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Will Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie quarterback Josh Freeman be the last in line for a while?

TAMPA

Josh Freeman dangled his orange and white Bucs throwback helmet alongside the canary yellow practice jersey that quarterbacks wear, a giant caution sign to pass rushers to keep their hands off Josh Franchise.

For eight weeks, the Bucs kept their first-round pick bottled up on the bench as if he were an expensive wine that needed aging. But today against the Packers, on the same day the Bucs salute their past with retro uniforms, the 21-year-old who represents their future will make his first NFL start.

"Playing football in this league has been something I've been dreaming about and preparing for my whole life," Freeman said. "Since I first knew what a football was. My dad played (in the USFL), hearing his story, watching the Chiefs every Sunday — it's always something I knew I was going to do, and I'm going to enjoy it."

Freeman's journey really began when he was a sophomore at Grandview High School near Kansas City, Mo. Freeman was summoned to the office of head coach Jason Godfrey. The battle at quarterback with Keenan Spight was too close to call and had gone all the way to the blue and gold scrimmage.

"Coach sat us down and said, 'Hey, whoever wins this game, you're the starting quarterback,' " Freeman said.

They began picking teams, and Spight had first choice, quickly filling his roster with the best receivers and tight ends. Freeman loaded up on defense and picked William Griffin, a speedy player who had just transferred schools.

"We get in the game, and they're not getting an inch on offense," Freeman said. "We're doing a little bit but not much. Just running the ball and keeping it easy. Then we bring the new kid with speed in, and I just threw it up to him. He caught a couple touchdowns, and we ended up winning."

Godfrey knew then what still holds true in the NFL today: If you have the kid quarterback with the big arm, you've got the best chance of winning.

That's why the Bucs traded up two spots to use the 17th overall pick on Freeman. Since 2000, when the Bucs' last first-round pick at quarterback, Trent Dilfer, signed as a free agent with the Ravens, Tampa Bay has used 14 quarterbacks. In the seven seasons since winning Super Bowl XXXVII, the Bucs will have started 10 quarterbacks after today.

Freeman, who becomes the youngest player to start at quarterback for Tampa Bay, is the guy the Bucs think will finally stop their roulette wheel at the position.

"If you ever want to have any long-term planning, any long-term winning, it starts with the quarterback," coach Raheem Morris said. "We believe (No.) 5 is the guy."

Morris worked as a defensive coordinator at Kansas State in 2006 when Freeman was a freshman. But as much as he liked and wanted Freeman, who set school records by passing for more than 8,000 yards and 44 touchdowns in three seasons, general manager Mark Dominik needed to be sure selecting him was the right thing.

Dominik knew this: Most NFL teams that are near the top of the standings every year have that established triggerman.

"If you don't take care of the position, you'll be on a roller coaster," Dominik said. "You might have a decent season and turn around and not be as good. But it was not going to be, 'Let's draft one for the sake of saying you drafted a quarterback in the first round.' "

The decision for the Bucs, who had the 19th overall pick, was whether to mortgage most of their draft to move into the top of the first round for Georgia's Matthew Stafford or USC's Mark Sanchez (an idea that was quickly dismissed because of their needs). Or they could hope that Freeman, projected to be off the board in the bottom of the first round, was still available.

"We evaluated them all, and we came up with a constant: What other quarterback am I going to know better?" Morris said. "What other quarterback am I going to have a better feel for?"

The Bucs were prepared to put Freeman on the shelf and leave him there his entire rookie season. Their history is steeped in drafting quarterbacks in the first round and not properly developing them. Doug Williams, Steve Young, Vinny Testaverde and Dilfer all enjoyed career highlights once they left the Bucs.

But the 0-7 start accelerated the plan to play Freeman, who has been the first player in the building almost from the day he was drafted and one of the last to leave.

"The thing you've got to do this week if Freeman has two interceptions and one touchdown or two touchdowns and one interception, realize it's just the first game," Dominik said. "It doesn't matter. It would be nice and great and huge for the organization and franchise if he went out and threw two touchdowns and had just one interception. Even then, it's just the first game, and to be established, it takes a lot more time than nine games."

In some ways, this year was always going to be about Freeman. Morris made the mistake of declaring that he was "married" to his "franchise quarterback" the day he was drafted.

What the Bucs hope to see in games by the end of the year are flashes of brilliance they witness in practice: the powerful arm, a guy who can keep plays alive with his feet and a quiet confidence that doesn't border on arrogance.

"We're not setting the bar low for Josh," Dominik said. "We all understand if he is the quarterback we believe he is, Tampa will be a very happy town."

After the Bucs' 35-7 loss to New England two weeks ago in London, Freeman and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady crossed paths coming out of their respective locker rooms. Pro scouting director Doug Williams pointed out to Freeman that Brady was in a suit while Freeman was wearing jeans. The message was that Freeman needed to understand he's now like the CEO of the team and image matters.

"I understand it's more than just how I play on Sunday," Freeman said. "People are looking for me to set the tone."

Morris said coaching the secondary during much of his NFL career gave him an a better understanding of how important it is to have a franchise quarterback.

"I know the problems a good guy behind the center creates, and it's just something we want around here," Morris said. "If we have that, we can win yearly, we can go to the playoffs yearly, we can have an opportunity to win championships yearly, and that's what you want to set yourself up for.

"Now, is that going to happen immediately? No. Is that going to happen (today) when he steps into the huddle? No. We don't expect that. You've got to have the patience."

After all, Josh Franchise is just getting started.

Bucs vs. Packers, 1 p.m., Raymond James Stadium, Tampa. TV/Radio: Ch. 13; 620-AM, 103.5-FM

Will Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie quarterback Josh Freeman be the last in line for a while? 11/07/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 8, 2011 1:22pm]
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