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Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman had an impressive debut, but the NFL is filled with one-hit wonders

In a season gone astray, he gave his team a reason to hope.

In the first start of his career, he moved around the pass rushers as if dancing around the furniture. He spread the ball around to receivers as if he were leading an orchestra. He breathed life into an offense that had been left for dead, and suddenly, a winless team didn't look quite so helpless.

On a day when no one knew quite what to expect of the rookie, he was astonishingly good. And Tampa Bay, hungry for a quarterback, seemed prepared to make him governor.

Josh Freeman?

Yes. And also, Bruce Gradkowski.

He had been too long on the bench, and maybe some began to wonder if his time would ever come. But in his Bucs debut, it didn't take long to notice there was something about the way he threw the ball, something about the way he evaded the rush. After a gutsy fourth-down call by the coach, he threw a winning touchdown to lead a come-from-behind victory.

On a day when there was nowhere else to turn, he was better than anyone would have imagined. And Tampa Bay, still looking, turned him into a cult figure.

Josh Freeman?

Yes. And furthermore, Luke McCown.

All of this has happened before. Even in the middle of Josh Freeman Appreciation Week, even as you prepare to send thank-you notes to his parents, it is important to remember that you have felt like this before. There have been other quarterbacks who have been thrust into a game surrounded by low expectations and difficult circumstances.

From time to time, those players have played the game of their lives.

After that, sadly, the games seemed to be about other people's lives.

Here, then, are the next chores on Freeman's to-do list. First, don't be Gradkowski. Second, don't be McCown.

In other words, as good as Freeman was on Sunday, he has to do it again. And again. And a lot of agains after that.

Not to rain on anyone's parade, especially Freeman's, but one good start doesn't guarantee success. Ryan Leaf, for instance, won his first start before becoming one of the loudest busts in NFL history. So did Akili Smith. And David Carr. And Rex Grossman and J.P. Losman and Kelly Stouffer and Dan McGwire and Jim Druckenmiller and Aaron Brooks. When it comes to quarterbacks, the NFL has seen a few one-hit wonders.

For a young quarterback, the league gets harder. Defenses adjust. Offenses get more intricate. Quarterbacks have to learn to deal with success, with failure, with injuries, with slumps.

Remember Gradkowski's debut? Like Freeman, he had a bye week, a winless team and a favored opponent to deal with. Like Freeman, he left fans buzzing after his performance. He hit 20 of 31 passes for 225 yards, and if Joey Galloway hadn't been called for a pick play, negating a first and goal at the Saints 3, Tampa Bay probably would have won.

"I think he can be a star,'' Cadillac Williams said.

Looking back, I was as impressed as anyone. "Bruce Gradkowski?'' I wrote. "Holy Cowski.''

It didn't last. Probably, you remember that part, too. Although the Bucs won the next two weeks, they lost seven of eight after defenses discovered that Gradkowski didn't have a big-time arm, and his team asked too much of him.

Gradkowski is still in the NFL, as a backup in Oakland, but he has never had another day to match his first.

Then there was McCown, whose first start for the Bucs came the next year, also in New Orleans. The difference was that the Bucs knew McCown wasn't a long-term answer. He was starting because of Jeff Garcia's injury.

Still, it was a stunning debut. McCown hit his first 15 passes, and although the game almost slipped away when he threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown and took an ill-advised safety, the Bucs won the game when McCown hit Jerramy Stevens for a 4-yard touchdown pass with 14 seconds to play.

"He has the great combination of skills to achieve success at this level,'' Garcia said.

Again, I admit I thought the success would repeat itself eventually. "You can see enough arm, enough legs, enough pocket presence to think he can blossom into a quarterback worth cheering,'' I wrote.

Well, oops. McCown never won another game for the Bucs, who were never sold on his decision-making abilities. After losing the quarterback competition to Byron Leftwich in training camp, he was traded to Jacksonville.

Why, then, are we to believe it will be different with Freeman?

Start with talent. There was a reason Freeman was drafted first, and there was a reason Gradkowski lasted until the sixth round and a reason McCown has spent most of his career on the bench. In Freeman's case, the success was expected. There is a reason for that, too.

Still, there is some proving to do. Freeman has to keep developing, and the Bucs have to continue to play well around him.

After all, a lot of good quarterbacks won their first starts, too.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman had an impressive debut, but the NFL is filled with one-hit wonders 11/10/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 10, 2009 10:42pm]
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