Quarterback Josh Freeman will get a chance to devote the offseason to improving his decision-making. But first, the Glazer family, which owns the Bucs, has to make a judgment on coach Raheem Morris.
Those are the only things that mattered after Tampa Bay's 20-10 loss to Atlanta on Sunday.
The fate of the first-year coach has always been tied to the success of his rookie quarterback. Freeman finished with two more interceptions, giving him 18 on the season. And the Bucs finished 3-13 in their first season under Morris, their worst record since 1991.
"He's got a chance to go into the offseason and know he's our starting quarterback and he's our franchise," Morris said. "Josh Freeman will be judged on next year. So will I."
At least Morris hopes so.
Team vice presidents Joel and Bryan Glazer on Sunday kept with their policy of not commenting on Morris' status.
Last season, the Glazers waited nearly three weeks before firing coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen.
There have been reports during the past two weeks that the Glazers contacted former Steelers coach Bill Cowher to gauge his interest, which the team denied. Cowher, a studio analyst for CBS, declined to discuss the rumors Sunday, saying only, "As I referenced to before, I'm not going to talk about any jobs during the regular season."
The Bucs could have buttressed the argument for retaining Morris by beating the Falcons, especially coming off consecutive wins at Seattle and at New Orleans. But they generated little offense, and their defense allowed third-stringer Jason Snelling to rush for a career-high 147 yards.
There was one play Freeman will carry with him into the offseason, another throw he wishes he had back.
The score was tied at 10 in the fourth quarter, and the Bucs had taken over at their 45 after safety Sabby Piscitelli intercepted Matt Ryan. But on the next play, Freeman faked a handoff to Cadillac Williams, rolled to his right and tried to squeeze a pass over the middle to Maurice Stovall. The ball was intercepted by cornerback Christopher Owens.
The Falcons then drove for the winning score, capped by Ryan's second touchdown pass, a 12-yarder to Roddy White.
The Bucs' final chance ended with another interception, this time when Freeman tried to connect with Antonio Bryant on a deep pass that was picked off in the end zone by cornerback Brent Grimes.
Freeman, 21, set a club rookie record for passing yards (1,857) and touchdown passes (10). But his 3-6 record, 18 interceptions and 59.9 rating suggest he has a lot of work to do.
What did Freeman think of his performance this season?
"It wasn't great," Freeman said. "It felt like I got better as a player, but I still didn't play as well as this team needed me to play to win games. I am grateful that I'm going to have this offseason to get better.
"Three and 13 is unacceptable. I know all the guys feel that way, and we're going to come in, grind this offseason and make sure this doesn't happen again."
After the game, Bucs players stood firmly behind their coach and quarterback. Most agree Freeman has a bright future and certain factors — the firing of their offensive coordinator 10 days before the start of the season and the battle between Byron Leftwich and Luke McCown in training camp — conspired against him.
"He's going to draw upon a lot of this," center Jeff Faine said. "This is one of these things where you have to experience it to really learn it. You can see it on tape as much as you want to. But if you don't do it, if you don't throw that pick to (Carolina's) Jon Beason in the red zone (on Dec. 6), you don't learn from it. This experience he had this season is going to be invaluable — for a lot of guys.
"There isn't going to be a question who the starting quarterback is coming into next season. Hopefully, there's some consistency in the coaching staff so we can carry the playbook over for a season, too."
Freeman wasn't given control of the huddle until the eighth game of the season. Morris didn't take control of the defense from coordinator Jim Bates until six weeks ago, and it improved steadily.
"Two close games against Atlanta we lost," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "Two close games against Carolina. We split with New Orleans … a close game at Miami. We've got to find ways to win these games.
"To see how this team stuck together for what we've been through, it's enough for me. We fought for (Morris), for sure. There's not a man on this team that won't go right up to Rah and tell him how much they appreciate what he did for us this year. We knew he went through some growing pains as a head coach, but we stuck together."
Rick Stroud can be reached at [email protected]