Luke McCown is the one competitor for the Bucs' quarterback job who has started for the team in the past
Earlier this month, we introduced a short pre-training camp series on Buccaneers.com called "Hot Spots," in which we will look at a handful of positions on the depth chart that will find new starting names in 2009.
These aren't bold predictions of lineup overhaul but rather statements of fact. When Jeff Garcia departed via free agency this past spring, it didn't necessarily mean that there would be a quarterback battle in Tampa, but it did mean there would be a new starter under center in 2009.
There are no shortage of such positions for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season, thanks to a series of conspicuous roster moves made earlier this year. For the purposes of this series, we counted 28 starting and high-impact non-starting positions (the 22 offensive and defensive starters plus the two kicker spots, two kick return spots, third wide receiver and nickel back) and found that at least nine would definitely have new occupants in 2009.
Previously, we've looked at the storylines surrounding left cornerback and nickel back spots, third receiver, weakside linebacker and strong safety and, most recently, left defensive end. Finally we turn our attention to that singularly important position mentioned above, starting quarterback.
Whether you're thrilled or nervous about the Bucs' depth chart at quarterback, the competition that is about to begin for the starting job is undeniably interesting. When was the last time the Buccaneers started training camp without at least an obvious, public frontrunner for that role? Maybe 1995? It's possible that the coaching staff privately decided upon a favorite during the spring, but Head Coach Raheem Morris has not backed away from his statement that the competition is wide open. Rookie Josh Freeman is clearly intended to be the long-term solution at the position, but to start in 2009 he'll have to outperform veterans Luke McCown and Byron Leftwich and second-year man Josh Johnson.
Hot Spots: Quarterback
If Freeman had stumbled during his first few months of practice at the NFL level, or one of the veterans been given preferential snap distribution, we might already have a public frontrunner. As it is, one could make a credible case for any of the three being the favorite; Johnson is likely the long shot of the group, though the Buccaneers remain very high on the talented youngster.
Morris has said that the best performer during the team's preseason games will win the job to start the regular season. Thus, the division of playing time in those games, especially the first three, will be important, and it's fair to say that performance on the practice field during the first two weeks of camp will help determine that division. Every practice from August first to the 14th will be critical, and possibly very telling.
Freeman was worked gradually into an extended role in practice after he was drafted in late April, but he reportedly made very steady progress before the end of the offseason program in late June. The rookie definitely did not exclude himself from the competition with his performance during the spring and early summer.
"In his mind, he's going to go out and compete and be the very best and try to win this job," said Morris. "And we're not going to hold him back. If that's what he's going to do, that's what he's going to do, and the only guy that's going to determine that is Josh Freeman."
McCown certainly would have been considered the frontrunner in March, before the team drafted Freeman or signed Leftwich off the free agency market. McCown certainly was not promised the job at that point, but it had been made clear to him that, for the first time, he was going to have a very real shot to win it. In fact, it was that assurance that prompted him to re-sign with the team in February rather than test free agency.
That hasn't changed even with the arrivals of Leftwich and Freeman, nor has McCown's approach changed. The sixth-year player, previously a fourth-round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns in 2004 and a trade acquisition by the Buccaneers during the 2005 draft weekend, is highly motivated to be an opening-day starter for the first time in his career.
Obviously, McCown has the advantage of experience with the team, as he is entering his fifth year in Tampa. However, he has started just three games in that span and is as new to Jeff Jagodzinski's offense as the rest of the roster. He did get a little bit of a head start in that system over Leftwich and Freeman, as he was on the team at the beginning of the offseason program in March. The other two were added in late April.
The 6-3, 212-pound McCown is very athletic, with an intriguing ability to scramble and make plays on the run. In his most extensive run of playing time in Tampa, during three games late in 2007, he was relatively impressive, particularly in leading the Bucs to a critical win in New Orleans. After Morris and General Manager Mark Dominik stepped into their new posts in January, they made it clear that they were eager to see what some of the team's promising young players could do. McCown could get his chance.
Leftwich was a very valuable reserve for the Pittsburgh Steelers last year, helping the eventual champions whether some temporary absences by starter Ben Roethlisberger. Leftwich has by far the most extensive starting experience in the NFL among the Bucs' rostered QBs, most of it with Jacksonville from 2003-06. He has a career TD-INT ratio of 54-38 and an overall passer rating of 80.3. Last year, he appeared in five games for the Steelers and compiled a 104.3 passer rating on 36 attempts.
Leftwich doesn't have McCown's above-average mobility but he does have a strong arm; both veteran passers looked comfortable throwing the ball downfield during spring practices, something that is apparently going to be a larger part of the team's attack in 2009. Since leaving Jacksonville, Leftwich has quickly learned new offenses in Atlanta and Pittsburgh; that and his veteran know-how should allow him to gain a comfort level quickly in the Bucs' preseason action.
Freeman would appear to be the wild card in the competition? How quickly will he come along? Will he show enough promise to be the opening-day starter, something that is relatively rare for rookies but not without recent precedent? Atlanta's Matt Ryan not only grabbed the starting job for the opener last year but remained their the entire season and helped the Falcons to a surprise playoff berth. The same was true for Baltimore's Joe Flacco, who as the 18th overall pick in 2008 was drafted at almost the exact same spot as Freeman.
Freeman won't fall behind the veterans due to a lack of arm strength; he, too, showed an ability to put the deep ball on the money during the spring. And his commendable progress during May and June means that he'll get a real opportunity to follow Ryan and Flacco's lead this August. Still, the Buccaneers won't start Freeman simply because he's the first-round pick or the quarterback of the future. The team is determined to wait until the time is right, even if that time does not arrive in 2009.
The Buccaneers have had their share of quarterback changes in recent years – more than their share, really. Hopefully, Freeman will eventually put an end to that. It will be thrilling to watch in training camp this year whether Freeman forces his time to come early, or whether veterans McCown or Leftwich or even underdog Josh Johnson grabs the reins instead.