Tiki Barber: Too Slick by Half

When it comes to thinking-man running backs, only Tiki Barber inhabits the same rarified plane as Emmitt Smith. (I don’t mean “Emmitt Smith: Wordsmith,” per Jimmy Kimmel, just his playing style.) When he started his career with the New York Giants in 1997, Barber was thought by his coaches to be too small for an every-down back and the workload was divided between him and other backs. Soon, though, he became a starter and, over the course of his career, built himself up. (PEDs? Not today. He’s got enough problems for now.)

Not especially gifted with speed, power, or quickness, Barber developed the patience to wait for holes to open and, with his superior field vision, specialized in cutting back against the flow of the defense. He thus avoided taking big hits and the major injuries that ensue. Responsive to coaching and renowned for his grueling off-season workouts, Barber encapsulated my single favorite attribute in a pro athlete: he found a way to improve every season.

His signature (second to last) 2005 season has seldom been fully appreciated. His 2,390 total yards was, at that time, the second highest in NFL history and he had three (count ‘em — three!) 200-yard games that season. Barber even had the good sense to retire in his prime, a la NFL “icons” Jim Brown and Barry Sanders.

His professed loss of zest for the game might have been hastened by the broadcasting opportunities offered him. Four major stations — ABC, FOX, the NFL, and NBC — competed for his services. He chose NBC and became a correspondent for the Today show an analyst for Football Night in America. But it soon became apparent that Barber was too preoccupied with his presentation — in other words, he came across as slick. After one season on Football Night in America, he was moved off the set and exiled to reporting from empty fields.

During his career, Barber stirred up controversy by speaking his mind on issues like star defensive end Michael Strahan’s holdout, Eli Manning’s leadership abilities, and Coach Tom Coughlin’s play-calling. But they were tempests in a teapot compared to taking up with a 23-year-old former NBC intern and leaving his wife on the eve of their fourth child’s birth. Finally, citing a morals clause, NBC — no doubt jumping at the opportunity — terminated its contract with him. Now he’s out a $300,00 job just as his wife is reportedly making exorbitant divorce-court claims.

Barber’s post-football life, characterized by professional failure, sleaze, and likely onerous alimony and child support payments, hasn’t shaped up as he carefully planned. While his football career remains for me perhaps the most rewarding I’ve ever witnessed, he’s just too slick for his own good.

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