When the New York Giants drafted Tiki Barber, they could never have expected him to produce the way that he did. In his 10-year career, the Virginia graduate rewrote the Giants’ record books. He compiled all-purpose yardage at a rate comparable to the best backs in the history of the game. And yet the question remains: Is Tiki Barber deserving of induction into the NFL Hall of Fame?
If not for his raw numbers, Barber’s toothy smile should be carved into a Canton bust simply because of his capacity to adapt and improve. He went from being a third-down back and punt-returner to an every down, elite runner. Moreover, he also completely altered the way he carried the football to cure his acute case of fumble-itis. In the middle of his career, years after his selection in the second round of the ’97 Draft, Tiki took on a foreign and unnatural style of running. He traded the propelling force of one of his arms in order to protect the football more effectively. He altered something utterly fundamental to his performance. That is Hall of Fame worthy.
Few athletes have ever made a change in their style of play as drastic and as effective as Tiki’s. Cal Ripken, Jr. seemed chronically uncomfortable at the plate. In contrast to fellow Baseball Hall of Fame Class of 2007 inductee Tony Gwynn, Ripken appeared almost awkward when hitting. He frequently changed the angle at which he rested his bat as the pitcher went through his delivery. He would also change where and how he stood in the batter’s box — sometimes crouched and crowding the plate, other times tall and at a distance. For Ripken, baseball was a grind. A grind he perpetuated a Major League record 2,632 consecutive times.
Tiki, on the other hand, took his most glaring weakness, addressed it, and found a way, however awkward, to repair it. While Ripken’s was a never-ending chain of minute alterations to what was already a successful technique, Tiki’s was more like a “bodily revolution.”
If an NFL running back’s main purpose, as distinguished by his title, is to run, then it would seem that he ought to do anything possible to model himself after a track star — sleek, arrow dynamic, legs and arms pumping like efficient pistons. Even in the open field with opposing tacklers left in the dust, however, Barber won’t remove the ball from its place, plastered, with three points of pressure, to his breast. It is as if he knows that if he lets his guard down for just one second, his fumble-itis will reappear in a new, incurable form.
And the numbers reflect Barber’s success. In the 2002 and 2003 seasons, Tiki’s fumbling reached its peak: he fumbled a total of 18 times, resulting in 12 turnovers. It was in the 2004 off-season that he rectified the situation. In the three campaigns after, Barber fumbled only nine times, only four of which were lost. Moreover, his production as a running back showed parallel improvement. The last three seasons have been the most productive of his career in terms of rushing yards and total yards from scrimmage. So, an adjustment that on the surface might have seemed counterproductive provided Tiki with the confidence to run with more authority. Barber became more willing to run into and through tacklers rather than around them.
This recent production is what has put Tiki in a position statistically even to be considered for the Hall of Fame. But what should put him over the top is what lies at the root of his improved performance.
Hall of Fame voters grade candidates on their statistics, so it is unlikely that voters will consider the means Tiki used to achieve his statistical ends. But as fans, we can appreciate that what Tiki did and the attitude with which he did it provide better examples for the nation’s youth than the behavior of some other stars.
Learning how to adapt, no matter how subtly or drastically, is a large part of being successful. Alex Rodriguez has had a miserable three years trying to figure out how to play a new position — certainly a daunting challenge. His struggles culminated last season when he booted 24 balls.
A-Rod’s fix will be mental, not physical. And whether he can solve his problems or not will likely dictate whether he retires as a burnout or as the game’s greatest ever. Either way, he will be a first ballot Hall of Famer. Tiki had less at stake when he decided to run with the ball on his chest rather than under his arm. But what he did is still noteworthy. Is it really Hall of Fame worthy? Only time will tell.
Nicholas Thorne is a junior in Pierson College. His column appears on Wednesdays.