As he savored a career-best performance that put the New York Giants on the verge of winning the NFC East title Saturday night, Tiki Barber recalled that fans at Giants Stadium had chanted his name during the first game as a rookie in 1997.
That was, by NFL standards, a virtual lifetime ago, before the tailback's march toward stardom nearly was derailed by coaches who thought he was a part-time player with a fumbling problem that looked unfixable.
It turns out those coaches were wrong. The fumbling problem has been fixed, and Barber has become one of the city's most popular athletes and perhaps the most respected player in the Giants' locker room. Barber demonstrated Saturday that he, not prized young quarterback Eli Manning or pass-rushing defensive end Michael Strahan, is the club's most indispensable player, running for a team-record 220 yards and two touchdowns as the Giants beat the Kansas City Chiefs, 27-17, to move within a victory of their first division title since the 2000 season. As the game wound down, Barber again heard the stadium filled with chants of his name.
"Nine years later, I'm a different player with a different situation," Barber, 30, said later that night, "but it feels really good to know they appreciate how I play the game."
What's not to appreciate about a career renaissance that has turned Barber into one of the top all-around running backs and a most valuable player candidate? As the Giants prepare to face the Washington Redskins on Saturday at FedEx Field with a 10-4 record that leaves them needing only one victory in their final two regular-season games to win the NFC East, Barber is the NFL's second-leading rusher -- behind the Seattle Seahawks' Shaun Alexander -- with 1,577 yards. He has broken the single-season team rushing record that he set last season, and he has become the first Giants player to have consecutive 1,500-yard rushing seasons.
With five straight 100-yard games, he'll face a Redskins defense that he shredded for 206 yards in the Giants' 36-0 triumph at Giants Stadium in October.
"If you don't know it by now, Tiki is a great back," Giants guard Rich Seubert said.
That's precisely what the Giants anticipated when they selected Barber in the second round of the 1997 NFL draft out of the University of Virginia. He opened his rookie season as the starter but lost the job because of a knee injury, then spent two seasons as the pass-catching back on third downs. For two more seasons, the Giants tried to split the job between Barber and former Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne as their would-be "Thunder and Lightning" tailback tandem. It wasn't until 2002, in his sixth pro season, that Barber led the Giants in carries in a season.
He still couldn't be completely trusted at that point because he was in the midst of a four-season span between 2000 and 2003 in which he had 35 fumbles. Teammates and fans offered psychological tips, but nothing helped until Tom Coughlin took over as the Giants' coach last season and had Barber change the way he carries the ball. Barber now clutches it high against the side of his chest, with his elbow tucked in and the nose of the ball pointed upward. It might look unnatural, but the results have been striking. He had only five fumbles last season and has one this season.
It wouldn't seem that a player as affable and telegenic as Barber would mix well with the notoriously rigid Coughlin. But they have gotten along well, and the results have been mutually beneficial. When Coughlin was worried before Saturday's game that his players would have a defeatist attitude because of the Giants' long list of injuries, Barber was among the players he summoned (along with Strahan and safety Brent Alexander) to pass along a "let's-toughen-up" message to the rest of the team.
"And the team rallied," Coughlin said. "Before we even took the field, it was, 'Let's go, Giants. We've got some guys out. But we've got you and me, and let's go.' . . . It certainly was a big game for us, and just to be able to perform the way we did and win at home, it's a credit to this team and their perseverance."
Barber's record-setting game came while running behind a patchwork offensive line. With right tackle Kareem McKenzie on the inactive list because of a strained hamstring and left tackle Luke Petitgout in uniform but sidelined by an ailing back, the Giants put Bob Whitfield at left tackle; it was the 14-year NFL veteran's first start since 2003, when he was with the Atlanta Falcons. The Giants moved Dave Diehl from left guard to right tackle, and Seubert started at left guard. It was Seubert's first start since Oct. 19, 2003, when he broke his leg in a game against the Philadelphia Eagles. He missed all of last season and had played in one previous game this season, only on special teams.
The Giants' running game got off to a slow start Saturday but improved as the day progressed. Barber said he went to the high-strung Seubert at halftime and told the guard to spring him for a long run. Seubert's reaction was typical, according to Barber.
"He went and threw up in the trash can," Barber said, "and he had a big second half."
Barber heaped praise on his blockers, bristling at a suggestion by a reporter that he'd played the game behind a "jigsaw-puzzle" line. The admiration was mutual.
"He could have had more yards if I'd blocked a few more guys," Seubert said. "He probably could have run for 250 or 260 yards. . . . He is such a good person. You do whatever you have to do for a guy like that. Tiki has meant so much to me, giving me so much support in my comeback. He has always been there, and he has always had faith in me."
The Giants say they're pleased with Manning's development as a passer and as a leader. But he has struggled in recent weeks and Saturday's game demonstrated that these Giants are Barber's team.
"When it comes down to it, we are an on-the-ground, grind-it-out, get-the-tough-yardage type of team," Barber said. "I think we're showing that and proving that."
He has a hectic schedule that includes a weekly television appearance on the Fox News Channel and a weekly satellite radio show with his twin brother Ronde on Sirius. But he's doing his Sunday job better than ever at an age when most running backs are beginning to slow down, and MVP candidate is the newest entry on his crowded rsum. Barber called such talk flattering, but said he is focused on matching the Super Bowl title that his brother, a Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback, won in the 2002 season.
"My thoughts are about winning and trying to get a Super Bowl," he said. "I can't let my brother badger me for the rest of my life."