The 2010 season looked like the start of something big, perhaps unprecedented in franchise history, for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense.
A 22-year-old quarterback was coming into his own, seemingly gaining in poise and confidence every week and proving particularly effective when the game was on the line in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, he was distributing the ball to a pack of young 20-somethings who looked ready to grow together with their franchise QB into a force to be reckoned with for years to come.
The Bucs averaged 370 yards and 25 points a game over the last five weeks of the 2010 campaign. Freeman threw 11 touchdown passes and one interception during that span. The future looked very bright indeed for a franchise that had essentially never had one of the NFL's best offenses.
And the future still looks bright, for many of the same reasons. The Buccaneers have not yet backed up their 10-6 season in 2010 with a playoff-caliber campaign in 2011, but they remain confident. In particular, that young passer, Josh Freeman, still believes in his young receivers, and they believe in him as well.
"He's the guy we want behind the center," said wideout Mike Williams, who caught a team-record 11 touchdown passes as a rookie sensation in 2010. "He's the guy we want to run this offense. He's the guy we want to finish in the fourth quarter. Josh is still the man to us. When you start losing is when everybody starts evaluating you in different ways. I guess that's what [the media] is doing to him, but we still see Josh as what Josh is."
The biggest difference in the statistics between last year and this year, in terms of Freeman's numbers, is the interceptions thrown. He was picked off just six times in 474 attempts last year for a stellar INT percentage of 1.3. This year, he's suffered 13 picks in nine games, at roughly three times the rate per throw. Otherwise, Freeman says his understanding of defenses and protection schemes is much better in 2011, and that he has tossed quite a fewer passes that were poor decisions.
Still, the picks are up and the big plays are down, and Head Coach Raheem Morris has pinpointed one reason why. Morris says his young receivers are not fighting for the ball as hard as they did a year ago. It's worth noting that two of Freeman's three interceptions last Sunday against Houston hit a receiver's hands before they bounced to a defender.
"I think we need to compete for a lot of his balls," said Williams, in total agreement. "We need to make him look good, and make him look great when he's great. That's what we need to do."
Williams did that repeatedly in 2010, especially around the end zone, coming down with some very memorable catches, including his first TD in the season opener at Cleveland and a jump-ball score in the season-final road upset of the New Orleans Saints. Williams has just one touchdown so far this season and hasn't had the same number of highlight-reel plays. He is just as capable as ever of giving that to the Bucs' offense, however, as are his fellow receivers, and that's something they'll be looking to improve on down the stretch.
"We've got to make the plays we're supposed to make and the plays we're not supposed to make," he said. "We've got to step up and make the catches. Like Rah said, we've got to win some of those battles we're not supposed to win."
Again, it was Morris, not Freeman, who put the onus on his receivers to make more plays. Freeman is not an excuse-maker or a finger-pointer and he has never called out anybody else on the offense. However, he took it to heart when Morris informed the entire team on Monday that their effort level in the Houston game was unacceptable. As a team leader, Freeman has tried to echo that message throughout the locker room and on the practice field this week.
"You talk about everything, everything that goes into a football game, and not everything is going to go your way," he said. "But one thing you can make sure goes your way every play at every position is effort. That's really inexcusable for somebody to go out and not give 100% on every play.
"I've had a lot of personal talks with a lot of guys about what we need to do to get back to playing our brand of football, just going out and playing fast and competing, get back some of that intensity we didn't really play with last week. You have to play with 100% effort. This league is so competitive that if you don't go out and give it the best you have you're not going to have a chance."