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Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman shows he's coming of age

CHARLOTTE, N.C.

He is older now, wiser, more self-assured.

He has gained a sense of calm, a dose of perspective. He carries himself better. His voice sounds firmer. His eyes seem to see more clearly.

Josh Freeman, it appears, is growing up.

From the looks of it, the guy might be the size of a mountain before he is through.

Freeman, the Bucs' 22-year-old passer, is a kid no longer. He has been transformed into a player now, into a quarterback who should be graded on his production instead of his potential. He is no longer just about tomorrow. As of Sunday, Freeman is about today.

And, when it comes to the 2-0 Bucs, today looks about as good as it has looked for a very, very long time.

In the growth of a quarterback, this is how you measure. Does he win, and where? Does he make plays, and when? Does he give his team hope, and how?

On Sunday, on the field that felt something like a torture chamber when he last walked off it, Freeman did all of that. He threw. He ran. Most of all, he thought. He looked years older, and miles better, than the potential he had shown a year ago.

To sum up, what he looked like was hope.

If you think the Bucs have looked better this season — and they have — it is because the improvement of the franchise is parallel to that of the quarterback. After the 20-7 win over Carolina, Freeman looks like more of a load than his critics might have admitted. The Bucs, too.

"He's two or three times better than he was," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "He's much more mature. How many times (Sunday) did he throw the ball away? Or take off running and try to get what he could out of the play? I said to someone on the sideline that last year, he would have tried to fit the ball in there with his arm strength."

This was Freeman at his best. Do not get fooled by the final statistics. True, he threw for more yardage six times in his previous 10 starts than he did Sunday. Yes, he has had a higher completion rate seven times. Granted, he has even had a higher rating than the 102.4 he finished with.

Never, however, has Freeman been this complete, this controlled, this convincing. Never has he made this many plays.

Third and 10? He hit Kellen Winslow for 24. Third and 11? He ran for 17. Third and 9? He ran for 11.

And so it went. The Bucs were 6-for-14 on third down, and all six times, Freeman made a play. Five of those times, the Bucs had at least 8 yards to go.

The play to remember came halfway through the second quarter, after two straight runs lost a total of 7 yards. On third and 17, Freeman rolled to his right. He shrugged off Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson. He ran a few more yards then pulled away from defensive end Eric Norwood. Then he threw deep down the sideline, hitting Winslow for a 40-yard gain.

On the next play, Freeman hit Mike Williams for a 35-yard touchdown, and the Bucs never trailed again.

That all of this happened in Bank of America Stadium, and that it came against the Panthers, had to be satisfying for Freeman. It was at this stadium, remember, that Freeman threw five interceptions in last year's 16-6 loss to the Panthers. That day, he was a scatter-armed rookie throwing wild.

Sunday, as Freeman entered the stadium, he admitted he remembered the way it felt to leave it last year. "It was frustrating, putting up the yardage we did and getting in the red zone and not doing anything with it."

And so, for much of the offseason, Freeman studied films of that game as if he were trying to break down a horror film. Sunday, that paid off. He averaged 10.8 yards per run, lumbering forward like a wild bear on the attack. He averaged 7.4 yards per passing attempt, sharp and safe with most of his throws. His stats suffered some in the fourth quarter — when he hit only 1 of 6 passes — but by then he was in that protect-the-lead portion of the programming. And when have the Bucs ever had to worry about that?

How much better has Freeman been in his two starts? His rating is 95.0, a staggering improvement over last year's 59.8. He has thrown only one interception in two games, Sunday only the second start in his career he hasn't thrown an interception. As for Barber, he said Freeman looked like a quarterback "with four or five years of experience."

"With his talent alone, he could be good," Barber said, "but if he gets it above the neck, and he's getting it, he can be very, very special."

Of course, there will be rough games to come. The NFL is like that. There is still improvement to be made. Even Freeman kept talking about opportunities wasted and points unclaimed.

Still, Freeman is going to be the best argument for buying a ticket. His ability to run the ball himself will leave defensive coordinators with nightmares. His improved ball security will keep the Bucs in games. His ability to make big plays will speed up his team's improvement.

In other words, Freeman has a chance.

Even better, he gives his team one, too.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman shows he's coming of age 09/19/10 [Last modified: Sunday, September 19, 2010 11:15pm]

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