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Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman sees running backs as key to his passing game

Josh Freeman turns and pitches the ball to a youngster during the Bucs quarterback’s football camp for kids age 7 to 14 at Wesley Chapel High. Freeman believes he is a more effective passer when the Bucs throw fewer passes because the running game is working.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Josh Freeman turns and pitches the ball to a youngster during the Bucs quarterback’s football camp for kids age 7 to 14 at Wesley Chapel High. Freeman believes he is a more effective passer when the Bucs throw fewer passes because the running game is working.

WESLEY CHAPEL

You might not expect a conversation with an NFL quarterback hoping for a bounce-back season to be dominated by talk of his team's running backs.

But as the Bucs' Josh Freeman took a brief break from instructing 200 kids at his football camp Saturday morning at Wesley Chapel High School, he enthusiastically shared his optimism about the members of Tampa Bay's backfield.

"(Rookies) Doug Martin and Michael Smith, those guys are so talented," Freeman said. "You want to get the ball in their hands, get it to them in space and let them make some moves and make something happen. … Obviously LeGarrette (Blount) is having good (practices). And one guy, Mossis Madu, that guy is shredding it right now. He is doing an awesome job. Our backfield is going to be great. I'm excited."

The 2012 Bucs, if coach Greg Schiano has anything to say about it, will sport a run-first offense. But does that sit well with Freeman, who makes his living by throwing footballs, not just handing them off?

Actually, it seems Freeman bought in long ago. After all, he attempted 551 passes in 2011, third-most in franchise history, and the result was a 4-12 finish. Huge scoreboard deficits were responsible for the unusually high number of passes, but whatever the reason, it wasn't fruitful.

Now, when it comes to pass attempts, the Bucs and Freeman feel less is more.

"It's about winning with me," he said. "If I go out and stink it up and we win, I'd be a lot happier than if I go out and throw for monster numbers and we lose.

"Coach Schiano obviously loves the running game. I love the running game. There's no better feeling than when LeGarrette or any of our guys are out there tearing it up and you can sit back and pick apart a defense that's worried about stopping the run."

Another thing Freeman noted is the Bucs' new emphasis on running the ball first and foremost isn't really, well, new.

"What people don't realize is that, the past few years, other than a few games where I had to throw it out of necessity, we weren't really a huge throwing team," he said. "We'd throw it 25 times a game.

"(Former offensive coordinator) Greg Olson wasn't super pass-heavy. You'd think he was because he had such an intricate passing system and he kind of took a lot of (former coach Jon) Gruden's stuff and made it his own. But we didn't throw it that much."

As for the new offensive coordinator, former Giants quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan, Freeman said Sullivan's emphasis on establishing the running game hopefully gets Freeman the kind of opportunities he saw in 2010. With Blount surpassing 1,000 yards that season in 13 appearances, the play-action pass often was there for the taking. Freeman, with 25 touchdowns and six interceptions, had his most efficient season.

"When you can run the ball, it opens up a world of opportunities," Freeman said. "The play-action pass is a huge part of Coach Sullivan's offense. He does an awesome job."

LeGrand plan: The Bucs have made Eric LeGrand's dreams of making an NFL roster come true.

The former Rutgers player who was paralyzed in a game during his junior year joined his former coach's new team when Schiano and the Bucs signed him to a contract in a symbolic gesture last month.

But as the season gets closer, LeGrand's roster spot will probably become too precious for him to keep.

How will the team deal with this challenge? Cutting him would certainly seem cruel.

The likely compromise: Look for LeGrand to "retire" from the NFL in the coming weeks.

When and if this happens, LeGrand would be placed on the reserve-retired list, making his retirement official and making his roster spot immediately available.

Minicamp next: The team's offseason concludes this week with a three-day mandatory minicamp. The team has completed the other stages of the offseason program, including the 10 full-fledged practices (organized team activities).

After this week, players will be off until they are required to report to training camp in late July.

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @holderstephen.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman sees running backs as key to his passing game

06/09/12 [Last modified: Saturday, June 9, 2012 9:05pm]
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