Like other strugglers around the league, Tampa Bay blew up its roster for '09—and suffered the consequences. Now a new QB and a precious first win offer a ray of hope
In the months before his first NFL start, Josh Freeman would call a huddle in the kitchen of his Tampa condo. Standing before a whiteboard, Freeman would listen as his brother, Caleb, and a neighbor, Nikki Karns, called out terminology from the pages of the Buccaneers' playbook. Then he'd spring into action. "They'd read it out to me—'O.K., we've got R Strong Zip K 6 Falcon X Fade, on one'—and I'd break the huddle and draw the play on the board and draw up the protection," says Freeman. "Then I'd erase it, wait a second, and they'd go, 'L Strong Zip K 7 Falcon X Fade,' and I'd draw that up." ¬∂ The study sessions took on extra meaning when, two weeks ago—after Tampa Bay had lost its seventh straight game of 2009 and its 11th in a row dating to November '08—offensive coordinator Greg Olson walked into the quarterbacks' room at the team's practice facility and announced, "We're going with Freeman."
This was the critical personnel decision in what was already a remarkable—and risky—transformation of an NFL franchise. Before the season the Bucs' first-year general manager, Mark Dominik, and first-year coach, Raheem Morris, had cleared the roster of most of its veterans, among them quarterback Jeff Garcia, receivers Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard, linebacker Cato June, defensive lineman Kevin Carter and the face of the franchise for 14 seasons, linebacker Derrick Brooks. By the end of the purge one of the grayest teams in the NFL had become one of the greenest, all in the hope of creating a nucleus to serve as the next generation of Bucs leaders.
The short-term results weren't pretty—those opening seven losses came by an average of 15 points—but neither were they unexpected. "What we've been dealing with is inconsistency," says Dominik, who at 38 is the second-youngest general manager in the league, "but [youth] was a direction we wanted to go."
November 16, 2009
Says the 33-year-old Morris, "Patience has been a core word around here, whether you're talking about your young quarterback, your fans, or letting our young quarterback develop. All the great coaches are associated with some big-time quarterback. Coach [Tony] Dungy came here and was associated with a big-time defense, and then he went to Indy and found out his stomach didn't hurt so much in the fourth quarter with Peyton [Manning]. That's what you're trying to develop. We wanted to have that franchise guy—so here he goes."
In Freeman's first start the Buccaneers wore throwback creamsicle uniforms, honored their 1979 playoff team, inducted Lee Roy Selmon into the Ring of Honor, and pulled out their first win of the season, a 38--28 victory over Green Bay that seemed to validate the youth movement. Third-year defensive end Stylez G. White accounted for 1½ of the team's six sacks of Aaron Rodgers. Third-year safety Tanard Jackson returned an interception 35 yards for a touchdown. And the 21-year-old Freeman, who was the No. 17 pick in last April's draft, out of Kansas State, threw for 205 yards and three touchdowns, including a pair in the fourth quarter that erased an 11-point deficit.
"Like he's been doing it for 10 years," said Bucs tight end Kellen Winslow.
The template for Tampa Bay's youth-driven retooling came from the team's own past. When Dominik joined the organization in 1995 as a pro personnel assistant, the Bucs were in the final year under longtime coach Sam Wyche. The following season Dungy took over as coach just as the pieces of what would become the team's most successful era were beginning to coalesce: safety John Lynch, drafted in 1993; Brooks and defensive tackle Warren Sapp in '95; fullback Mike Alstott in '96; cornerback Ronde Barber and running back Warrick Dunn in '97.
"With that team I felt like from 1999 to 2003 we could have won a championship every year," Dominik says. "In that window we did it with [quarterback] Trent Dilfer, we did it with Shaun King, and we did it with Brad Johnson. We want to be one of those teams that does it with one quarterback and has continued success with one quarterback."
In '96, after Tampa Bay's 14th straight losing season, expectations were lower and the organization had more time to let a winner blossom. Now, a Super Bowl trophy from the 2002 season—courtesy of Jon Gruden, who was fired along with general manager Bruce Allen last January—sits in the lobby of the team headquarters at One Buccaneer Place, and the pressure to win is relentless. How patient will the team's ownership (billionaire Malcolm Glazer and his family) be?
"They see what we're doing," says Dominik, who last month traded underperforming pass rusher Gaines Adams, the fourth overall pick of the '07 draft, to Chicago for a second-round pick in 2010, one of 10 selections the team currently has in next year's draft. "As a general manager you want to hit 100 percent, but you just don't. Do I see [the next] Warren Sapp on our team yet? No, I'm afraid not."
The Bucs no longer have Sapp, but they still have a few of his contemporaries, most notably Barber, who against the Packers returned a blocked punt 31 yards for a touchdown. Once a young sprite in the secondary, Barber is now one of Tampa Bay's remaining sages, along with defensive tackle Chris Hovan (10th year), center Jeff Faine (seventh), receiver Michael Clayton (sixth) and linebacker Barrett Ruud (fifth). "I think it came down to what was going to be our future path," Barber says. "Was it going to be with Jon and Bruce and continuing to accumulate veteran guys—because it was no secret they liked veteran guys, and they played well for us—or were we going to go young and build this team up like we did in '95, '96, '97 and '98? Going young and starting fresh with a new coach was what they decided to do."
The start of the season wasn't promising. Ten days before the opener the Bucs fired offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski and promoted Olson from quarterbacks coach, leaving the latter little time to work with the roster. (Morris said the move was necessitated by the offense's need for more direction and precision.) Veteran import Byron Leftwich started the first three games at quarterback, and 2008 fifth-rounder Josh Johnson the next four. Tampa Bay was young and energetic but losing games badly.
"I understand the reality, especially from an offensive standpoint—losing our offensive coordinator and the things we worked on all off-season," says Clayton. "You just can't step into this league and expect to win. When everybody makes just one mistake, you've got 11 mistakes."
It was at the time of Olson's promotion that Freeman started leaning on his home study group, even though he was a backup. When the Bucs named him the starter during their bye week, Freeman's prep load got heavier. He had the Tampa Bay staff make him a DVD with every game the Packers had played this season plus additional video cut-ups of Green Bay's third-down defense, base-blitz and nickel-blitz defenses, and red-zone defense.
Six days before the Packers game—an off day for the players—Freeman was at One Buccaneer Place, studying. Two mornings later he beat Morris into the facility and stared at Packers film in the darkened quarterbacks room. Last Friday the rookie walked up to Winslow in the locker room.
"Hey, Josh," Winslow said. "When are you going to watch [film]?"
"Three minutes," Freeman said. "Blitz cut-up from Green Bay."
Winslow: "Yeah, the hot [reads]."
Freeman: "We just need to be on the same page."
They were against the Packers. Freeman—mobile, strong-armed and massive at 6'6" and 248 pounds—stood tall in the face of pressure and rolled out when necessary, as he did to his left on a seven-yard touchdown pass to Winslow that cut the Pack's lead to 28--23. He followed with another seven-yard touchdown to Sammie Stroughter, on fourth-and-four with 4:14 left, and then a two-point conversion to Clayton, to put Tampa Bay in front 31--28.
"Even when Green Bay was bringing the blitz, he was poised," said running back Carnell Williams. "He had guys falling around his legs, and he was looking downfield. I love the kid."
After the game Freeman was as composed as he'd been in the huddle. He walked through the tunnel at Raymond James Stadium, receiving applause from stadium workers dressed in orange T-shirts. He conducted interviews on a cellphone, at a podium and in a concrete hallway. He talked about going through his progression, pump-faking cornerbacks and splitting safeties. He sounded like the football junkie Morris often describes him as, the kind of player who might be the linchpin of a team.
While neither Morris nor Dominik knew the specifics of Freeman's home study sessions, their team stands to reap the benefits. And on a warm Sunday when the Buccaneers honored their past, they also took a strong step toward securing their future.
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Freeman (5) "had guys falling around his legs, and he was looking downfield," Williams says. "I love the kid."