TAMPA — Franchise quarterbacks in the NFL should come boxed in bubble wrap with a warning label: Handle with care.
Play them too soon and a bad experience may strip them of their confidence. Coddle them too much and they may wilt under the first sign of pressure and mounting expectations.
That's why the Bucs stuck to their plan after taking Josh Freeman with the 17th overall pick in April. At 21 and having entered the draft a year early, Freeman had his toolbox full in terms of physical abilities.
But he had a lot to learn about the pro game. It didn't help that Freeman didn't get many reps in training camp or the preseason because the Bucs were engaged in a pointless competition between Luke McCown and Byron Leftwich.
The Bucs always viewed the bye week as the best opportunity to finish preparing Freeman to start. They hope he is the only voice in the huddle for years to come, but he has to learn to speak up.
"I think the last couple days he's been a little nervous in there, but that's going to come with experience," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "It's a different deal now.
"We always talk to him about developing as a leader, and that's always part of the process. So he's done a great job with that show team. He's really taken charge. Then I see him step into this team and he's really not quite as vocal. I said, 'You just have to. You're the guy now.' "
Want to know what it took to bring Freeman from diapers to diploma as an NFL quarterback? We take a look:
For Freeman, learning the Bucs' offensive terminology requires the NFL version of Rosetta Stone. Consider a play from Jon Gruden's playbook, which isn't that much different from Olson's.
Solo left snug pass, 94 pudge, blazer Z corner. Two deep only, heads up for sticky or angle.
Freeman began in the spring, during those 6 a.m. meetings, learning the offensive language. It starts with calling plays, formations, shifts, motions, protections and then defenses.
"We started recognizing NFL coverage, and that was on film," Olson said. "We had to go through it on film and say, 'Here are the teams in your division, and these are the coverage they play. So you have to go through and look at your opponents. You start with your division, and then you look at your first five opponents.'
"He had to learn what we call it. This is what we call this coverage 'four.' In college, you may have called it 'six.' So he had to learn how we call things both offensively and defensively. We might call this an 'under front' and in college, they may call it a '25 front'; they have numerical names for it, and some others may have words."
Man in the mirror
Spitting out the play in the huddle is not enough. Freeman has to learn how to sell it in the huddle.
"Once he learned the terminology, he had to spit it out on the field. It's experience. You practice a lot of that in front of the mirror at night. Out on the field by ourselves," Olson said. "We'll do it this weekend.
"We've got to practice our presentation in the huddle. Here's how we call it. Here's the shifts. So hopefully, once he's learned the terminology, the formations, the shifts and the motions, they come out clearly. He's not stuttering in the huddle. He's got to sell the play in the huddle. If you're having trouble calling the play, obviously there's not going to be a lot of confidence in the huddle that you're going to be able to execute the play."
Because reps are limited, Freeman has to stand behind the starting quarterback and try to mimic his calls.
"During practice, he's got to repeat the plays," Olson said. "Spit it out to me. What's the read, what's the coverage, what's the front here? What's the weakness in this coverage? Where should the ball go? Those things that he's constantly having to play the game in his mind.
"He's got to stand and visualize and say, 'Here's what I would do.' As he stands back behind the huddle, he has to say, 'I need to make a Lucky call' to help on protections. All those things. There's a lot involved with it."
Hands, feet, drops
Fortunately, Freeman arrived with pretty good throwing mechanics. It's obvious he had good coaching along the way. But at Kansas State, he played mostly in the shotgun formation, so three-, five- and seven-step drops weren't second nature.
"He had a little exposure to that in college, but not much," Olson said. "His college film was completely different. His dropbacks were completely different. He did a lot of half rolls. And he was in the shotgun, and he's comfortable in the shotgun.
"He had good fundamentals and good coaching growing up, as far as his basic throwing fundamentals and footwork and balance. He's got good balance. He's got a lot of good things he's been well-coached on. He's more fundamentally sound than Byron or Josh (Johnson).
"Byron would be the first one to tell you, 'I wish I would've had a coach when I was younger; I wouldn't have separated my hands, I wouldn't have dropped the ball way down.' Some of those things. He's further along."
Running 'look squad'
The third quarterback runs the "look squad" in practice, giving his team's defense a picture of what the opponent will do on offense.
Although Freeman wasn't executing the Bucs' plays, he was able to take command of the huddle and hone his fundamentals.
"We had four quarterbacks last year, so Josh (Johnson) wasn't getting any reps. I do a lot of coaching with Josh (Freeman) on the scout team," Olson said. "On a lot of things, I work with Josh (Freeman) in terms of keeping your offhand on the ball, sliding, not taking off too soon, sitting in the pocket. He's able to get a lot of that, which Josh didn't get because he's getting live work, behind a live O-line. Whereas Josh (Johnson) had to watch Luke McCown on the scout team, so he wasn't getting much work in practice. We had to simulate it after practice.
"I thought last spring we recognized that this guy was accelerating fast. He was doing some things, and the game never looked too big for him. He stepped in sometimes when Byron got hurt; he was able to do some good things. We've seen it here on the scout team in some of the decisions he's made and the throws he's made. He was careless, I thought, with the ball when he first got here. He's taken care of the ball better."
In recent weeks, Freeman was promoted to No. 2 quarterback behind Johnson.
The offensive terminology rolled off his tongue smoothly.
"He became more comfortable calling the plays and understanding things without me having to prompt him," Olson said. "He would let me know before I had to prompt him. I told him, 'I should not have to prompt you on this. You should get right up there and say there's a Lucky call here and I'm reading it from Y to Z to X.'
"But nothing can take the place of experience. If we could've done it all over again, shoot, it would've been awesome to have gotten the reps in the preseason. That's how he's going in a little different than (Mark) Sanchez or (Matthew) Stafford. Those guys were getting the reps from the first day."
Olson said the Bucs might have considered giving Freeman four starts instead of nine. But at 0-7, the decision was easy.
"He's our future, and under the circumstances, there's no point to waiting," Olson said. "Let's give him (nine) games' experience."