TAMPA — On long walks around the three emerald practice fields at the Bucs' training facility, Raheem Morris sometimes wonders how fate played a role in the football season he spent as the defensive coordinator at Kansas State.
"Lo and behold it just so happened that this 19-year-old quarterback showed up at the same time I got there," Morris said. "I had heard a lot about him because he was such a big recruit. But having come from the NFL, I didn't care about him being a five-star player or any of that nonsense.
"But I saw how hard the kid worked, how much football mattered to him and he absolutely wasn't afraid of anything. He grew on me."
Now, 22-year-old quarterback Josh Freeman and Morris share more of an elaborate root system that can't be separated.
Morris only lasted one year with the Wildcats before he was rehired by the Bucs in 2007 to coach the secondary. Two years later, when the Glazer family cleaned house and named Morris the head coach, he went on a crusade to draft the 6-foot-6, 248-pound Freeman, trading up two picks to No. 17 overall.
After only 16 career starts, the equivalent of a full regular season, Freeman is 8-8 overall but has the Bucs tied atop the NFC South with Atlanta at 5-2 heading into Sunday's showdown with the Falcons.
Five of Freeman's victories were fourth-quarter comebacks, including Sunday's 38-35 nail-biter at Arizona in which he went 18 of 25 passing (career-high 72 percent) for 278 yards and a touchdown.
"Make no mistake about it, he is our quarterback," Morris said. "We moved up two spots to get him. I remember how people said we were crazy to do it, and how they booed the pick at the draft party.
"What he's doing might surprise some people, but I am not surprised. That's why I wasn't afraid to say crazy things like, 'I would've taken him with the first overall pick,' or that 'Josh is a franchise quarterback' or that 'I'm married to him,' or 'it's all about 5.' I knew what he was then, and he's proving it now."
General manager Mark Dominik didn't need much convincing. Freeman was big, mobile and had a rocket arm. There were concerns about his accuracy, but he was a 60 percent passer in college when he had future NFL targets such as Jordy Nelson and Yamon Figurs to fire at.
Freeman's maturity impressed Dominik the most, how he handled tough interview sessions and appearances.
"We traded up to get him and we got criticized for it, which is okay, but that's how much belief we had in Josh Freeman," Dominik said.
"I said, 'I don't want to lose this guy.' We're too close to getting a franchise quarterback. So let's not screw this up."
Freeman sat for the first seven games, all losses, as a rookie. He won his first start against the Packers before reality set in. He wound up throwing 10 touchdown passes, 18 interceptions and losing two fumbles in 2009.
This season, with a greater understanding of defensive schemes, Freeman has protected the football, throwing eight touchdowns and only three interceptions, the fewest of any NFC quarterback with a minimum of 100 attempts.
"It's definitely a mind-set; understanding the defense; very little indecision in my game right now," Freeman said. "I understand what coverage we're getting. I understand the protections where they are. There's no, 'Aw man, look out, I've got to throw it up' plays.
"You look back at the interceptions: I had the one where I sailed it against Cleveland; the deflected one against the Steelers. The really bad one that you wish you could have back was just a stupid one to Kellen (Winslow), where I was trying to do too much. I feel if I can continue to play ball secure, we've got a chance in all these games."
Almost since the inception of the Bucs franchise, they've been known as a defensive team.
But with Freeman, receiver Mike Williams, who leads all rookies in catches (32), receiving yards (470) and touchdowns (four), and bulldozing rookie running back LeGarrette Blount (22 carries for 120 yards, two touchdowns vs. Cardinals), the Bucs believe they have an offense that can bail them out and score from anywhere on the field.
"It's very comforting and something I haven't had for a while," linebacker Barrett Ruud said. "It's comforting as a defender if you give up a play, we have an offense that can get it back."
When Morris left the Bucs for Kansas State, he was an assistant defensive backs coach on a staff that included defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, linebackers coach Joe Barry and defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin.
"At that time, Monte was the only one who had ever called his own plays," Morris said. "I wanted to call my own plays, which is why I went to Kansas State. Everybody thought it was a great opportunity for me."
But nobody could've known what the Bucs would gain by losing Morris for one season.
"Obviously, our relationship is one of the main reasons he drafted me," Freeman said. "He saw the way I worked, saw the type of player I was and it gives me a lot of confidence to know Raheem has confidence in me."