MIAMI GARDENS — Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano made up his mind months ago. That’s why Josh Freeman has been limited to 21 plays so far this preseason, nearly an NFL low for starting quarterbacks through two games.
Schiano no longer needs to be convinced Freeman is his best option.
Still, Freeman’s preseason performance, however brief, has only affirmed his coach’s belief. Though the first-team offense has not been especially productive — 55 yards and one field goal in four total series — Schiano saw Freeman display some franchise-caliber chops.
Take, for example, the third-and-10 play from the Bucs’ 42-yard-line on the first offensive series at New England last week. Freeman executed arguably the most difficult pass a quarterback has to make — a 30-yard out along the right sideline — only to have it sail through receiver Kevin Ogletree’s hands.
While most casual observers saw little more than an incomplete pass that ended the Bucs’ first drive after three plays, Schiano saw a “Hall of Fame throw’’ by Freeman.
“He just zipped it right by me at eye level,” Schiano said of Freeman, who will see extended playing time tonight against the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium. “You see that and you just shake your head. There aren’t a lot of guys living who can make those throws. That’s special.’’
So, too, was the poise Freeman displayed while taking two sacks on the next series. While the sacks looked bad to most, Schiano’s trained eye saw an elite-level trait that can’t be taught.
“He’s probably the best in the National Football League at standing in the pocket and keeping his vision down the field,’’ Schiano said. “I’ve never been around a guy that stands in there as well and moves up in the pocket as well and doesn’t let the rush get to him better than he does.
“So that kind of fits all the reasoning why (he’s our starter).”
Not everyone sees Freeman the way Schiano does. Despite Freeman setting Bucs franchise records for passing yards (4,065) and touchdown passes (27) last season, a legion of detractors has grown around him.
Freeman’s play this preseason has not silenced the mob. He has taken four sacks while completing six of 10 passes for 42 yards and no touchdowns.
Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton spoke the loudest, saying this week during a radio interview on 620 AM that Freeman was “God-awful’’ at times and he had concluded Freeman simply “can’t play’’ in the NFL.
Even former Tampa Bay teammate Ronde Barber took a swipe, saying during a break in the Fox Sports telecast of the Bucs-Patriots game last week that Freeman can’t carry the team on his own because he’s “prone to mistakes.’’
Freeman claims not to have heard the critiques, but he seems to understand at least where Barber is coming from. After throwing four interceptions in consecutive games down the stretch last season, Freeman admits he needs to eliminate mistakes.
With the help of Schiano, offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan and new quarterbacks coach John McNulty, Freeman thinks he has discovered the cause of his most egregious errors.
“A lot of it has come on the end of trying to press things and force things, trying to squeeze the ball into tight windows,’’ Freeman said. “But you can’t really pinpoint one thing and say, ‘Do this and you’ll never throw another (interception).’
“That’s why I’m just continuing to work hard every day in practice to learn the system so that I can communicate with my guys better and find the matchups we need to get things accomplished the way we want to.’’
Schiano has seen good strides from Freeman and he thinks Freeman having a better understanding of the Sullivan’s scheme will result in better overall play.
“Not only does he have a better grasp of our offense, but he has a better understanding of the game of football — situational football, down and distance, time remaining, score, weather conditions, all that stuff,” Schiano said. “He has a better grip of how that affects what he has to do and what the offense is going to be able to do. But that’s the maturation of a quarterback, in my opinion, and he’s doing that.’’
Freeman senses that the maturation process has moved into the fast lane. After four years in the league and two in Sullivan’s system, the game is slowing for him and becoming less complex.
“No question,’’ Freeman said. “I think I have a much better knowledge of the offense, for sure — understanding the formations, the concepts, where we’re trying to go with the ball.
“And then, you know, having grown a little older and having had some time to be around a number of different teams, different guys, you just try to push things to see if you can get the very best Josh possible.”