TAMPA — The first thing you notice about Josh Freeman is this: There is just so darned much of him.
He is a huge kid, Freeman, especially for a quarterback. Good smile. Big hands. Soft voice. Unwavering confidence.
All in all, yeah, you would have to say that Josh Freeman makes a good first impression.
If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are wise, however, it will be a while before he makes his second one.
Now the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have Josh Freeman, and now he has them, so this is the next important decision: How, exactly, should they handle him? Do they point him toward the huddle, or do they guide him toward the sideline? Do they start him immediately, or do they decide that greatness can wait until it is ripe?
As long as there have been rookie quarterbacks, these have been the important decisions. When a quarterback has been promised tomorrow, how is his team supposed to treat him today?
The proper answer: Carefully.
It can be a tricky thing, the start of an NFL quarterback's career. Rush a guy, and you risk ruining him. Confidence can be stripped. Competitiveness can be shattered. Careers can be sacrificed.
And so you look at Freeman, the Bucs' Next Big Thing, and you do not wish September upon him.
Maybe not October.
Maybe not even 2009.
Oh, we all know. Soon enough, all of One Buc Place will be his, from the weight room to the locker room to the practice fields. From now on, it might as well be Freeman's skull on the team helmet. He is the chosen one, and eventually, the wheel of the ship will be his.
But not on opening day.
Rookie seasons can be merciless on rookie quarterbacks. Remember what it did to David Carr? To Rick Mirer? To Ryan Leaf? History is filled with quarterbacks who were expected to be special right away, like microwave greatness, and when they weren't, their careers never recovered.
"Please, people of Tampa, don't force the savior complex on him,'' said Trent Dilfer over the phone. "Give him time. Let him grow. This is a work in progress.''
Dilfer should know. He was the last quarterback drafted No. 1 by the Bucs, and he remembers his first year as "a horrible situation'' in which he was not trained properly. For instance, Dilfer's first start was on the road against a 49ers team "with the best secondary in the history of the game.'' It didn't end well.
"You can never expose the player to big-time failure,'' Dilfer said, "because eventually the demons will get to him, and the football gets beat out of him.''
Consider, for instance, how much damage a hard rookie season had on the career of Carr, the former Houston quarterback who was sacked 76 times in his first year.
"David was as talented as anyone who has come out. He could run, he was strong, he could throw any ball, he was smart," Dilfer said. " … And the football is beat out of him. … It takes years to get over that.''
True enough, there are rare successes. Dan Marino was magnificent as a rookie, but he was on a Miami team that had been in the Super Bowl the year before. Ben Roethlisberger had a fine first season, but he was on an excellent Steelers team. Both Matt Ryan of Atlanta and Joe Flacco of Baltimore were successful last year.
Still, even great players struggle. Indianapolis' Peyton Manning threw 28 interceptions as a rookie and went 3-13. Denver's John Elway had a 54.9 quarterback rating. Troy Aikman was 0-11 as a rookie with Dallas. If not for tough skins, those guys might not have survived.
For an NFL coach, however, patience is a difficult thing to ask. Consider how doe-eyed Bucs coach Raheem Morris gets whenever he talks about Freeman. Given the criticism of the pick, it's going to be tempting for him to stick Freeman into the game and tell him to show the world.
Still, Freeman is only 21, only three years out of high school. He could use some development.
For now, think of him as a property investment. Think of him as a savings bond. Think of him as a deferred payment. That jersey number he's thinking about? It ought to be 401k. You don't want to even think about him until he matures.
"In an ideal world, you would like him to sit back and be able to see how to prepare for a game,'' Bucs general manager Mark Dominik said. "To see what you're doing, why a play is being called, what the mentality of the offensive coordinator is. That would be the ideal situation, but if the talent rises, we'll have to make a decision.''
Unless Freeman is clearly the better quarterback, however, the Bucs might be better off to let Luke McCown or Byron Leftwich win the job. Later on, there will be time for Freeman.
Dilfer thinks so, too. In his role as an ESPN analyst, he broke down a lot of films of college quarterbacks, and he liked Freeman.
"I was probably as high as anyone on him,'' Dilfer said. "I know one team that had Freeman ahead of (Matthew) Stafford. The consensus of the good quarterback people in the league, the people I think get it, is that (Mark) Sanchez was light years ahead of the other two, and Stafford and Freeman were very close.''
Even so, Dilfer said Freeman "needs serious training.''
"Most of his mistakes came when he was trying to do too much,'' Dilfer said. "Can you coach out the bad stuff? Absolutely. If he doesn't get thrown in there too soon and they don't panic, I think he'll be very successful.''