Quarterback Josh Freeman will make his first career opening-day start on Sunday when his Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Cleveland Browns at Raymond James Stadium. The Buccaneers believe it will be the first of many, and thus Sunday's game could rank as one of the more significant dates in franchise history.
That said, the Buccaneers could have done without the extra dollop of drama provided by the thumb fracture Freeman sustained in the second preseason game on August 21. Freeman returned to the field as predicted on Tuesday and successfully navigated the week of practice, so the team is confident that their young passer is ready to go. He won't pass the real test, however, until the live bullets start flying on Sunday.
"We don't deal with speculations, we deal with absolutes," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "And the only absolute that we know is that we know absolutely nothing. So we've got to let him go out there, be his best self and play, and we'll let the results be what they are. We won't use that as an excuse or a crutch of any sort. We've got to go out and win this football game. That's our job."
Actually, there hasn't been much hand-wringing at One Buccaneer Place this week, due both to Freeman's good results on the practice field and to the fact that sympathy isn't very prevalent in the NFL. Freeman knows he won't be graded on a curve on Sunday due to his thumb.
"He looked good, but the bottom line about it is that nobody cares," said Morris. "Nobody cares how he feels, the only thing they worry about is how we're going to end up at the end of the day. And that's all he cares about. He's going to be his very best self, he's mentally tough, his team is mentally tough and we're ready to go out there and play."
As confident as the Bucs are in Freeman's backup, third-year man Josh Johnson, the team is eager to begin the process of building a potent offense around their young franchise starter. Freeman's six-man receiving corps has an average age south of 24 years old and his starters are rookie Mike Williams and second-year man Sammie Stroughter. With those two, Arrelious Benn, Maurice Stovall, Micheal Spurlock and Preston Parker (though Stovall and Parker will be inactive Sunday), there is talent galore to be unlocked, and no time to wait.
"We're starting off young," said Morris. "We've got a whole bunch of guys that are going to be able to grow up together, and that's what you like about it. Eighteen (Stroughter) and 19 (Williams) are beasts. Their jersey numbers are a great reflection of their ages, and we feel great about them. It's a credit to their ability to lock in and become vets faster than they should be. These guys have really done a great job of doing that."
Obviously, Freeman will have an easier go of it in his first opening-day start if he is supported by a strong running game. That is a point of major emphasis for the Buccaneers, who will hand the lead role to comeback king Cadillac Williams but also get supporting efforts from Earnest Graham and Kareem Huggins. The Bucs have reworked their running back corps in the last two weeks but that group's success depends on much more than just its own talents.
"When you talk about our running game you've got to mention all those parties involved – the quarterback on the exchange, getting the ball to Cadillac; the blocking up front; everybody blocking downfield so we can get big runs," said Morris. "It's everything involved and all hands on deck. We're really excited to see those guys come off the ball and play physical and tough like we've been talking about all along."
The Browns running game is led by 2009 late-season sensation Jerome Harrison, who will be taking his handoffs from long-time Bucs nemesis Jake Delhomme. Cleveland finished the '09 season very strong, following a 1-11 start by winning four in a row to close out the year. It's defense was particularly effective in that stretch, holding three of four opponents to 300 yards and 17 points or fewer. In the offseason, the team added LB Scott Fujita and CB Sheldon Brown to its starting lineup. Despite all of this, the Browns' scariest weapon might be a player that is not listed as a starter on either offense or defense.
That would be return man Joshua Cribbs, who brought four kicks back for touchdowns last year and has 10 return scores in his five seasons in the league. The Buccaneers have traditionally been very strong on kick coverage but they will certainly be tested on opening day of 2010.
"He's a very special man," said Morris of Cribbs. "There aren't many times when you go into a game and talk about who can ruin a game plan, and he's definitely one of those characters. We look forward to competing against him and being our best."
With 90 minutes to go before kickoff, the Buccaneers determined which 45 men would do the competing this Sunday, naming their eight inactives. In addition to Stovall and Parker, the Buccaneers deactivated RB LeGarrette Blount, RB Kregg Lumpkin, C/G Ted Larsen, DL Michael Bennett, DE Erik Lorig and designated third quarterback Rudy Carpenter.
Neither the Bucs nor the Browns had any changes to their starting lineups. Cleveland deactivated the following eight players: WR Carlton Mitchell, S Nick Sorenson, LB D'Qwell Jackson, G Shawn Lauvao, C Steve Vallos, TE Alex Smith, LB David Bowens and designated third quarterback Colt McCoy. Sorenson, Jackson and Bowens were out due to injury.
The Bucs and Browns will kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET. Morris is eager to see all his team's hard work finally put into action.
"It's all about playing hard, playing fast, playing smart and being consistent," he said. "That's what we've been talking about the whole training camp, the whole offseason, all the time we've been together. That's our job."
Buccaneers.com will post a detailed report of the first two quarters of action at halftime and a full game story after the final whistle. Gene Deckerhoff and Dave Moore of the Buccaneers Radio Network will also provide a video postgame breakdown for Buccaneers.com at the conclusion of the action.