TAMPA — A year ago, Josh Freeman fractured the thumb on his right (throwing) hand in the Bucs' second preseason game and didn't take another snap until the regular season.
After a poor outing in last week's 31-14 loss to New England, you would think the quarterback's confidence would be at least as shattered.
Not so, he says.
"It's always vital to go out and play well," Freeman said. "We found that out last week. You never want to go out and put that sort of thing on film. But at the same time, it was a great learning experience, and we're already past it."
Even so, how Freeman and the Bucs perform tonight against the Dolphins will be important for two reasons.
First, unlike it did against the Patriots, the team has simulated a regular-season week of preparation and installed a game plan. Second, Freeman and the starters on both sides of the ball will play at least the first half, and perhaps into the third quarter, in what likely will be the final dress rehearsal before the Sept. 11 opener against the Lions.
As dominant as the Bucs were in their 25-0 win at Kansas City two weeks ago, they were as putrid at home against the Patriots, who built a 28-0 halftime lead and limited the Bucs to 1 yard rushing and one first down with Freeman under center.
"It was an eye-opener for everyone involved," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "We stepped backward, and it was a slap in the face to all of us — coaches, players and everybody. How the Patriots played is what you're supposed to do every week."
Though it's true the Bucs went with basic formations and a diluted game plan, that wasn't the reason for 10 first-half penalties, miscommunications and blown assignments.
"You can say what you want about the game plan or no game plan," Olson said. "But the bottom line is that you can't jump offsides. You can't hold, and we had missed assignments, which is not like us. To me, that was the concern.
"We've been good during training camp. And for whatever reason, we weren't locked in, and that falls on us as a coaching staff."
At least Freeman, 14-of-23 for 106 yards and no touchdowns in the preseason, has not had a turnover. He hasn't gotten much help from his supporting cast. LeGarrette Blount, who rushed for 1,007 yards as a rookie a year ago, has nine carries for 19 yards, a 2.1-yard average. That helps explain why the Bucs are 8-of-27 on third down.
"We told our guys we want to gradually be getting better throughout training camp so when we get to the week of Sept. 11, we've gotten better every day," Olson said. "We don't want those dips and valleys. And we took a dip, a big dip (against New England). It was our first big dip."
Freeman and the offense should get a lift against the Dolphins with the return of several players, including tight ends Kellen Winslow and Luke Stocker and receiver Arrelious Benn.
Winslow (knee) and Benn (ACL) have practiced but were held out of the first two games as a precaution. Stocker, a rookie, sustained a small fracture in his hip during the first day of training camp and was cleared this week.
"We're still going pretty basic," Freeman said of the game plan. "At the same time, knowing that the library of plays isn't going to be as big, we've got to know it's going to be crucial to execute.
"Obviously, the Dolphins scouting us in the preseason, they're going to know from formations what we're running. So it's going to be on us to be really sharp and make sure, me personally, to get the ball out of my hands and get the ball to open guys because there's going to be pretty tight windows."
Last season, his first full one as a starter, Freeman had 25 touchdowns and six interceptions. He got better each week, throwing 13 touchdown passes and one interception over the final seven games.
"I think Freeman is always hard to evaluate in a preseason because your expectation level will always be through the roof," coach Raheem Morris said. "You want him to go out there and be 100-of-100 and his quarterback rating to be 110.
"He's done great because he hasn't turned the ball over. He's gotten the offense to flow and execute — maybe not last week — but those are things you need him to do. You just want to get him ready for the (regular-season) games."