Double nickel is excited. He's afraid to show it, because the younger players are always watching, and he has to be the picture of poise on Monday Night Football. So Derrick Brooks has gone about his job the way he has every week for 14 seasons: film study, lift, meetings, walkthrough, lunch, meetings, practice, sauna, cold tub. Respect the regimen. But at 35, Brooks knows this chance may never come for him again. The Bucs are 9-3 for the first time in six seasons, and a win over Carolina tonight would go a long way toward wrapping up the NFC South, maybe a bye in the playoffs. In fact, only five other times have teams with at least a .750 winning percentage from the same division met after 12 games, and the visitor won all five. But the 10-time Pro Bowl linebacker is doing his best to keep the scowl scribbled on his face. This year, he has seen Warren Sapp dance with the stars, Mike Alstott and John Lynch retire, and Monte Kiffin plot his escape to join his son Lane at the University of Tennessee. "It's too scary to look ahead," Brooks said.
"To me, can I afford to do that? Probably. But is it worth it? No. Because I want to be in the moment and stay in the journey. If I start to do that, would it be a distraction? Overall, I would probably say no. But then again, I'd be trying to do something I'm not used to doing, and that's looking ahead instead of being in the moment."
The clock is also ticking louder for cornerback Ronde Barber. At 33, he struggled early with an undisclosed injury that might have contributed to getting burned for three long touchdowns.
"They never disclose anything that's wrong with them, and I never will either," defensive backs coach Raheem Morris said.
But like Brooks, Barber has a knack for making the big play in the biggest games. Three weeks ago, he broke a 13-game interception drought by picking off the Lions' Daunte Culpepper twice, including one he returned for a TD. The next week, his fumble recovery sealed the win over the Vikings. He was all over the field Dec. 2 against the Saints with seven tackles and three passes defensed, tipping a pass to linebacker Cato June for an interception.
Barber doesn't Bubble Wrap his emotions as often as Brooks. He knows Super Bowl XLIII is played in Tampa.
"Without a doubt, you have to cherish this one," Barber said. "I've said it all year. We don't need extra motivation. The Super Bowl is the Super Bowl, no matter where it's played. But any time you're having a good year — and we're having a good year — you have to seize the opportunity. Even for these young guys. Tiki (Barber, his brother) was in his fourth year in the league and went to the Super Bowl and never saw it again. You never know when you're going to get your opportunity. It might as well be your year every year, that's the way I look at it. I'm a firm believer that anything other is somewhat of a failure."
Brooks and Barber are not alone. Quarterback Jeff Garcia, 38, is in the final year of his contract and watching the sand run out of his hourglass.
"There's always somebody who's trying to replace you or an organization that's trying to replace you," Garcia said. "And being that I'm 38, I don't know how many more moments there are going to be. So, it's definitely something that I do appreciate and I just want to make the most of."
Warrick Dunn, carrying the rushing load at 33, can't believe how quickly his fortunes changed a year removed from the meltdown with the Falcons. "You definitely appreciate it more," he said. "I was talking to (ex-teammate) Alge (Crumpler), who is with the Titans. Who would've believed it?"
Some of the Bucs' younger players, however, have never been exposed to MNF or pressure games in December. Barber compares it to the Rays' playoff push when many were too inexperienced to know better.
"Blissful ignorance can be a good thing," Barber said. "For us, it's working. For whatever reason, this team doesn't feel a lot of pressure. I really don't know why. It's just kind of the makeup of this team. We trust each other."
Coach Jon Gruden said, "You hear some of them humming the (MNF) theme in the hallways. They're excited."
So are Brooks (No. 55) and Barber (20). Both have had to silence critics the past two seasons. Frankly, it fuels them.
"Sometimes if there are no questions, how are you challenged?" Brooks said.
Brooks says resiliency is the Bucs' best trait. It's his and Barber's, too.
"To be honest with you, I liked our chances in the preseason starting out," Brooks said. "I know a lot of people didn't, but I did for everything we had coming back, especially the signing of Warrick was huge for us. When we signed Warrick, I knew that would legitimize our leadership on offense. For me to predict our record, I couldn't have told you. But I definitely liked our chances of repeating and being in the hunt. I would've said back then this is where I expected us to be."
Monday, December 8, 2008, Section C * * * *