TAMPA — Ronde Barber is going to be replaced.
The Bucs' veteran cornerback who revolutionized the "nickel corner" position will give way to rookie Aqib Talib — one day. Whether that day comes sooner or later is a question that lacks a definitive answer. But it is going to happen.
"(Barber) is grooming a great guy to replace him," defensive backs coach Raheem Morris said. "He knows it. We all know it. It's not like there are any secrets around here. Ronde can't play forever. I wish he could. I'm sure he wishes he could, too.
"Aqib will be ready to go when Aqib is ready. He'll force that issue, and so will Ronde. We're comfortable with things right now. That will decide itself."
Are we any closer to decision day? The Bucs say no. Barber won't even go there.
But the fact the question is even being broached is a subtle reminder of the 32-year-old's football mortality. Barber, whose 33 career interceptions are a franchise record, has produced some unflattering highlights this season, particularly in situations where the zone-heavy Bucs have opted to play man-to-man coverage. Of course, it isn't fair to judge any player solely on sporadic plays.
Still, the chorus of whispers among fans persists.
"It's not like I haven't heard it before," Barber said. "I've been around 12 years. There's nothing I haven't heard nor experienced nor been through. It doesn't affect the way I come do my job."
That's about as much of a defense as Barber cares to mount. He has his own standards and methods of measurement, the details of which he said he'd prefer to keep private. He did say he's never used interceptions or splash plays as a way to determine his worth. That he has given up more touchdown passes (three) than he's made interceptions (none) isn't as bothersome to him as you might imagine.
"I've never searched out plays," he said. "They've kind of searched me out. It's about being in the right place at the right time.
"You can't make plays happen for or against you. It's an accumulation of things. Everything has to go right for you to have a big play for you and everything has to go wrong for you to have a play against you."
When Barber's coaches watch him on film, what they point to isn't the gadget play Barber misjudged against Kansas City on which quarterback Tyler Thigpen hauled in a 37-yard touchdown pass. On that topic, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin says, "Put that one on me, okay?"
Morris, Kiffin and teammates emphasize the unseen things: the plays that never materialize because of Barber's anticipation, the open-field tackles and the quarterback hurries.
"People don't understand all the dirty work he does making tackles or at the bottom of the pile," Kiffin said. "Pound for pound, there is no one tougher than Ronde Barber. He will hit you right in the mouth. He's here every day, practices hard and doesn't miss games."
Talib has a front-row seat to see how Barber has responded to scrutiny. Perhaps he'll be a better pro because of it.
"I see how Ronde handles it," Talib said. "You've seen it with a lot of other people and you see they go into the tank big time. Me, I see no change in Ronde. People can say what they want. But I see stuff the media doesn't see. I see the plays where he defends somebody so tight that the quarterback pump fakes and brings the ball back down. You don't put that in the paper, though. But it shows up on the film on Monday."
As for plays that wind up on opponents' highlight reels, well, those are inevitable, Morris said.
"Anytime you play as long as Ronde, if you're lucky enough to play that long, you're going to have bad plays," he said. "Those are not the plays that make you or break you though. The plays that make you are the ones that finish games and the ones that people remember. The stuff he brings to this team is unbelievable. The stuff that he does on the playing field, off the playing field, in the meeting room, that stuff can't be measured."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at email@example.com.