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Comebacks lie in DNA of Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman

You come back, that's all. You calm the chaos, you swallow the pressure, and you find a way to the end zone.

It is loud in the huddle, but you have to block out the noise. The game seems to speed up, but you have to slow it down. The colors have begun to blur, but you have to separate the jerseys of your receivers from the other.

In those final, tight-wire moments, nothing about the scoreboard looks right. The score is in favor of the opposition, and the time is ticking away, and the down-and-distance is starting to read like over-and-out. On the other side of the line, the defensive backs outnumber your receivers, and the linebackers are coming from every imaginable angle, and the defensive linemen want to take your head home as a souvenir.

It is as pressured as any moment in sports, and every eye in the huddle is on you.

Time to save the day.

Again.

More and more, this is the world of Josh Freeman, Kid Comeback. Time and again, Freeman has treated the fourth quarter as his personal get-out-of-jail-free card. Game after game, he has taken a nothing day and suddenly made it all worthwhile.

He is still new to the job, if the truth be told. He is 23, younger than some rookies, and he has started only 27 games in his career. Already, however, he has shown a knack for turning trouble into triumph. Already, he seems to believe that the fourth quarter is his.

Last week's victory over the Vikings was the eighth fourth-quarter comeback of Freeman's career. No one in the history of the NFL, not Joe Montana or Dan Marino or John Elway or Roger Staubach, had eight fourth-quarter comebacks at such an age.

"To be able to come back like that is huge,'' said ESPN's Trent Dilfer, the former Bucs quarterback. "When you're trying to separate the great quarterbacks from the very good — and I think the top 15 in this league is as good as it's ever been — you have to have some type of criteria. Every week there are a handful of plays that decide the game. Third down. Red zone. The end-of-the-half plays.

"Week after week, the best always seem to play their best in those moments. The other team knows what you're doing. You don't have smoke and mirrors. It comes to will, ability, belief, the intangible stuff.''

Eight times in 27 games, Freeman has led his team from behind.

Not only that, but there have been two other times —Miami in '09 and Detroit last year — when Freeman had what football researcher Scott Kacsmar calls "lost comebacks.'' In both games, Freeman would have qualified for a fourth-quarter comeback, but the defense could not hold the lead.

"I think it's essential for a quarterback to lead his team from behind,'' said Kacsmar, who wrote an article on Captain Comeback for the website ColdHardFootballFacts.com "If you look throughout history, from Johnny Unitas to Peyton Manning, the best quarterbacks in the league had that ability to bring their teams back late.

"I think Josh Freeman is a player that definitely supports the idea that a 'comeback gene' exists in certain quarterbacks.''

Of course, Freeman has had help.

No one should question that. He won a comeback in his first start, against Green Bay. Safety Tanard Jackson sealed that game by returning a touchdown for an interception. The comeback over the Bengals last year wouldn't have happened if coach Marvin Lewis hadn't made two boneheaded decisions (both ending in Bucs interceptions) late in the game. In the comeback against the Saints last season, Micheal Spurlock had a 77-yard punt return for a score.

The common denominator, however, is Freeman, whose composure seems to spread through his team. You don't have to tell the Falcons, today's opponent, about it. Their young quarterback, Matt Ryan, now has nine comebacks, although it took him 50 games to get there.

That's the thing about the NFL. It's a fourth-quarter league. Did you ever hear someone talking about a second-quarter comeback? No, you did not.

Most of the quarterbacks regarded as great show in their comebacks. Marino had 36, and Elway and Unitas had 34, and Montana had 31.

How many is eight? Remember Kenny Anderson, who has a lot of Hall of Fame supporters? He only had 11 in his career. Remember Kurt Warner, who led the Rams and Cardinals to the Super Bowl, only had nine. Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rod­gers has only three.

Think of it like this: In the history of the Bucs, only 17 quarterbacks have comebacks. Only four have done it more than five times.

Dilfer has been there. During his career, his name was maligned, but he did have some moments. Even now, he is second on the Bucs' all-time list with 11 (one behind Doug Williams). Already, Freeman is tied with Vinny Testaverde with eight.

"There were times I was good and times I was awful,'' Dilfer said. "When I was good, it was very quiet. You are still of mind, and nothing around you matters. It's really a surreal feeling. You know everyone is looking for that confidence, that peace. They need to see it in your eyes.

"The times I wasn't good, it was loud, and your eyes are looking all over the place. You see everything. You're not confident. You don't believe in yourself or what's being called or the guys around you.''

Say this for Dilfer. He's been a believer in Freeman all along, since before the 2009 draft. He recently wrote an article for ESPN.com where he had Freeman listed first on his up-and-comers at quarterback.

"I try not to play favorites, but right now, he's my favorite,'' Dilfer said, laughing. "He's an achievement junkie. He wants to be the best. Because of that, there are times he's pressing a little early in the game. But when he lifts that burden from his shoulders, when it's time to play, his greatness comes out. In college, he had to play in chaos. He thrives in chaos. That's what you're seeing in those fourth-quarter comebacks.

"He's still refining his craft. I don't mean this in a bad way, but there are surgeons and butchers. One's a skill, one's a craft. The great ones become surgeons. I never did. Josh has these great tools, but he's a little inconsistent. Sometimes, he's still hacking away.

"He's going to get it. He has so much presence. So much want-to. I think he'll win a Super Bowl. He's that kind of guy. He's the Dude. Between him, Ryan, (Detroit's Matt) Stafford — and I haven't given up on (the Jets' Mark) Sanchez if they will open it up and let him play — one of those guys is going to be the next guy in the Big Six (Tom Brady, Manning, Philip Rivers, Rogers, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger).''

Think of Freeman as a closer, then. Think of him as a rescue ranger. Think of him as Fourth-Quarter Freeman.

These days, it isn't over until the Big QB Flings.

Comebacks lie in DNA of Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman 09/23/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 24, 2011 8:36pm]

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