TAMPA — As he commonly does, Bucs coach Raheem Morris dropped by one of his team's quarterback meetings during offseason workouts several weeks ago just to observe and, perhaps, chart the progress of his signal callers.
What he walked away with had little to do with completing passes but everything to do with building a football team.
Starter Josh Freeman, backup Josh Johnson, offensive coordinator Greg Olson and others were in the room analyzing film. A clip was cued up of a play in which Freeman threw a bit too high for a receiver to corral the football.
Then some interesting banter followed.
"I hear Josh Johnson say to Freeman: 'Hey, Free, that was a great throw. (The receiver) has to go up and get that,' " Morris recalled. "And then Olson makes a joke and says: 'So, you're saying that was a good throw? You don't think he should have thrown it down more?'
"Josh says, 'Hey, man, I'm supporting my starting quarterback!' "
To most, it probably would have appeared a meaningless moment. But when viewed in the larger context of an exceptionally young team being asked to grow up quickly, it was a window into the sort of leadership, camaraderie and maturity that was lacking with the Bucs in 2009.
"That's the type of stuff you want," Morris said, taking into account that Johnson actually lost his starting job to then-rookie Freeman last season but remains one of his biggest supporters. "These guys are hard on each other, but they also support each other."
The Bucs have just three players older than 30 and remain one of the youngest teams in the NFL. They got here, in part, because Morris and general manager Mark Dominik made the painful decision just weeks after taking their respective posts in 2009 to cut longtime veterans such as Derrick Brooks, Warrick Dunn and Ike Hilliard.
Instantly, it became legitimate to question who would set examples, hold others accountable or provide the emotional leadership Brooks was renowned for.
Those qualities were available only in sporadic doses last season, and the team's losing record was not unrelated. But what didn't show on tape during the ugly losses was the signs of growth that was taking place.
Relationships were forged. Trust was built. Confidence grew. Boys became men.
The road back from 3-13 is still long, but the Bucs will have a different demeanor in 2010, Morris said.
"The problem with losing leaders like Derrick Brooks and guys of that stature is that the other guys have to go out there and do it on the field first before they start leading," Morris said. "Now you have some people who have done it and played well down the stretch last year. A guy like (linebacker) Quincy Black really went out and played well in the last six games last year. A guy like (linebacker) Geno Hayes played well in those last six to seven games.
"Now, those guys are coming back with some experience and some big-time plays on tape that everybody can look at and say: 'Okay, here's how you do it. Follow them.' "
At the forefront of this new generation of leaders is Freeman, obviously because of the importance of his position but also because of his makeup. Already this offseason he has dragged rookie receiver Mike Williams to the practice facility on weekends to get extra reps, and he has burned midnight oil with the rookie class, helping them cram with their playbooks. Morris added that Freeman spent time bonding with Johnson in California during the summer while the pair worked out with other NFL quarterbacks.
"I've definitely taken it upon myself to make sure that our offense is running smoothly," he said. "It starts with the quarterback. I'm trying to be the best I can be on the field as far as playing, but also trying to provide motivation for my teammates."
Freeman said part of the development and growth is a result of the team taking on Morris' personality.
"It trickles down," Freeman said. "We've talked about Raheem and the type of culture he's creating. The team's really starting to take Raheem's identity. He's just a hard-working guy who sets high standards. He's coined the phrase, 'Be your best self every day.'
"That's what the team has adopted. You have guys coming (to practice) who maybe have a little hurt knee or a tweaked ankle. But they're still coming out and competing. It's really, really inspiring."
Morris said it's also a matter of the team targeting players with character and serious work ethics. He cites the example of defensive tackle Roy Miller, the son of a career soldier who is as no-nonsense as they come.
"It's no secret that most D-linemen take three years to develop a lot of the time," Morris said. "But when you have those kinds of characteristics and that type of a background and that type of a serious demeanor, then you will be ready to play a lot sooner.
"And that was very important at the time. We needed Roy Miller to play last year. We needed Roy to be mature enough to make it through a 16-game season with a bum ankle at the end and fight through it and almost cry when I didn't let him play one of those games" because of the injury.
The Bucs still have a handful of veterans who are accustomed to being leaned on for leadership. Cornerback Ronde Barber, center Jeff Faine and guard Davin Joseph are among them. But if long-term success is to occur, the team will need all those youngsters added to the roster since last year to develop the character necessary to build a winner — and fast.