Josh McCown folded his 6-foot-5 body into a cushioned seat in the players' lounge at One Buc Place, his youthful face and full mop of strawberry blond hair worthy of a poster in the window of Abercrombie and Fitch. • But at 35, the Bucs' starting quarterback is old enough to be president. • Playing for his seventh NFL team, McCown still is appreciative of the trust shown in him by new Bucs coach Lovie Smith, who twice before (in 2011 and 2012) brought him back from football extinction to be the backup with the Bears. • The truth is McCown never expected to find himself in this position. He never had the strongest arm, threw the most accurate passes or won the most games. Heck, the five starts he made for the Bears last season were his most in nearly a decade. • Turns out the one thing McCown did better than any other quarterback was age. "I don't know why I'm still physically like this," McCown said, shaking his head. "I've always joked I'm a late bloomer. I'm blessed." • The history of the NFL is told by coach-quarterback unions. There is probably no relationship in sports more complicated or symbiotic. The foundation must be built on trust. Just one little crack, a fissure of doubt, and the entire locker room can split and erode a team's chances like waves hitting a sand castle.
Faith is fragile between the coach and quarterback. Last year's 4-12 Bucs season was torpedoed by the schism between quarterback Josh Freeman and coach Greg Schiano. The former was released, the latter fired and today neither has a job in the NFL.
Smith, who was fired by the Bears after nine seasons despite going 10-6 in 2012, watched McCown on television from his basement in Chicago last year as he threw 11 touchdowns and one interception and went 3-2 over five starts for the injured Jay Cutler. Smith had 11 starting quarterbacks during his nine seasons with the Bears, and you could stack the ones he has studied as high as the Sears Tower.
"I haven't known any of them the way I know Josh," Smith said.
Smith is famous for stubbornly standing behind his quarterbacks. Who can forget his support of Rex Grossman in 2006 and his steely refrain of "Rex is our quarterback, our quarterback is Rex," after a Week 12 fumble on the goal line? Grossman wound up playing well enough to help the Bears reach Super Bowl XLI, where they lost to Tony Dungy's Colts.
He also backed Cutler and Kyle Orton. But no one has earned Smith's seal of approval like McCown, who in 2010 turned down a job offer from Smith because he felt he needed to honor his commitment to the now-defunct United Football League.
"It's just the situations I've seen him in," Smith said. "Most of the quarterbacks who came in, like Rex, were the starter. Jay was the starter (as was) Kyle Orton. But I've seen (McCown). I've recruited him (and) not gotten him. Eventually, we work him out and get him. He's a No. 3 guy. He's a No. 2 guy. He's a No. 1 guy having to play. … We're both from east Texas. I know his DNA. You know how athletic he is."
Other coaches tiptoed around picking their starting quarterback this offseason. But there was no hesitation from Smith, who named McCown the Bucs' starter when he signed in March.
"Most guys, when they get to be that age, you've taken a lot of hits," Smith said, "He just doesn't have a 35-year-old body. He's a young guy in a lot of ways. These days, quarterbacks are playing longer. Peyton (Manning) is not talking about retiring any time soon. Tom Brady says he wants to play into his 40s. Josh just turned 35, and he hasn't played as much as those other guys."
Smith is here primarily because of a textbook case of a coach-quarterback relationship that became so broken, Dr. Phil couldn't put it back together.
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Schiano inherited Freeman when he arrived, whip in hand, in 2012. Freeman was one year removed from a breakout season in which he won 10 games and threw 25 touchdowns and only six interceptions.
But Freeman's self-esteem took a hit the next year, a 4-12 debacle in 2011. His work habits also declined.
After a 1-3 start in 2012, the Bucs adapted their offense to get Freeman out of the pocket more, and he responded with five wins over the next six games. He had a passer rating of 100 or higher for five straight games, throwing 16 touchdowns and three interceptions during that stretch.
But then the script flipped, and the Bucs lost five straight games. Freeman threw six touchdowns and 10 interceptions during that stretch, and the Bucs went on to finish 7-9. In the offseason, Schiano wanted to go in another direction at quarterback; maybe sign free agent Carson Palmer.
But the organization, taking a helicopter view of Freeman, saw the team records for touchdowns (27) and passing yards (4,065) in 2012 and believed it would be a mistake to pull the plug a year before he hit free agency.
By 2013, it got ugly. Freeman wasn't voted captain amid accusations Schiano rigged the ballot, which he denied. Freeman was fined for missing the team picture and a week later for being late to the bus for the season opener.
After an 0-3 start in which he completed 45 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and three interceptions, Freeman was benched for rookie Mike Glennon. The Thursday before the next game, he said a trade would probably be "the best option."
A few days after the game, ESPN reported Freeman was in Stage 1 of the NFL's substance-abuse program. The players union and Freeman's camp accused Schiano of leaking the information. Freeman revealed he had permission from the league to take Adderall for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder but volunteered to enter the program after taking Ritalin. He said he had passed 46 drug tests.
By midweek, during the Bucs' bye, Freeman was released. Soon after, he signed with the Vikings.
"No question if that trust is broken, there's a space for the player to change course a little bit," McCown said. "That's what makes it unique for me; having history with Lovie."
Smith understands the trust issue as well as any coach.
"I do think it's a must," Smith said. "I think the quarterback has to know the head coach has the confidence in him to do the job; that he's the leader. After the game, I'm going to talk to the media. The quarterback is going to talk. We realize the position we're in. We have to be together and know the other one has each other's back."
Smith said McCown was easily accepted in the Bucs locker room because of his personality and perseverance.
"If there's a seat at any table, Josh can walk right in and he's just one of the guys in any environment," he said.
And yes, he knows 35-year-old quarterbacks don't typically press restart and lead their team to a championship. He believes McCown can do it. A spiritual man with a wife and four children, McCown believes the difficult journey prepared him for this moment.
With Glennon tabbed as McCown's eventual successor, Smith says the Bucs are better armed at quarterback than any team he has coached. But he made it clear his belief in McCown's ability to win games is why he's here.
"You say all these things about Josh, but I think he can play, too," Smith said. "And to me, with what I wanted in a quarterback, knowing when to make a great decision, he can throw the ball. And then the mobility he brings … this is all about winning right now."
Contact Rick Stroud at email@example.com and listen from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-AM 620. Follow @NFLStroud.