3 TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

September 04, 2011

With Josh Freeman out front, the Baby Bucs are in it for the long haul

When Tampa Bay free safety Cody Grimm goes golfing with quarterback Josh Freeman, they put a little money on a hole or three. Grimm's a five handicap, he says, Freeman about a 15, but the safety also says of the quarterback, "He'll never take a stroke. Most guys, they're happy to take one. They want to win the money. Josh wants to win, but he doesn't want to be handed anything."

"He told you that?!'' Freeman said. "He's not better than me! And he is not a five."

Further investigative reporting by SI did reveal that Grimm is about a five handicap and Freeman shoots in the 80s. But if you'd seen the look on Freeman's face, you'd know something about him. It was a combination of disgust and Wait till I get my hands on Grimm. This is one competitive fellow.

The Bucs need a quarterback who is this fired-up, this young (23) and this good (his touchdown-to-interception ratio, 25 to 6, was second-best in the NFL last year) to compete in the NFC South. Tampa Bay has to face 32-year-old Drew Brees and the Saints, and 26-year-old Matt Ryan and the Falcons, twice a year for the foreseeable future. If Cam Newton is the answer in Carolina, this will be the NFL's power division for quarterbacks. It already might be. Point is, it looks like Tampa Bay has the caliber of quarterback to stay competitive for the next decade—and to contend for the division title with a very young team in 2011.

"I do love competition," says Freeman, who's an imposing 6'6" and 248 pounds, "and I just love football—that's a huge part of it. It's not like work when you love something. I want to be great. I want to master my craft. And every day I want to push myself to get better."

To that end, Freeman helped pay the way for nearly two dozen teammates to attend a minicamp in Bradenton, Fla., during the lockout. In all, 53 Bucs showed up. "It was good to focus on football and not really anything else for a week," Freeman says. "We tried to do as much as we'd do during a normal minicamp."

When Freeman was drafted out of Kansas State in the first round in 2009, his dad, Ron, called former Bucs coach Tony Dungy, who lives in Tampa, and asked if he'd check in on Josh a few times a year to be sure he was staying focused. Dungy and Josh talked by phone and met a couple of times in person. Eventually Dungy concluded, "You don't need me." On Feb. 8, 2010, one day after the Super Bowl following his rookie season, Freeman was on the Bucs' practice field at 8 a.m., throwing to equipment guys. He just gets it.

As Bucs G.M. Mark Dominik builds for the future, with the youngest talent core in the league, he's thrilled to have someone so mature as the team's unquestioned leader. "After all the quarterbacks we considered, his time with us stood out," says Dominik. "He retained information and could regurgitate our offense well, but more than that, he just fit. To see how he's developed at 23 gives this whole building a level of confidence it hasn't had in a while."

There aren't many teams in recent NFL history with the kind of prominent youth the Bucs have, which makes them potentially so dangerous this season. Look at the defensive line. Dominik has taken linemen in both the first and the second rounds of the last two drafts—tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price in 2010, ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers in '11. With those four, plus tackle Roy Miller and end Michael Bennett, Tampa Bay should have a strong six-man rotation, all of whom are 25 or under. (Bowers is 21, Price 22, McCoy and Clayborn 23, Miller 24 and Bennett 25.) Similarly, the two offensive weapons most important to Freeman's success, wideout Mike Williams and running back LeGarrette Blount, are both 24.

Freeman knows part of his job will be to lead the young Bucs to the playoffs—they just missed at 10--6 last season—and he's comfortable with the task. "He's the kind of guy everyone looks at, and it's a positive for the team," says Grimm. "I asked him to go to dinner the other day after practice, and he said, 'Just give me a few minutes. I need to look at this goal line tape.' Like, yeah, the same tape you're going to see tomorrow morning. But that's just him. When that's important to him, you know your team's in pretty good hands."

"We've laid the foundation," says Freeman, "but we haven't done anything yet. I think we're going to be a better team this year, with a better record. But you know the NFL. It's constantly changing."

In this division, with this team, in this year, you truly don't know. But with a quarterback who won't stop working, the Bucs have a real chance.

PROJECTED LINEUP

WITH 2010 STATS

OFFENSE

2010 Rank: 19

QB JOSH FREEMAN

ATT 474

COMP 291

PCT 61.4

YARDS 3,451

YD/ATT 7.28

TD 25

INT 6

RATING 95.9

RB LEGARRETTE BLOUNT

ATT 201

YARDS 1,007

REC 5

TTD 6

FB EARNEST GRAHAM

ATT 20

YARDS 99

REC 16

TTD 2

WR MIKE WILLIAMS

REC 65

YARDS 964

AVG 14.8

TTD 11

WR ARRELIOUS BENN

REC 25

YARDS 395

AVG 15.8

TTD 2

TE KELLEN WINSLOW

REC 66

YARDS 730

AVG 11.1

TTD 5

LT DONALD PENN

G 16

SACKS 5½

HOLD 1

FALSE 1

LG TED LARSEN

G 12

SACKS 2

HOLD 3

FALSE 4

C JEFF FAINE

G 8

SACKS 0

HOLD 1

FALSE 0

RG DAVIN JOSEPH

G 11

SACKS 1½

HOLD 4

FALSE 2

RT JEREMY TRUEBLOOD

G 14

SACKS 3½

HOLD 0

FALSE 2

WR SAMMIE STROUGHTER

REC 24

YARDS 239

AVG 10.0

TTD 0

WR DEZMON BRISCOE

REC 6

YARDS 93

AVG 15.5

TTD 1

DEFENSE

2010 Rank: 17

DE ADRIAN CLAYBORN

TACKLES 52

SACKS 3½

INT 0

DT GERALD MCCOY

TACKLES 28

SACKS 3

INT 0

DT ROY MILLER

TACKLES 47

SACKS 1

INT 0

DE DA'QUAN BOWERS (R)

TACKLES 73

SACKS 15½

INT 1

LB GENO HAYES

TACKLES 82

SACKS 4

INT 1

LB MASON FOSTER (R)

TACKLES 163

SACKS 6½

INT 0

LB QUINCY BLACK

TACKLES 58

SACKS 2

INT 1

CB AQIB TALIB

TACKLES 40

SACKS 0

INT 6

SS SEAN JONES

TACKLES 74

SACKS 1

INT 1

FS CODY GRIMM

TACKLES 51

SACKS 0

INT 2

CB RONDE BARBER

TACKLES 82

SACKS 1

INT 3

DB E.J. BIGGERS

TACKLES 50

SACKS 0

INT 1

SPECIALISTS

K CONNOR BARTH

FG 23

FGA 28

XP 36

PTS 105

P MICHAEL KOENEN

PUNTS 74

GROSS 40.7

NET 35.6

BOLD: Projected starter

Italic: New acquisition

(R) Rookie: College stats

TTD: Total touchdowns

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

SACKS: Sacks allowed

HOLD: Holding penalties

FALSE: False starts

2011 SCHEDULE

2010 RECORD: 10--6

September

11 Detroit

18 at Minnesota

25 Atlanta

October

3 Indianapolis (Mon)

9 at San Francisco

16 New Orleans

23 Chicago*

30 BYE

November

6 at New Orleans

13 Houston

20 at Green Bay

27 at Tennessee

December

4 Carolina

11 at Jacksonville

17 Dallas (Sat)

24 at Carolina (Sat)

January

1 at Atlanta

* in London

COACH: RAHEEM MORRIS

AGE: 34

THIRD SEASON WITH THE BUCS (13--19)

One of the new breed of coaches who are younger than some of their players (he turns 35 on Sept. 3; cornerback Ronde Barber is 36), Morris is a big fan of chip-on-the-shoulder motivation. It works: Players love his moxie and the fact that he's more Rex Ryan than Tony Dungy. Last year he said his team was the best in the NFC—and don't expect him to change that view.

SPOTLIGHT

GERALD MCCOY, Defensive tackle

The 2010 season was a curse and a blessing for McCoy, brought in to be the disruptive three-technique tackle in the Baby Bucs' defense. The blessing: being drafted third overall. The curse: being drafted third overall at the same position as Ndamukong Suh, who went one spot earlier. Working with better outside rushers and a better noseman beside him in Detroit, Suh was a dominating inside presence and had 10 sacks. McCoy never got his pass rush working, producing just three sacks.

In came defensive ends with the Bucs' first two picks this year, and a new pass-rush coach, Keith Millard, who's simplified McCoy's role so that he can exploit his athleticism. "It's simple," says McCoy, a two-time All-America at Oklahoma. "I'm playing football, not thinking as much. I'm an instinctive player, and this system helps me." The only time McCoy gets a little testy—and just a little; he's a polite sort—is when the Suh comparison comes up. "He's in Detroit, I'm in Tampa, and that's about it," he says. "He played great last year. He was put in a different situation than me, and I would say the cast around us was a bit different." With the edge rush strengthened (and, the Bucs hope, noseman Brian Price back to full strength from a hip injury), McCoy's rush skills will have a better chance to surface this year.

PHOTOJOHN PYLE/CAL SPORT MEDIA (MORRIS) PHOTOSIMON BRUTY (FREEMAN)FOLLOW ME At 23, Freeman already is the poised leader of a team bursting with youth and potential, and he fits in perfectly in a division stacked at quarterback.
PHOTOTOM DIPACE (MCCOY)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)