You can learn a lot about where a quarterback is going by reading his eyes. Sometimes it's to determine where he's throwing the football. But it might tell you which direction his career could be headed. That's why the Bucs are so excited about the future of rookie Josh Freeman. "The guy has that look," receiver Antonio Bryant said. "You can see in his eyes. He's not scared, and I like that."
Freeman, 21, will have a chance to improve his record to 4-5 as a starter today with a win over the Falcons.
His numbers are not necessarily anything to shout about: nine touchdowns, 16 interceptions, a 55.2 completion percentage and 61.0 passer rating. Freeman has thrown five interceptions in a game (vs. Panthers) and three touchdowns in another (vs. Packers).
But Freeman treated both performances the same.
Offensive coordinator Greg Olson has been around a lot of young quarterbacks, and he knows they often get rattled. Not Freeman. That's why the Bucs feel confident they have found their franchise quarterback.
"A lot of guys talk about the 'it' factor, and you've really got to be around it to see it," Olson said. "He's got that 'it' factor. He's got a commanding presence when he's on the field and in the huddle. He doesn't get rattled, and I think that's real important for the guys around him to see.
"I think everybody has recognized that about him, that he's not a guy who is going to get rattled. He's a tough guy, and it's easy to rally around tough guys, and he's displayed toughness when he's out on the field."
And Freeman's work ethic has increased the Bucs' confidence.
"The intelligence part of it, you question a lot of that until he gets in there," Olson said. "They've seen that; they've seen his work ethic in the building. His preparation. To me, he's earned a lot of respect from this football team, and he's done enough things where I think everybody in the building feels like this guy is going to get better. The sky is kind of the limit. He's certainly deserving for a guy to lead this franchise into the future."
Freeman didn't have the benefit of an offseason, training camp or preseason to gain much experience. The Bucs wasted a lot of valuable reps engaged in a quarterback battle between Luke McCown and Byron Leftwich. McCown was traded to the Jaguars for a sixth-round pick, and Leftwich went 0-3 as a starter before being benched.
By the time Freeman entered the huddle, the Bucs already were 0-7. He rallied the Bucs from an 11-point deficit to beat the Packers in his first start, throwing three touchdowns. He brought the Bucs back from a double-digit deficit the next week at Miami, but the defense couldn't hold the lead in the final two minutes. After a 38-7 drubbing by New Orleans in which Freeman was erratic, the Bucs lost at Atlanta in the final seconds.
"The stretch from Miami, to New Orleans, I think the Falcons were next, but it was having a lead at the end of the game and just getting it taken from you," Freeman said. "That was tough, because you go out there and give it all you've got. It's real hard to lose games, and in the Saints game, I just came out and didn't play well. I didn't make the throws I usually make. So those games were probably the roughest stretch."
If there's any cause for concern with Freeman, it's his lack of accuracy, particularly early. In the past three games, he has thrown at least one interception in the first quarter, including two on his first attempt.
"It's not like he can't make every throw," coach Raheem Morris said. "Sometimes he's moving a lot. Being a big guy like that, he's going to have some accuracy issues because he moves out of the pocket. A lot of times, when you see him throw a 300-pound man off him and throw a ball down the field, it's not going to be as accurate as you like. That's why I compare him to a Ben Roethlisberger type of guy."
Bryant is glad the offense wasn't whittled down for Freeman.
"I like the fact they let him play and make mistakes," Bryant said. "Why not? I can't say we're playing for nothing, but we're going to let you go out here and do this now. So next year, don't do that. Get it out of your system."
At 6 feet 6 and 248 pounds, Freeman has size, speed and a special leadership quality. He is not overwhelmed by expectations and has earned the respect of his teammates.
"It's not like you have to do a bunch of things. I just work," Freeman said. "That's what my dad told me to do. He said, 'Hey, you're going into a situation where everybody is older than you. They all have experience; they're all hot shots from their college. Keep your mouth shut and work as hard as you can.' That's a formula I used.
"I think I've improved. That's definitely a goal of mine to be one of the premier quarterbacks in this league, and I will continue to work until I get there or find out I can't do it. Right now, I plan on working on getting there."