TAMPA — By now, it is apparent the Buccaneers are a better football team virtually across the board.
They move the ball a little better than they did last season. The defense has learned to be a little more stingy. The head coach is making better decisions, and the chef is presumably broiling at another level.
So it is probably folly to pinpoint a single factor as being more critical than any other in Tampa Bay's turnaround. But if you are determined to narrow success down to its core, here is a conversation you might consider:
The quarterback is taking better care of the ball.
Much, much better care.
A year ago, Josh Freeman had the worst interception rate of any quarterback who played enough to qualify for the league passing title. And now, 10 games into his second season, he is among the very best at avoiding interceptions.
"It was his willingness and desire to come in on off days and come in on vacation to get his work done in the offseason," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "He wants to be a great player, and that's half the battle. He doesn't want to just be good; he wants to be great. He wants to be in Tampa his entire career and be the face of the franchise. He's taken on that challenge and taken on that responsibility.
"He wants to study the Peytons and the Bradys and the Breeses. Those are the guys he's looking at. He's not looking at the average quarterback or the quarterbacks who came out in his class. He doesn't care about those guys. He wants to be the best."
And that starts with learning to protect the football. Not wasting opportunities with turnovers, and not giving away cheap scores with interceptions. And so Freeman spent the offseason learning the offense from the inside out. He studied the offensive line to better understand protection schemes on pass rushes. He studied receiver routes to understand coverages in the secondary.
He figured out that throwing the ball away was smarter than trying to force a pass, and he worked on his mechanics to ensure better accuracy.
When you climb inside the numbers, this is the most dramatic change in Tampa Bay from last season. Freeman went from throwing an interception on 6.2 percent of his passes to throwing one on 1.7 percent. To put that in real numbers: Freeman has thrown 290 passes, exactly the same number he threw last season. He had 18 interceptions in 2009. He has thrown five this season.
That type of turnaround is practically unprecedented. No quarterback in the past 30 years has gone from an interception rate of more than 6 percent to less than 2 percent from one season to the next.
"Greg Olson and these guys talk about not turning the ball over. Keeping possession of the ball. That's how they like to word it in their room," coach Raheem Morris said. "What they were able to do this summer, teaching Josh protections and everything that's going on up front, it gave him less anxiety, so to speak, when he delivers the ball.
"They did a great job of detailing all that work for him, and he's done a great job of protecting the football."
What's important to understand is this is not just an exercise in fantasy football scores or league passer ratings. Turnovers, in a large sense, have been the story of Tampa Bay's success this season.
When the Bucs score the same or more points off turnovers than the opposition, they are 7-0 this season. When the other team scores more points off turnovers than the Bucs, they are 0-3. You don't need advanced mathematics to figure that one out.
"Constant emphasis on the protection of the football is the key," Olson said. "It's really a credit to his offseason preparation and what he did in the offseason to understand the offense and understand every aspect of the offense."
Freeman is not alone in this development. The majority of his interceptions in 2009 came when the Bucs were losing and he was forcing passes to make something happen. With a better running game and a stronger defense, Freeman has not had to take as many chances in 2010. He also has receivers running tighter routes and making more of an effort to fight for the ball.
He might not yet be at the same level of a Peyton Manning or a Tom Brady or Drew Brees, but Freeman has taken one large step in that direction. His interception rate is better than what any of those quarterbacks did in their second seasons as starters. And his overall passer rating is third best in history for a 22-year-old in the NFL.
That's not the only reason for Tampa Bay's success in 2010.
But it's a pretty good one.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com.