TAMPA — Ronde Barber, the Bucs' 35-year-old cornerback and last link to their Super Bowl team, doesn't have a contract when his 14th season ends in a couple more weeks.
He has always turned a deaf ear to retirement talk and still is creating mayhem on the field with interceptions, sacks and forced fumbles.
But as the Bucs play their last home game Sunday, the question hangs in the air like smoke from an exploding cannon in the north end zone: How many more times will Barber run out of the tunnel?
"We do this every year," Barber said smiling after practice this week. "It's either me giving it up or them getting rid of me. It will be interesting. I've been asked this at least the last four years."
How did he always respond?
"I didn't," he said.
But coach Raheem Morris doesn't mind giving his opinion
"He has a lot of juice left," Morris said. "I told him — and he doesn't want to believe me — he's playing at a high level at corner. But if he couldn't play it, he's probably got six more years playing (other positions).
"There's no doubt in my mind. Business aside, I'd keep playing if I were him."
However, it's hard to put business aside when there is so much uncertainly with the collective bargaining agreement set to expire March 4. A lockout by owners could keep stadiums silent as late as September.
All of that will factor into the negotiations between Barber and the Bucs. But the five-time Pro Bowl player isn't the only standout who could be playing for the last time in red and pewter at Raymond James Stadium.
Running back Cadillac Williams, linebacker Barrett Ruud, guard Davin Joseph and tackle Jeremy Trueblood are likely to become unrestricted free agents.
Williams and Trueblood lost their starting jobs this season to LeGarrette Blount and James Lee, respectively. Joseph broke his foot at Baltimore last month and went on injured reserve.
A first-round pick in 2005 and fan favorite after two major knee surgeries, Williams no longer is a premier tailback as evidenced by his career-low 3.4-yard rushing average. But he might be reborn as a third-down back because of his ability to pick up blitzes. He also has caught a career-high 43 passes this season.
Even so, the present and the future belongs to Blount, who leads all rookies with 777 yards.
"It really hadn't even dawned on me or crossed my mind," Williams said about potentially his final home game as a Buc. "I'm approaching this like this is a game where we need a win.
"It's human. Of course your mind may go there. But it's something that I've very rarely thought about. I think as players, we're going to kind of be in limbo. There possibly could be a work stoppage, so therefore it's going to be strange for everybody."
Ruud is on the verge of joining Derrick Brooks as the only players to lead the Bucs in tackles for four straight seasons. He held out of offseason workouts two years ago and was upset when the team re-signed Donald Penn while leaving him to play for the $3.16 million tender.
"It's going to be interesting," Ruud said. "Even when you ask a question, nobody has answers for you. Even though there may be a possible work stoppage, eventually we'll have to play again and everybody needs players.
"I'd like to think I'm coming back. I've put all the work in. Now I've got to wait and see what happens."
The Bucs' running game has not suffered despite the loss of Joseph and demotion of Trueblood. But Joseph says there's more to worry about than where he will play next season.
"It's not just us. It's the whole staff here. It's the people who work at the stadium. It's everybody," he said. "So you can't sit here and bicker about your concerns when people are in really tough predicaments with what this potential lockout could affect."
Meanwhile, Barber keeps ticking like an old watch. He has made 181 consecutive starts, the most ever by a cornerback and the longest among active NFL defensive players. He's second on the club with 93 tackles and has three interceptions, a sack, a forced fumble and club-best 13 passes defended.
Morris says Barber is doing more than ever and is a wild card he can use at linebacker, cornerback or safety. Barber has also had a big impact on players such as defensive backs Aqib Talib, E.J. Biggers, Myron Lewis, Sean Jones and Cody Grimm.
Morris isn't ready to see Barber take a knee.
"I hope not," Morris said. "It's hard to go to work without Ronde. That guy is special. He's Derrick Brooks-like. He's Warren Sapp-like. He's John Lynch-like. They've got special character. They build your team. They mold your team. They become your team. They become those ghosts in your hallways at some point.
"But hopefully, we don't have to make him a ghost right now."