Two years ago, Tampa Bay Buccaneers General Manager Mark Dominik and Head Coach Raheem Morris had a very serious discussion before ultimately sending their rookie quarterback, Josh Freeman, into the game against the New England Patriots at Wembley Stadium. Eventually it was decided that the time was right – that time being the fourth quarter of a lopsided win for the Patriots – for the team's 2009 first-round draft pick to get his initial taste of a real NFL game.
It wasn't an easy decision, because the Buccaneers had originally planned to let their potential franchise quarterback watch and learn from the sidelines for an entire season. But the Bucs were 0-6, headed for 0-7, and for weeks on the practice field Freeman had looked like a quarterback well beyond his age.
And so it was that London NFL fans, including a very large group of specific Buccaneer fans, got to be the first-hand witnesses to Freeman's debut. Not only was he sent into that game for a four-pass cameo, but he hasn't left the lineup since.
Freeman started the following week back in Tampa and led the Buccaneers to a memorable come-from-behind victory. That never-say-die comeback ability would quickly become the young passer's trademark, which he put on display several times during a brilliant 2010 campaign. An opening-day starter for the first time, Freeman led the NFL's youngest team to a 10-6 record and the cusp of the playoffs, tossing 25 touchdown passes against just six interceptions.
Freeman has won 16 of his last 24 starts and has Tampa Bay off to a 4-2 start in 2011. This time around, he's at the forefront as the Bucs invade England, and he's bringing with him a confident, if still quite young, bunch.
"That first year was a very trying year – a lot of new pieces, the first year for Raheem, first year for me, first year for a lot of guys," said Freeman, fresh off his first practice at Pennyhill Park in Surrey on Wednesday. "We still have a young team but we have a lot of confidence about what we're doing. When we go out, we feel like we can go out and win every game. That year was a rough year but we expect to go out and win now. We've got our foundation set and we're looking good."
Morris jokingly refers to Wembley stadium as the "birthplace" of Josh Freeman, and in a way it was the origination of his NFL career. When Freeman returns "home" on Sunday, he'll see virtually all of the team's offensive snaps, not just a handful in garbage time. And his Buccaneers will be seeking a much more serious goal than their first win of the season, as was the challenge at hand two years ago versus New England. The Bucs are tied for first place in the NFC South and know they need to avoid any stumbles in order to achieve their oft-stated goal of winning the division.
"The London crowd, they'll have a different quarterback out there," said Morris. "They've got a different quarterback, they've got a different Buc team, and they've got a 'Yungry' football team that's coming out ready to play. Hopefully these guys play fast, smart, hard and consistent like they have been all season. We're 4-2, we've got a tough challenge coming in in the Chicago Bears and we look forward to it being a great one."
Morris inadvertently created the term 'Yungry' during a press conference earlier this year, combining the words young and hungry. It was quickly adopted by the team as an unofficial slogan and was even emblazoned on a hat that Morris wears on occasion. The Buccaneers are once again the youngest team in the National Football League in 2011, but they consider that a positive, particularly as the wins keep piling up. On Wednesday, he took the time to explain the term to a press conference crowd made up largely of English media.
"It's a young and hungry football team," said Morris. "We keep drafting people and getting better. We keep adding to this young, talented roster that Mark Dominik and his staff have been able to put together. That's what 'Yungry's' about – this young, talented, hard-working football team."
The Bucs have added a good percentage of their most important pieces since their last trip to Wembley. The defensive line has been completely rebuilt with such young stars-in-the-making as Gerald McCoy, Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers. Running back LeGarrette Blount was snatched off waivers last September and turned into a 1,000-yard runner and a hurdling highlight machine. Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn, Mason Foster, Dekoda Watson…there are plenty of new faces for Bucs fans in London to see this year. But the Bucs know that their future success, and even their immediate success against the Bears on Sunday, likely revolves around Freeman, the 23-year-old franchise quarterback.
"Josh Freeman's our starting quarterback, so some of the questions we may have had the first time we came out here, we've got some of those answers," said Morris. "By no means are we a finished product. We won't be a finished product until we reach our ultimate goal, and that game's being played in Indy this year."
Meanwhile, the Buccaneers remain impressively focused on their immediate goals, which is surprising for such an inexperienced team. Or at least, it's surprising if one is not aware of the impressive maturity and leadership of its young quarterback. Freeman enjoyed seeing his first NFL action at Wembley two years ago, but he's single-minded about what will make this year's trip a success.
"The only goal of this trip – though a lot of guys yesterday went to see some sights and have some down time – is to win the football game," said Freeman. "The goal is to be 5-2 on the flight back home. We just plan on going in and executing our game plan. That's all you can do, prepare during the week, go in, know your plan front and back, then go out and do your best to execute and get a win."
Morris already leans on his 23-year-old passer as a player he can count on to get the rest of the team pointed in the right direction. Freeman's leadership has been priceless, for instance, after a tough loss, as he demonstrated once again in the week between a 48-3 defeat in San Francisco and a rousing 26-20 win over New Orleans. Now Morris is happy to be showing that young leader off to a much wider audience, and for a whole game, not just the closing minutes of the fourth quarter.
"We're a young football team," said. "This is a great opportunity to put our players in the bright lights, let our players get into a Super Bowl-type atmosphere."