TAMPA — Long ago, back when he was a youngster, the big kid with the big arm was a mystery. In those days, he might as well have worn a question mark on his jersey.
This was before Josh Freeman became the face of his team. This was before he turned doubts into cheers and question marks into exclamation points. This was before he became Josh Franchise, the keeper of the hope.
This was, oh, last August. Back in the old days, no one in Tampa Bay knew quite what to expect of Freeman.
Now they do. They expect everything.
Why does coach Raheem Morris believe his Bucs can win the NFC South? Because of Freeman. Why does general manager Mark Dominik think the improvement has come so quickly? Because of Freeman. How can the Bucs survive with such a young defense? Because of Freeman, the biggest man in the locker room.
"He carries the ball for all of us," is the way quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt puts it.
Already, Freeman is every answer for the Bucs, and he is the primary reason to believe. He has one full season as a starter under his belt, and already, he has demonstrated that he can throw, he can run and he can lead. The Bucs have never had a quarterback like him.
Now all Freeman has to do is do it again.
This is how you measure greatness; not with a single impressive season, but with a string of them. A player stacks seasons until they become ordinary, until such seasons define him.
In other words, is Freeman ready for Step 2?
He came so far so fast, and now what? For the Bucs, no question is more important. Last year, he upped his touchdown passes to 25 and whittled his interceptions to six. He improved his rating by 24 points (from 59.8 to 95.9). He took his team from three wins to 10. He brought his team from behind to win five times. He was so good that there are those who question whether it is possible to duplicate it.
Freeman shrugs when you mention other people's expectations. His arm is just getting started, and his legs are still those of a colt. But there is an old soul in Freeman. He understands that NFL quarterbacks are not allowed to back up unless it is into the pocket.
"The Tom Bradys, the Peyton Mannings do it year in and year out," Freeman said. "Every season has its own trials, but the elite quarterbacks find a way."
Interesting word, elite. How many fourth-quarter comebacks does a quarterback need before he earns the designation? Freeman has seven among his 13 victories over the last year and a half? How good does his touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio have to be? Last year, Freeman had a dizzying 25-6 ratio. How many seasons, how many plays, how many big moments?
"I'm not there," he said. "You're never there. Never. You look at guys like Manning and Brady. Everyone around the world considers them to be elite quarterbacks. But I guarantee you they still think they have work to do at that level to continue to be as successful as they have been."
For the Bucs, it is as simple as this: If they are going to be good this year, they need for Freeman to be good. It is hard to imagine one without the other. The result is that there is probably not a 23-year-old player in the NFL facing more responsibility, and more pressure, than Freeman.
So does Freeman expect himself to be a better quarterback this year than last?
"Yeah," he says. "I do."
Freeman will tell you his decisions can be better, his game management can be sharper, his passes can be more accurate.
"I just want to get better as a player," he said. "I want to find out where my ceiling is. My whole life, it's been about potential. 'Here's a guy who is going to be better down the road.' I just want to push that and take it to another level."
When you think about it, why shouldn't Freeman be better? This time last year, Freeman was coming off a rookie season in which he threw 18 interceptions in nine starts, and his thumb was broken, and his receivers were rookies, and LeGarrette Blount was still unpacking after being claimed from Tennessee.
This year, Freeman is the acknowledged leader of the most promising offense the Bucs have had in, well, ever. And if you are wondering, the pressure isn't exactly crushing him.
"There is always pressure," he said, shrugging. "It's the National Football League. But I wouldn't say there is any added pressure. I'm a competitive guy. I want to put the best thing I can out on the field. I want to win every game. That's where my mind-set is.
"We expect to get better. Our team's mentality is that we're not worried about what people are predicting us to do. We're not letting anyone else tell us who we are or what we'll do. We look at ourselves as good players, and we expect to win. It's about winning. It's about getting to the playoffs. It's about making runs toward the championship and, eventually, winning it."
Along the way, of course, there will be some plays that need to be made, some deficits to overcome. Freeman knows that, too. When he talks about playing in the fourth quarter, his face brightens.
"It was ingrained in me from Day 1," Freeman said. "Play as well as you can for the first 3 to 3½ quarters, and if it comes down to it, you have to find a way to be the hero in the end. When it gets down to that moment of truth, you have to pull something from inside of you and get it done."
Sometimes, that means winning when your team is behind by four with three minutes to play.
"There is no feeling like winning one of those games," he said. "I love it. That's when I'm in my comfort zone. My mentality is, 'Okay, they've got the lead. They've basically won the game. Now go take it from them.' "
There are questions, of course. Given his profession, given his position, there always are. Can he repeat his success? Can he duplicate his numbers? Most of all, can he keep his team on the right side of the scoreboard?
Answer: For the Bucs' sake, he had better.
After all, that's what elite quarterbacks do.
Take your choice
Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman didn't have a lot of long plays during the preseason. But why worry? There are a lot of teams that would love to have Freeman, whose record over two seasons is 13-12. Take a glance at some of today's starters with how many seasons they have been in the league and their record: