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Quarterback Josh Freeman, receiver Vincent Jackson develop chemistry for Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Quarterback Josh Freeman  (5) and receiver Vincent Jackson, right, talk every day about coordinator Mike Sullivan’s offense.
Quarterback Josh Freeman (5) and receiver Vincent Jackson, right, talk every day about coordinator Mike Sullivan’s offense.
Published Aug. 5, 2012

TAMPA — Those who were ready to draw a chalk outline around the career of Josh Freeman might want to reconsider.

Nothing brings a quarterback back to life like a 6-foot-5, 230-pound receiver.

That's why when Bucs receivers coach P.J. Fleck learned the team signed Vincent Jackson in March, he never went to bed because "it felt like Christmas." He greeted Jackson and his wife at the airport at 3 o'clock in the morning.

Jackson walked off that chartered flight from the West Coast carrying bloated expectations. He surpassed 1,000 receiving yards and gained at least 17.2 yards per catch in each of his past three full seasons in San Diego.

"He's such a big target," Freeman said. "He has so much versatility, it makes it easy on a quarterback."

Both must learn a new scheme under offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan, who won't operate a pass-first approach. A little more than one week into training camp, Freeman and Jackson are still getting acclimated.

So how soon can they become one of the league's best quarterback-receiver tandems?

"Very quickly because they're both hungry," Fleck said. "If one is hungry and the other is not, you have an issue. But they're both hungry.

"From the first pass Vincent caught from Josh, you could tell the mold just formed. They would talk to each other after every play. They still do that. It is really neat to watch."

Jackson is fast, precise, smart and sure-handed. He was a security blanket for Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers. Not only can he get deep, but Rivers sometimes tossed the ball high in the air even when Jackson was well-covered and let him go get it.

Freeman could use a lift such as that after throwing 22 interceptions and 16 touchdowns last season, one year after throwing six and 25, respectively. Even while going 4-12 and losing 10 straight to end last season, Freeman set career marks for passing yards (3,592) and completion percentage (62.8).

Where he struggled, in addition to throwing the ball to the wrong-colored jerseys, was on intermediate passes. He completed only 42.2 percent of his passes between 11-20 yards with five touchdowns and 11 interceptions for a passer rating of 44.4.

By comparison, Carolina rookie Cam Newton completed 50 percent with a 68.5 rating and New England's Tom Brady 57.5 percent with a 111.3 rating.

Freeman has never had a legitimate No. 1 receiver. Mike Williams, a fourth-round pick in 2010, led all rookies with 11 touchdowns before falling to three last season. But Williams is more suited for a No. 2 role and lacks the speed to get separation. Preston Parker, Arrelious Benn and Sammie Stroughter don't fit the bill either.

Jackson, 29, is already the hardest-working receiver on the team, a guy who takes meticulous notes and helps younger teammates. Someone such as that can put Freeman back on target.

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"He's a big, physically strong, gifted quarterback, and I work very hard on what I do as well," Jackson said. "You've got two guys who, obviously, are learning a new offense, but we're doing it together.

"We're on the same page, communicating each and every day. We spend a lot of time together on and off the field, so that natural relationship is going to build."


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