Barber: Changes needed after tough, but 'fun' year
It had been just another loss in a season with too many of them for the Bucs, but at least this one came with some positive news. After Atlanta thumped them 20-10 Sunday, the beatings are over for nine more months. It was time for a veteran's perspective. It was time for a stop at Ronde Barber's locker.

This was the 184th start of his career, second only to Derrick Brooks on the Bucs. Barber is the link between the Bucs' Super Bowl past and their 3-13 present. His words matter as one tries to make sense of the game, the season and whatever is about to come down the road for this football team.

"I know one thing for certain - this team won't be the same next year. It never is, but it won't be the same. There are areas where we have to get better," he said. "You have all offseason to do that. You have the draft to do that, you have free agency to do that. There are certainly some areas where we can improve. We just have to find those guys."

He said something else, too. "I feel great," he said. "It was a fun year, even through the tough start and some of the losing."

Fun? Does that mean he's returning next season? Maybe. "I'm 34 years old. It's a yearly process to see if I can wake up in March and April and get ready to grind through another season," he said. "If I had to make a decision now, I'd say yeah, I can do it. But we'll see."

Calling a 13-loss season "fun" isn't exactly what you'd expect a 13-year veteran to say, especially one as accomplished as Barber. You have to remember what the buildup to this season for him was like, though. People questioned him after last season, openly wondering if his skills had eroded. He responded with silence, which was widely interpreted as a chip on his shoulder.

Turns out, he saved his talking for the field. "I didn't have a need to defend myself against (media) speculation in the offseason," he said. "I like to come to work. I don't like to talk about me working. I didn't feel the need to defend myself against the way I go to work. The season is what it is. It's over now. It wasn't successful as a team but we did some good things, I did some good things."

Even though he didn't have an interception this season, no one can argue that his impact wasn't substantial - especially for a defense that sometimes looked like it was playing on roller skates. "He's a perfectionist. That's what I've known him as in these last three years I've known him. It's no surprise to us," safety Tanard Jackson said. "We know in this locker room we'll get Ronde's best every Sunday."

He almost got that interception in the second quarter Sunday when he picked off a pass intended for Michael Jenkins. Alas, penalty flag. Defensive holding on Barber.

Well, didn't that sequence perfectly capture this season? Every time something went right, it seemed like something went wrong. Somewhere amid the frustration of it all though, the love for the game remained strong. That's something to hold on to, whatever comes along in the next days, weeks and months as the Bucs try to rebuild.

Part of that, to be sure, comes from his support for Coach Raheem Morris. He has been among Morris' most vocal backers since the coach they call Rah took over last January. And when Morris took over the defense in November, Barber seemed to play even better than he had been.

"I played a lot, played well, played some new stuff. When Rah started calling stuff, we started having a lot of fun with the new blitz packages. We found a way to have fun this year and I really enjoyed grinding through it," he said. "Some (more) wins would have been nice but the football part of it was good."

Barber understands the business side of the game. He knows there is pressure for the Glazers to make a coaching change. He hears the talk, same as we all do. He knows that could impact whether he returns for a 14th season. That will all work itself out.

For now, it's time to heal mentally and physically from a long and tumultuous season. It's time to see how hard his body will rebel when the minicamps roll around. And it's time to let go of 13 lost Sundays, remembering only that he felt great as he walked out the door.

Joe Henderson, The Tampa Tribune 4 January 2010