TAMPA — The pocket collapsed on Josh Freeman's ascent as one of the game's best young quarterbacks last season.
But the 24-year-old doesn't fear failure the way a lot of passers do. Armed with a new system under offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan, the former Giants quarterback coach, and surrounded by better talent, the 2009 first-round pick out of Kansas State should take aim at a bounceback year for the Bucs.
Or could everybody be making the wrong read here?
The thing to remember as the Bucs host the Patriots in a preseason game tonight, likely the final dress rehearsal for starters until the Sept. 9 regular-season opener against Carolina, is Freeman and his receivers have had to unlearn one offensive system while trying to master another.
"There are differences; a lot of similarities," coach Greg Schiano said. "I mean, there are only 11 guys. You can only position them in so many different ways. But there are some things we do that (Freeman has) never been exposed to, and there are some things he used to do that we don't do."
Since his rookie season, when Greg Olson took over as offensive coordinator from Jeff Jagodzinski 10 days before the first game, Freeman and the Bucs have operated a Bill Walsh-style west coast attack. Routes are given names instead of identified by numbers.
For Freeman and his offensive teammates, it's like learning a new language.
"I was in the same system with Minnesota under (offensive coordinator) Brian Billick for seven years, so I kind of knew it like the back of my hand," former Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson said. "Then you go to a new system. A play might be called 'Two Jet X dagger Y shallow cross.' And now you're calling it '748 Y drag.' I mean, what is that?
"They've had an offseason to learn the system. That's what we did under (Jon) Gruden. You bought into the system. You had time to practice through the (offseason workouts) and training camp. The hardest part with Josh will be sometimes you have to forget your old systems."
But the biggest change might be in the way Freeman goes through his progressions. By most accounts, Sullivan's system includes post-snap route adjustments based on what the defense does.
"Surely, there's a lot of stuff in this offense that is on-the-fly and conversion-type of stuff," Bucs backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky said.
Receivers and quarterbacks have to be on the same page in any offense. But at times for the Bucs this season, it might look as though they're not working from the same playbook.
"In this system, they probably put a lot on the receivers to read the routes on the fly," Johnson said. "Is it a curl? Does it adjust to a corner route? Is it a hitch? Or does it convert to a fade? Is it a square-in? Does it convert to a square-in and go?
"You can take advantage of some defenses, but also there's a certain amount of trust that comes between the quarterback and the receivers. Sometimes, there may be mistakes, some interceptions. Your fault. My fault. And once they buy into it over time, it will be very successful."
Freeman was sharp in his only series against Miami in the first preseason game, going 4-of-5 for 41 yards in leading the Bucs to a touchdown. Last week against Tennessee, he was pressured and out of synch with his receivers, going 4-of-10 for 21 yards and a touchdown.
Freeman, as always, remains confident the Bucs will thrive in the new system.
"It's kind of different. You can't really compare the two," he said. "But at the same time, football is football. There are some similar concepts. In one offense, you have different reads. In the other offense, you have different reads.
"It's just a matter of learning the rules, trusting what you see and going out and executing."
But as Orlovsky reminded Freeman recently: "It's going to take time. It's not going to happen overnight."
Rick Stroud can be reached at [email protected] and heard from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-620.