TAMPA — The low point for Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman might have come last week, when he attempted only four passes during the first half of a 31-15 loss to the Cowboys.
While the NFL has never been a more pass-happy league — with records seemingly falling from the sky — there's no sign the air raid will come to Tampa Bay any time soon.
"It's definitely frustrating," Freeman said. "You want to go out and have an impact on the game. But … four passes in the first half? You're kind of limited in that situation.
"Part of that is moving the chains. If you move the chains, you get more opportunities. But it's definitely frustrating in … not really being on the field or having a chance to change the game."
It wasn't until their hand was forced last Saturday — trailing 28-0 at halftime — that the Bucs spread the field with three and four receivers and Freeman and the offense got in gear.
Freeman passed for 134 yards during the second half, including a 13-yard touchdown to Dezmon Briscoe. Freeman looked decisive, accurate and in rhythm as opposed to the ground-and-pound attack that produced four three-and-outs among five first-half possessions.
The league's most successful franchises over the past decade — New Orleans, New England, Green Bay, Indianapolis — get the ball out of their quarterback's hand and spread it around in multiple-receiver sets.
Freeman believes the Bucs could do more of that, perhaps beginning today at Carolina.
"We've had success with that, and I think it's because we all have a lot of confidence going into those situations," Freeman said. "When we get into a three-receiver set, we can go out there, spread it around, distribute the ball to different guys and really get the ball in our playmakers' hands."
The problem is because of his limitations as a route runner and in pass protection, running back LeGarrette Blount comes off the field when the Bucs insert a third receiver.
Blount led all rookies with 1,007 rushing yards last season and was a big part of the formula that helped the Bucs win 16 of 24 games prior to the current eight-game skid. But when Blount is in the game, the Bucs telegraph the fact he's running the ball.
"I just feel like in the National Football League, you're going to try to design your offense and defense around the personnel you have," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "We felt strongly our chances of winning football games and putting points on the board with this team was to establish a running game with LeGarrette Blount, and we did that a season ago. We have not done that this season, and that's been the frustrating part for everybody."
Nobody is more frustrated than Freeman, whose 18 interceptions are tied for second most in the league and three times as many as he threw in 2010. While it's true Freeman has been guilty of trying to force some throws, especially to tight end Kellen Winslow, coach Raheem Morris believes the receivers simply need time to learn how to read defenses as well as their third-year quarterback does.
"I kind of look at it as a Ben Roethlisberger deal," Morris said. "You remember when Ben Roethlisberger first got into the league? Now the difference for Ben Roethlisberger is that you had the Pittsburgh Steelers defense, and they were unbelievable. They were all old, grisly guys, and they forced people to punt every five seconds. And they ran the football. They'd run the football, throw a 2-yard pass to Hines Ward and watch him turn it into 8, then every once in a while hit a big play.
"Then all of a sudden Ben was in the shotgun 90 percent of the time and he started to get comfortable and in rhythm with the offense. That's kind of what has to happen with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers."
But it's also hard to play smashmouth football by asking your quarterback to convert every third down. Running backs, especially Blount, draw six and seven defenders. A receiver can sometimes make one player miss and find a clear path to the end zone.
Freeman, 23, isn't a finished product. He needs to become a more accurate passer and not hold onto the ball as long. But he believes he can do more. Under the circumstances, he said, maybe the Bucs should find out if he can.
"Obviously, as a quarterback, you want to do as much as you possibly can, and I just want to do whatever it takes to win, regardless of what that is," Freeman said.
"Being the quarterback, you want to be in a position to make the plays to win the game."