He was falling. Then Josh Freeman was flying.
He was ordinary. Then he was extraordinary.
He was backsliding. Then he was coming back.
In the end, Freeman was more good than he was bad, and more trustworthy than he was wayward, and more about new memories than old ones. When it mattered the most, he was once again the Comeback Kid, and once again he reminded us that plays in the critical moments are more important than those that get a team in those moments in the first place.
Freeman led the Bucs to a nearly impossible comeback Sunday against the Panthers. He came back from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit in the final six minutes, against an unfriendly clock, and despite his mistakes.
It wasn't the perfect game.
Just the perfect finish.
How in the world did the Bucs win this game? For most of the day, the offense was like a high-powered sports car that was stuck in a ditch. No matter how hard they pressed the gas, they went nowhere.
Freeman threw two interceptions, and Doug Martin fumbled into the end zone, and at times injuries seemed to catch up to the offensive line. The Bucs trailed 21-10 with 6:00 to play, and even after a field goal, they were behind by eight with no timeouts when they took the ball at their 20 with 62 seconds left to play.
And then it was magic. Freeman might as well have made a tiger disappear on his way to the end zone.
He threw an 18-yard completion to Tiquan Underwood, and a 6-yarder to Martin, and a 17-yarder to Vincent Jackson.
Finally he found Jackson in the end zone for a 24-yard touchdown, then found him again for the two-point conversion.
Nobody was talking about the first half anymore.
This is the truth of sports. What an athlete accomplishes in those final, pressurized moments puts an eraser to everything that happened before. Even Sunday. Freeman entered the fourth quarter with a QB rating of 38.1. Then he made you forget all about it.
Freeman has had a knack for moments like these. He had two fourth-quarter comebacks his rookie year and five more in 2010. Last season, however, he had only one, and that was 24 games ago.
In the fourth quarter of his nine comebacks and in 10 winning drives, Freeman has thrown for 880 yards with nine touchdowns and no interceptions. That's a rating of 125.0 in those games.
In other words, by the time the Bucs got into overtime, it was done. Freeman was in a rhythm by then. He hit three straight passes in the winning drive, including the 15-yard touchdown to Dallas Clark.
"He's the truth," said receiver Mike Williams. "I think he's an elite quarterback, and I'm not saying that because he's my teammate. In the fourth quarter, I don't want another quarterback but him."
Said Jackson: "It shows you his maturity, the type of player he is, the competitor that he is. Sometimes things aren't going your way, but you keep standing in there and trusting your training. Your coach preaches that all the time. When things aren't going your way, don't change.
"He knew exactly what to do. He stepped up in the pocket, trusted his protection, made great throws and did exactly what we needed."
Lately, it had all looked easy for Freeman. For five straight games Freeman had a quarterback rating of 100-plus, and he hadn't thrown an interception in 20 quarters before he tried to force a floater to Clark in the first quarter. Carolina cornerback Captain Munnerlyn intercepted on the dead run and returned the ball 74 yards for a score.
As easy as flipping a switch, everything changed. The Bucs had been in control of the game, and at the time, they were on a drive that could have stretched their 10-0 lead even further.
"You just have to eat that one," Freeman said.
Early in the third quarter, there was another course. One play after stopping a fake punt by the Panthers, Freeman and Jackson had a communication problem, and Freeman threw another interception. Admit it: You started to think about Freeman's accuracy lapses of the past, didn't you?
Fortunately for the Bucs, Freeman did not. One of the finest assets any quarterback can have is the ability to forget his failures when the clock is still ticking.
"I think your mind-set is a big part of playing quarterback," Freeman said. "So many things factor in. You're going to make some mistakes, and (Sunday) I made way too many. At the same time, nobody lost faith, nobody lost confidence. We just kept playing."
That applied to Martin, and to Jackson, and to the offensive line. Most of all, it applied to the 24-year-old Freeman.
"I think any great competitor believes in himself," coach Greg Schiano said. "Just because something happens that isn't what you wanted doesn't mean that's going to happen the next time. The guys who aren't competitors kind of get down on themselves. This guy keeps competing."
It spreads. These days, the Bucs look a lot like Freeman: poised, calm, resilient.
And on a day like this, you might even suggest … magical.
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