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In Josh Freeman's free time, he is at One Buc Place, trying to become a better quarterback

TAMPA — The kid had seen the film before. He was fully aware that it ended badly.

Still, Josh Freeman studied the images before him with unblinking eyes. His face was scrunched, and he squinted toward the screen as if he were looking for tiny clues to the future.

Which, in a way, he was.

On the wall-sized screen in front of him, in the quarterback room Freeman jokingly refers to as "my office," bad things were happening. Again. Freeman had cued up his five-interception game against Carolina from last season, and one by one, he relived the frustration. It was sort of like watching a version of Drag Me to Hell, only with shoulder pads.

Freeman sat at a desk in back of the room, a bag of ice on his right shoulder (he had just finished his throwing session) and a computer mouse in his left hand to call up plays. Every now and then, a play would cause a small, pained sound to come out of him, something between a groan and a grunt.

These days, this is where you find Freeman, in this room deep inside the winding hallways of One Buc Place that few outsiders ever see. It is a clean, efficient classroom. There are photographs on the wall of former Buccaneer quarterbacks — Doug Williams and Brad Johnson and Steve Young and Trent Dilfer. There are warnings about the pitfalls of turnovers.

For Freeman, it all looks a little like home.

Why wouldn't it? He is there four days a week, sometimes five. He comes in and lifts weights with teammates. He throws to receivers. He watches film.

And the most impressive part?

Freeman isn't required to do any of it.

• • •

It is the offseason, after all, the time when NFL players scatter across the globe in an attempt to get as far away from football as possible. And, after all, Freeman is young and rich.

In Freeman's free time, he could be somewhere else, a lot of somewhere elses. A beach in Tahiti, for instance. A restaurant in France. At the very least, he could be furnishing the new house he shares with younger brother Caleb, 20, a USF student. He could spend his mornings shopping for cars and his afternoons shopping for jewelry and his evenings shopping for trouble.

Instead, he is at One Buc, trying to become a better quarterback. For a fan of the Bucs, it might be the best piece of news imaginable.

"You can't get good at something by sitting home," says Freeman, 22. "You can't get good at something by going to the mall. You get good at being a quarterback by being a quarterback every day.

"I'm here because I hate losing and I love winning. I want to do everything I can to help the team win. I want to be in my best shape, in my best mental shape."

By nature, he is a soft-spoken man, and he never seems to be in a hurry. Maybe that's why so many fans misjudged Freeman so badly last year. He was not a popular draft choice, and when he sat on the bench for seven losses, the feeling spread that something must be missing.

After starting the final nine games, however, Freeman showed he has a little fire to him. His rookie season had enough moments to make you wonder just how good he might be.

For the record, Freeman wonders, too. That's what gets him out of bed when he could sleep in. It's what pushes him toward the film room. When a man works when he doesn't have to, it usually means he's driven toward something better.

"I'm not here to collect a paycheck," Freeman says. "I'm not here to say I played in the NFL. I want to leave the NFL as one of the best quarterbacks who played the game.

"The thing that all great quarterbacks have is their work ethic. You only have a short life span in the NFL. I don't want to be the guy who is sitting back in 30 years saying, 'Man, if I had only worked a little harder, studied a little more film, done a few more offseason workouts, I would have been better prepared.' I want to be the guy who says, 'I laid it all on the line. I gave it all I had.' Then I'll be able to sleep at night."

For Freeman, life has changed. He is now the Bucs' acknowledged starter at quarterback. He is the reason Tampa Bay is talking about defensive tackles, instead of quarterbacks, in the upcoming draft. He has enough celebrity to be invited aboard a Gasparilla float, enough that he is recognized in restaurants. "I think it's the hair," Freeman says.

No, it's the hope. Freeman is the most important player of the team in the most popular sport in town.

Freeman flashes that loopy, likeable smile of his. If he can succeed, if the Bucs can surround him with enough help, he's going to be very popular around here.

Granted, no one ever won a Super Bowl in March, and there is only so much that can be judged by a quarterback throwing to his receivers in practice. Still, Freeman looks a little trimmer. He sounds a little louder. He seems a little more comfortable.

As for his second NFL season?

Freeman says he can't wait.

• • •

Say this for Freeman: The guy can throw a football.

As Freeman goes through his drills on the practice field, you can hear an audible pop as the ball strikes the palms of his receivers 20 yards downfield. He throws with an easy motion, the ball coming out lower than you might expect, somewhere around his ear. Still, the ball cuts quickly through the wind.

For Freeman, the question has never been arm strength. It has been about accuracy. In nine starts last season, he threw 18 interceptions. Fourteen of those came in the six losses he started.

"If I'm going to play in this league," Freeman says, "I have to cut down on the interceptions."

Others have managed. When he was a rookie, Peyton Manning threw 28 interceptions. The next year, he cut it down to 15. When John Hadl was with the Chargers, he threw 24 interceptions his first year. The next year, it was six.

The need for improved accuracy explains why Freeman goes through a drill throwing from his knees. It is an attempt to get him to turn his torso as he throws and follows through. It is one of the drills Bucs offensive coordinator Greg Olson used when he was the quarterback coach for Drew Brees at Purdue.

"We're working on the whole consistency of the release," Freeman says. "It's also the feet. Where they're pointed has a lot to do with accuracy. You don't want to change a quarterback's throwing motion, but you can tweak things like how you turn your torso, where your head goes.

"I can throw the crap out of the ball, man. I can throw it far, and I can throw it hard. But I definitely want to improve my accuracy. I have to."

• • •

Even if you don't understand why Freeman doesn't want to be somewhere else, you would think he would want to see something else.

Like the films of his debut against Green Bay, for instance. Or the upset over New Orleans. Maybe the victory against Seattle. Something fun. Something worth seeing again.

Instead, Freeman calls up the worst games last season had to offer.

"We harp on the negative," he says, grinning. "What you did well, that's not the problem. And we're in the business of problem solving."

On this morning, Freeman was looking at cutups of opposing blitzes he faced last season. The first New Orleans game, for instance. On the first play, New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma loops around his defensive end, charges in and hits Freeman in the mouth.

Freeman barely notices. Instead, he raves about tight end Kellen Winslow, who beat Scott Fujita across the middle for a reception.

"With Kellen, any linebacker is a mismatch," Freeman says.

And so it goes. Freeman calls up the Eagles' game — he didn't play in that one — to show Philadelphia's fierce blitz. The Eagles came at Bucs quarterback Josh Johnson 49 times that day. On some of them, there were so many men coming it looked as if Philly was trying to block a punt.

For a while, Freeman bounces from game to game, blitz to blitz. He points out things with his red laser pointer — where the blitz was coming from, where he should have gone with the ball, what he saw and what he didn't see.

Finally, he calls up the Carolina game from Dec. 6, a 16-6 defeat in which the Panthers picked him off five times.

"It was like we were running in quicksand," he says. "We were moving the ball. We just couldn't get it into the end zone."

A minute later, he calls up another player.

"This is why I love (center) Jeff Faine," he says. "Watch this."

In the replay, the Bucs offensive line is outnumbered. But when two Panthers rush up the middle, Faine leans into one with his left shoulder and, impressively, reaches out to slow the other with his right hand.

"The guy blocked two guys," Freeman says, delighted. "Isn't that crazy?"

Finally, Freeman calls up his interceptions, one after the other, the low-light reel of his season.

"Terrible throw," he says after one pick. "I don't know what I was trying to do there," he says after another. "How did I miss that?" after a third.

In other words, Freeman wasn't nearly as impressed with his rookie season as some were.

"You hear the word 'potential' about me a lot," he says. "I'm eager to find out how high I can go as well. I definitely think you'll see a vast improvement from last year to this year."

And his grade of himself a year ago?

"I'd say it was a D-plus. Or a D, barely passing. Well, no, if you want to look at it, I was three (wins) of nine (starts). I was 33 percent. That's an F quarterback. I mean, it's about winning games. I did some things well, but I don't think I did enough things well. I know I have a lot of work to do."

And so it goes. Most days, Freeman tries to find something to make him a bit better.

"I want it, man," he says. "I want to win games. I want to find any edge I can find.

"I'll be a different player this year. Trust me on that."

He stops, turns. "In a good way, I mean."

It's good he made himself clear. You know, for accuracy's sake.

In Josh Freeman's free time, he is at One Buc Place, trying to become a better quarterback 03/22/10 [Last modified: Monday, March 22, 2010 9:42pm]
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