For so long, it was the simplest question imaginable. For so long, it was also the easiest one to answer.
Who is the best defensive player on the Bucs? For a dozen years, it has been Derrick Brooks, of course.
And on those days when it wasn't Brooks, it was Warren Sapp. And when it wasn't either of them, it was John Lynch. And when it was none of the above, it was Ronde Barber.
For 200 games, those were the only acceptable choices. If you wanted to debate the best player on the Bucs defense, you picked out a face from Mount Rushmore, and you brought your latest argument. No other nominations were considered.
These days, the question comes harder. The words catch in your throat, as if your mind is wary of possible blasphemy.
Who is the best player, present tense, on the Bucs defense?
Rude question, isn't it?
Ruud answer, too.
More and more, you notice the kid in the middle. Over and over, you hear his name on the loudspeaker. Again and again, fans call his name in appreciation.
He is Barrett Ruud, ballplayer. And, by golly, he just might be the best player on the field.
For Tampa Bay, it is a familiar sight. Remember when Brooks grew into a great player? Sapp? Lynch? Barber?
With Ruud, you get the feeling you are watching the same thing happen. He is only in his second year as a starter, and already, he leads the Bucs in tackles … by 48. Remember how Brooks used to always lead Tampa Bay in tackles? This year, Ruud has almost twice as many solo tackles (92) as Brooks (48).
"I think he's a great middle linebacker," coach Jon Gruden said Thursday. "We have films over the last couple of seasons that prove it. He's athletic. He's instinctive. He's a winner."
Also, it seems Ruud is invisible. Locally, Ruud is on his way to being the next big thing. Nationally, however, his name isn't as popular. When a young linebacker plays with a legend such as Brooks to his right and an icon such as Barber over his shoulder, fans don't notice as quickly.
As the Bucs head into their biggest test of the year, it seems as good a time as ever for Ruud to introduce himself.
Yeah, Ruud would like to make the Pro Bowl. You don't grow up as the son of a former NFL player (Tom Ruud) without knowing the significance. And what better place for final arguments than Monday Night Football?
"It would mean a lot," Ruud, 25, said. "I've always followed the history of pro football. Growing up, I always had a lot of pro football players around my family. But I only knew one guy (former Colts player John Dutton) who made the Pro Bowl. Once you get that tag, they can never take it away."
Does the fourth-year player out of Nebraska deserve the trip?
He pauses. Then he tackles the question with the same directness he tackles everything else.
"With what our system asks," he said, "I feel like I'm playing about as well as the top guys in the league."
The guy knows his linebackers. Sometimes on Monday, sometimes on Saturday, Ruud will cue up the tapes and watch how Ray Lewis is playing in Baltimore or Patrick Willis in San Francisco or Lofa Tatupu in Seattle or Jon Beason in Carolina or Brian Urlacher in Chicago. He watches more for enjoyment, he says, than for competitive reasons.
Funny. For a guy who studies linebackers — from Jack Ham to Hardy Nickerson — Ruud doesn't strike you as one. At 6 feet 2, 241 pounds, he doesn't seem big enough. He doesn't seem flashy enough. He doesn't seem nasty enough.
"I get that all the time," Ruud said, laughing. "People act like I'm a kicker or something.
"You'll be in a bar or somewhere in the offseason, and someone will say: 'This is Barrett Ruud. He plays for the Bucs. He's a linebacker.' And the other person will look and say: 'No, you're not. You're not big enough.'
"I say: 'You're right, I'm not.' I don't plead with them. I don't take off my shirt and flex for them."
The thing is, middle linebackers rarely look like Dick Butkus or Willie Lanier these days. These days, they are built for speed and instinct and athleticism and intelligence. Those things, Ruud has.
For instance, in Sunday's game, there was a play when Saints quarterback Drew Brees saw the defense and audibled. So Ruud audibled. Then Brees audibled again. And Ruud audibled yet again. Brees ended up throwing an incomplete pass.
Such are the hidden moments that separate the very good players of the NFL. For Ruud, that's important, too.
"You want to be recognized by your peers and teammates and people who watch the game closely as one of the better players of your time," Ruud said. "That's important to me. When you're done, you want them to say, 'Yeah, he really could play.' "
Ruud is off to a good start.
Monday night, perhaps a nation finds out what Tampa Bay knows already.
Gary Shelton can be reached at (727) 893-8805.