|David Drapkin / Associated Press|
|Tiki Barber rushed for 1,000 or more yards in six of his final seven NFL seasons.|
Can a 36-year-old running back coming off a four-year layoff make a significant impact upon his return to the NFL?
Especially, if you're Tiki Barber and you've spent your entire career defying the odds.
The three-time Pro Bowler became the New York Giants' all-time leader in yards from scrimmage after only being pegged for a role as a third-down back/return specialist when he was drafted in the second round of the 1997 draft.
While most 30-year-old runners exhibit signs of physical decline, Barber was thriving as a feature back for the Giants at that age. He had produced six 1,000-yard seasons in a seven-year span, and finished among the league's top five rushers in his final three years. His all-purpose yards were equally impressive, as he amassed the second-highest yards from scrimmage total in league history when he racked up 2,390 yards in 2005.
That's not the kind of production that you would expect from a runner at the end of his career, but Barber was far from ordinary as the workhorse in the backfield. At 5-foot-10, 200 pounds, he was an exceptional runner between the tackles. He ran with excellent vision and awareness, and flashed an explosive burst getting to the second level. His combination of balance and body control prevented opponents from getting clean shots on him, which allowed him to remain productive and durable throughout his career in spite of his diminutive frame.
Barber never was regarded as a speed demon in the backfield, but he routinely broke off big gainers with his nifty running style. He would patiently weave through traffic, and use his superb instincts to set up his blocks downfield. As an older runner without the speed of his contemporaries, it was often his efficient footwork that fueled his success as a feature runner in the Giants' power-based system.
Although Barber was used primarily as the workhorse in the rotation, he continued to thrive as a receiver out of the backfield. He excelled on screens and circle routes, and provided Eli Manning with an explosive safety valve to utilize in key moments.
Given his outstanding production and minimal injury history, Barber will certainly get an opportunity to display his wares in training camp. However, there are several obstacles that stand in the way of a successful comeback attempt.
He must shake off the rust following a four-year absence. His athletic attributes surely diminished during his time away from the game, and it isn't a given that his explosiveness would return immediately.
Michael Vick, for example, needed a full year -- including an extensive offseason training with the Philadelphia Eagles -- to recapture the speed and quickness that was the foundation of his game following his 18-month layoff due to incarceration.
Barber hasn't been afforded that opportunity as a result of the lockout, and he might have difficulty finding his "football" legs without minicamps, organized team activities and individual workouts.
If he does return to optimal football condition, he faces the arduous task of handling the grind of the position. The speed, intensity and physical demands are tough on all players, but especially difficult for older ones. The recovery time needs to be increased for veterans, and he certainly would need to be in an environment that would slowly integrate him into a training camp routine.
In a perfect world, a team willing to sign Barber would have a clear role in mind and the patience to wait for his skills to return. While it would be a risky proposition considering his age, it could turn out to be a savvy move for a team looking for a wily veteran to spark a playoff run. He could emerge as a productive third-down back based solely on his guile and experience. Furthermore, he could mentor a younger back on the nuances of the game, provided that he was willing to take on that added responsibility.
As one of the few runners to enjoy success well into his 30s, Barber has obviously uncovered the secrets to being productive despite missing some of the speed and quickness normally associated with the position.
One of his former coaches told me that he is one of the most talented players to play the game, but his football intelligence is truly the key to his success. He has keen understanding of scheme and defensive fits, which allows him to routinely find creases without expending a lot of energy or taking an unnecessary beating from defenders.
My former teammate and Hall of Fame running back Marcus Allen once told me that knowledge and wisdom could allow a runner to be great despite an aging body, and Barber's return will certainly test that theory.
Although the odds are stacked against him, I wouldn't count out a surprisingly successful return of an all-time great to the game he once dominated.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The presence of his twin brother on the roster would seemingly give the Bucs the inside track on assessing Barber's talent level. Although the team has made every effort to get younger at most spots, the opportunity to add a dependable veteran to mentor and assist in the development of LeGarrette Blount could be instrumental in the team's playoff push.
Washington Redskins: Mike Shanahan gave Willie Parker and Larry Johnson opportunities last season, so it wouldn't be a stretch to see the 'Skins bring in Barber for a look. He is not only a good fit in their one-cut, zone-based system, but he could give them a credible threat as a third-down back in passing situations.
Denver Broncos: John Fox knows Barber well from his days as the New York Giants' defensive coordinator, and might be willing to take a chance on the venerable veteran as a complementary back to Knowshon Moreno. With his knowledge and experience, he could provide the Broncos with much needed production in the backfield and set a positive example for Moreno as a hard-nosed runner.
Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers wouldn't appear to be an ideal fit on paper, but Barber could get a niche role on the team due to the lack of a top-notch backup behind Rashard Mendenhall. As a multi-purpose threat, he would add another weapon to the Steelers' spread formations, and give Roethlisberger a talented safety valve to use on draws, screens or underneath routes.
New Orleans Saints: Sean Payton doesn't need to add another runner to an already crowded backfield, but the potential departure of Reggie Bush could create an opportunity for Barber. He could push Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory for reps, and tutor Mark Ingram on the nuances of the position.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.