TAMPA — Let's get one thing straight: Josh Freeman is the Bucs' quarterback; not only today, but for the foreseeable future.
That does not, however, imply he is without flaws. Sunday's 23-21 loss to the Eagles is Exhibit A. And no one is more aware of that than Freeman.
Typically staid and unspecific when speaking about his performance, an introspective Freeman expressed dissatisfaction Thursday with his play and conveyed his understanding that his 43.8 percent completion rate (32-of-73) in December is unacceptable.
"When you throw the ball down the field, it's going to be tough sometimes," said Freeman, 14-of-34 against Philadelphia and 18-of-39 against Denver on Dec. 2. "But they are definitely throws I can make. In practice, we're continuing to work on those to develop more and more consistency down the field. You have to put it on yourself. You have to say, 'What can I do to get better? What can I do to be more consistent as a quarterback; throwing the ball and getting the ball into my playmakers' hands?'
"I've been watching each throw and watching footwork. What allowed me to stand in there and make this throw versus this other throw? I really go down to the core level and see exactly what you can do to get better."
Freeman's coaches are not tolerant of his recent issues, but they aren't overreacting. With one season remaining on his five-year rookie contract, Freeman potentially will be signed to a long-term extension during the offseason. And nothing over the past couple of weeks seems to have changed internal opinions about the 24-year-old who is on pace for career highs in passing yards and touchdowns.
But consistency is the key word at One Buc Place right now.
"I think the entire year has, in a lot of ways, been a bit of a roller coaster," offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said.
Coach Greg Schiano remains unwavering in his support.
"I think he didn't play his best game (against the Eagles), but I think he's built equity in our offense and in what he can do," Schiano said. "He just needs to come back and play another game and play well. That's what I fully anticipate."
Freeman's biggest issue is accuracy. His 54.7 completion percentage ranks 34th in the NFL, though he is sixth in touchdown passes (25) and seventh in yards per attempt (7.6).
The Bucs' proclivity for throwing deep balls — low-percentage attempts — skews the numbers a bit. Still, Freeman must be better.
"Part of it is some throws are higher percentage than others," he said. "It's something you definitely want to improve on. You want to be in the upper echelon of the league as far as completion percentage."
There are other factors. Freeman and teammates must learn to put missed opportunities behind them, Sullivan said.
"When you count on making that (deep) throw — like an MMA fighter or a boxer who's a knockout puncher — you give your best shot and the guy's still standing, you have to gather yourself," he said.
Sullivan added that Freeman, at times, has anticipated pressure that wasn't as close as he believed, resulting in rushed throws.
"There was a particular play in the Denver game where, going over the tape, he said, 'Boy, I really had more time there. I could have set my feet,' " Sullivan recalled Freeman saying.
Coaches point out some missed throws are not Freeman's fault. In an offense that relies on quarterbacks and receivers making reads on the fly, they don't always interpret coverages the same way. There are other explanations.
"Sometimes, the route wasn't exactly the way it should be and you're throwing it on timing and rhythm," Schiano said. "Sometimes, (the ball) is coming out before the (receiver) ever breaks, and if he breaks wrong. … Sometimes, (Freeman) just misses the mark. Sometimes, he's under pressure."
The Bucs aren't panicking. Frustrating as Freeman's recent play has been, Schiano said he expects him to bounce back Sunday against the Saints, against whom he has 1,259 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions over his past four meetings.
"If you said it was a stock, how's it going?" Schiano said. "I know it's a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business. But overall, the stock is trending upward."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]