Posted by: mdegeorge | March 9, 2011

Unwanted comeback: Tiki Barber edition

It seems like just a couple months ago that I was left scratching my head by Peter Forsberg’s ill-fated and short-lived bid to come back to the NHL. The two games his limited return engagement encompassed belied the months of speculation preceding it, creating an avalanche-sized farce.

It appears to be Tiki Barber’s turn to throw his name into the dubious ring of aged comebacks, provided the NFL owner and players stage a sterling comeback of their own at the negotiation table in the coming months.

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.

Inspired by the vivacity of his brother, Ronde, about to enter his 15th season as a defensive back with the Buccaneers, Tiki recently found his playing-days strength and desire surprisingly undiminished, enough to prompt him to file un-retirement papers and begin the process of reassimilating to the league at the ancient age of 36. Left with a dearth of comeback conversation thanks to a certain someone calling it quits (again), at least this gives us something non-CBA- or Draft-related to discuss.

Barber turns 36 in a month and left the Giants on a high in 2006, becoming the franchise’s all-time leading rusher. He ranks 22nd in NFL history with 10,449 in 10 years, all with Big Blue.

The move has all the makings of a doomed endeavor:

– First, there’s the immutable age factor. Sure Barber feels good for 36. But good for 36 rarely translates to good for the NFL.

The term “old” takes on a new meaning when we’re talking about NFL running backs who have taken a beating in the trenches for a decade or more. Remember how “old” Jerome Bettis seemed in his final season? He was only 33 years old. The ageless wonder that is Warrick Dunn was no longer wanted by his 34th birthday. Curtis Martin called it quits at the first signs of decline at 33, while the shadow of Emmitt Smith’s early career that continued to receive checks from the Arizona Cardinals was just 35. That’s not to mention the precipitous declines of the likes of Edgerrin James, Marshall Faulk, Shaun Alexander, and Larry Johnson almost instantly after they eclipsed the big 3-0.

Only four running backs have every turned in a 100-yard game at age 36. MacArthur Lane turned the trick when he rushed for 144 yards in a game for the 1978 Kansas City Chiefs. That was over half of his yardage total for the season (277). The other three 100-yard games belong to John Riggins in the 1985 season. (By the way, kudos to the active Tweeter Riggins for this joke tweet about his own return to the league.) Neither of those men had the added obstacle of a four-year sabbatical from the game, and few would dispute they played in a drastically different, and in many respects less punishing, NFL.

– I can’t say what Barber’s financial motivations for the move are. But is it really a coincidence that this happens to occur less than a year after his television career with NBC goes bust?

– When Forsberg made his triumphant return, he had a team that desperately needed him and a city that welcomed him with open arms. Comebacks like Mario Lemieux’s necessarily involve an understanding fan base that’s so rabid for one more glance at a legend that they’re willing to make concessions, such as when Lemieux would play limited numbers of home games or sit the second day of a back-to-back.

The New York Giants have made it abundantly clear that Barber’s return won’t be in the jersey he wore for his entire career. They have two capable backs in Brandon Jacobs and DJ Ware under contract and intend to make a run at out-of-contract Ahmad Bradshaw once the labor situation is settled. Barber pulled no punches upon his departure about his feelings for Giants’ head coach Tom Coughlin, citing him as one of the reasons why he cut his career short and repeatedly criticizing the coach from his former TV soapbox. Starting over in a new city, most likely Tampa with his brother, is a daunting task not made easier by age and familiarity only with a completely different system.

– Ask Lance Armstrong about comebacks that involve proving something. Armstrong admitted sitting at home watching the 2008 Tour de France thinking he still had more left in his aging legs than the guys taking home the title he owned for the better part of a decade. His return proved those aspersions were a bit off.

Again, I don’t want to make false generalizations as to what Barber’s thinking, but it’s not a big jump to think someone confined to watching and narrating highlights for a few seasons might get disenfranchised with the current “stars” and start to wonder.

– Sage-like advice and an affable locker room presence aren’t exactly attributes Barber is likely going to pack in his gym bag and take to a new team. The friction between him and Coughlin probably involved stubbornness and clashes from both parties. Linebacker Antonio Pierce, the unquestioned leader of the G-men’s defense during his stint there, didn’t mince words about Barber’s destructive presence:

But what he did in that locker room my two years with him, he didn’t do anything but deteriorate that team. And he didn’t help us out. I don’t see this guy as a leader or somebody that can help you out. And that’s my problem with him. That is why I believe they [the Giants] will release him because he is going to cause nothing but problems for that team.

It’s not exactly the quiet, low-maintenance boost to a young team that you may be looking for, especially at the price he’s sure to fetch.

– There’s also the question of Barber’s legacy. He managed to get out before his game had tanked too much. But the fact that the Giants, led by a coach he deemed an incapable leader and chose not to play for, won the Super Bowl that so eluded him during his career the year after he left doesn’t cast too favorable an image of his impact. His almost universally-panned television stint is probably a dent to the ego as well. And dumping your pregnant wife after stepping out with a much younger blonde intern for a year doesn’t bode well for the popularity vote. A failed comeback attempt isn’t exactly what the doctor (myself or anyone else) has in the cards.

I’m not one to doubt Barber’s desire. He proved to be a model of consistency on the gridiron. But he’s got a long way to go before I’m convinced he can break the paradigm of unsuccessful comebacks.

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