The anticipation builds throughout the Tampa Bay Buccaneers organization as first-round pick Josh Freeman prepares to make the first start of his career. The 21-year old quarterback is eager for his debut and believes that he is ready. With it being his first NFL start, Freeman said that there is some intimidation involved with the excitement.
"Obviously there is a little bit of a intimidation factor because this is something that kids of dreamed of their whole lives, kids have wanted to play in the NFL," said Freeman. "Once you get in the game, and you prepare, and you watch a lot of film it becomes just like you're playing football, not like ‘I'm in the NFL.'"
Freeman had some extra time to prepare for Sunday's opponent, the Green Bay Packers. Last week the Bucs had their bye week to regroup after their 0-7 start to the season. The Buccaneers sent some mixed messages about the preparation that Freeman would get during the bye week. Last Thursday head coach Raheem Morris said the rookie would be in Tampa throughout the bye last week.
"I'm sure Freeman will be here at least today and tomorrow," said Morris on Thursday. "He might take off Saturday, and watch the game on Sunday. I'm sure he'll be back here bright and early on Monday morning at 6:00 AM like he has been since he became the second quarterback on this football team."
Actually, Freeman took advantage of the time off to visit his family back in Kansas, and responded to what he did over the four days off that players had at the end of last week and into this week.
"Watch film, pretty much kept my routine," Freeman said. "I talked to coach Olson. I flew home Thursday night. I spent a little bit of time with my family. Took DVDs of cutups, took my playbook, and everything like that. I threw to my dad. Just kind of relaxed a little bit, you know, there's a lot of pressure surrounding and being in the building. I just kind of took a little time to collect my thoughts, not necessarily about football, just everything going on. At the same time I kept preparing. I watched a little college football on Saturday, and flew back Sunday."
Morris was asked if there was a miscommunication if Freeman was supposed to be at One Buc Place during the bye week.
"He actually left, he wasn't supposed to be here at all," Morris said. "He usually comes here on Fridays, but he left and came back early. He was here on Monday when everybody else was off, and he did some of those things like that. He was in here this morning, and he actually beat me here this morning. He was watching tape. That's just what he does. He's been doing that since I've known him at Kansas State. He is a football junkie he is not one of those guys that has to get into the speed development. I know a lot of people have compared him to Michael Crabtree situation, but Crabtree was out of the building for seven weeks. This guy has been here all seven. He's been here for the whole situation. He's been here through the OTA days, mini-camp, and it was a completely different deal.
"It was a deal where he needed to get home to see his mother, and get home and see his father for a couple of days. He was able to get back here and get back into the game plan before anybody else on the football team like most quarterbacks do. All the great ones, they study on their own. They figure out what they want to do on their own. They get their own ideas, and hopefully that is what he becomes."
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.
Many people point to Freeman's imposing physical skills and ability to throw the ball deep. The 6-foot-6, 265-pound Freeman impressed NFL scouts with his powerful arm while playing collegiately at Kansas State. Improved accuracy is what offensive coordinator Greg Olson wants to see.
"You can talk about some of the big arm guys in the league the Brett Favres, the Payton Mannings, but there are other guys that are playing really well that you wouldn't consider big time arm guys," Olson said. "Tom Brady, Drew Brees, are very accurate passers. I think accuracy plays a big part in it. Certainly you like Josh's arm strength. I'm more interested in this week is seeing how accurate he can be when he is under pressure. When he is under duress can he make the throws that you need to make to be a successful NFL quarterback. That's what differentiates the average guys and the great guys. The arm strength put aside, it is a nice quality to have, but if you are not accurate with that arm strength and you are not accurate under duress it is a mute point to be honest with you, so I just want to see how accurate this kid can be under duress."
During training camp Freeman did not get a lot of practice reps as quarterbacks Byron Leftwich and Luke McCown competed to be the Bucs starting signal caller. Freeman and Josh Johnson got very little reps, but the young duo will have more combined starts in the first half of the season than the two veterans. Leftwich started three games after McCown was traded to Jacksonville, and Johnson received four starts for Tampa Bay. Coordinator of pro scouting Doug Williams said that the lack of reps is only an issue because of the Buccaneers winless start.
"Well I look at it is if we were 4-3 or 5-2 that of course wouldn't have come out," Williams said. "I think it all depends on where you are at that particular time. We all can have our opinions of what if. If we beat Dallas and win a couple more games. I don't think we'd be sitting here talking about that, the reps. You can get mental reps. You can get some reps on your own on the side, there are different ways to get reps. When I was in DC I didn't practice with the team either. I got no reps. I was the backup, but first game of the season I had to play the game. You got to be ready to play when called upon. That is the whole objective."
Williams has been impressed with Freeman's development, and said that he sees a gunslinger of a quarterback when he watches Freeman in practice. Morris said that is what the Buccaneers need.
"That is today's quarterback, you talk about all the great quarterbacks and they are gunslingers," Morris said. "They all go through their trials and tribulations. I guess Brett [Favre] is the guy you want to talk about now being the ultimate gunslinger. He leads the league in interceptions, but I don't think he ever remembers that stat. He just thinks of how many touchdowns he threw, and how many wins he has, and how many Super Bowls. That's got to be a quarterback's mentality in this league."
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.
"I learned that teams are probably going to bring a lot at me in terms of blitzes," said Freeman. "Which I'm prepared for. That opens a lot of stuff up down the field and in the middle of the field. There is that, and also it felt good to be back out there. Stepping into the huddle, calling the plays, and getting my feet wet again I'm really excited for the opportunity to get a whole game in this Sunday."
Freeman has a lot of pressure on him to rescue a franchise that is seen as floundering. The Bucs are the only winless team in the NFL almost halfway through the 2009 season. Tampa Bay has the longest active losing streak in the NFL at 11. With the Buccaneers wearing their old orange uniforms that are associated with losing by many fans, Freeman said he is aware of the magnitude of Sunday's game for himself and the organization.
"Obviously it has been brought up and a lot of people have said things," Freeman said. "But I kind of think that's not all that heavy on my mind because I'm thinking from a personal standpoint of what I want to do, my career goals that I set out before even the draft happened, and my goal is to where ever I got drafted I wanted to be there my whole career, and I wanted to win a lot of football games. The pressure that I put on myself out weighs that in my mind. They both kind of run together."
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org