TAMPA — There was a time shortly after he was drafted that Bucs QB Josh Freeman made his high standards clear.
One day, he said, he hoped to not be compared to the other quarterbacks in his draft class but to the greatest in the game.
"He said," coach Raheem Morris recounted Monday, " 'I want to be compared to Tom (Brady) and Peyton (Manning).' "
Already, that day has arrived.
Freeman's strong finish to the season was so impressive that he outplayed — statistically, anyway — Brady in the final quarter of the season. And it has reinforced to the Bucs that Freeman has what it takes to be great.
"We have the quarterback," GM Mark Dominik said. "I think it's very fair to say, the (question), 'Is Josh Freeman a franchise quarterback?' should be gone. Josh Freeman is a franchise quarterback in the National Football League — bottom line."
In the final four games, Freeman completed 71.6 percent of his attempts for 1,009 yards, nine touchdowns and no interceptions, posting a 127.8 rating. During the same period, Brady completed 62.6 percent for 871 yards, nine touchdowns and no interceptions for a 116.2 rating.
The most important stat might be Freeman's 25 touchdowns and six interceptions this season, the ninth-best ratio in NFL history. After throwing 18 interceptions as a rookie in 2009, he focused on reducing turnovers.
"We set as a goal that we wanted mid 20s (in touchdowns) with five interceptions," said Freeman, 22. "I ended up having six. You set lofty goals, and we were that close. But it says a lot about the guys I have around me."
As good as Freeman was, the Bucs are confident there's more improvement on the horizon.
"We don't think he's reached that ceiling yet," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. " … We don't see (his play) dropping off at all."
Still stings: The pain from missing the playoffs was still fresh Monday.
"We had an opportunity to get in there, and we could have made some noise of our own and backed up some of their cocky coach's bold predictions," Morris joked. "But we don't have that opportunity."
While flying to Tampa, players learned what the Packers and Giants had done. WR Micheal Spurlock received text messages once the plane began its descent.
"I was in the back of the plane," he said. "It was sad. You're 10-6. Then I had to go home and watch Seattle and St. Louis play (both ended 7-9; Seattle won the NFC West title). I wanted to watch it just to see how bad it was."
One effect, players said, was that there will be a definite hunger next season.
"We're already hungry," TE Kellen Winslow said. "It (stinks) because, me and (John) Gilmore were just talking about how, 'Dang, it's over now.' And I just feel like we were just reaching our potential. Just when it was getting good."
Draft talk: The Bucs pick 20th in the first round of the draft in April based on the season's results. Dominik confirmed the club has a pick in every round, though its sixth-round pick is via a trade with the Chiefs and will be lower than 20th.
Barber done?: CB Ronde Barber wondered aloud Sunday what, if any, his role would be on the team going forward. Facing free agency at 35, Barber has, at best, an uncertain future.
On Monday, Dominik was noncommittal but described Barber's recent play as "phenomenal."
"I think that'll be a good private conversation with myself and Ronde and his agent," Dominik said. "If we want to talk about how Josh Freeman played at the end of this season, I think you could say the same about how Ronde Barber played at the end of the season. I was really impressed with the way he finished his 2010 season."