TAMPA — The losses have piled up, and the streak continues. Yet the Buccaneers coaching staff believes there is reason to smile when the subject of the future is broached.
Particularly, it's the future of quarterback Josh Freeman.
The numbers posted by Freeman this fall don't suggest there's much to be optimistic about. But those who know him best say they see as much upside as ever.
"Certainly, you'd love to have him go through his entire career having success from Day 1," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "But it doesn't work that way. And he's been a guy that went through some years at Kansas State that weren't so good.
"But when he came in here — and you can talk to the guys in the locker room — he has that 'it' factor. And he has that confidence, and he knows what he's going to need to work on."
The Bucs have suffered because players' confidence has been affected by the nine-game losing streak. How they recover next season remains to be seen. But Freeman, coaches say, is one they can rely on to bounce back.
"He's a tremendous talent," Olson said. "The numbers indicate it's not the season any of us expected of him. I would say he's had one offseason with this particular system. He'll learn from this season. He'll get better."
That's something Tampa Bay is counting on heavily. Coach Raheem Morris remains in danger of being fired — meaning his offensive staff is in jeopardy, too — and it's unclear what type of offensive system the Bucs would run if there was a change in coaches.
But whether the current staff remains or another coach is brought in, Freeman's play will help determine the team's fortunes. After his 25-touchdown, six-interception 2010, Freeman has struggled. He has completed a slightly higher percentage of his passes but thrown 14 touchdowns versus 19 interceptions (tied for the league high). His average per completion is down from 7.3 yards to 6.6.
In addition, Freeman, 23, has coped with thumb and shoulder injuries, missing a game for the first time in his three-year career, on Dec. 4 against Carolina.
"It has been a struggle," he said this week.
But he's already moving toward Olson's goal: learning from what went wrong this season. To that end, Freeman recalled a point emphasized recently by running backs coach Steve Logan.
"He talks about when things aren't going your way, there are one of two ways you can go," Freeman said. "Some people … don't want anything to do with it. And then other people might tend to press a little too hard.
"I think that's a little bit where I was this year in terms of decision-making; trying to press, trying to make things happen, get things done. It was unfortunate, but at the end of the day, you have to step back and look at where you are (and) continue to try to get better."
There already are examples of that happening. Take Freeman's success Saturday against the Panthers in the no-huddle, high-tempo offense. He completed 13 of 14 passes in the first half, including 13 consecutive. That, Olson said, was a result of growth in Freeman's game that allowed him to run the offense at that pace.
When Olson looks at the whole situation, at Freeman's ups and downs, he feels as much conviction as ever about him.
"I don't have any doubt that Josh Freeman will be the quarterback here in the future for a long time," Olson said.
"(There) will be great learning for him in the offseason. I don't see his confidence shaken."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @HolderStephen.