TAMPA — The final 6 inches. As the ball approaches, it is the crucial space on which a receiver must concentrate.
"You have to look the ball all the way in," Bucs receiver Kevin Ogletree said.
After a preseason for Tampa Bay in which dropped passes were as annoying as that unreachable itch in the small of one's back, it is a lesson that must be remembered as the Bucs prep for Sunday's opener at the Jets.
Said Ogletree: "I don't know anything that hurts a receiver more than a dropped pass."
They are inevitable, of course. Considering how hard NFL quarterbacks throw and the number of opponent hands usually in the way, dropped passes are part of the game.
Still, Bucs receivers acknowledged they dropped too many during the preseason, including four against the Dolphins.
The drive-killing potential of dropped passes is one thing. The added dimension with Tampa Bay is they also skewed the stats of quarterback Josh Freeman.
Freeman, in the final year of his contract and already under intense pressure and scrutiny as media and fans debate his future, went 12-for-26 for 101 yards in limited preseason action.
A few more caught balls — including one each by Ogletree and Vincent Jackson that would have been big gainers deep in opposing territory — and not only do Freeman's stats look better, but maybe what has been a stuttering offense gains some confidence and momentum.
Not that Freeman is complaining, especially after last season, when Jackson and Mike Williams were one of the league's best pass-catching tandems.
"These guys are elite talent," Freeman said last week at One Buc Place.
"Mike, Vincent … Kevin Ogletree has had an amazing camp. So when it comes down to it on Sundays, those guys are going to be there making plays."
But as coach Greg Schiano said when talking generally about the offense's lack of production, "The gap between knowing and doing is the biggest in the world."
What does Williams do when he drops a pass?
"I always say to myself I have to catch the next 10," he said. "That's my rule, and I go by it. And I think a lot of receivers should."
"When it happens, it's tough," said Ogletree, who during the preseason led the Bucs with 10 catches and 114 yards. "You try to think about what you did wrong, what kind of hand placement you had."
What shouldn't one do?
"The worst thing is dwell upon the previous play and let it carry on to the next play," Ogletree said.
In other words, Ogletree's drop of what Schiano called Freeman's "Hall of Fame throw" — a 30-yard zinger on third and 10 from the New England 42 that hit Ogletree in the hands — is ancient history.
Jackson's bobble inside the 5 of Freeman's throw to his back shoulder on second and 6 from the Baltimore 25? A dead issue.
"It's about knowing how you dropped it," Williams said. "If you know you tried to move too fast or your eyes weren't on the ball … if you know the way you dropped it, the next time you're going to catch it."
Just don't overlook those last 6 inches.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]