TAMPA — If Bucs rookie quarterback Josh Freeman takes any more steps backward, he might be officially moonwalking.
A week after failing to get his team into the end zone, Freeman had trouble even moving the chains in Sunday's 26-3 loss to the Jets.
Freeman threw three interceptions — including on the first play from scrimmage. The Bucs were held to 15 net yards in the first half and did not get a first down until an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Jets linebacker Bart Scott with 9:11 left in the third quarter.
Freeman was intercepted five times during a 16-6 loss at Carolina last week. Sunday, he was 14-of-33 passing for 93 yards, the three interceptions contributing to a quarterback rating of 12.1.
"It didn't shatter my confidence or take any confidence away. I was just, 'Oh, how could you do that, Josh?' That's what I was thinking," Freeman said of his first pass. "Yamon Figurs had a good (kickoff) return (to the 31), got us good field position to start play. I went and kind of wasted a possession.
"Me giving it right back, it's completely unacceptable."
The loss dropped Tampa Bay — beaten by a backup quarterback for the fourth time in its past five games — to 1-12 under first-year coach Raheem Morris. The Bucs announced a paid attendance of 62,731. But according to the Tampa Sports Authority, only 49,102 came through the turnstiles.
Despite his struggles (11 interceptions in the past four games) Freeman will remain the starter for the foreseeable future.
"We're definitely playing for the maturity of Josh Freeman," center Jeff Faine said. "This definitely hurts, the experiences we're getting. But these are things he's going to be able to draw upon in the future.
"I said something on the sidelines to (offensive line coach) Pete Mangurian: 'Hey, he's learning now. But it's too bad it's at our expense.' Hopefully, we'll be here to see the maturation process come complete. But it's just part of it right now."
Morris said there were warning signs Friday, when his team was flat as a tortilla in practice during their two-minute and red zone periods.
"Those are the results when you don't practice well every day," Morris said. "It was hard to get going that day. The quarterback missed a couple of throws. The receivers didn't run great routes."
And apparently, offensive coordinator Greg Olson didn't do a good job scripting the first 15 plays. Knowing Freeman was coming off a five-interception game, he had Freeman drop back on the first play of the game against a Jets defense that entered No. 1 against the pass.
What's more, Freeman tried to squeeze the ball to Antonio Bryant. Instead, David Harris stepped in front of the pass and returned the interception to the Bucs 31.
"We had a multitude of runs and passes in the (game plan)," Freeman said. "It's just that we script our first 15 plays in the game, and the first one was a pass. … I can't throw interceptions."
At least the Bucs offense was balanced. They gained 2.2 yards per rush and 2.3 yards per pass attempt.
Meanwhile, the defense tried to keep the Bucs in the game. Three of the Jets' first four possessions began in Tampa Bay territory. And New York's worst field position in the first half was its 36.
But the Jets settled for three field goals by former Tampa Jesuit High kicker Jay Feely until Thomas Jones finally scored on a 33-yard run with 3:19 remaining in the first half.
It didn't matter in the end because Freeman and the offense never got into rhythm and made things easy for Jets backup quarterback Kellen Clemens, who passed for 111 yards and didn't turn the ball over.
With three games remaining, Bucs players finally stated the obvious: The whole season has been about the development of Freeman.
"It's one of those things in this situation, it's tough," linebacker Barrett Ruud said. "He's been our best quarterback, and he had a bad game. You can't deny that. But we've got to have the confidence in him as a team and an organization to play his way out of it. Sometimes, it's not fair to him. Sometimes, it's not fair to the team. But I think he has shown that we need to trust the guy."
Facing a blitz-happy defense under Jets coach Rex Ryan without the benefit of a good running game might have been too much to ask of Freeman, who botched a few protections, was late delivering the football and inaccurate in general.
After the game, Morris talked about how to get Freeman — and the offense — moving in the right direction.
"You're talking about scaling back like we talked about earlier and giving him a smaller menu and not let him grow so fast," Morris said. "He took a couple steps back, and now you've got to get him back on track."
Rick Stroud can be reached at email@example.com.