For Bucs' young and old, game itself is reason enough
Martin Fennelly, The Tampa Tribune, published 31 December 2012

One is 23, one is 37. One finished up his first NFL season Sunday. One finished his 16th. One has Bucs fans dreaming of things to come. One has us wondering, like we do when another season is done, if he'll return for yet another.

They were winners Sunday. They were proud. It was a day that demanded pride, because, well … "That's all we had to play for, our pride," Ronde Barber said. "We have a lot of competitors on this team," Doug Martin said.

Martin ran for a 40-yard touchdown in the season-ending win against the Falcons, a tackle-breaking, spinning, darting piece of wonder that perfectly punctuated a blinding rookie season. It's all in front of him, isn't it?

After the game, his 215th consecutive NFL start, Ronde Barber stood and chatted with Atlanta Falcons tight end and fellow future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez, who has already announced that he'll retire after the Falcons are done with the playoffs or the playoffs are done with them.

What about Ronde? Did we just watch his final game as a Buccaneer? "I've got a lot of factors," Barber said. "I can't tell you what they are. They'll come to light at the time."

But at the end of his 16th season, he saw some light in this football team, which ended Greg Schiano's first season as head coach by snapping a five-game losing streak, by beating the No. 1 NFC playoff seed 22-17, in their house, despite the Falcons inexplicably playing nearly all their starters to the very end.

A bad finish, would that have finished Ronde? It crossed our minds. Let's remember, when thinking about this 7-9 Bucs season, exactly where this franchise was a year ago, in its final game of the 2011 season, right here in this same Georgia Dome, Raheem Morris' final game as coach, losing 42-0 … with seven minutes left in the first half. "It was not fun walking out of this locker room last year," Barber said.

Sunday, you didn't see quit. You saw the only thing they had left. Pride. Doug Martin was amazing this season. He rushed for 142 more yards on Sunday. He set Bucs rookie records right and left in 2012. He finished with 1,454 yards rushing, 1,926 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns. The only guys in all the NFL who have more yards from scrimmage are Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson. Think about that.

It was there again Sunday. "There were some plays where you thought he was bottled up," Schiano said. "And this little guy would come spitting out of there."

Martin had 319 carries this season, and caught 50 passes. It seemed a bit much, too many touches. Going into Sunday's game, he was averaging only three yards per carry across the seven games since his sensational breakouts in Minnesota and Oakland. He looked worn down.

And then he didn't. "I was never worn down," Martin said. "I never hit that rookie wall."

Pride. Doug Martin, and the way he finished Sunday, might be one of the factors when Ronde Barber makes his decision, yes or no, on a 17th season. No, this wasn't a playoff season. There hasn't been one of those around here since 2007. There hasn't been a postseason win since Barber and the 2002 crew won it all. Still…

"We have some young, explosive talent who we can build on," Barber said. "That's important to identify, even in a losing season – guys who, regardless of the situation, put it on their back and keep playing. And Doug did that today, and Mark (Barron) has been doing that the past couple of weeks."

In fact, Barron, long lost rookie safety, actually made a play at the very end Sunday, breaking up a fourth-down pass intended for Tony Gonzalez to seal the victory. And the Bucs defense, by 14 yards, averted giving up the most passing yards in a season in NFL history. Ah, the Steel Curtain.

All they had was pride. But will they still have Ronde? There were no farewells Sunday. OK, No. 20 practiced one… "I don't think my career has been made up of a bunch of individual moments. It's been a collection of things I've done well for a long time," Barber said. "I can always look back, if this was my last game, and say I'm proud of my career here."

Whether you're 23 or 37, bound for great things or even bound for Canton, it all begins with pride.