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The smarter Josh Freeman is, the bolder the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can be

TAMPA — At 6 feet 6, Josh Freeman towers over nearly every player in the huddle, a vertical advantage that helps him view the entire field.

But even more skyscraping are expectations surrounding the Bucs' 23-year-old quarterback.

In his first full season as a starter, Freeman led Tampa Bay to a 10-6 record by passing for 25 touchdowns and only six interceptions.

His ability to protect the football as if it were a family heirloom last year is even more impressive considering he was surrounded by rookies at receiver and running back.

But according to his coaches, Freeman still has a lot of growing to do.

"The more he proves to us he can make the good decisions, the more we'll trust him to do," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "We had a situation the other day, a period of practice where it was all 'shot' plays. Well, you know, he showed us the other day, 'Hey, you're not ready yet if you're going to keep forcing the ball. Take the shot when it's there, otherwise, take the check down.'

"(Quarterbacks coach) Alex Van Pelt and I said, 'As long as you're making the good decisions, we'll call the shot plays. But if you show us you can't do that, we're going to be throwing a bunch of conservative (stuff) for you.' So it's still always a learning process."

Several things are stacked in Freeman's favor. Start with his immense size and talent. In addition to passing for 3,451 yards last season, only Michael Vick rushed for more yards as a quarterback than Freeman's 364. He also has the ability to mature with young weapons such as receivers Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn and running back LeGarrette Blount.

While young quarterbacks such as the Jets' Mark Sanchez are surrounded by veteran talent, the Bucs will have the youngest team in the league for the second straight season. Freeman doesn't use that as a crutch.

"It really wasn't an excuse last year," Freeman said. "It's the NFL, it doesn't matter if you have freshmen playing or rookies or whatever it is. You've got to go out and compete. You get one shot in the NFL, and we're trying to make the most of it.

"You had some guys who got their first start in pressure situations and they stepped up huge. That's kind of the culture we're building around here. Everybody has got to be prepared to step up and play at a high level, and guys take that to heart. They take it personally."

Even coach Raheem Morris, who spent a year at Kansas State as defensive coordinator when Freeman was a 19-year-old Wildcat, is still learning to trust his 248-pound passer. Case in point: The Bucs were tied at 17 against Detroit last season and faced third and 7 at the Lions' 12-yard line. Rather than take a shot in the end zone or let Freeman pass for a first down, the Bucs ran Freeman on a counter play for 4 yards. Connor Barth's field goal made it 20-17 with 1:39 to play. But the Lions drove for a tying field goal, Tampa Bay lost the overtime coin toss, and ultimately the game 23-20.

Two weeks later, with Tampa Bay leading by a field goal in the third quarter at New Orleans, the Bucs' faced fourth and 1 at the Saints' 18-yard line. This time, Freeman faked a sneak and threw a perfect strike off his back foot to Williams for a touchdown.

"We do have a stud, I believe," Morris said. "And he probably could go out and chuck it around 60 times a game and make it a little easier. But you may create some weaknesses for yourself that may not be ready to close yet."

Olson forecasts Freeman to have another super season, especially if he wants to be mentioned among the league's top quarterbacks with Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers.

Some Bucs teammates suggest their expectations of Freeman are sky high.

"I can't even imagine what he's going to do this year; I think it's going to be that big and that great," left tackle Donald Penn said. "He's going to be one of the top five quarterbacks in the league. If we keep him safe, I think he's going to be an MVP candidate."

Times staff writer Joe Smith contributed to this report.

The smarter Josh Freeman is, the bolder the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can be 08/08/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 9, 2011 8:00am]

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