Sunday, February 18, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Quarterback Josh Freeman epitomizes Tampa Bay Buccaneers' restart

In the new world of Josh Freeman, here at the cusp of a new start, the first thing you notice is his new look.

He is leaner, hungrier. Those rounded cheeks of his are gone. His body is sleeker, harder, perhaps 15-20 pounds worth. Even his hair is shorter, giving him a more serious appearance. If you did not know Freeman was a quarterback, perhaps you would mistake him for a tight end.

For Freeman, and for his franchise, it is all fresh, as if someone has hit the reset button on his career. His head coach is new, and his offensive coordinator, and his quarterback coach. He has a new star receiver and a new guard and, for the most part, a new center. He has a new playbook, a new vocabulary and, perhaps, a team with a new direction.

Maybe, just maybe, Freeman's promise is new again, too.

He is still the hope around One Buc Place. Even after last season's nightmares, even after his interceptions soared, even when doubts about his future returned, Freeman is still the Bucs' quickest path to victory.

That said, this is a huge year in Freeman's career. If he really is going to be a big deal in this league, if he really is going to blossom, this is the time for it. After all, he is entering his fourth season. Now we will begin to see who Freeman is and what he will become.

This time last year, the skeptics had been silenced. Freeman was so good in 2010, throwing 25 touchdowns and only six picks, that it was easy to argue that he was among the top 10 quarterbacks in the league. Everyone raved about his ability to lead a team from behind. No one questioned his future.

After last year, the perceptions have changed. Freeman's touchdowns slipped to 16. His interceptions rose to 22. His quarterback rating fell by more than 21 points. True, the Bucs were behind a lot, and it's hard for a team to succeed when it's behind by two touchdowns or more. Still, Freeman's decision-making was not as sharp as it needs to be.

"Just trying to force too much,'' Freeman says.

"Trying to make too many things happen.''

Perhaps, but doesn't that seem too simple for such a colossal dip in performance? Could Mike Williams' own struggles have hurt Freeman? LeGarrette Blount's? Could it be that Freeman's injuries (a bad thumb cut in a target shooting accident and a shoulder that caused him to miss a start) were worse than reported?

"I'm not going to talk about injuries to the media,'' he said. "That's part of the deal. You don't talk about injuries.''

Regardless, righting Freeman's career seems to be the first hurdle for new Bucs coach Greg Schiano and his staff. They need Freeman to be as accurate, as calm, as dangerous as he was in 2010. To put it another way, turning around this franchise begins with turning around Freeman.

Give the Bucs credit for this: They seem intent on surrounding Freeman with as much talent as possible. He has a new receiver in Vincent Jackson (which should make the receiving corps better). He has a new guard in Carl Nicks (which should make the line better). He has a new coaching staff with a new blueprint.

"What I see is the guy is incredibly hungry, incredibly focused to do what we ask him to do,'' Schiano said. "It's going to take some time, but this guy wants to be good, and that's a lot of it. He wants to be great.

"It's a lot to learn. He made a throw (Wednesday) that was fun to watch. He was a big-time quarterback who put the ball in there. If we can protect him and run the ball effectively, he can make those throws. He will.''

A year like this past one can harden a quarterback. It can scar him, drive him, change him. When a season spirals out of control, a career can follow along behind.

The best news about Freeman is that, for all the changes, he sounds the same.

"It's never fun, never easy when you lose,'' Freeman said. "It was a rough year personally, a rough year for the team. When you drop 10 games straight, that's rough. But it is what it is.

"We still have a talented, young team. The goal is still to go out and compete for champion­ships.''

Championships? After 10 straight losses, you still think this team can be a contender?

"You don't?" Freeman said. "If I didn't, I wouldn't be out here.''

Ah, April, and the optimism is new, too.

Still, after the way last season ended, isn't it good to hear it from somewhere? And when you get down to it, why can't Freeman be successful again? He throws it well enough. He wants it badly enough. He is just 24, and he has new voices and new teammates.

Soon, we will find out what Freeman will do with them.

After that, we will discover the new definition to his career.

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