EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — For a brief moment, Josh Freeman appeared poised to add to his legacy for dramatic finishes.
Tampa Bay's offense struggled most of the day against the Jets, but Freeman directed a late 61-yard drive, capped by Rian Lindell's 37-yard field goal for a two-point lead with only 34 seconds remaining on Sunday.
That turned out to be enough time for rookie quarterback Geno Smith to lead a march of his own as New York pulled out an 18-17 victory in the season opener.
“It's the end of the game and you have to find a way to do something,” said Freeman, who fired a 37-yard strike to Vincent Jackson on third-and-10 to sustain a nine-play drive. “For probably the next 24 hours, it's going to be rough on everyone.
“But once we break tomorrow, once you go to bed tomorrow night, you really have to drop it and move on.”
Freeman, now second in franchise history with 13,173 passing yards, has led the Bucs to 10 comeback victories in the fourth quarter or overtime. But he was denied Sunday by a gritty underdog.
He was sacked nine times in 26 pass attempts during a dismal preseason and was dropped three times by New York on Sunday. He also was picked off once, overthrowing Jackson late in the second quarter, in posting a pedestrian 67.9 passer rating that won't silence his critics.
“Little bit of a roller coaster, up and down a little bit,” Bucs coach Greg Schiano said in assessing Freeman's performance. “He made some big throws. The reality is we had an opportunity to really take control in the first half and we didn't do it. Because of that, we ended up losing the game.”
Freeman faced consistent pressure, and Tampa Bay's ground game never got untracked as the Bucs were limited to only 250 total yards.
“We've got a lot of things to work on,” Bucs left tackle Donald Penn said. “We didn't play our game and I feel it shouldn't have even been that close. Josh is better with the game on the line. That's when his competitiveness comes out. We had no doubt we'd score on that late drive, but I wish we could have taken a little more time off the clock.”
Tampa Bay's opening possession was a comedy of errors that had Schiano seething rather than laughing.
Exhibiting the same sloppy play that characterized their preseason efforts, the Bucs were flagged for two delay-of-game penalties and a false start by right tackle Demar Dotson that created a third-and-35 situation. Even when Freeman threw a 2-yard dump pass to running back Doug Martin, wide receiver Mike Williams was flagged for a false start that the Jets declined.
Freeman blamed communication issues, saying the speaker in his helmet malfunctioned early.
“We just have to find a way to get into a manageable play and run it,” he said. “It starts with tempo, it starts with getting back in the huddle. It starts with getting the play communicated and going.”
In the first quarter, after a New York punt and a facemask penalty on Bucs defensive end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, Tampa Bay took over at its 3-yard line. On third-and-5, the Bucs went into the shotgun and center Jeremy Zuttah snapped the ball before Freeman anticipated. As the ball rolled through the end zone, Freeman deliberately kicked the ball past the end line for a safety.
“I snapped it before Josh was ready, so that's on me,” Zuttah said. “It was a little bit of a miscommunication.”
Freeman now turns his attention to the home opener against the Saints, who picked him off four times last December en route to a 41-0 rout at the Superdome.
“This was a great test,” Freeman said. “(The Jets) mix up the fronts, bring different pressures and it was a good learning experience. At the same time, I'm extremely disappointed in the outcome.”