Rookie QB Josh Freeman has made steady progress, and the occasional spectacular throw, on the Bucs' practice field
There were no cheers or high fives, just a lot of low whistles and raised eyebrows on the sidelines, and a lot of people turning to their neighbors to ask, "Did you see that?"
And, yeah, everybody saw it.
During the final full-team period of Thursday's practice at One Buccaneer Place, a "move-the-ball" session in a two-minute setting, Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie quarterback Josh Freeman lofted the sort of throw that made him a first-round pick in the 2009 draft.
Freeman's toss was a picture-perfect arc deep down the middle of the field to wide receiver Pat Carter, who split two safeties with a post pattern and caught the ball on a dead run. The throw was a tight spiral, flawless in terms of timing, precision and loft, but best of all it was the result of the perfect decision.
"You saw a big-time throw by the guy," acknowledged Head Coach Raheem Morris just a few minutes later. "That's what we knew he could do. That's what you've got to ask him to do when you get a guy like that. He just had to make a good decision and he made a great decision. It was a big-time throw and it was a big-time completion, and that kind of stuff fires you up."
There was no dancing around on the field after the completion because it simply created another situation to which to react. With Quarterbacks Coach Greg Olson urging them on, the 11 offensive players sprinted down the field to get in position for the next play before the last few seconds of the game ran out. Upon later reflection, though, it's the kind of moment that is cause for quiet celebration among coaches and fans alike. Freeman may or may not win the starting job in 2009, but he is certainly expected to become a "franchise quarterback" at some point. One good pass on the practice field doesn't prove any eventual outcome, but it does help to reinforce the evaluations that led the Bucs to take Freeman with the 17th overall selection.
What has been just as encouraging, in a more steady than spectacular way, has been Freeman's development since he first took the practice field with the Buccaneers in late April.
"His understanding of the offense, his ability to make better decisions [has progressed]," said Morris. "I've seen his footwork get better, I've seen his pocket presence become better. I've seen him move up and not be such a stand-there guy and expect the protection to work for you so much.
"You're starting to see the development, you're starting to see the growth, you're starting to see the guy move around, you're starting to see him make throws, you're starting to see him make the awkward throws. That's what makes these quarterbacks good, man. You've got to know when and why."
Olson, in his second year as the tutor for the Bucs' passers, has helped Freeman significantly.
"He's working with a great quarterbacks coach in Greg Olson," said Morris. "[Olson] knows the position. The guy knows what he's looking for, he knows Freeman's weaknesses, he knows his strengths."
Freeman's first work with the Buccaneers came in a rookie mini-camp the weekend after the draft, but then he was required to return home for two weeks before rejoining the team for its current run of organized team activity (OTA) practices. When he returned to One Buc Place for those workouts, he found his reps in full-team drills, and especially with the first and second-team players, to be limited as Byron Leftwich and Luke McCown got most of the work. However, he has gradually been given a larger share of the action, and that increased this week when Leftwich was slowed by a very minor injury.
Leftwich is expected to be back in the mix next week during the Bucs' mandatory mini-camp, but in the meantime Freeman and fellow youngster Josh Johnson enjoyed a greater opportunity to make plays.
"It gave Freeman and Josh [Johnson] both more reps," said Morris of Leftwich's inactivity. "Those young guys, they jump all over that stuff. You lay in the tub, people are all over your reps. That's just how it goes."
Buccaneer players are about to reap the benefits, for at least one day, of all their hard work over the past 14 weeks.
In part because he believes the team is ahead of schedule in their preparations for training camp, Morris has elected to cancel practice on the third day of next week's mandatory mini-camp. Rather than the grass behind One Buc Place, the Bucs will hit the road for a team-building activity that promises to be more fun than work.
The idea is not entirely new but the activity may be. The Buccaneers have taken similar side trips in June in recent years, always to a local bowling alley. The coaching staff hasn't yet revealed where the players will be headed next Thursday, but it is not expected to be the lanes.
The first two days of mini-camp, on the other hand, will be a little more strenuous than what the team has become accustomed to during its five week run of OTA practices. The schedule will more closely resemble the typical training camp day, with two field sessions, one each in the morning and the afternoon. By the third day, it's likely that every player on the roster will be grateful for a day away from football.
A Busy Weekend, Too
The entire team will get together this Saturday, too, but the big event at Raymond James Stadium is focused more on building outwork connections than inner bonds.
The event, of course, is FanFest, annually the most popular day on the Buccaneers' offseason schedule. With only a few excused exceptions, the entire roster of players and coaches will be at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday to interact with the fans in attendance. The day's schedule includes ongoing autograph sessions where fans can meet and obtain the signatures of their favorite players and coaches.
Morris, who will also answer fans' questions during the Coaches Corner session around noon, is looking forward to the event, his first as the Bucs' head coach.
"FanFest is always a good opportunity to see a lot of people, to see the people that care for you and come and cheer for you," he said. "Shoot, we're a friendly team as it is. We're out in the community; the people in this community know us. I think we've got a lot of friends and I'm sure a lot of them will be out to see us on Saturday."
For more information on FanFest, including the times and locations of each player's autograph session, please click here.