TAMPA — He has lost 20 pounds, dramatically altering his physical appearance, and has shorter hair. But Josh Freeman believes he is still growing as a quarterback.
Along with his shrinking waistline, the 6-foot-6, 237-pounder knows he must reduce his interceptions and says he will benefit from a new coach, offensive coordinator and supporting cast.
One year after throwing 25 touchdowns and six interceptions, Freeman fell to 16 touchdowns and 22 interceptions last season. The result was a 4-12 record and a hit to his reputation as a rising young quarterback.
"Last season, a lot of things didn't go our way," Freeman said. "A lot of things didn't go my way. But in that, there's a lot to learn from the standpoint of trying to step out of the system, trying to make too many plays, trying to do things when in actuality, as a quarterback, the offense is going to get you there."
Between the firing of coach Raheem Morris and the hiring of Greg Schiano, Freeman decided to rededicate himself to his craft. The first step was getting into the best physical condition of his life. Freeman cut out late-night runs to Taco Bell and hooked up with Grant Gregory, the former Kansas State and Tampa Bay Storm quarterback who worked as a trainer in Harbour Island.
Gregory, who is described by Freeman as always carrying Tupperware "with vegetables, chicken, all that stuff," taught Freeman to eat properly. That and a workout regimen put in place by Bucs strength and conditioning coach Jay Butler enabled Freeman to go from 257 pounds to 237.
"It was a number of lifestyle changes," Freeman said. "After the season last year, the time in between coaches, I had a good discussion with (former offensive coordinator) Greg Olson, and we talked about a number of things, one of which was trying to be at your best, trying to be a pro at everything, not just football, but in your life, lifestyle habits. … I wanted to take the steps and be excellent with my diet, with exercise, with working out year round."
"Everybody is like, 'Oh, did you get faster? Did you lose a little strength?' I can't say I got noticeably faster. I can't say I got noticeably stronger or weaker. But I feel good. Flexibility, throwing the ball. … I feel physically great."
Freeman's decline last season mirrored that of his teammates. Mike Williams was among the league leaders in dropped passes, and the run game struggled.
"We had a lot of breakdowns in a lot of areas," guard Davin Joseph said. "Up front, I didn't feel we played good enough to help Josh. There were a lot of players who could've done better for Josh. We like to focus in on the quarterback a lot. You give him all the praise when he wins, all the bad when the team loses. But we forget it's a team sport.."
This offseason, the Bucs filled a grocery list of needs on offense for Freeman, starting with the signings of receiver Vincent Jackson and guard Carl Nicks and drafting of running back Doug Martin in the first round.
"He has a bad taste in his mouth about last year and has a focus about him," offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said. "There's a look in his eye that's kind of similar to the look in Eli Manning's eye as far as having a bad year and hearing some criticism and wanting to put that behind him and move forward. He's putting in the time, he's putting in the work and progressing nicely and getting into a good rhythm with his receivers and developing a command of the offense."
How big is this year for Freeman? His contract runs through 2013, and he and the Bucs would like to work toward an extension. That's the real skinny.
"Each year, you constantly learn and grow," Freeman said. "That's what I've got to keep doing this year, finding ways whether it be in practice, in preparation, in footwork, throwing the ball — constantly trying to improve."