The 0-7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are attempting to get quarterback Josh Freeman ready to make the first start of his professional career. Head coach Raheem Morris cautioned that the organization and fans have to be patient with the 21-year old signal caller.
After practice on Tuesday, Morris cited some successful quarterbacks that struggled early in their careers like Payton Manning, Eli Manning, and Troy Aikman. While patient, Morris is every excited to see the Bucs' first-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft break into the lineup.
"We talk about it all the time around here, you are very excited around here. You are very excited about his opportunity," said Morris. "We get a sneak preview at our future for the next five to 10 years as far as quarterback goes, and however long he wants to make it unless he's lucky enough to be a guy like Brett [Favre] and go out there and do it as long as he wants to. You get an opportunity to see that.
"At the same time you got to be patient. You got to watch him. You know he's going to make mistakes. It is the hardest position to play in the NFL bar none. There is no doubt about it. He's got to go out there and know everything he does, everything we do on offense, everything they do on defense, he's got to know everything. So you got to be patient. You got to let him go out there and go through trial and error. Go through the mistakes, go through the success, not ride the emotional roller coaster as a quarterback, and get ready to play. It is more excitement for the kid, at the same time you got to be patient to go out there and make some mistakes as well. You got to be patient as coaches. You got to be patient as fans. When it comes, it comes."
In part-time action in four preseason games with one start, Freeman completed 44.9 percent of his passes for 238 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. One interception was returned for a touchdown. On the ground he ran the ball eight times for 75 yards and one touchdown. His quarterback rating was 41.0. Freeman's entrance into the lineup was expected by his teammates.
"That's the position we're in," said wide receiver Antonio Bryant. "Obviously that's the guy that at the beginning from being drafted, he was going to be the future. It is just a matter of establishing him and allowing him to get the experience."
Bryant was asked if it is frustrating having to get used to a new quarterback, and playing with a rookie making his first start.
"I knew that from day one coming back into this situation, I knew what I was getting myself into," said Bryant. "It is not bad. We'll be able to adjust. It is a matter of getting out there and giving him the reps in practice, and giving him the looks. One thing about quarterbacks in this league, especially with a guy coming in as a rookie, you don't appear open to them in this league. They are used to being in college throwing to wide-open receivers, and semi-open receivers. Here it a difference of a step or two. It is a matter of allowing him to throw the ball with anticipation to us receivers and being open."
The team feels Freeman's teammates have to play better to help the rookie quarterback. On Tuesday Morris showed his players a tape of things that they did well in the first seven games of the season. The rookie head coach said those good things were not done consistently, and they have to do it in practice and in the games more consistently in order to start winning. He also said that after years of being led by their defense, the Bucs offense has to take on the responsibility of carrying the team. Morris talked about the veterans on offense, and how he challenged them to lead the team, including Freeman.
"Regardless of who is at that position, there has to be a sense of urgency to get better around the quarterback as a team," said Bucs center Jeff Faine. "We can't have self-inflicted mistakes and expect to win, whether Josh Freeman is in there or not. We have to clean those things up to be successful and help Josh be successful."
Freeman made his professional debut against the New England Patriots in London. With the Bucs down 35-7 in the fourth quarter, Morris inserted Freeman into the game. He was 2-of-4 passing for 16 yards, and was sacked twice. On one of those sacks Freeman fumbled the ball and it was recovered by left tackle Donald Penn. Freeman was also called for a delay of game penalty.
"We're not looking for him to do anything spectacular," said Faine. "As a rookie, he just needs to manage the game. He needs to be able to move the ball up and down the field. I think he'll be able to do that just fine. The coaches do, too. That's why he's in there."
While Faine is not expecting Freeman to win the game by himself for the Buccaneers, a fellow rookie thinks Freeman is going to have quick success. Wide receiver Sammie Stroughter has turned in some solid play in his first season. Stroughter has caught 16 passes for 214 yards. He also has a 97-yard kick return for a touchdown.
"I think he's going to hit the ground running," Stroughter said of Freeman. "He's been preparing himself and working hard since the beginning of the season. He's been preparing himself like he wanted to be the starter, so I think he's going to do well based on what I've seen in practice."
Bryant has caught 16 passes for 229 yards (14.3 average) and two touchdowns in six games thus far in 2009. He sat out all of the preseason games after having minor knee surgery during training camp. Knee soreness kept Bryant out of the Buccaneers' Week 2 loss to the Buffalo Bills.
In the Bucs' last game, Bryant caught a 33-yard touchdown pass against the New England Patriots. It was the only score for Tampa Bay in the 35-7 loss. Freeman will be the third starting quarterback that Bryant has worked with this season, and the lack of continuity at the position effects the offense according to Bryant.
"It is critical because it is a natural fact," said Bryant. "A lot of receivers may not have the talent that some other receivers have, but do well do to the guy that is driving the bus for them, like a guy like Drew Brees. He has some receivers over there, but nothing really sticks out to you. I like those guys over there. I think coach [Sean] Payton is doing a great job as well. When you have a guy like Drew Brees who has come into the game, and matured in his own way, and took it to another level. You can't take away from that. He is throwing the ball up. A lot of times his guys aren't completely wide-open but he is putting the ball in position to allow his receivers to make plays. That is one of the hardest things for quarterbacks to do, which a lot of the premier quarterbacks in this league do. They allow their receivers to make plays for them. You see it in New England, Indianapolis, the Saints, and the Falcons."
Faine agreed that the lack of continuity at the quarterback position was a detriment for the Buccaneers.
"It's extremely critical," Faine said. "The quarterback position is the most important in the NFL. Hopefully Freeman can grow into this position and lead this offense. That's what he was drafted to do. We know as a group it won't happen overnight, but we're going to rally around him and do what we can do to help him help us win."
Josh Johnson started the last four games and will be Freeman's backup. Johnson completed 50.4 percent of his passes for 685 yards with four touchdowns and eight interceptions. Johnson was sacked 11 times, and ran the ball 22 times for 148 yards (6.7 average). His quarterback rating was 50.9.
Veteran free agent addition Byron Leftwich started the Buccaneers' first three games of the season. He completed 54.2 percent of his passes for 594 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions. His quarterback rating was 71.2. As a team the Bucs have completed 51.9 percent of their passes with eight touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Leftwich said that Freeman has improved while sitting on the bench, and the young signal caller and his teammates are confident in him.
"I think they have confidence that they can play well," said Leftwich. "Nobody is lacking confidence in that room. Trust me. The decision was made for [Freeman], so we are going to help make sure he's ready.
"I think he has better understanding of everything now. But we don't have anything to compare it on. Is he better now than he was eight weeks ago? Yeah. Anything that you can take in will make you better."
Freeman will have the challenge of matching up against two established NFL cornerbacks in Green Bay's Al Harris and Charles Woodson. The duo has combined for six interceptions in seven games with Woodson returning one 37 yards for a touchdown. Starting safeties Nick Collins and Atari Bigy each have an interception this season.
"It is nothing new, you are dealing with two 12-year veterans at corner," said Bryant. "A lot of people tend to overlook the safety play of Nick Collins, a good safety, and a good compliment safety in [Atari] Bigby. It is going to be a big challenge especially for our young quarterback. That is the type of challenge you want him to have out of the gate."