TAMPA - The criticism will renew today. Once more the focus will narrow and the eyes will linger.
The cornerback will slink into the room, his head ducked to avoid the comments. Still, they will come.
"Gee, Ronde," the voice will say.
"In the old days, you would have scored." Mike Tomlin, the Bucs' secondary coach, will be the man talking, and his eyes will look weary, and his voice will sound sad. On and on, he will go, about how Barber's legs must be going now that he has reached the age of 28, and how he no longer has the knack for the end zone that he used to have, and how he was tackled a mere 24 yards after his interception.
Barber will roll his eyes and he'll say Dallas tackle Flozell Adams had the angle on him, and how his hamstring isn't 100 percent, and how there really wasn't a lane there.
Then Tomlin will laugh.
And Barber will laugh.
And everyone else will notice, gee, the season certainly sounds different today, doesn't it?
This is what happens when a player such as Barber plays the game of his career, and the kids around him follow his lead. Barber was darned near everywhere Sunday, and the rest of the Bucs defensive backs were everywhere else, and just like that the season turned. One moment the world is doom-and-gloom-and-Dallas-is-going-to-run-up-the-score, and the next everyone in the secondary is laughing last.
Admit it. You smelled napalm in the morning, didn't you? You were convinced the Cowboys were going to gather more air miles than Delta on Sunday. It was merely a matter of which flight plan Bill Parcells chose.
"Everyone knew," Tomlin said. "We were going to get torched."
Let's see. Was the victim going to be Jermaine Phillips, the kid with the question mark on his jersey? Or was it Tim Wansley, the kid with the scorch marks? Was it going to be Corey Ivy, with the bull's-eye on his shirt? Or Dwight Smith, the guy with the chip on his shoulder?
Talk about the great unknown. The Bucs secondary, quilted together with backups, stand-ins and a little adhesive tape, seemed overmatched by the big-play receivers of the Cowboys going into Sunday's game. Aside from Barber, the four defensive backs who started for the Bucs - they were in the nickel - had combined for 11 starts, lifetime.
It didn't turn out like that. Wansley was solid. Phillips was stellar. Ivy was superb. Smith was seething. And Barber? Barber was superb.
Do not define him as a cornerback. Barber is a ballplayer, one of those all-over-the-field, ruin-the-other-guy's-day kind of wrecking balls. A baller, as they say.
He had eight tackles, three of them for losses. He forced two fumbles. He intercepted a pass. Most important, he did what great players do: He made those around him better. Quincy Carter came in with a quarterback rating of 104.1; against the Bucs it was 42.1
"He reminded me of his game in Philadelphia last year," defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said of Barber. "He was all over the field."
Of course a great secondary performance cannot come without a lot of help from a coach, and so it is you should acknowledge the help of one guy in particular. That's right. Parcells.
Hey, Tuna said he could put a great secondary together in Tampa Bay, didn't he? And judging from his game plan, he was determined on accomplishing it still. He avoided Wansley and Ivy as if they were Hayes and Haynes, trying in vain to run the ball at the Bucs. It was obvious Parcells lacked faith in Quincy Carter's passing ability, but you wonder. If Parcells had let Carter attack, how much much less than zero could the Cowboys have scored?
Let's face it. We all know the Glazers have a signed contract from Parcells. After this game plan, maybe they have pictures, too.
Oh, I'm kidding. The coaching job worth praising is Tomlin's, the guy with the needle and thread who put this secondary together and convinced the players they didn't need asbestos underwear.
"We don't coach backups," Tomlin said. "We coach future starters. Everyone who starts in this league had their first start sometime."
When a coach has John Lynch and Brian Kelly in street clothes, when Barber has missed most of the week because of a bad hamstring, it's a good philosophy. Maybe it fits. The Bucs have thought of Phillips as a rising star for some time. "He covers as much grass as anyone in the league," Barber said.
And if you're grading, you have to give Wansley some points for resilience for the way he has overcome his toasting at the hands of the Colts. And Smith? There is a bit of attitude to Smith. He didn't like all the questions coming the way of the secondary, and he let people know it.
"My friends and family called me," he said. "They thought we were going to get killed."
Instead the season lives because the kids were a lot of fun to see Sunday. At one point you pictured Parcells turning to offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon and asking, like Butch to Sundance: "Who are those guys?"
Why, they're the Barbershop Quintet.
"I just play the way I play," Barber said. "And I expect to do it as well as anyone who plays in this league."
The Bucs believe that, too. Just ask Tomlin.
"He's a rock," Tomlin said. "He's tough physically. He's tough mentally. He can do it all.