With the exception of Tampa Bay's training camp practices and preseason games, many Bucs fans saw rookie quarterback Josh Freeman play for the first time Sunday.
Some weren't expecting much from the former Kansas State product, whose games were rarely shown on national television and was called on during the bye week to help a winless team defeat a Packers club with a winning record heading into Sunday's contest.
However, any skeptics Freeman had while preparing to make his first NFL start have been quieted for at least one week after the 6-foot-5, 250-pound signal caller threw three touchdown passes en route to engineering Tampa Bay's 38-28, come-from-behind win over Green Bay to help the Bucs improve to 1-7 on the season.
The Bucs traded a sixth-round pick to trade up two spots to select Freeman with the 17th overall selection in the 2009 NFL Draft. It marked the first time the franchise had used a first-round pick on a quarterback since 1994 (Trent Dilfer).
One of the reasons why the Bucs decided to invest a first-round pick in a quarterback was because of the instability at that position under former head coach Jon Gruden, who had eight different signal callers start a game for him from 2002-07. But the Bucs also felt comfortable drafting Freeman because of the insight new head coach Raheem Morris had on the 21-year old quarterback, whom he worked with in 2006 when Morris served as defensive coordinator for the Wildcats.
While Freeman's ability to throw for 205 yards and just one interception while tossing three touchdown passes to running back Derrick Ward, tight end Kellen Winslow and rookie wide receiver Sammie Stroughter, respectively, surprised some, it certainly didn't shock Morris.
"I really wasn't. I knew he'd be composed," Morris said of Freeman. "He missed a couple things early, like a motion on the first play or the slide on the third play. A lot of that is nervous energy, and a lot of that is me grinding into his head to play smart and not take unnecessary shots. He took an unnecessary slide [on a third-and-5 scramble]. All in all, the kid went out there and was composed. He handled the offense, he knew everything about the offense. He let
Jeff Faine handle the protections, he was able to make a few corrections, he pointed out the [middle linebackers in Green Bay's 3-4 defense]. He handled some big-time situations in a big-time environment with a lot of emotions riding in this game. It was the same even keel, steady guy I saw at Kansas State."
Freeman, who was the third quarterback taken in the 2009 NFL Draft behind Matt Stafford (Detroit) and Mark Sanchez (New York Jets), used his mobility to rush four times for 20 yards and was sacked just one time. However, one of the most impressive things Freeman did was continue to look downfield for open receivers while under some heavy duress, which is something savvy veterans typically do to make plays.
"That's what big-time quarterbacks do; they keep their eyes down the field," said Morris. "Even when they break the pocket they're always looking down the field to make the big play. He threw some shots down the field scrambling to his left or to his right. Some of those things will become big plays soon. It was a good start for him. We have to keep building, and obviously patience still will be a virtue with him."
Tampa Bay's initial plan was to sit Freeman, who was an early-entry junior, for his entire rookie year in order to give him time to develop and learn. The Bucs signed veteran QB Byron Leftwich in free agency and kept second-year QB Josh Johnson ahead of Freeman on the depth chart when the season started in September.
But it became clear that Freeman was destined to see action as a rookie when the Bucs remained winless and watched Leftwich and Johnson struggle, combining for eight touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Had either one of those quarterbacks performed better, Freeman might have never had the opportunity to lead Tampa Bay back from an 11-point deficit to a 38-28 win over Green Bay on Sunday.
"It wasn't that we didn't have any intention of playing him this year, it was the situation you would play him in," said Morris. "Had Byron Leftwich come out of the gate and we started 6-2 we probably wouldn't have seen Josh Freeman. Had Josh Johnson went in and won his four games maybe you wouldn't see Josh Freeman this year. You always have a plan, but Josh sped up the process more than we did. I wasn't shocked to see him do it at all because I've seen him come in here and study and work. You have to give the kid credit for the work and preparation he put in it without the reps. When he got the reps he used them and took advantage of them."
Freeman still has plenty of room to improve. He threw one interception and was nearly picked off a few other times by Packers defenders who couldn't hold onto the ball. Freeman also completed just 14-of-31 (45.1 percent) of his passes vs. the Packers, and accuracy is something he struggled with at K-State.
Freeman's teammates have noticed steady improvement from him, especially over the last month of the season. They're counting on Freeman building on his impressive debut because the Bucs need him to continue to improve in order to win more games.
"The thing we saw a difference in was his composure in the huddles," said Bucs center Jeff Faine, who handled most of the offense's line calls Sunday. "His play itself; he's always shown glimpses of being something special, hitting the receivers and the backs in stride down the field. His composure really stood out yesterday. You could he tell he felt comfortable.
"I don't think you can really teach that. There's nothing like live game situations. You either do it or you don't. It's not meant to be a negative thing or insult him, but he's just scratching the surface. He has so much more potential. It's definitely not there yet, but for him to do what he did and bounce back from the mistakes, it was impressive what he did."