TAMPA — Josh Freeman finally had the type of game Sunday that everyone tried to warn you about.
He threw the football high. He threw it wide, and he threw it to the wrong-colored jerseys. He looked so hurried, harried and harassed, you wondered what happened to the 21-year old wunderkind who played the past two weeks.
Freeman was intercepted three times and lost a fumble in the Bucs' 38-7 loss to the unbeaten Saints.
But one play illustrated the growing pains that churn in the stomach of the Bucs' first-round pick.
It's what turned rookie amazing into rookie hazing.
On the first possession of the second half, Freeman correctly read the Saints defense and changed the blocking protection needed to switch from a draw play to a pass play.
"I'm thinking the protection the whole time. I'm pointing, calling the protection, telling our back who he is going to (block)," Freeman said. "And I forgot to actually alert the (new) play. I knew exactly what I was doing, but I didn't alert the play. So I snap it. And … everybody else was still running draw, and I was running the pass play."
Linebacker Scott Fujita sacked Freeman, stripping him of the ball, and defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove recovered at the Tampa Bay 15. Three plays later, Drew Brees threw an 11-yard touchdown to tight end David Thomas to give the Saints a 24-7 lead.
After watching Freeman lead his team back from double-digit deficits the past two weeks, the Bucs didn't have a parachute big enough to prevent their kid QB from crashing back to earth.
"You expect it," coach Raheem Morris said. "We were living in a fantasy world a little bit the last two weeks with being able to come back and being able to strike like he was able to do. (Sunday), he was just a thrower. He was never able to get into a rhythm. He just didn't have it where he wanted it to go, especially early in the game on third down."
The loss dropped the Bucs to 1-9 overall while the Saints improved to 10-0 and provided a GPS, of sorts, on how far the last-place team in the NFC South has to travel to reach the top of the division again.
With the Colts also winning Sunday, this marks the third time there have been two 10-0 teams. It previously happened in 1934 (Bears and Lions) and 1990 (Giants and 49ers).
Bucs players said Sunday's performance was inevitable for Freeman, who finished 17-of-33 for 126 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions. His passer rating was 33.1.
"I think it's the natural roller coaster of a young player in general," center Jeff Faine said. "We can't forget he is a rookie. Obviously, we don't want him to play like a rookie, but he is a rookie. He's going to have some ups and downs. But he's gaining experience — and valuable experience — that he wouldn't be gaining on the sidelines.
"I think we're living with these bumps and bruises and realizing there are brighter days ahead of us."
Like many rookie quarterbacks, Freeman pleased and teased.
He orchestrated a 12-play, 95-yard drive for a touchdown on the Bucs' first possession of the game, keeping Brees and the NFL's highest-scoring offense on the sideline for nearly seven minutes.
Freeman converted three third downs on the drive, waiting patiently for Kellen Winslow to come open for an 8-yard gain, scrambling for 15 yards and escaping the pocket to throw an 18-yard strike to Michael Clayton in the back of the end zone.
Then the wheels came off.
He led Winslow too far on a third down, preventing him from getting both feet inbounds. He missed a wide open Sammie Stroughter on an out route. He threw the ball too far inside for Antonio Bryant, who slipped, leading to cornerback Malcolm Jenkins' interception. He fired high to Clayton in the second half, leading to Jonathan Vilma's interception.
Freeman's turnovers led to 17 points for the Saints, who needed no help.
"We knew what we had to do to come out and win, and I put that on myself," Freeman said. "I've got to sustain the drive. I've got to keep it going. It was just one of those days. Just an off day.
"It's a game of inches, and I was a hair off. I don't see that as a problem in the future. It's not something where going into next week, I'm like, 'Oh, man, I hope I'm not a hair off.' I've just got to throw it and keep throwing."
And keep growing.
Rick Stroud can be reached at [email protected]