Saturday, September 22, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Gary Shelton: Flashes of the Josh Freeman everyone wants

TAMPA

By now, he had stopped the booing, and he had erased the deficit, and he had staked his claim to the fourth quarter.

For a couple of minutes there, at least, Josh Freeman had earned another look. Finally, it seemed as if a new coaching staff and its quarterback were speaking the same language, as if they finally trusted each other. Just like in the old days, Freeman seemed to be good enough to overcome the shortcomings around him.

The game was in the final seconds now, and Freeman had been turned into a spectator. He sat helplessly, looking on as Washington's brilliant rookie, Robert Griffin III, turned Sunday into his story, his comeback. When the Redskins' winning field goal was just straight enough to count, Freeman's head sagged.

Perhaps yours did, too.

The Bucs squandered a great many things in Sunday's 24-22 fall-from-ahead loss, but none of those seemed as important as Freeman's wasted performance. He had come back from an 18-point deficit, and from the fans' disfavor, and from the coach's distrust.

This was the Freeman that Tampa Bay had been awaiting. Finally, he was unleashed from the ultraconservative game plan that Greg Schiano had copied from Amos Alonzo Stagg, and he nearly made it pay off. In 18 minutes, he was terrific again, hitting 9 of 12 passes for 184 yards in that span, including a 65-yarder to Mike Williams and a 54-yarder to Vincent Jackson.

If that lead had held up, it would have been Freeman's first fourth-quarterback comeback since the Minnesota game on Sept. 18, 2011. It would have guaranteed that you would have watched Freeman highlights through next weekend's bye week and into the Kansas City game.

That would have been a nice change for Freeman, who has been more of a question than an answer lately. It could have been a nice turnaround moment. Instead, it is part of the latest disappointment in a 1-3 start.

"Losing is not acceptable," Freeman said. "There are no moral victories. I'm unhappy we lost. You can go back and you can point at any number of things."

For most of the season, it has been difficult to defend Freeman. He has played stiff and has thrown wild, and scrambling with the ball seemed to be a forbidden concept. For three weeks, the game plan seemed to be constructed with Freeman throwing only when absolutely necessary.

Worst of all, there seemed to be a disconnect between a quarterback and his coaches. Both Schiano and Freeman speak well of the other, but for much of the season, it has seemed as if they were into each other's heads. Freeman seemed to be trying too hard to play it safe, and the result was a robotic, mechanical look. Schiano seemed so concerned about Freeman's penchant for throwing the ball to the wrong jersey that he seemed to plan around his quarterback.

"He had some big shots to our receivers, made some big plays in the passing game," Schiano said. "That's what he's capable of."

Sunday, the Bucs came in determined to see it. For three weeks, they have stubbornly treated first down as if it were a run-only blueprint (even though many of those runs were for 2 yards or fewer).

This was different. The Redskins have struggled against the pass this year, so the Bucs came out throwing. On the day, their running backs got 15 carries; Freeman threw it 39 times.

Oh, it wasn't always pretty. There in the second quarter, the fans were displeased with Freeman. He threw a third-and-5 pass behind Williams. Boos. He threw an interception. Boos. Freeman held the ball too long on a sack on third and 9. Boos. He threw too short to Doug Martin. Boos. After a while, even those of us who want to believe in Freeman's future were struggling to do so.

Then came the final five minutes of the third quarter and the first 13 of the fourth, when the ball was in Freeman's hands, when he was almost good enough to overcome the missed tackles and the silly penalties and the soft middle of the Bucs secondary and everything else.

Was it promising? Of course it was. There is something to be said for a quarterback playing well in the big moments.

Was it convincing? Of course not. If you remember, Freeman was pretty good in the fourth quarter against the Giants, too. Then came the Dallas game when Freeman's passes wobbled as if he were throwing pingpong balls into a tornado.

What will the Chiefs get? We'll see. Sometimes, good football and bad football seem to be fighting for Freeman's soul.

For a while Sunday, the good football won. For a while, it was possible to hope again.

On a lost afternoon, maybe that is something.

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