15 starts later, Freeman's has trust of Bucs' teammates
TAMPA - Josh Freeman had left the sideline and was taking charge of the huddle for the first time in a National Football League regular-season game. Big moment, right? The biggest thing Tampa Bay Buccaneers guard Davin Joseph remembers, though, was trying not to crack up when the rookie quarterback began speak. "It was like a high school kid coming into a game and trying to call the play," Joseph said with a hearty laugh. "It was pretty funny, one of those memorable moments. You kind of had to be there."That awkward moment came a year ago in mop-up duty late in a loss to New England at London's Wembley Stadium, and they can laugh about it now because of how Freeman has played since then. He took over as the starter the following game against Green Bay and hasn't looked back. This Sunday's game at Arizona will be his 16th as the Bucs' starting quarterback, the equivalent of one full season. "It is a milestone," Freeman said, "but right now I'm just focused on beating Arizona." Still, this is an occasion where it's almost mandatory to take a moment to reflect on how he has done. The answer, of course, is he has done just fine. "It has gone by fast," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "His learning curve has skyrocketed in that time, and he just gets better every week. Josh has such great intangibles. He really wants to win, wants the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to win. He knows he is the face of the franchise, and he takes that very seriously." For his career, Freeman is almost identical statistically to the New York Jets' Mark Sanchez, who was taken 12 spots ahead of Freeman in the 2009 draft. And there is the most important statistical category of them all - victories. The Bucs were 0-7 when Freeman started for the first time, but if they beat Arizona they will be 8-8 on his watch. "I've learned a lot. A big part of playing quarterback is your comfort level. You go in and prepare throughout the week. Coming in as a rookie, you prepare and put the time in, but until you experience it there is no substitute. Last year I was prepared, I knew the schemes, but I hadn't run our plays against the coverages. I didn't know the nuances - when a play wouldn't be good, when to check down," he said. "Now, that I've been in the system for almost a year as a starter, I have the opportunity to have the reps (in practice), to be able to go through the progressions and get through the check-downs." Freeman's offseason work with Olson is a big factor in his improvement. Freeman and Olson were almost joined at the hip from the end of last season until the beginning of training camp, and the results are obvious to anyone watching the team. It also validates the decision last year to keep Freeman on the sidelines for the first half of the season while Byron Leftwich and Josh Johnson took turns trying to move the offense. Freeman was watching, absorbing and preparing for the day when he would be in charge. "Anytime with a young quarterback, there's anxiety you can create in him and his teammates by playing him too soon," Olson said. "If he doesn't know what he's doing (at first), that can really create confidence problems." Freeman was ready. He led a fourth-quarter comeback against the Packers to win his first start, and come-from-behind wins are now one of his trademarks. His touchdown pass last Sunday to Cadillac Williams with 10 seconds left gave the Bucs an 18-17 victory over St. Louis. It was the fifth time in his seven wins as a starter that he has brought the Bucs from behind to win. Teammates marvel about his cool and resolve under the heat of last-minute drives. And for Freeman, it's all just part of fully understanding the complexity of being a quarterback in the NFL. "They throw all these protection calls at you - different scenarios. You have to spit it out really fast and still know what's going on in the secondary and other coverages," he said. "It's a lot to take in at first. Last year, (center) Jeff Faine made most of the protection calls, but now my understanding of that and the whole offense is a lot better." In turn, he has the complete trust of his teammates. "The offseason really paid off for him, being with one coaching staff without all the changes. Being the guy from the go since we started with OTAs (workouts) in the spring, you give him more time. Everything was focused on him. He worked with his receivers the whole offseason and that made a big difference, rather than just show up and play," Joseph said. "He's not forcing the issue. He's throwing to guys who are open and not forcing the ball, and that's going to help our offense." And there's one other thing. When Freeman steps into the huddle now, no one has any doubt about who's in charge. "It's a major improvement," Joseph said. "He's not a kid any more. He has grown into an NFL quarterback now."