TAMPA — The state of the Bucs offense took center stage Thursday, offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan and quarterback Josh Freeman peppered with questions from reporters hoping to diagnose the problems.
• 243.7 yards per game, last in the league entering Thursday.
• 4.3 yards per play, last in the league.
• 149 passing yards per game, 30th in the league.
• 94.7 rushing yards per game, 21st in the league.
The cause — performance, play-calling or philosophy — depends on your perspective.
As for the remedy, one consistent answer emerged: patience.
"It's a long season," said Sullivan, the first-year play-caller.
"It's not how we are in September. It's where we're going to be in November and December. We have a sense of urgency. But I just think that the good news is — having had firsthand experience — it's about where you're at as you continue to move forward."
Freeman echoed those sentiments: "Like anything, there's going to be a learning curve. We're not as good now as we're going to be."
So it falls on Sullivan and coach Greg Schiano to find a solution.
A possible one is being more aggressive.
Asked about a series of first-down, between-the-tackles running plays during Sunday's loss to the Cowboys, Sullivan said coaches are taking a second look at some of their in-game decisions. But the Bucs, for better or worse, are adamant about sticking to their principles.
"There's always going to be concerns about keeping (the defense) on their toes and yet at the same time establish a mind-set for time of possession," Sullivan said.
"Certainly when there are opportunities to take your shots and do some things down the field, we've got to be able to do that. As we establish who we are and what our tendencies are, it falls upon us as coaches to identify those areas where maybe we're being too predictable."
Time of possession is a point of emphasis for the defensive-minded Schiano. Perhaps that accounts for the Bucs' persistence in running the ball against a Cowboys front that limited it to 3 yards per carry. The ensuing inability to convert third downs — the Bucs were last in the league there, too, at 25.6 percent — translated to the Giants and Cowboys holding the ball 6:58 and 6:08 longer than the Bucs in the past two weeks, respectively.
It's clear the Bucs still believe Freeman, in his fourth season, can pull them out of this morass. The quarterback had one of the poorest games of his career in Dallas, going 10-of-28. But the Bucs might consider playing more to his strengths, including throwing on the run.
"I think there's definitely merit to having him on the perimeter and changing the launch point," Sullivan said.
Schiano seemed less enthusiastic about getting Freeman out of the pocket even though he's among the more athletic quarterbacks in the league.
"Every time he leaves the pocket and takes off to run — unless you slide effectively — you risk injury," Schiano said. "And that's the fear. So as long as we (slide), then I'm good with it. The minute we start spinning and hurdling and all that stuff, then I'm not good with it."
Regardless, Sullivan rejected the idea that Freeman is a "caretaker" of the offense rather than capable of making big plays: "His job is to lead this offense."
Freeman, who said Sunday's game plan against Washington includes exciting new elements, believes he's up to the task.
"I think it's a great offense," he said. "As far as me being handcuffed, no chance. We call plays with shots built in and a lot of opportunities. Going out with the mentality of playing ball-secure football, you might not take as many shots down the field.
"But when we get one-on-one coverage, (we'll take it). I feel like this offense is going to be a great opportunity for me to showcase my ability."