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Rick Stroud, Greg Auman and Matt Baker

Before a decision, Bucs, Ronde Barber must confront key questions



Ronde Barber made it clear to us on Saturday that he has not closed the door on returning for a 16th season even though he’ll turn 37 in April.

Barber, who sustained a fractured forearm in the season finale but is nearly healed, wanted to let the dust settle after this offseason of top-down changes before even considering his next move. He still hasn’t made a decision, but the fact that he seems interested in hearing what the Bucs have to say (he said they’ll meet at some point in the near future), means he has at least some interest in coming back.

But before a final decision can be made, there are several important matters that have to be sorted out. Let’s outline the series of questions facing Barber and the Bucs.

Does Barber want to play?

This is the first, and most important, question. Barber doesn’t appear to have a natural second option outside of football that he can graduate to. Playing in the NFL is the only job he’s ever had, he said, and it’s one he truly loves. And certainly, he’s learned from the missteps of his twin brother, Tiki, whose post-retirement life hasn’t gone according to plan.

That said, at Barber’s age, there’s a lot to consider before signing up to put your body through the punishment the NFL dishes out. One of those considerations: What kind of situation will you be a part of? Going 4-12 last season, losing the final 10 games, certainly wasn’t fun – albeit profitable for Barber.

My educated guess here is that, in his heart of hearts, Barber wants to play. He firmly believes he can still do so at a high level, and his tape – while not flawless – suggests that’s true. He’s never been fast, but he can still tackle, he’s still crafty and his superb instincts aren’t going anywhere.

Do the Bucs want him back?

The Bucs probably don’t have a clear-cut answer on this question right now. Coach Greg Schiano is still getting up to speed on his players and hasn’t even hired a defensive coordinator.

Decisions on personnel will, for the most part, have to wait. And in this case, a decision on Barber is not yet a pressing matter, so time is not an issue.

How will Schiano and his staff view Barber? That can’t be answered until they evaluate his film. But in light of the many question marks in the secondary – for example Aqib Talib’s legal problems and free agent Sean Jones’ likely departure – a little continuity probably won’t be seen as a bad thing.

What would his role be?

The Bucs, according to the circumstantial evidence we’ve gleaned, will be moving to a more aggressive form of defense. That includes a lot of press-man coverage on the outside, a tall order for an undersized cornerback who is at his best in the zone coverages the Bucs have played since the mid-90s.

But Barber’s best attribute is his versatility, particularly his ability to play in the slot in the pseudo-linebacker role he’s created. He has revolutionized what it means to be a slot cornerback, and has had unbelievable impact on games from that position.

Could he become a full-time slot player? It’s something the Bucs could consider. The team has played nickel defenses for more than half its defensive snaps in recent years anyhow, meaning they’ll have three cornerbacks on the field more often than not. Playing in the slot still allows Barber to be a game-changer, providing opportunities to blitz (which the Bucs are expected to do more often) and wreaking havoc by confusing quarterbacks at the line of scrimmage.

This scenario, of course, assumes the Bucs make some acquisitions in the secondary that allow them to use Barber as a third cornerback. It’s too early to know what the unit will look like after free agency and the draft. We also don’t know how willing Barber would be to accept a reduced role.

How much will he make?

Barber and general manager Mark Dominik decided last year to deal with his remaining time on a year-to-year basis. So, Barber played in 2011 on a one-year contract but at a considerable salary of $4 million. That’s more than Derrick Brooks made in his final season with the team, when he earned $3 million.

This is not a suggestion that Barber was overpaid. Hardly. He brings substantial value to Tampa Bay and was among the defense’s most consistent players. But what if the Bucs aren’t prepared to pay him as much this season? Does the prospect of going through training camp and enduring the physical toll of another season suddenly become less appealing? It could.

In summary, here’s the good news: Whatever ultimately transpires, everything points to the ending of Barber’s career being a mutual decision between him and the team. He doesn’t strike me as a guy likely to leave and play elsewhere. And he doesn’t appear to have any intent to force himself on the Bucs, either (if he did, he’d likely be more outspoken about his wishes to play).

So, we’ll have to wait a little longer for a resolution. Because before any agreement can be reached, there are still many questions left to answer.

[Last modified: Thursday, February 16, 2012 2:49pm]


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