Critics of the Buccaneers' decision to keep Aqib Talib are about to find out just what life without the incendiary cornerback would be like.
With Talib on injured reserve because of a season-ending hamstring injury, the Bucs will take on the Panthers and rejuvenated wide receiver Steve Smith on Saturday without their best outside cover corner.
That, of course, is the short-term problem.
Of greater concern to the Bucs is the long-term scenario, which might not look a whole lot different. There is a chance the Bucs will have to play a good part of the 2012 season without Talib, as well.
Talib, 25, is scheduled to stand trial in March for his involvement in a shooting incident in Garland, Texas, last spring. Charged with felony aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, he faces a possible prison sentence and league suspension.
Throw in the possibility starting right cornerback Ronde Barber could retire at the end of this season and there's a chance the Bucs might look completely different at cornerback next season.
"We always look to upgrade ourselves at corner every single year, because you can never have enough corners,'' coach Raheem Morris said. "If you notice, we put (defensive backs) on the field all over the place.
"We use them everywhere, even on special teams, so we'll always look to upgrade there. Now, which round we get them in depends on how the draft board falls. But we're always looking for the best you can get there.''
The Bucs used that philosophy in drafting E.J. Biggers out of Western Michigan in the seventh round in 2009 and Myron Lewis out of Vanderbilt in the third round in 2010.
But neither Biggers, who has played regularly this season, nor Lewis, who has played sparingly, has performed at a level that suggests either could step in as long-term replacement for Talib or Barber.
Biggers played all but a few snaps in place of Talib the past three games, and the results included a 38-19 loss to Carolina, a 41-14 loss to Jacksonville and a 31-15 loss to Dallas.
Lewis, meanwhile, spent nearly half the games this year watching from the sideline. Last week against Dallas, he was scratched from the lineup in favor of rookie seventh-round draft pick Anthony Gaitor.
Scouts are not surprised. On a scale of 1-100, Scouts Inc., which provides scouting reports for some NFL teams and ESPN, rated Biggers a 56 and Lewis a 58, considered well below average.
That suggests the Bucs might have to look beyond the draft and into free agency for new corners, should they need them. First, they will look internally, yet again.
Biggers, who has spent most of the season serving as the third corner on passing downs, is expected to start in place of Talib. He realizes it's a difficult assignment.
"He's one of the best corners in the league in my opinion,'' Biggers said of Talib. "He does everything a smaller corner can do and everything a big corner can do. It's a big loss. But like we say, 'Next man up.' ''
Lewis and Gaitor are expected to dress, as well, against the Panthers. Who gets more playing time as the third corner remains to be seen, but Lewis knows it's a big game and chance for him.
"Hopefully, they give me the opportunity and hopefully I'm able to get into one of the packages and show that I'm actually a good football player and not a guy that should be sitting on the bench,'' Lewis said.
Given their prospects for next season, the Bucs would like to see that, too.
Acknowledging the uncertainty of Talib's situation, Morris said Tuesday he wants Talib back next season.
"Aqib is a really good football player,'' Morris said. "If we can get Aqib back healthy and get him stronger, get him faster, get him better, then we can't wait to go back to war with him and get him back on our football team.''