INDIANAPOLIS — As he was watching Super Bowl XLV a few weeks ago, GM Mark Dominik received the following text message from QB Josh Freeman:
"It's hard to watch this. I want to be there."
Dominik smiled. At a time when many players are sipping umbrella drinks on some beach, Freeman's fire was already raging. Not just because the Bucs missed the playoffs after going 10-6, but because the second-year quarterback felt they had a chance to make a run to the Super Bowl just like the champion Packers.
"I think the encouraging thing is obviously we played pretty good in December. We won three of our last four," Dominik said. "And watching Green Bay get hot, especially on the road, it was tremendous for Green Bay. But it just shows you that I felt our team was getting hot at the right time.
"Green Bay did it all the way through with the injuries they suffered, even in the Super Bowl. I'd love it to be back when the Bays were battling each other again because it was a lot of fun in '97 when (Warren) Sapp and (Brett) Favre were out there getting after each other and Trent Dilfer was throwing the ball around and we're trying to run the ball at Lambeau Field in the second round of the playoffs. I'd like to try and get that rivalry going again."
What particularly eats at Freeman, and the organization, is if they had beaten the Lions at home in overtime to start December, the Packers would've been eliminated from the playoffs with Tampa Bay's win at New Orleans in the final week.
Freeman, 23, had a terrific season with 25 touchdowns and six interceptions. He vows to organize workouts in the event of a lockout. Dominik believes he's the type of player who can carve up teams in the postseason the way Aaron Rodgers did for the Packers.
"I think there's a lot on his shoulders," Dominik said. "I think that's why with some quarterbacks, people go, 'How could that guy not make it?' Because of the volume and the expectations can be such a heavy burden. What makes Josh special is what you know about him and that is nothing is too high or too low, and that's how he handles it.
"What also makes him special is that he texts me during the middle of the Super Bowl and he's sick to his stomach watching the game. That's special because you can see he has such inner drive and just wants to be great. … To have your quarterback text me? That's fantastic."
WAITING GAME: It will be another long summer for LB Barrett Ruud. After being tendered an unrestricted free agent the past two years, he's finally able to test the market as a six-year veteran. But there doesn't appear to be a labor agreement on the horizon, and the Bucs won't do a deal until there is one. Dominik said last week that negotiations with players such as Ruud and G Davin Joseph will be difficult.
"We'll have to see," Dominik said. "All these players we have, with (LBs) Adam Hayward or Quincy Black or Niko Koutouvides or Barrett Ruud — they all have an opinion of where they want to be at financially as do we. … It's rarely easy. For me, I'm going to consistently stay with those numbers in my mind of what a guy is worth. You have to adjust it because salaries have adjusted over the last five years. But once you've identified that in your head, you have to stay true to it. You can't say, 'Oh, well, what's three-quarters of a million dollars a year, let's just keep the guy.' No, you've got to value the contributions versus the salaries. That's a tough thing because at the end of the day, you know you're going to be lower than what the player wants it to be, so that makes it tough every time."
If Ruud were to sign elsewhere, who is the next man up to play middle linebacker for the Bucs? Former USF star Tyrone McKenzie or Weber State's J.D. Folsom, who was on the practice squad.
OLSON GETS HIS MAN: The Bucs weren't disappointed in the job done by offensive line coach Pete Mangurian last season, particularly with the amount of injuries and multiple lineups.
The Bucs finished eighth in rushing at 125.1 yards per game and protected Freeman well.
But Mangurian was brought in two years ago by then offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski. The Bucs believed Olson should have a chance to hire his own OL coach and the Vikings' Pat Morris had worked with him in both Detroit and San Francisco.
BE LIKE WARREN: Alabama DT Marcell Dareus has never met Sapp, but he grew up idolizing the former Bucs All-Pro.
"I love Warren Sapp," Dareus said. "Watching Warren Sapp really made me want to play football. When they won the Super Bowl, I was in middle school and I started picking it up and accelerating, and I look up to him as a player and a person."