Giants tailback improves technique
IRVING, Texas -- Through the first month of the season, the Cowboys' defense has recorded zero fumble recoveries. And despite facing the league's most butterfingered back here Sunday against the Giants, Dallas might still be stuck on that bagel come Monday morning.
That's because New York tailback Tiki Barber, who fumbled nine times in 2003 and a league-high 35 times since the start of the 2000 season, is taking care of business. Under first-year head coach Tom Coughlin, that definitely means taking care of the football.
"Ball security, it's a huge thing for [Coughlin], and it should be," says Barber. "He made me a lot more conscious of it, especially in camp, and now it's become more natural. I don't have to think about protecting the ball as much as I did at first when he got here. Then again, I'm sure the Cowboys are going to be trying to knock it out."
Given that Dallas has recovered at least one Barber fumble in each of the past four seasons, the aggressive Cowboys clearly will have larceny in their hearts. Injured strong safety Darren Woodson, who won't dress, earlier this week noted Barber's past propensity for coughing up the ball.
But that was then, Barber emphasizes, and this is a now in which he has, at Coughlin's insistence, dramatically altered how he carries the ball. It was obvious in training camp that Coughlin had mandated a change in technique.
In some camp practices, Barber resembled Larry Csonka -- hunched over, hands wrapped around the ball, running straight ahead in a style devoid of frills -- and appeared clearly uncomfortable. But his new technique, refined since camp, in which Barber holds the ball at a 45-degree angle, still crooked in his elbow but closer to his chest and protecting his hand more than in the past, isn't nearly as severe as the classic Csonka.
While the very obvious alteration in technique has significantly reshaped Barber's style, and rendered him more a straight-line runner than a slasher, there is no denying its positive effect. It is a bigger change than one might imagine, particularly for a 29-year-old long accustomed to carrying the ball a certain way, but Barber hasn't come close this season to being stripped or having the ball punched out.
"Sometimes, you've got to make a sacrifice, you know, a tradeoff, to make yourself a better player," Barber allowed. "In this case, yeah, I'm not cutting back as much. You won't see me trying to put a move on a [defender] as often as I used to, and that's just a natural [consequence] of the way I'm carrying the ball. The positive, besides not having all the fumbles, is that I'm more efficient as a runner."
Translation: In his eighth NFL season, Barber has quickly evolved into a north-south runner who sees the hole and gets upfield. That change, combined with Coughlin's running scheme that provides Barber more options at the line of scrimmage, has the Giants' star on pace for a career-best season.
Certainly he is getting the ball enough to post big numbers.
Coughlin's publicly stated goal in the spring was to reduce the workload of the undersized Barber, but an injury to backup Ron Dayne has all but obliterated that plan. In four games, Barber has 87 touches on 73 rushes and 14 receptions. He has touched the ball on 34.2 percent of the Giants' snaps. That's down from 99 touches in the first four games of '03, but is a higher percentage.
The league's second-leading rusher, with 455 yards, Barber is on pace to surpass his own franchise record of 1,387 yards rushing in '02. But the more impressive number, for now at least, is zero. As in zero fumbles.
"It's nice not having to hear about the fumbles all the time," Barber said. "It's about the only time I've ever enjoyed hearing that [zero] number."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .