TAMPA — Whether the Bucs play their final game Sunday or extend their season into the playoffs remains to be seen. But when the season is complete, the team definitely could undergo some marked changes before it takes the field again.
The regular season ends Sunday against the Raiders. But already thoughts have drifted toward the future, with players including quarterback Jeff Garcia and receiver Michael Clayton wondering what lies ahead and raising the question of how the Bucs might look next season.
"That has definitely crossed my mind being that I'll be a free agent when the season is complete for us," Garcia said. "I hope it's not my last game as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer."
In end the end, though, it's not up to Garcia.
"I think if you ask my teammates, I think they would respond that they would love for me to be back with them," said Garcia, who also didn't rule out retirement. "That's really what matters to me: how my teammates feel.
"Outside of that, that's something that not I or anybody else can control. Management has to control that. The head coach has control over that."
Former first-round draft pick Clayton, also a free agent after the season, stated his intent to test the market, saying he has no indication whether the Bucs will attempt to re-sign him.
He also bemoaned a lack of consistent opportunities in Tampa Bay.
"Whether I was drafted in the first or seventh round, I feel like what I put on tape puts me in a situation to be one of the top (receivers) in free agency next year and go out and get a decent deal," Clayton, 26, said.
"We'll hit free agency and see what happens. Like I said, I've done a lot of time here. I've been here to be used. I feel like my talents haven't been utilized completely. I don't know the situation. … It's been a little awkward."
Clayton believes he is valuable because of feedback he receives from others in the league, which leads him to believe he'll find takers for his services.
"It gives me a sense of comfort going into a situation like free agency knowing that I'll land in a place (with a team) who wants me," he said.
Other key players who will be free agents include cornerback Phillip Buchanon, who has improved his stock over the past two seasons; tight end Jerramy Stevens, who hopes to cash in after two seasons of playing for the league minimum salary; veteran defensive end Kevin Carter; hard-hitting but often-injured strong safety Jermaine Phillips and quarterback Luke McCown.
Regarding the uncertainty ahead, Buchanon said, "I'm hoping for the best but preparing for the worst."
The Bucs also must make decisions about players who are under contract but might not be in their plans, such as 37-year-old receiver Joey Galloway. He is scheduled to earn $2-million in base salary in 2009 but has played sparingly this season.
Age is also a factor for Garcia. He turns 39 in February, making his market value difficult to judge, even for the Bucs. He does not appear to be leaning toward retirement — yet.
"I don't think it's a stupid question because I am getting to that point in my career," he said, "especially when you come out of a game looking like I did last Sunday (two black eyes and a broken nose in the loss to the Chargers). It makes me think. But there is too much love for the game within myself.
"Now granted, I want to be able to walk and do the things I love to do outside of football when it does come to an end. I know that I am toward the latter part. … I would love to be able to walk away from the game on my own terms and say, 'Maybe it's time for me to step away.' "
Times staff writers Rick Stroud and Dave Scheiber contributed to this report. Stephen F. Holder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.