After Tampa Bay's 20-7 victory over Carolina on Sunday, Panther defenders were complimentary of the Buccaneers' starting quarterback, Josh Freeman.
That wasn't surprising, given that Freeman had played a superb game, throwing for 178 yards and two touchdowns, running for 43 more yards on four carries and, most importantly, directing a mistake-free attack. Linebacker Jon Beason, for one, called Freeman's efforts the difference in the game and, in so doing, chose a word that underscored how encouraging the game was to Buccaneer fans.
"The kid played great," said Beason (emphasis added). "He made some nice passes and showed his athletic ability by scrambling when he had to. That's what the game comes down to."
Beason wasn't being dismissive or insulting. When you're a 22-year-old, second-year starting quarterback in the NFL, you're going to be referred to as "kid," even if you are a grown man who happens to stand 6-5, weigh about 250 pounds and play with the poise of a seasoned veteran. Said Tampa Bay Head Coach Raheem Morris on Monday: "[I'm] just so happy and so proud of what that kid's been able to do and how far he's come."
Kids mature (or at least they're supposed to) but not always at the same rate. It can take time for any young player in the NFL to fully grasp the intricacies of the game, to mentally take control, to slow down the action in his head…and no position is harder to play than quarterback. But if there is any one thing that most portends a bright future for a Buccaneers team chock full of 25-and-under contributors, it is the progress Freeman has made in less than one year as a starter.
"I think he's growing up before everyone's eyes and that's very encouraging," said Buccaneers Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson. "To see the way he played yesterday – it was the throws he didn't try to make that were most impressive. The throwaways were impressive to us, the way he managed the game."
It's not as if Freeman was bad when he first stepped into the starting lineup last November. He won his first-ever NFL start, for a team that was 0-7 before that game and over a Green Bay team that would make the playoffs. He beat the eventual Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints in December and, with Sunday's game in Charlotte, has now won three straight road starts. As the 2009 season drew to a close, the Buccaneers were very excited about the franchise's future in Freeman's hands, believing he would continue to progress into the long-term answer under center.
But, of course, that progression wouldn't happen magically, with a snap of the fingers the day after the '09 finale. Freeman would have to make it happen, and he did just that by throwing himself wholeheartedly into the offseason program. He was poring over videotape in February, a month before most of his teammates came back to work. He worked on his rapport with a young receiving corps. He continued to learn the difficult protection schemes and defensive recognition. In a football sense, he grew up fast.
And the best example of this came on Sunday in Charlotte. Nine months earlier, when the Buccaneers visited Carolina for what would be Freeman's fifth NFL start, the rookie passer showed off some of his boundless skills, racking up 321 passing yards and making some stunning downfield throws. But he also threw five interceptions, four of them in the red zone, and his team lost 16-6.
In his return trip to Bank of America Stadium, Freeman was just as impressive athletically – especially on a key 40-yard completion to tight end Kellen Winslow on which he first escaped two near-sacks – but his overall game was far more mature. Freeman was not intercepted, was not sacked and was not tempted to make a throw that would do more for the opposition than his own team.
"You were really pleased when you come out yesterday and watched him play," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "But now after watching the tape, you're just amazed. The plays that he didn't make – the bad snap in the air, he throws it out of bounds; the screen that the Carolina Panthers did a great job of covering and he throws it at his feet; he was able to get a ball off when a guy's grabbing our receiver and get another play. Some of the things he was able to do from a quarterback standpoint and from a veteran standpoint in that game were really impressive. I was excited to watch the tape."
It sounds simple, but avoiding the bad play is as important as making the good one, but maybe twice as hard to learn and to keep in mind when the bullets are flying. Freeman remembered on Sunday, occasionally taking off on safe – and ultimately effective – scrambles and, when that wasn't an option, getting rid of the football. Through two games the 2-0 Bucs have still not allowed a point as a result of a turnover.
"It was definitely a day where turnovers were huge," said Freeman of Sunday's win. "[Quarterbacks Coach] Alex Van Pelt told me all week, if you can go the whole game and not turn it over once we're going to have a really good chance to win this game. So I kind of took that mentality into the game. I still wanted to be aggressive and make plays but at the same time knowing when and when not to."
The Bucs certainly don't want to shackle their talented young passer. He's thrown four touchdown passes already and Olson said there were several other opportunities for big plays that were just missed on Sunday. Freeman threw deep three or four times and wasn't afraid to get creative on the run, as with his huge throw to Winslow. Freeman is much more than a "game manager," and the Bucs envision many 300-yard passing days in his future. But the sound decisions Freeman made in Sunday's win demonstrated that the 22-year-old is rapidly developing the mental game to go with his outsized physical talents, and that's fantastic news for the Buccaneers.
"They were great decisions at great moments that could have been big-time positive plays for the Carolina Panthers that he didn't give them," said Morris. "It's a cliché, but we always say that sometimes the best plays are the ones that you don't make and he absolutely proved that true yesterday."