It wasn’t the fact that rookie quarterback Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay’s first-round pick out of Kansas State in 2009, was 2-of-4 for 16 yards with two sacks, a fumble and a delay of game penalty in his first taste of NFL action against the New England Patriots in the Bucs’ 35-7 loss in London last Sunday that led the organization to promote him to the starting quarterback spot for the rest of the season.
Rather, it was the fact that the Bucs are desperate at 0-7 heading into their bye week and don’t have much to lose by switching quarterbacks for the third time this season. Freeman was drafted to be the quarterback of the future, and it’s obvious that the future is now.
“Josh Johnson came to me at the end of the game and I went to him and told him I was putting Freeman in,” Morris said. “He said, ‘I get it. This game is about wins.’ It’s about being productive. If you are not going to be productive, then you need to step aside and let somebody else go out there and try to be productive.”
Johnson, the team’s fifth-round draft pick last year, was 63-of-125 (50.4 percent) for 685 yards with four touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also picked up 148 yards rushing on 22 carries (6.7 avg.). More importantly, Johnson was 0-4 as a starter and couldn’t get the team’s first victory of the 2009 campaign despite starting two winnable games against Washington (16-13) and Carolina (28-21).
“Josh Johnson brought the legs and the ability to move around the pocket and create some longer plays,” Morris said. “Josh Freeman brings a different presence. He brings us a guy that is going to stand in the pocket and deliver longer throws down the football field on time and in rhythm off the play-action pass and off the dropback pass. He stretches the field longer than Josh Johnson does.”
Bucs offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Greg Olson said that the 6-foot-6 Freeman is a pocket passer like former starter Byron Leftwich, but he has the escapability that Johnson possesses, too.
“With Josh Johnson and his ability to move there were certain plays put in for him,” Olson said. “For Byron being more of a pocket guy we protected more up front and did more of the max protection. Josh Freeman is more in between. It can kind of be the best of both worlds. He has very good feet, especially for a 270-pounder, but even for a 220-pounder he has great feet and escapes well.”
The decision to start Freeman against Green Bay, Tampa Bay’s next opponent after the bye week, on November 8 was made because the organization feels he has made the necessary improvement since the preseason where he completed 44.9 percent of his passes for 238 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions, in addition to 75 yards rushing and one score on eight carries.
“The decision started with his preparation before [the New England game],” Morris said. “The 6:00 a.m. wakeups and coming into the office. Being a part of the game plan and being the number two [quarterback]. All that stuff was part of the process. Now it’s time to move in that direction as an organization.”
Olson said that Freeman’s development has coincided with the team’s poor start, and that the bye week presents an opportunity to make the quarterback switch at the right time.
“Part of it is obviously the fact that we are 0-7 and playing a young quarterback in Josh Johnson,” Olson said. “We knew eventually that we were going to hand this thing over to Josh Freeman and we just felt that in talking with everyone in the organization that now is the time with the bye week. It will give him an extra week of preparation. He has been playing well out here, albeit mostly with the scout team. We have been substituting him in with the veterans.
“Obviously, this is an organizational decision at this point to go with Josh. We as an organization have been impressed with Josh from the start since he got here. He’s had some days early in the OTAs and the mini-camps where he played well. Certainly, it was discussed that he would possibly play more during training camp. That didn’t come to fruition, but he has prepared very well. He’s done very well running the scout team and preparing. He’s in the office everyday at 6:00 a.m. Under better or different circumstances, it would have been nice if he would have gotten a lot of reps in training camp, but that wasn’t the situation. That being said, he has prepared very well and he does feel like he is ready for this opportunity.”
There is a deep regret within the organization that so many reps during the team’s OTAs, mini-camps and training camp were wasted on a quarterback battle between Leftwich and Luke McCown. Leftwich was unimpressive in the Bucs’ 0-3 start and McCown is now David Garrard’s backup in Jacksonville.
“If we could do it all over again, that’s the guy,” Olson said. “If you knew that you were going to start out the season 0-7, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I can’t sit here and say that it wouldn’t have helped him to have all those reps in training camp that Luke McCown and Byron Leftwich had. That being said, it is a decision that has been made. It’s a decision that we feel good about and we’re going to move forward with.”
Morris admitted that the Bucs’ initial plan of sitting Freeman in 2009 to have him learn on the bench has gone astray due to the team’s record.
“The plan was to sit him behind the vet and hopefully get some wins, but that didn’t happen,” Morris said. “His development, his progression and how he’s come along are what has happened. We talked about it in the OTAs. Everybody was talking about Luke and Byron at the time and how Josh just started to emerge in the conversation. Then we went with Leftwich and Josh Johnson had earned the right to go out there. Now it’s time for him to go. He’s earned the right. He went into the lab and he’s done the extra studying and the extra preparation. He’s shown us the big-time throws and the small-time throws. He’s shown us the little things you need to be a quarterback in this league. Now he’s got to go out there and play.”
Morris, the league’s youngest head coach at age 33, is also keenly aware that his coaching future lies in Freeman’s hands, especially at 0-7. Yet he’s ready to make the move.
“That’s common sense,” Morris said. “Every quarterback is directly tied to the head coach. The amount of success you have is the amount of success your head coach has. That’s everyone across the league. That’s nothing special for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It is what it is.
“I’d like to go see him play. The obvious concern is that he’s young and it’s his first time. Other than that, there are no concerns.”
Olson admits that growing pains will occur for Freeman and the offense when he takes over the huddle on November 8, but that he has the confidence in the young quarterback’s development at this point to insert him as the starter.
“There’s some growing pains, obviously, but he’s going to learn with every snap,” Olson said. “We know that. Anytime you play a young quarterback and you look at the other young quarterbacks throughout the league, there are some growing pains with Mark Sanchez in New York. There will be some with [Matthew] Stafford. All young quarterbacks have a learning curve that they have to get up to speed on. We’re comfortable with Josh right now. We know he is the future of the franchise. He’s excited and we’re excited.
“I think he’s a more confident player now within the system. That’s what I see from him. He’s always had natural abilities as a passer, as a quarterback. He does 2-3 things per week where the coaching staff on both sides of the ball walks into the office and says, ‘Wow! Did you see the throw that he made today?’ He’s had the ability. Now it’s just a matter of him having the confidence within the system to get in there and play some live snaps.”
In order for Freeman to have success and for the Bucs to finally win a game this season, the players on Tampa Bay’s 28th-ranked offense will have to step up and perform better.
â€¨“All the quarterbacks that have been in there have been subjected to other guys not getting their jobs done as well,” Morris said. “Now with Josh out there you have to run the right routes, be in the right spots, do the right thing and protect the right way and you have to get it all done together. It’s up to the quarterback. He’s the leader of the offense. He’s got to get everybody going in the right direction.
“The experience he gets out there will help him. He gets his center back in Jeff Faine. He has some of his offensive linemen who are healthy. Antonio Bryant is getting healthier and healthier. His running backs are coming along. You have Derrick Ward, you’ve got Earnest [Graham] at fullback and you’ve Cadillac [Williams]. It’s time to step up. We went through the growing pains with 0-7. Now it is time for him to come in and lead us.”
The Bucs don’t plan on scaling back the offense for Freeman. Morris indicated that he has used his time wisely as the team’s backup quarterback to learn the offense and prepare.
“You don’t scale back,” Morris said. “You do what you’ve been doing. You add on what you need to add on for the game weeks.”
Olson said that he has no problems with Freeman’s work ethic during the season.
“Work ethic has not really been a problem with regards to him or his preparation,” Olson said. “Initially, it was really unfair to Josh. As the rookie who was in here as the number four [quarterback], was he in here everyday at 6:00 a.m.? No. Has he been for the last seven weeks since the season started? Yes.”
Freeman’s preparation will be put to the test in two weeks when he gets his first NFL start. At 0-7, the future is now for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.