LONDON — With 9:25 remaining in a 35-7 loss to New England at Wembley Stadium in 2009, the Bucs' Raheem Morris ducked behind the bench, grabbed a telephone, called up to general manager Mark Dominik's luxury box for a brief conversation and decided the future could no longer wait.
The Bucs were about to fall to 0-7, playing a bunch of rookies, castoffs and misfits in Morris' first season as head coach.
Rookie quarterback Josh Freeman got some last-second instructions on the sideline, trotted onto the field and changed the direction of a franchise.
His performance wasn't memorable: 2-of-4 for 16 yards. He was sacked twice and lost a fumble on his final play.
"I remember it was cool," Freeman said. "That was a great atmosphere at Wembley. I remember (Patriots linebacker) Junior Seau being right across from me.
"It feels like ages ago."
The new-age Bucs were born that day, although nobody knew the then 21-year-old QB would give fans clad in pewter and red a reason to laminate their tickets.
"The future of the franchise was established that day," Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said. "So anything that happened before that, specifically those 6½ weeks before that, is kind of a moot point because that's when the direction turned. We were going to put our lot on Josh's shoulders.
"Obviously, the defense came around and started playing better under Raheem's leadership. But really, that point in that game, when (Freeman) got to play, was the beginning of what we're seeing now."
In his first start two weeks later (after a bye), Freeman threw three touchdowns to beat the Packers at Raymond James Stadium. The Bucs finished the season 3-13. But Freeman has won 16 of his past 24 starts, and the team he leads onto the Wembley field today against the Bears is 4-2 and tied atop the NFC South with New Orleans, having already posted victories over the Saints and Falcons.
In fact, 35 players on the Bucs' current roster were not in London in 2009.
"That first year was a very trying year; a lot of new pieces," Freeman said. "We still have a young team, but we have a lot of confidence about what we're doing. When we go out, we feel like we can go out and win every game. We've got our foundation set, and we're looking good."
Dominik began building that foundation around Freeman by starting with the offense. In 2010, he drafted receivers Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams while locking up left tackle Donald Penn to a long-term deal.
"Get the receivers so they can grow with him, and then I wanted to make sure he was protected," Dominik said. "That's why you see the investment in the offensive line."
To that end, Dominik locked up right guard Davin Joseph and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood to lengthy contracts before 2011.
"Then it was to get the defense built up to get the ball back to Freeman," Dominik said.
Tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price were the first- and second-round picks, respectively, in 2010. Ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers and linebacker Mason Foster went 1-2-3 in this year's draft.
Looking back, the team probably could've played Freeman sooner. But Dominik took notes in his journal about a chance conversation with Bill Walsh while sitting on a bus at the 1997 scouting combine. The legendary 49ers coach was adamant about bringing young quarterbacks along slowly.
"There was a lot he said on that trip that was important about how to develop a quarterback like Josh Freeman," Dominik said; "to give him time to get in there and have the confidence."
At 6 feet 6, 258 pounds, Freeman always has had the physical tools to be a top quarterback. The other factor in his success is harder to measure. He's a charismatic leader and a chameleon in the locker room, a team captain from the Midwest with the kind of persona to pick up the dinner tab for his offensive linemen and talk smack with the inner-city defensive back.
"Josh has always had a high level of confidence," Dominik said. "But I think now because he's done it performance-wise, I think it's given him a lot more confidence.
"He was just kind of put in a leadership spot, obviously, when we decided to make the change to him. But now he's undoubtedly our leader on this field. You can see it every time he talks to our team. He kind of gets the guys together. So he's changed in those two capacities."
As a result, the Bucs' fortunes have changed. From a lost weekend, the changing of the guard took place at One Buc Palace.
"The one redeeming thing that happened in London was that Josh Freeman played," Dominik said. "And I think everything changed from that day going forward for our franchise."
Rick Stroud can be reached at email@example.com.