about his production numbers with a new, more cautious ball-carrying style. The funny thing? The numbers are actually up.

Through seven games, Barber leads the NFL in total yards from scrimmage, with 1,100. The running backs listed behind him underline his achievement: Kansas City's Priest Holmes (1,017 yards), Chris Brown of Tennessee (938), Indianapolis' Edgerrin James (905), Green Bay's Ahman Green (890), LaDainian Tomlinson of San Diego (862), Seattle's Shaun Alexander (819) and Clinton Portis of Washington (803).

Barber also leads the NFC in rushing, with 142 carries for 748 yards and has 27 catches for another 352 yards. Barber has already rushed for a career-high five 100-yard games and is on pace for a 1,700-yard season.

But here is the real news: In 169 touches, Barber has fumbled only once -- scuffling for extra yardage in the third quarter of the Week 7 game against the Detroit Lions -- and he got that ball back.

"I've had to be more compact in the way that I run and less reliant on my upper body to keep me going in a straight line," Barber said. "So I do it all with my legs. I think I've gotten faster because I'm so streamlined now. I'm not wasting motion."

The Giants, who have already exceeded last year's win total, have wildly exceeded the limited expectations most had for them. They are 5-2, coming off last Sunday's 34-13 win at Minnesota and should hit the halfway mark with a sporty 6-2 record after Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears.

The game against the Vikings was another turning point in the relationship between Coughlin and Barber.

In the season's first six games, the Giants had built a dubious resume in the red zone - a place the positive-thinking Coughlin calls the green zone (as in go). They had seven touchdowns plus three turnovers in 21 visits inside the opponent's 20, a 33.3 percent success rate that was last among the NFC's 16 teams.

After self-scouting his own team, Coughlin determined that the "heavy" specialty package featuring running back Ron Dayne the Giants used once they arrive in the red zone wasn't working. Against the Vikings, the Giants used their regular personnel inside the 20 and scored four touchdowns in five tries, two by Barber and two by Mike Cloud. The only miss was when Kurt Warner fumbled at the 1-yard-line.

Barber has overcome odds from the time he was born prematurely with twin brother Ronde some 29 years ago. It is the power of positive thinking that has again carried him past this most recent obstacle.

"Pessimism," Barber said, "once you start to let it enter your mind, once you start thinking that you're going to fail, you're inevitably going to fail -- it's a self-fulfilling prophesy.

"If you believe you're going to be successful, you will find a way to be successful."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.