Even with the clock winding down, Josh Freeman doesn't get too wound up. He rallied his team from double-digit deficits in the fourth quarter the past two weeks, helping the Bucs take late leads against the Packers and Dolphins. And the game appears to move slowly for the rookie quarterback, especially in hurry-up situations. Freeman is fourth in the NFL in fourth-quarter passing, ahead of the league's gold standard for quarterbacks: the Colts' Peyton Manning and the Patriots' Tom Brady. His rating of 117.9 in the final period trails only that of today's opponent, the Saints' Drew Brees (124.2), as well as the Vikings' Brett Favre (119.3) and the Ravens' Joe Flacco (118.9). "When you are talking about the fourth quarter, you're talking about how guys are judged," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said.
As a rookie, Freeman has time on his side. The Bucs would be committed to their first-round pick from Kansas State even had he struggled in his first two starts.
But Freeman has completed 32 of 63 (50.8 percent) passes for 417 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions in three games, including starts in the win over Green Bay and last-minute loss at Miami.
Most of that success has come in the fourth quarter. He rallied the Bucs from 11 points down in his starting debut against the Packers, with touchdown passes to Kellen Winslow and Sammie Stroughter in the final 11:34.
With the Bucs trailing the Dolphins by 10 last week at Miami, Freeman led them on two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, including a scoring pass to Maurice Stovall. Cadillac Williams had a 1-yard touchdown run with 1:14 left to give the Bucs a 23-22 lead.
If not for the collapse of the defense against the Dolphins, Freeman would have two fourth-quarter comeback wins.
As it stands, Freeman's fourth-quarter ranking is 38 points higher than his overall passer efficiency mark of 79.9.
"It's early; it's only two games," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "But his composure: We talk about the game slowing down in those pressure moments, and you'd like to check some of those guys' heart rate in the pressure moment. The good ones, I think they just seem cool and under control. He is that way.
"On the sidelines, everything is very clear to him in speaking to him between series. He's very calm; he sees the field very well."
Freeman, 21, shrugs when asked about his fourth-quarter prowess and poise under pressure.
"I think it's important that you remain the same throughout the entire game," Freeman said. "I mean, obviously, when you have a touchdown or a big play, you're going to get a little excited. But it's finding a way to come down from that and just stay even-keeled throughout the whole game that I think allows you to be at your best in crunch-time situations."
Certainly, Freeman has had practice playing under pressure. Taking over at quarterback as a true freshman at Kansas State, he was routinely outmanned in the Big 12 and frequently trailed in the fourth quarter.
"I don't know if it dates back to college or not. We've just been able to put some things together in the second half. Hopefully we won't have to play from behind any more."
Freeman has contributed to the Bucs' slow starts. He had four fumbles against Miami, including two botched snaps. One of them was a miscommunication between Freeman and center Jeff Faine, who prematurely snapped the ball in the shotgun formation when he mistook defensive signals for Freeman's cadence.
But nothing gets Freeman down. He has thrived in the shotgun, a formation most commonly used in the Bucs' two-minute offense. Of the league's 44 quarterbacks who have taken at least 20 snaps out of the shotgun, Freeman's 105.0 rating is second only to San Diego's Philip Rivers (105.2). He's 27-of-45 for 352 yards with four touchdowns and an interception out of the shotgun.
"He doesn't get rattled," receiver Michael Clayton said. "I would say he's pretty special throughout the whole game, pretty consistent throughout the whole game. We're making mistakes as every offense does, but he remains unwavering, and he doesn't get rattled. The confidence inside our own 50 is just tremendous with him being able to get out of the pocket and make some plays with his legs and make all the throws down there. We're pretty efficient when we get in that zone."
Quarterbacks are often defined by their ability to bring a team from behind. In some ways, that statistic reflects a team's belief in the player. John Elway was credited with 47 fourth-quarter comebacks. Joe Montana had 31. Freeman nearly went 2-for-2 in that category to start his career. The difference is, with the Bucs at 1-8, he doesn't have nearly as much on the line.
"The only things you can base him on and judge him on are obviously the stats, what happened in the fourth quarter," Morris said. "He's been up there with those elite type of names right now, and it's only two games. We have to see, let him keep growing, let's be patient and see what he can be.
"But if he continues down this road, then maybe he turns those fourth quarters into three more in front of that, and who knows what you got? We'll all be excited and we'll all be ready to jump on board, get on the ship with Josh."