TAMPA — Patience is a virtue not possessed by many football fans. It's also not part of the makeup of most football coaches.
But when it comes to the Bucs' passing game and the source of some of the recent struggles, a measure of patience is essential, players and coaches say.
While many of quarterback Josh Freeman's increasingly inaccurate passes are the result of pure misfires (he has a combined 48.3 completion percentage in his past three games), another factor has contributed.
The "read routes" employed in the Tampa Bay offense, the kind that require Freeman and his receivers to make split-second decisions in unison after the snap, have proven more difficult than anticipated.
So, when you see the occasional pass land nowhere near its intended receiver, followed by shoulder shrugs and puzzled looks, there's a reason for it all.
"People who don't understand, I would tell them to look at our playbook," receiver Mike Williams said. "There are different coverages you have to (read). I might see Cover 2 and (Freeman) might see Cover 3. They're disguising coverages, trying to fool you, so when you have read routes and they're trying to trick you, they might fool one person and sometimes things can happen. If you saw the playbook you'd see how difficult it is."
The receivers' routes in the Bucs offense typically vary based on the defense's coverages. It's another layer of responsibility for the quarterback, going beyond traditional progressions. For the receivers, it puts more on their plates, giving them more to contend with than the garden-variety route.
One of Freeman's four interceptions against the Saints last Sunday came as a result of a "miscommunication" as players have referred to them. Freeman, looking deep for Vincent Jackson from the Saints' 26-yard line, threw the ball inside while Jackson streaked down the field on the outside. Defensive back Rafael Bush intercepted the ball at the 9 and returned it 40 yards, ending one of the Bucs' best chances to score in the 41-0 shutout.
Who was at fault? It's not clear and it doesn't matter. Here's another question: Why, after 14 games, is this still happening?
"You can run the same play 100 times and you could have 60 to 70 different scenarios with how different (defenders) are playing it, how the leverage (is)," Freeman said. "There's a number of different looks you can get and the thing is just getting on the same page."
Offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said: "Any one particular pass could have a number of options off it, not merely just stepping inside or outside, but some subtleties with that. Without giving away too much, there are a lot of variables there. While this is not what we want to have happening right now and, in my estimation, it would be great if we were further along, I certainly can see as part of the growing pains and part of the process within the system how sometimes you have those."
That strongly suggests this is something you sort of have to live with in this particular system. But when executed properly, the results suggest it's worth it.
The Bucs' finer offensive moments this season bear that out. Since Week 5, Tampa Bay ranks fifth in yards per game (392.1) and sixth in points per game (27.2). But those "growing pains" are inescapable when playing in a challenging offense.
"It takes a smart guy to play in this system," receiver Tiquan Underwood said. "But we're all smart here and we all can handle it and it's our job. We just have to keep repping it in practice and let it carry over to Sunday."
Williams points to the fact the Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who also runs the system in New York — where Sullivan previously worked — had his share of challenges in the early stages.
"The quarterback we got this offense from, who has two Super Bowl rings, it took him six years to really get this offense," Williams said.
With the here-today-gone-tomorrow nature of the NFL, no one has that kind of time. The task is to get things right as often as possible and, when the occasional wrong read occurs, limit the damage.
"When they do happen, they end up being, ideally, incompletions or we end up having to punt the football," Sullivan said. "Both of which we don't like, but it's far better than turning the ball over."