TAMPA — Josh Freeman stopped near the entrance to the players lounge at One Buc Place last week, taking time to autograph a line of about 30 footballs for the community relations department.
It was a scene that would make sports collectors tremble — one of the NFL's hottest young quarterbacks, printing memorabilia currency.
With 23 touchdowns and a franchise-low six interceptions this season, Freeman owns a 93.6 passer rating that is better than that of the Saints' Drew Brees (92.2) and the Falcons' Matt Ryan (89.8), both of whom are headed to the Pro Bowl.
But after working his way with a Sharpie down the row of footballs, Freeman is still missing one thing: a signature win — and the recognition that comes with it.
Certainly, fans around the nation could see a lot more of Freeman if he is able to lead the Bucs to a win over the Saints today at the Superdome (a long shot, considering the Bucs have not beaten a team with a winning record all season). But a victory over New Orleans, coupled with a Giants loss at Washington and a Bears win at Green Bay, would earn Tampa Bay a wild card for the sixth and final spot in the NFC playoffs.
Even with a nine-win season and an outside shot at the postseason, Freeman doesn't want to be in this position every year.
"Honestly, I don't anticipate by this time next year still having a playoff spot on the line," Freeman said. "That's just my mind-set. You don't go into the year thinking you're going to have to win your last game just for a chance to make the playoffs. But it's the situation we're in right now."
Of course, the Bucs wouldn't be in this situation without Freeman, who has put together the best season at quarterback since Brad Johnson threw 22 touchdowns and six interceptions in 2002, when he led his team to a Super Bowl XXXVII victory. Freeman is tied for first in the NFC and fourth in the league for the fewest interceptions.
Seven of Freeman's 12 career wins (in only 24 starts) have been fourth-quarter or overtime comebacks, tying the Colts' Peyton Manning and former pro Jake Plummer for the most in the first two seasons.
Of course, few fans have been watching. Not only have the Bucs not had a prime-time game in the past two seasons, but all eight games at Raymond James Stadium were blacked out locally this season, and attendance in the 65,000-seat stadium averaged slightly less than 49,000.
"What he's done is very impressive," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "We still have to win more games for him to get the credit he deserves. We've got to win as a team, get in the playoffs. He's got to win playoff games, and that's the big thing where everybody rates these quarterbacks, on past experiences and the playoffs. He hasn't done that. We all think we're going to get there with him."
What makes Freeman's performance this season even more remarkable is that he did it with 11 rookie starters — with the Bucs becoming the only team to post a winning record with that many first-year starters since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.
While Freeman might be a well-kept secret nationally, coaches, players and analysts are aware of his rapid rise.
"Josh Freeman is a guy who really has impressed me the last couple years," ESPN NFL analyst Ron Jaworski said. "He's a big, strong guy who throws the ball. But more importantly than that, I love his demeanor and the way he handles himself and commands his offense. That goes a long way in today's NFL, to understand every single nuance of your offense and how to attack a defense. This kid can make every throw. Freeman is a guy I really like."
Saints coach Sean Payton, who watched Freeman bring the Bucs back from a 17-0 deficit to beat his eventual Super Bowl champions in New Orleans last season, says the Bucs' second-year quarterback makes the division tougher.
"Just to see his learning curve, because we see it firsthand on film, is very impressive," Payton said. "I know he's a hard worker from players, from coaches. He's very dedicated. He's got very good arm strength and accuracy. He's got the size you look for. He's also a guy who's hard to sack. You can see the confidence of those players around him, not only on offense but on defense. You never feel like you're out of the game when you have someone like that at the position.
"It's always difficult to see another young challenging quarterback develop right before your eyes in your division. We saw Matt Ryan; now it's Josh Freeman. Who knows? Carolina may draft this (Andrew) Luck out of Stanford and then all four teams will have someone. But he's been very impressive."
Olson insists that despite all of Freeman's lofty numbers, what gets overlooked is his mobility. At 6 feet 6, 248 pounds, Freeman has 353 rushing yards, second only to Michael Vick (676 yards) among quarterbacks.
"That's more shocking to me than anything," coach Raheem Morris said. "That's a lot of yards for a quarterback."
Freeman doesn't think he'll always have to scramble from the pocket.
"I'd like to some day be good enough to always have somebody open and always get it blocked up well enough so I don't have to run," he said. "But if I need to, what the heck, I'll run and make something happen.
"I just try to play the best football I can. I know I'm not where I'm going to be at, but right now I've got to kind of embrace the role of game manager and try to play as well as I can for 3½ quarters. And if I need to make a drive to win the game in the fourth quarter, I'll do that."
Whether or not his team earns a playoff spot today, Morris said, Freeman will be the reason people pay attention to the Bucs for years to come.
"We've got to keep winning to get prime-time games back," Morris said. "We've got to keep winning like this to get the stadium filled again. It is the entertainment business.
"(A) guy like him helps us all because he's going to bring that national attention we all want. He'll fill that stadium up. He'll get everything going the right way."
Rick Stroud can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.