Good news. The voice has not been damaged from its lack of use. As voices go, it remains strong and confident. It does not rise in defiance, and it does not quiver in the face of expectations. The sound is as smooth and as reasoned as it always has been. Once again, Ronde Barber is speaking. Yes, he says, his game still has something to say. It has been an unusual offseason for Barber, who has spent much of his career awash in cheers for his team, for his defense, for his play. Around here, he is considered the fourth Beatle — along with Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp and John Lynch, all departed — in the greatest era of Bucs history. These days, however, the public opinion of Barber has become a mixture of questions and doubts. He is a 34-year-old corner who chased too many receivers across too many goal lines last season. The Bucs have purged most of their players in his age group. And there is a new defense to be played, one that increases the pressure on cornerbacks.
When it comes to Barber, the pressing question has been a blunt one: What are you still doing here?
And so Barber went silent. After years as a voice of perspective and leadership for the Bucs, Barber switched off the volume.
"I just didn't want to answer all of the questions,'' he says. "I don't think you can answer the questions in print. I'm learning something new. We're all learning something new. I don't know how I'm going to fare. Obviously, I think I'm going to do well. I've done well in everything else I've done around here.
"I didn't want to spend the whole offseason talking about me. 'They cut Derrick. They cut Warrick (Dunn). They cut Ike (Hilliard). … What in the hell are you still doing here?' How do you answer that? The best way for me to prove myself is to do it out there on the field.''
It is Tuesday morning, three days before the Bucs report for training camp. Barber sits in a brown leather chair in a room at One Buc Place, reflecting on the season past and anticipating the one about to begin. He pauses, and then he adds this:
"I'm confident enough to know I can do it, but I'm not arrogant enough to talk about it.''
What is Barber still doing here? Raheem Morris, the team's new head coach and Barber's position coach the past two seasons, answers it simply: Barber is here because he deserves to be. According to Morris, Barber graded "in the 90 percentile'' even during his bad start.
"This is a great opportunity for Ronde,'' Morris says. "There are people who consider him a system cornerback, a Cover 2 cornerback. Well, a bunch of guys play corner in the Cover 2, and I don't see anyone else with his stats. Now Ronde has a chance to prove to the world that he isn't just a system guy.
"People are going to question him. People always have. Remember, he wasn't even active (for most of) his first year. He wasn't supposed to be a starter. He's proven a lot of people wrong for a bunch of years.''
For Barber, it is proving time again. The Bucs have a new defensive coordinator, a new defensive backs coach, a new system. The only familiar things are the raised eyebrows.
"What has driven me my entire career is this constant grind of trying to gain people's respect,'' Barber said. "Everyone wants to be appreciated. If you look at my track record, it should speak for itself. I expect it to speak for itself. I hate to go out lobbying for myself. It disgusts me when people do that. I would hate to run a football team and have to make a decision on a guy like me. Either you trust me or you don't. Given the years I've put in, it's hard not to trust me.''
That said, the 2008 season was a difficult one for Barber despite his fifth Pro Bowl appearance. Even now, he can recite the bad plays. There was the play in the opener when he tripped over the heel of New Orleans' Devery Henderson on an 84-yard touchdown. There was the long afternoon against Chicago's Brandon Lloyd, who caught two on him and left him feeling "like Lance Armstrong chasing Alberto Contador.'' There was the trick play where Kansas City quarterback Tyler Thigpen got behind him on a halfback pass.
There is an old line when it comes to playing cornerback. The key to greatness is to be able to convince people that a bad play was someone else's fault. It was the pass rush. It was the lack of safety help. It was the call.
The truth is, however, a cornerback's mistakes happen in front of everyone. And after Barber's start, there was a lot of criticism outside the building. A lot of it inside, too.
"It was addressed in the building,'' Barber said. "I went through more than people care to admit in here. (The coaches) see the same things you guys talk about. 'He's 33 (at the time). He's in his 12th year. He can't possibly be the same guy he was five or six years ago.' I faced more doubt than I've ever faced in my life. And it was true. I'm not running away from it. I'm not scared to say it. I know when I struggle. Unfortunately, in my position, everyone knows when I struggle.''
Morris admits there were times the team wondered, too. There was a time when he gave a presentation to the team about finishing strong. It was not kind to Barber.
"How many 33-year-old corners do you know?'' Morris said. "Yes, there were doubts.''
Barber finished strong down the stretch, however. Morris compares it to a boxer rising from the mat.
"I took pride in working through it,'' Barber said. "It was like people were trying to drive self-doubt into me. They wanted me to recognize that I couldn't do it anymore, and I didn't feel like that. If you're going to doubt yourself, you might as well take a gold dagger and drive it into your chest because you're never going to play well again.''
Barber's confidence remains, although frankly, his job has become more difficult. The Bucs have not played strictly Cover 2 for several season now, but yes, there will be more coverages where a cornerback's mistake changes the scoreboard.
All of it has left Barber feeling energized. And optimistic: "I think this team can have a hell of a season,'' he said. And, well, focused.
"He comes to work angry, and he leaves angry,'' Morris said. "He's an angry worker.''
Can Barber still impact a game?
As he says, only the games will serve as an answer. Until then, all there is is trust.