Tampa Bay's offseason workout program got underway Monday, but Buccaneers second-year quarterback Josh Freeman was working out at One Buccaneer Place long before then, determined to progress as a signal caller and help the Bucs substantially improve on their 3-13 record.
Not much went right for Tampa Bay in 2009, but Freeman was deemed a positive after he led the Bucs to three wins in nine starts.
The 6-foot-6, 255-pound Freeman was one of the first players to voluntarily participate at One Buccaneer Place shortly after the 2009 regular season came to an end.
"I'm taking it very seriously," Freeman said Thursday from One Buccaneer Place. "Last year at this time, obviously the draft had not occurred, but after I got drafted it was a whirlwind. The focus really wasn't on me per se, it was on who was going to be the guy - Luke [McCown] or Byron [Leftwich]? They were trying to get me some reps and trying to incorporate me, but this year it's my show. It's my team and I want to win. I want to get things done the right way. I don't really feel you do that by sitting around at home. I want to come in and work. I want to be as well prepared as I can be so when we get everybody back from OTAs we can get this thing rolling."
The 17th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, Freeman threw for 1,855 yards and tossed 10 touchdowns as a rookie. While he showed tremendous poise in the pocket and some playmaking ability, Freeman still has plenty to work on, including his accuracy and decision-making process. Last year, Freeman completed just 54.5 percent of his passes and threw 18 interceptions.
That's one of the reasons why the Bucs hired former Buffalo Bills quarterback Alex Van Pelt to serve as Tampa Bay's quarterbacks coach, which should give Freeman the coaching he needs and frees up Greg Olson to focus more on his offensive coordinator duties.
"Alex is great," said Freeman. "He played in the league a long time. He's got the veteran's mentality, but he's a coach. He's helping me out a lot. He's giving me the perspective of a veteran leader. I'm trying to get in his head because as a young quarterback you learn stuff every year, so I'm trying to use him as a cheat sheet to get ahead and get my mind processed faster. That way, when I step out on the field I'm not stepping out there as a second-year quarterback, I'm stepping out there as maybe a third-, fourth- or fifth-year quarterback because I've been brainstorming and working so much with Alex."
Freeman has spent a significant amount of time this offseason in the weight room, film room and on the field throwing passes to wide receivers Michael Clayton, Maurice Stovall and Sammie Stroughter. If his critics thought he wasn't taking his NFL career seriously, Freeman suggested his actions and work ethic should put that notion to rest.
"It shows guys that I'm serious," Freeman said. "I'm young and I feel like I have something to prove. I think it's the attitude the team should have. At the same time, I think it's about playing good football. Back to the leadership point - leadership is something that is really hard for a rookie to be a standout vocal leader on the team. But now that I'm in here and got my feet wet a little bit last year, it's definitely a big point where I'm going to step up and being vocal and being that guy that stays after and works with guys and tries to get everything squared up.
"Last year at this time, I didn't know where I was going to play. I was waiting on the draft. But this year, I know where I am going to be and I know what type of system I'm running. I definitely think this is going to be the biggest offseason of my career. I've got this whole offseason to get on pace and learn these protections. Last year, we were installing new plays and I was spending some time on the plays and some time on the protections. This year, I want to be the guy that is pointing out all the points and making all the calls and the protections. That takes time. That's why I'm here right now."
One of the potential obstacles Freeman and Tampa Bay's offense might have to overcome is the possibility that Clayton, Stovall and Stroughter will be the team's top three receivers in 2010 after losing Antonio Bryant in free agency. These three receivers combined for just 71 catches and three touchdowns last year. Some believe the Bucs are in need of more explosive playmakers on offense, citing the fact that Tampa Bay's longest reception in 2009 went for just 47 yards.
Although Tampa Bay has tight end Kellen Winslow, who hauled in a team-high 77 passes for 884 yards and five touchdowns in 2009, and is expected to be join Freeman and Co. on the practice field Friday, some are concerned that Bucs head coach Raheem Morris, general manager Mark Dominik and ownership haven't given Freeman enough to work with on offense, which ranked 28th in the NFL last year. However, that isn't a sentiment shared by Freeman.
"I do [feel like I have the tools the offense and I need to succeed]," said Freeman. "As a quarterback I'm going to get it done with whoever I have to work with. That's my mentality. Antonio was a good player for us last year, but that's really not my area. I work with what they give me. If they ask for my opinion I give it to them. Mark Dominik is our G.M. and we have a whole scouting department. They get paid to make those decisions. I just work with what they give me."
At the NFL Owners' Meetings in Orlando last week, Morris went as far as saying Freeman would elevate the play of his offensive teammates in 2010. While that might sound like a lot of pressure to put on Freeman, the second-year signal caller doesn't mind.
"As a quarterback you get excited to hear that your coaching staff and upper management have confidence and faith in you," said Freeman. "There's nothing more important than confidence - that's a big part of playing quarterback, knowing you can make the throws and just go out there and play. The most pressure I have comes from me wanting to be the best quarterback I can be and put my stamp on this league.
"Speaking as the quarterback of this team and in a quarterback-driven league, if your quarterback is not playing well it's going to be tough winning ball games. I'm focusing on me and at the same time I'm trying to incorporate all of the receivers and running backs. For conditioning, we'll just run the two-minute drill where we'll line up and I'll drop back and throw it just like we were moving the ball and go down the field a few times. Just things like that and keeping everybody in rhythm so that when we hit the ground in OTAs there is no hesitation where like last year when we made the switch with the coordinators that we were still worried about these things. You want to get all the loose ends tied so when you get to the season there is no doubt. Let's go get it."
In addition to working closely with Van Pelt, Freeman has also spent a significant amount of time with Olson, who is using the offseason to tweak his playbook even more after replacing Jeff Jagodzinski 10 days before the 2009 regular season began.
"We've been brainstorming on how we want to call different things and run different things. There's a lot we've been working on," said Freeman. "We're changing up how we want to call the formations, which will help a lot in terms of spitting it out in the huddle. Really, it goes back to pushing that tempo and being that vocal leader and putting more pressure on the guys to perform."
But not all of the changes involve the passing game. Freeman suggested Olson and the Bucs were also focusing on the running game, which ranked 23rd in the NFL and produced just one 100-yard rusher in 16 regular season games, which came when the Bucs upset the Super Bowl-champion Saints 20-17 in overtime in Week 16.
"Ideally, I think you're going to see balance," said Freeman. "You want to be able to go out and throw it when you want to throw it. You want to be able to run the ball down the other team's throat. The second New Orleans game, for instance, was awesome. Cadillac [Williams] and Earnest Graham were running all over them, and we were converting on third down. That's really where the passing game comes in - on third down. You're obviously going to take some shots down the field, but we're just trying to move the chains and get these protections together so I know where to go with the ball and put it on people to help move the chains."
Freeman knows that if the Bucs can iron out some of the weaknesses the offense had in 2009 that it will translate to more wins in 2010, and winning, more than anything else, is Freeman's main objective.
"My drive is ... I love winning," Freeman said. "I want to win and I realize you have to put in the work. This is not a league where you can get by on talent alone. You have to know what you're doing. You have to be in there working. You have to get it done. It's definitely a love of winning - beating Seattle, beating New Orleans, and beating the Packers. There is no feeling like winning in this league."
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