You don’t take a four-year sabbatical from pro football, you just don’t – not voluntarily, at least. So what Tiki Barber is talking about doing, returning to the hard knocks of the NFL at age 36, is way, way out there.
It seems almost like a David Blaine stunt, as if Barber has been Frozen in Time in a block of ice since retiring from the Giants after the 2006 season. The question, of course, is: What kind of running back will he be when he thaws out? Will he have anything left, or did the “Today” show rob him of his remaining youth?
John Riggins once sat out a season in a contract dispute … and returned at 32 to have his greatest years for the Redskins. A season off, though – a single season – can be therapeutic, especially for a player who takes the kind of punishment a back takes. A four-year break is a totally different deal. When a guy is away that long, you begin to worry about things like calcification.
In his defense, what Barber is proposing isn’t nearly as preposterous as Jim Brown’s faux comeback in the 1980s. Brown, after all, was 47 – and had been in the Hall of Fame for a more than a decade – when he posed, in full uniform, for the cover of Sports Illustrated and discussed giving the game another go.
The cause of his temporary insanity? Franco Harris was closing in on his career rushing record of 12,312 yards, and Jim didn’t think the Steelers’ legend was worthy of it. For one thing, he thought Harris ran out of bounds too much. For another, he felt Franco was hanging on – past the point of usefulness – just to break the mark.
“Who’s to say a 47-year-old can’t do it?” he told SI. “I’m not talking about being Jim Brown of 1965. I’m talking about being Jim Brown of 1984. If Franco Harris is going to creep to my record, I might as well come back and creep, too.”
Brown never did go through with it (and Harris never did break his record). But Barber very well might. And if he does, his motivations will be much different from Jim’s. He won’t be doing it for “history” – or to remind fans of what a Real Running Back looks like. He’ll be doing it, from all accounts, to rebuild his net worth after some personal (read: divorce) and professional (read: flamed-out TV career) reverses.
Ordinarily, you’d say: The man must be mad, must have taken too many helmet-to-helmet hits. But there’s nothing ordinary about Tiki Barber. Indeed, if you look at the numbers he put up from age 29 to 31 – his last three seasons – you could make the argument that no running back has ever played that well that late in his career. Consider:
● Barber gained 6,613 yards from scrimmage in those years. That’s almost 500 more than any other back in the 29-to-31 time period. (The rest of the top five: Walter Payton, 6,114; Priest Holmes, 5,476; Ricky Watters, 5,064; Tony Dorsett, 5,012.)
● 5,040 of his yards were rushing yards, putting him first in that category, too. (The next four: Payton, 4,656; Curtis Martin, 4,099; Emmitt Smith, 3,932; Holmes, 3,927.)
● He has four of the five biggest rushing games by a 30-and-over back – 234, 220, 206 and 203 yards. (Two of those games, you’ll notice, came at the expense of the Redskins.)
● His 95-yarder against the Raiders in 2005 is the longest touchdown run in NFL history by a back in his 30s.
● He did all this and still averaged 5 yards a carry. (No one else in the top five averaged more than 4.74.)
I could go on, but you get the point. If any other running back were mulling a comeback at 36 – after being out of the NFL for four years – you’d be well within your rights to laugh yourself blue. But because it’s Barber, a genetic freak who has already shown astounding staying power, you stroke your chin and say, “Hmmm.”
What are the chances he’ll even remotely resemble the back he was in 2006? Pretty slight. But as nuts as he might be to try something like this, we’d have to be even more nuts not to want to see him do it – for the novelty as much as anything. Go, Tiki, go.