TAMPA — If nothing else, quarterback Josh Freeman has proved he can take a hit this preseason. Not only has he been sacked four times in as many series, he has taken more shots to his reputation.
Wednesday, Freeman got up after being knocked down by comments from Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton, who described the Bucs quarterback as "awful" during an interview that went viral a day earlier.
Standing tall on a podium inside the conference room at One Buc Place, the 25-year-old Freeman did not sound like a man stung by the latest criticism.
"Obviously, he's Fran Tarkenton. His career speaks for itself," Freeman said. "But at the same time, everybody is entitled to their own opinion. The important thing is the people in this building — coaches, teammates — they've got faith and they know who I am as a player."
Freeman set club passing records for yards (4,065) and touchdowns (27) last season. But after a 6-4 start, the Bucs lost five of their last six. Ten of Freeman's 17 interceptions came during three of those contests.
Despite a defense that ranked last in the league against the pass and blew three fourth-quarter leads last season, Freeman has become the focal point of the Bucs' failures. The team not offering him an extension as he enters the final year of his contract has only pumped up the volume for his detractors.
"Nothing surprises me," Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. "That goes with being the quarterback and the head coach. Probably the quarterback even more than the head coach is open to a lot of that.
"But the only thing that he needs to know is the only people that really matter are his teammates, his coach and his owners and management. Those are the people that make the decisions around here. He just needs to keep going. I think he's had a really good camp so far."
Freeman said he is in a much better position to make smart decisions in his second year under offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan. However, he ranks 30th among projected NFL starting quarterbacks in snaps played, 21 over two preseason games. That should change Saturday, when the Bucs starters are expected to play into the third quarter against the Dolphins.
Freeman spent part of the offseason analyzing his turnovers but failed to detect a theme.
"A lot of it has come on the end of trying to press things and force things, trying to squeeze the ball in a tight window," Freeman said. "Then there are other times, maybe you're feeling the edge pressure, trying to keep your eyes on the safety. Then you step and you're feeling something.
"I can't really say you can pinpoint exactly one thing and say, 'Do this and you'll never throw another (interception).' "
Freeman credited his improvement this season to maturing.
"It's also growing a little older," Freeman said. "I'm going into my fifth year, having some time to be around a number of different teams and different guys. You continue to try to push things, to try to see if you can get the very best Josh out."
Mechanical flaws also have led to poor throws. Freeman is a long strider and doesn't always set his feet or step into throws, but the Bucs have been careful not to make wholesale changes.
"It's a double-edged sword," Schiano said.
"You tweak a guy, (but) you don't change a guy at this level. He got here for a reason. If you start making wholesale changes, you're going to have a lot of worse before you have better."
In Friday's 25-21 loss to New England, Schiano saw hope in what he called a "Hall of Fame" pass dropped by Kevin Ogletree, a 25-yard rope Freeman drilled between the corner and safety.
"That just zipped right by my eye level," Schiano said. "You sit there and shake your head. There are not a lot of guys that are living that can make those throws. That's special. We've got to try to get him to do it all the time and make it to the right guy and all that stuff.
"That's the challenge."