In Tampa Bay's 2009 preseason finale, which also pitted the Buccaneers against the Houston Texans, quarterback Josh Freeman made his first NFL start, albeit a relatively unofficial one.
The Buccaneers' rookie quarterback got the call in Game Four after veterans Byron Leftwich and Luke McCown had contested the team's starting job for the first three weeks of the preseason. Leftwich was chosen as the starter, McCown was traded two days after the Houston game and neither had anything left to accomplish in the preseason closeout.
So Freeman got the entire first half, his most extensive playing time to that point. In the second half, second-year man Josh Johnson, supposedly the bubble man in the Bucs' quarterback battle, took over.
This year it's Rudy Carpenter who will start against the Texans to finish the preseason, as neither Freeman nor Joseph will play at all. That actually has little to do with the thumb injury Freeman sustained early in Week Two of this preseason, against the Chiefs. That small fracture would definitely rule Freeman out for Thursday's game, but it's not likely he would have seen more than a very brief cameo anyway, if that. The fact that Johnson is not playing indicates it's unlikely Freeman would have, either.
Preseason Game Four, as everyone understands at this point, is almost strictly for the young players and those still fighting for roster spots. Freeman's sights are set on the Cleveland Browns, who will invade Tampa in Week One of the regular season, and as such the most important goal for him is a return to full health.
"He's doing well," updated Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris. "He's starting to grip the football a little bit, throwing it around on the practice field a little bit. He's listening to his trainers, doing everything he needs to do to get prepared and ready to play for Cleveland. I just don't want to push him too fast, make him go too early and have any setbacks. But right now he's doing great. Our doctors are happy, our trainers are happy and we're doing the best thing for our organization right now."
Helping the organization also means solidifying the rest of the quarterback depth chart, as Freeman's injury, no matter how short-term it was, has made clear. The Bucs already believe they can count on Johnson to lead the team if necessary, but they also need to be sure they have the right man in the third spot on the depth chart. Thus, Rudy Carpenter and Jevan Snead will see all of the action under center tonight.
"I think our Number Two has done a good job the last two weeks of solidifying that he is a legit number two," said Morris of Johnson. "He is a legit player in this league. He is a guy that can go in and get it done. We want to formulate the bottom half of the roster and we want to see what more we can get out of Rudy, can we get some consistency in his performance. He had one game where he came out and showed some brilliance, and then he had another game where he came out and didn't have a great showing. He's looking to redeem himself and get out and play a little bit, and we'll also get a chance to maybe see a little bit of Snead there at the end. We'll give these guys a chance and see who's a practice squad guy, who's a legitimate third contender, who's a guy that can go out there and help us win if needed."
The Bucs also need to determine, once and for all, which members of their suddenly deep and promising receiving corps will be catching the passes from Freeman and company. That has proved to be the most intriguing battle of training camp and the preseason, and it is still ongoing. Rookie Mike Williams has locked down the starting job at the X, or split end, position but the decision has not yet been made at Z, or flanker. Sammie Stroughter appears to be in the lead in that latter battle, but even if he nails that job down, the third, fourth, fifth and maybe sixth receiver spots on the depth chart still need to be determined.
Thursday's game could be the deciding factor.
"It's going to be fun to watch," said Morris. "You'll get to see some of the younger guys. You'll get to see Arrelious Benn, but you'll also get to see Michael Clayton get a chance to go out there and compete. We will see who's going to be at that Z position, who's going to do what we require for the position, and which guys can formulate special teams roles. The Preston Parkers and all those guys are exciting and fun to watch. Micheal Spurlock has been showing up all preseason and doing good things. We'll see if he can continue to grow and develop. We know we've got some guys in Mike Williams and Sammie who are going out week to week and performing. They've done great for us, but we want to see these other guys play."
That will be true at every position on Thursday night, as the Buccaneers starters give way quickly to their hard-working back-ups. The Texans will almost certainly do the same. Tampa Bay has such a young roster overall that even many of the starters could use all the experience they can get, but the Buccaneers have to play Thursday's game with an eye towards two dates: Saturday's final roster cutdown and the following Sunday's season opener.
"We don't want to give too many people free passes around here," said Morris. "We're going to see [the starters] for a little bit, but both teams are the same way. They want to see their young talent, too. It's a good thing. They've got Andre Johnson and Matt Schaub, but I'm sure they won't play much, if any.
"We're ready to formulate the bottom of our roster and finish a couple position battles. It's an exciting team, a young team that we have here. It's a privilege every day to have a chance to go out there and compete and present your best self. In order to maintain and stay in this league you have to do that, as a coach and as a player. You're proud to wear the shield and there's only one way you can do it, by making one of these rosters."
As it turns out, the Buccaneers have decided to replace their entire starting 11 on offense. The starters now read as such: WR Reggie Brown, T James Lee, LG Marc Dile, C Donovan Raiola, RG Derek Hardman, TE Jerramy Stevens, WR Michael Clayton, QB Rudy Carpenter, RB Kareem Huggins and FB Earnest Graham.
On defense, the Buccaneers will keep seven of their 11 starters in the lineup. Niko Koutouvides will start at MLB over Barrett Ruud, rookie Cody Grimm will take over for Tanard Jackson at free safety and the new starting cornerback duo will be Myron Lewis and Elbert Mack.
The Buccaneers and Texans will kick off at 8:00 p.m. ET. Buccaneers.com will provide an update of the action at halftime and a detailed game story after the final whistle.