Before every game, Bucs receiver Mike Williams has about a 10-minute chat with his mother, Mary. The conversation always ends with her telling him to break a leg, a theatrical superstition that means good luck. So far, the big stage in the NFL seems to suit him. Williams, 23, leads all rookie wideouts in receptions (19), receiving yards (238) and touchdowns (three). But he still has fallen short of some expectations.
"Every week she compares me to somebody," Williams said. "Like two weeks ago, T.O. (Terrell Owens) had 222 yards. She was like, 'You can't get 200 yards? Why can't you do that?'
"I try to make her happy, but I don't care if I catch six touchdowns a week or have 700 yards, she's never satisfied."
Neither is Josh Freeman, 22.
Last week, when Williams dropped a pass during a 24-21 comeback win at Cincinnati, the second-year Bucs quarterback had some choice words for his primary target. Williams responded with some highlight-reel catches against the Bengals, including a tying catch of a 20-yard pass with 1:26 remaining.
It's Freeman's job to read the eyes, hips and mind of Williams. And as his mother can tell you, there's nothing wrong with high expectations.
"He threw a ball out to Mike that he wanted him to catch," coach Raheem Morris said of the Freeman throw that was dropped. "He feels like he puts a lot of pressure on those guys. Mike came to him with the typical, 'My bad.' (Freeman) gave him some choice words and told him, 'You catch that (bleeping) ball,' and Mike looked at him and said, 'You're right.' "
As passing combinations go, it's not Montana to Rice, Aikman to Irvin or Manning to Harrison. But if the first four games are any indication, the NFL better get used to the battery of Freeman to Williams.
Ever since Williams was selected in the fourth round of April's draft out of Syracuse, he and Freeman have been somewhat inseparable.
In addition to the exhaustive hours they have put in on the practice field — with Freeman throwing to Williams in the days between minicamps, offseason workouts and training camp — they like to hang out. Eating dinner, shooting pool or going to ball games, like they did watching the Rays-Rangers in Game 5 of the American League division series with teammates at Tropicana Field — it doesn't seem to matter.
"All the great teams you've been around, they're all family," quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said. "And that's the biggest thing. It's not what you do on the field.
"You can spend your four hours on the field and not care about each other when you leave. That's not the case. They've made a point to become close, and they do a lot of things together, and that's the kind of thing that fosters that relationship."
Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who worked out with Freeman in San Diego for a week during the summer, said the off-field time between quarterback and receiver is critical.
"Listen, if you care about a guy enough that you're hanging together off the field, you get to know him, maybe you care about his family; that makes you, I think, care more about what you do on the field because you want that guy to succeed," Brees said. "You see how hard he works; he's your friend off the field as well as on. If you want to be successful, you want to do it together."
Of course, the biggest thing the Freeman-Williams combo has going for it is that both players are incredibly talented and work hard at their craft.
The 6-foot-6, 248-pound Freeman already has four fourth-quarter comeback victories in a career that spans just 13 starts. The bigger the moment, the better Freeman seems to play. He is ranked fourth in the NFC with a 100.2 rating on third down and is sixth in fourth-quarter passer rating (84.2).
"As the pressure builds, his blood pressure drops," Van Pelt said. "I don't think it's something you learn how to do. I think you either have it or you don't."
Similarly, the 6-2, 212-pound Williams arrived in Tampa Bay as a polished route runner with flypaper hands and oozing confidence.
"You see him work routes against defensive backs where it would normally take a guy three or four years to figure out," Van Pelt said. "He came in here with that ability to find ways to get himself open."
If not, Freeman sometimes throws Williams open. All three touchdowns to Williams this season were sight adjustments to blitzes and the result of some intuitive nonverbal signals between receiver and quarterback.
"He makes it easy for me," Williams said. "If a guy is over top of me, he'll put it on my back shoulder. And I tell Josh, 'You won't throw any picks my way.' It's either mine or nobody's."
That's the kind of trust that enabled Freeman to produce the tying touchdown pass last week. Identifying a blitz, Freeman called an audible, ordering Williams to abandon his slant route for an all-go, even though he knew the Bengals had a deep safety over the top. Freeman froze the safety by looking him off before putting the ball in perfect position for Williams.
"I think me and Mike continue to develop chemistry," Freeman said. "We obviously have a little bit going. I mean, we continue to get better the more and more we work with each other. … Mike understands I have a lot of faith in him no matter what the situation is. If there's an opportunity to get him the ball, I'm going to try to do that because I know what kind of player he is and what kinds of plays he can make, and that showed up (last week).
"On our last drive, I went to Mike twice for two big gains, and he came through for us. … I feel like we can continue to get better and really get this thing rolling."