TAMPA — There are times when Ronde Barber tries to wrap his head around the fact he has been playing in the NFL since some of his Bucs teammates were in elementary school.
When those moments arrive, Barber is soon reminded that it hasn't happened by accident.
"Me and my friends kind of sit back and just shake our heads and realize that I've taken advantage of a great opportunity," the cornerback, who will be 36 in April, said Tuesday. "It has nothing to do with the (number) of years. It's the way I've played during those years. If my play wasn't good, I wouldn't be sitting here in Year 15 with a new contract."
Barber signed a one-year extension Tuesday that prevents him from becoming a free agent; his contract was set to expire next week. One of the franchise's greatest players will likely finish his career where it began.
He will be the first Buccaneer to play a 15th season with the club, surpassing Derrick Brooks (14 seasons), and it's not a given that 2011 will be a farewell tour.
The one-year contract enables Barber and the Bucs to make a wise choice at this time next year, he said. He'll have the rare opportunity to end his career on his terms.
"The decision is not, at the end of the day, 'Do they want to let go of me or do I want to let go of them?' " Barber said. "It'll be a mutually beneficial decision each year. That's kind of how it was this year and how it'll be next year.
"You have to take some pride in that, some blessings on my side where I've been able to maintain myself throughout these 14 years. I always give myself credit for that. It wasn't easy. It's not going to be easy this year. But at the end of the day, I walk out of here knowing I've done exactly what I wanted to do."
When the season ended, Barber was non-committal on his return. But he said the decision ultimately wasn't that difficult once he decided his body could endure another season and after coming away satisfied with an in-depth evaluation of his play. That, and the Bucs' 10-6 season, were major factors in his return.
"That evaluation process started right after the season," Barber said. "The tape was really good. There's some things they asked me to do that I had never done before and I did it really well. To me, it was a really good season. Obviously the numbers were better than the year before. The win column was better than the year before. I think I was a big part of that. I think (coaches) think I was. The evaluation speaks for itself. Tape doesn't lie."
While Barber played well and started 16 games, he readily admits he'll have to fend off challenges from younger players like Myron Lewis and E.J. Biggers, both drafted in the past two years. Coach Raheem Morris said last month he envisions Barber starting at right cornerback, but the Bucs have expectations for their young cornerbacks, too.
Barber's role might changes, perhaps to a full-time slot cornerback. But the franchise leader in interceptions (40) is a long way from conceding.
"If they're better than me, then perhaps my role does change," Barber said. "But for the time being, I think I'm going in as I left it. I think they'd appreciate having to beat out somebody who's better. If they're able to do that, then good for them. It's better for this football team. … They're still going to have to work at it if they're going to get on the field ahead of me."
Regardless of his role, Barber is confident he'll be a big part of a competitive team next season.
"We're still classified as a young football team, but our young guys played like veterans last year," he said. "You'd have to be excited about that. I know they are as well. I look forward to not dealing with the pressure of being a young football team next year. I think we have different challenges now.
"Nobody's going to be surprised when we play well."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at email@example.com.