TAMPA — For nearly three seasons, Josh Johnson has stood 10 yards behind Josh Freeman at practice, shadowing every play-fake, handoff and throw made by the Bucs starting quarterback.
"They look like synchronized swimmers," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said.
But Johnson might not be just going through the motions this week. The fourth-year backup took snaps with the first team Wednesday and Thursday while Freeman has been limited by a sore right shoulder.
"I'm trying not to get too high or too low; just kind of trying to play on an even keel and be ready if they call upon me," Johnson said. "I feel real excited to get back out there and play a whole four-quarter game. If the opportunity presents itself, I'm interested to see how it goes.
"I've been working hard the past two years for an opportunity like this, and I'm trying to get out there and execute the game plan."
Freeman has shown progress, making some of what the team called "soft throws" on Thursday. Coach Raheem Morris said a decision on a starter might not be made until just before kickoff Sunday against the Panthers.
Freeman has a history of playing through pain. He broke his right thumb during the preseason of 2010 and sprained it against the Bears on Oct. 23. Neither time did he miss a start.
"We look at the progress," Olson said of Freeman. "And from where he came on Sunday immediately after the game to (Wednesday to Thursday), there's been a tremendous amount of improvement. Obviously, you take a player's pain tolerance into factoring in whether or not you think he's going to be able to play. Just based upon the improvement … I feel pretty good about it."
Freeman's latest injury came after fumbling the snap on the final offensive play Sunday against the Titans. The past two practices, he has been limited mostly to running plays.
"He … threw a couple of soft throws (Thursday)," Morris said. "He's getting better. We'll have to see. He's a day-to-day type of guy. He's a big man, strong guy, wants to play, wants to be there for his football team."
Johnson, who can become a free agent after the season, has not started a game since 2009, losing to the Redskins, Eagles, Panthers and Patriots before Freeman took over. In those games, he went 59-of-115 for 649 yards, four touchdowns and eight interceptions.
This season, playing in the wildcat formation or mop-up duty, Johnson is 2-of-7 for 14 yards and has five rushes for 17 yards. But Olson said the Bucs won't hesitate to start him.
"I know the locker room has a lot of trust in him," Olson said. "And it's just a matter of him getting a chance to go out there and play. I think some of the guys are excited he may have an opportunity to play."
Johnson isn't ready to rule Freeman out.
"You never know with Free," said Johnson, 25, a fifth-round pick out of San Diego in 2008. "I've seen him play through a lot of injuries, a lot of stuff, be tough, be a warrior."
Morris said the Bucs will have to weigh playing Freeman and risking further injury versus sitting but being close to 100 percent for the final month of the season.
"You've always got to be hesitant on what you want to do," Morris said. "You don't want to rush a guy back, get him hurt worse. (Freeman) is going to be here the next 10 years, hopefully, if not more.
"If he's not ready to go, we won't play him. If he's ready to go, though, we'll certainly play him."