QB Josh Freeman believes improvements in his accuracy and decision-making will come with increased confidence in the pocket
Josh Freeman's rookie NFL season ended a little over a week ago. Like most NFL players, Freeman is using the first few weeks after his team's last game to decompress from the nonstop tumult that is a football season. A trip home to Kansas City was first on the agenda; a vacation with some friends would soon follow.
But before long - well before the Buccaneers officially begin their voluntary 2010 offseason program in March - Freeman will be back in Tampa. His team went 3-13 in 2009, 3-6 in his nine starts, and he's eager to begin the work that will lead to better results next fall.
Freeman loves football, so working on his game is no burden. But he also will be driven by a feeling of personal responsibility when it comes to that team improvement in 2010. When it's one day into your first full offseason and your head coach has already pinpointed your development as the most important task of the coming months, it's obvious where that sense of duty comes from.
Freeman embraces the obligation.
"It is a responsibility, but I try to look at it as a blessing," he said. "I have a head coach that has confidence in me and he's willing to invest in me to become a better player and do better next year so we can win more games."
Raheem Morris and Tampa Bay's management originally wanted to protect that investment - Freeman was the 17th overall pick in the 2009 draft - by keeping their future franchise quarterback under wraps all season. The Bucs were interested in following the "Philip Rivers model," believing a season of observation and learning on the sideline would lead to a more prepared quarterback when the time came for him to take the reins.
That just might have worked. There are, of course, examples of rookie quarterbacks who were brought along slowly and succeeded, and examples of others who did the same but failed. The same is true of rookies thrown immediately to the fire, though the instant success of Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco in 2008 has recently seemed to skew opinion in that direction.
In the end, circumstances - those being an 0-7 start for the Buccaneers and Freeman's impressive work on the practice field - led Tampa Bay to a middle ground where Freeman was inserted into the starting lineup in Week Nine, after the team's bye week. He helped the Buccaneers get their first win of the season in his starting debut, a 38-28 thriller against the Green Bay Packers, and later got two big road wins in Seattle and New Orleans.
Freeman, like any competitor, had hoped to win the opening day job in 2009, but he was prepared to follow whatever course the coaches chose for him. When it was all said and done, though, he was glad he got his half-season under center.
"I definitely learned a lot," said Freeman. "Obviously, I had my ups and downs, but at the end of the day I got a lot of valuable experience. I couldn't imagine sitting out this entire season and then going into the first game next season not having any game experience. I definitely learned a lot about patience, about just playing and letting the game come to you."
Freeman threw for 205 yards, three touchdowns and one interception in that debut win over the Packers. It was a heady beginning, but the 21-year-old impressed in the weeks that would follow by not letting success such as that one or the inevitable failures affect his level demeanor. Three weeks later, he completed 20 of 29 passes for 250 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions at Atlanta, though the Falcons won the game, 20-17, on a last-minute, fourth-down TD pass. Freeman would later complete 64.9% of his passes and throw for a combined 476 yards and two touchdowns (and three interceptions) in the Bucs' back-to-back wins over the Seahawks and Saints in December.
Freeman was picked off twice more, both in the second half, of the season-ending 20-10 loss to Atlanta, which the Bucs had hoped to win in order to finish the year on a three-game winning streak. Freeman was intercepted 13 times over the Bucs' last five games and finished with 18 picks overall. There were obviously some eye-opening throws and some ugly moments in Freeman's first half-season at the helm. Sometimes, they were almost simultaneous, such as a narrow loss at Carolina in which he threw for 321 yards but was also picked five times.
The final numbers don't necessarily tell you much. Freeman broke the team rookie records for passing yards (1,857) and touchdowns (10), but those marks weren't set all that high by Bruce Gradkowski in 2006. The three wins were impressive, given the Bucs' winless first half of the season, but the Bucs were a few plays away from grabbing several more during his nine-game run. Freeman led all rookie passers in 2009 with a completion rate of 54.6%, but that mark clearly needs to rise in coming seasons.
Freeman plans to make that set the groundwork for that during this offseason, through improved accuracy and decision-making.
"That's where I see myself making leaps and bounds in both of those areas, and that comes with confidence," he said. "When you're out there worrying about the protections, worrying about everything else, you're not going to be going through your progressions clearly. When you're not going through your progressions clearly, you can lock on a guy or you think you see someone open. You don't always make the best decisions."
So, for now, Freeman has a little time to rest, recharge, reflect on his rookie season and perhaps get away from football for a little bit. But soon he'll be back doing the one thing he knows the team needs in order to emerge as winners in 2010.
"You've just got to work, you know," he said. "There was never a time this year when we felt like, man, we couldn't win, that there was a team that was just going to beat us. We got beat by a couple teams pretty bad but we felt like we were really in every game. It's just a matter of finding those few plays that can change the outcome of a game."