In 2010, Josh Freeman became a full-time starting quarterback in the National Football League at the age of 22. The other quarterbacks on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' roster at the time – Freeman's backups and his daily support system – were 24-year-old Josh Johnson, who was drafted by Tampa Bay one season before Freeman; and 24-year-old Rudy Carpenter, an undrafted free agent who had spent a little time with the Dallas Cowboys before coming over to Tampa in 2009.
Freeman had a marvelous season in 2010 (10 wins, 25 TD passes, just six interceptions) in charge of a team every bit as young as that quarterback room. The 2011 season was less satisfying for both him and the team as a whole, but the Buccaneers in 2012 still feel very strongly that Freeman will be their franchise quarterback for many years to come.
As go Freeman, so will go the Buccaneers, many believe. As such, the franchise is determined to do whatever it takes to put their young passer in the best possible position to succeed. One aspect of that could be the relatively under-the-radar signing this spring of veteran quarterback Dan Orlovsky.
Orlovsky turns 29 this month, shortly after the Buccaneers break training camp, and while his 12 career NFL starts don't scream of overwhelming experience, other numbers tell a different story. A fifth-round pick of the Detroit Lions in 2005, he has played for three other NFL teams, has absorbed seven different offenses along the way and has found himself in the company of quite a few valuable mentors. He's been through some lean years in Detroit and been involved in some very strong offenses in Houston. Last year in Indianapolis, Orlovsky was a rare bright spot in five starts for a Colts team that mostly floundered under center after the loss of Peyton Manning.
All of which has contributed to shaping the Dan Orlovsky the Buccaneers are seeing on their practice field this summer, a confident, mature, team-oriented leader who is in position to help his new team beyond, again, what any numbers might say.
Most notably, Orlovsky has embraced what he considers one of his primary roles in Tampa: helping Freeman succeed.
"I've been around a long enough time to understand guys and teams and coaches," said Orlovsky. "I know what my role is. My role is to be Josh's backup and be ready to play, and if needed be ready to play at a high level, winning football. I'm confident in that. It's also my role to make sure he's playing as well as he can, he's as prepared as he can be.
"I've had some really good talks with him. Being a little older and having been around some good quarterbacks, I just try to impart some stuff on him. He's young. He's very young and he's had young guys around him at his position, too. I'm really just making an extra effort to allow him to see how I go about my day. I was fortunate to learn from some guys, some good coaches, about what it's like to be a pro in this league, and especially at this position that demands it. That's big for me."
Two of the most formative years for Orlovsky were spent in Houston in 2009 and 2010, even though he didn't throw a single regular-season pass during that time. The Texans' head coach was then and still is now Gary Kubiak, who certainly had a well-earned perspective that Orlovsky could appreciate. Kubiak played nine seasons in the NFL, every one of them as a backup to Hall of Famer John Elway in Denver. He started only five games during his career and threw just under 300 passes, but he obviously retired as a very successful and highly-respected individual.
"I had an experience in Houston where I had a head coach who I really admired, Gary Kubiak, and a position coach in Greg Knapp that gave me a lot of great input on how to play the position," said Orlovsky. "I think Kubiak gave me a whole new perspective on what it means to play quarterback, how to practice as a quarterback, how to carry yourself as a quarterback. [I learned] the importance of practicing well, the importance of allowing your teammates to see you practice well. It makes a big difference going into games when your team knows that you're ready. I think that's a big deal."
That's a slightly bigger deal this month, because Orlovsky is sure to play extensively in the preseason. Barring an injury or an unforeseen development with Freeman, that should represent the vast majority of his live snaps this year.
"It's my time to go play, sure," said the former UConn standout. "Being new here, I'm just going to go out and run the offense. It's important to me to gain guys' trust, gain the team's trust and the coaching staff's trust. I'll do that by doing my job. It's fun to be able to play and compete, so I look forward to that."
The Bucs trusted Orlovsky with their primary backup job after his strong relief performance in Indianapolis late last year. With Manning sidelined indefinitely (and, eventually, for the whole season), the Colts tried Kerry Collins and Curtis Painter before turning to Orlovsky to start the final five games. Orlovsky was the only one of the three to complete more than 60% of his passes (63.2%) and the only one with a passer rating above 80 (82.4). He also led the Colts to their only two wins of the season, throwing six touchdown passes against just four interceptions.
Orlovsky also added to the intangible part of his game while in the orbit of the hyper-prepared Manning, and picked up more lessons he believes he can share with his new teammate.
"Being around Peyton a little bit, [I saw] just the demand for excellence, the high, high, high standards he has for himself and the expectation level he has for the people around him," said Orlovsky. "That's also some of the stuff that I'm trying to give to Josh, in a sense, him being so young and realizing how important…he holds 53-plus guys' jobs in the palm of his hand with that football. It's a great learning process. I've been fortunate to be around some guys that I've benefited from, and I'm just trying to do my part for Josh."