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Tampa Bay Bucs reluctantly rein in rookie Josh Freeman

Josh Freeman, pressured by Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, is still seeing many defenses for the first time.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Josh Freeman, pressured by Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, is still seeing many defenses for the first time.

TAMPA — There are times when Josh Freeman looks for all the world like he is ready for anything.

The Bucs rookie quarterback is at his best when point deficits appear insurmountable. He makes the requisite throws expected of a franchise quarterback. His No. 1 receiver, Antonio Bryant, this week urged coaches to unleash Freeman and all his potential.

Tempting as that might be, the Bucs are trying to resist rushing Freeman along. They will continue to spoon-feed their first-round pick, to an extent, until his experience level no longer requires it.

But with a player who shows so much promise, it has been hard for coaches to muster restraint.

"I think we all want to rush him a little bit too fast," coach Raheem Morris said. "It's hard not to when he throws passes like he throws."

As problems go, this is a good one.

But here's the issue: Freeman has gotten off to a promising start, winning his first game as a starter and playing well enough to win in two of his other three starts. He has rallied the Bucs from a pair of double-digit, fourth-quarter deficits.

Still, much of what Freeman is seeing — the blitzes, the coverages, the defensive alignments — he is witnessing for the first time.

So offensive coordinator Greg Olson remains mindful that there is only so much he can realistically expect a 21-year-old rookie to digest.

"It comes with time, and it comes with experience," Olson said.

"He's getting to throw some routes, and it's the first time he had to throw hot in an actual live game situation."

A "hot" throw is one thrown against an oncoming blitz, where Freeman's options might change and receivers' routes are drastically altered. And it all happens fast.

"You do it in practice, and it's different in the game when (the defense) brings everybody and they're right there," Olson said. "Those are things that, to me, he'll get better at — the timing part with the receivers, actually feeling that live rush. You can't practice every route against every coverage you're going to see.

"There's just so much that's involved. You can't give it to him all right now. But I know the intelligence part is there with this guy. I know the want-to is there with this guy. And there are some physical skills that you just can't coach that he possesses."

To compensate for Freeman's youth, Olson has streamlined the offensive package a bit, gearing the game plan and play-calling to Freeman's strengths.

"Coach Olson kind of switched up his style and maybe catered more to a rookie style of play," Freeman said. "We still run most of our concepts. I wouldn't say we cut down the playbook too much. But we definitely went more in depth on the plays I felt more comfortable with.

"It's figuring out which concepts I feel more comfortable with either because it's something that translates from college or whether it's something that I've just grown to like and have had a lot of success with."

Coaches caution the limitations being placed on Freeman are not significant. They also believe the limitations soon won't be necessary, pointing to his bounce-back game in Atlanta after his poorest performance of the season in the previous game, against New Orleans. He recorded season-highs in passer rating (118.5) and completion percentage (69) against the Falcons.

"His decisions keep getting better," Morris said. "He's limited the amount of mistakes he's making. All those things are happening for him now right before our eyes.

"It's coming. I don't think we're limiting much. He's got a whole plethora of things in his bag. We're calling them. He's going out there and making the right checks. He's made some wrong ones. But the decision-making is getting better and better every week. Any time a quarterback goes 20-of-29, that's a pretty good day."

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Bucs reluctantly rein in rookie Josh Freeman 12/03/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 3, 2009 10:54pm]
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