Even in the offseason workouts, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers saw much less of quarterback Josh Freeman in the spring. Somewhat curiously, given the fourth-year veteran’s considerable profile with the franchise, that might actually be a good thing, Freeman and the first-year Tampa Bay coaching staff agree.
One of the elements of the Bucs’ spring minicamps and OTAs, a component that was elevated to national security status levels, was pegging exactly have many pounds the former first-rounder (2009) has dropped since the end of last season. Far less well-guarded was the reality that, in the offensive blueprint preferred by rookie coach Greg Schiano and coordinator Mike Sullivan, there figures to be less weight placed on the quarterback.
"The running game," Freeman acknowledged, "is going to be a big key for us."
No one who sat and listened to Schiano’s spiel at the league meetings three months ago, or who has checked in regularly with Tampa Bay officials and coaches since the former Rutgers boss began implementing his philosophy, will be surprised by that. The top man has mandated a more physical team. It’s a level that shouldn’t be too difficult to achieve given the Bucs’ lack of muscle during a four-win 2011 campaign, and that could fuel a bounce-back year for Freeman as well as the team.
Every season, of course, the league has a healthy contingent of potential comeback players, and 2012 is no different. But in assessing the players with the kinds of skills that might lend themselves to a return to prominence, Freeman would have to be at or near the top of the list. His skill set is about as imposing as his great size.
"(Physically), Josh has still got it all," said one Tampa Bay assistant last week.
No doubt, it’s still very much a quarterback league, and the Bucs play in one of the most quarterback-driven divisions in the NFL, with Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton around. But the Bucs, who slumped from 10 wins in 2010 to a dozen losses last season, ran the ball fewer times than any team (346 attempts) in ’11. That might help explain their No. 30 statistical rating in rushing offense, and the paucity of runs could be explained in part by early deficits in most games, but a trickle-down effect as the, well, trickle down of Freeman’s performance.
Regarded as one of the NFL’s rising stars, and with some Tampa Bay officials privately insisting only a year ago that they would not trade Freeman for any player in the league, his touchdown passes fell from 25 to 16 and his interceptions rose from six to 22. Freeman posted a better completion percentage than the previous season, and had more passing yards, but his quarterback rating fell by more than 20 points. One of the league’s biggest quarterbacks from a physical dimension standpoint, Freeman was also one of the biggest flops in the NFL in 2011.
But if the Bucs are to compete for an unlikely playoff spot, they desperately need Freeman to rebound. And Freeman, who won’t turn 25 until a week after the regular seasons ends, needs some help, which the new Bucs’ staff apparently plans to give their talented quarterback.
"He can’t do it all himself; nobody can," Schiano allowed this spring.
In fact, Schiano and Co. have started surrounding Freeman with an improved arsenal, with upgraded personnel and the previously noted schematic change, to assure that the quarterback won’t have to be a one-man band.
The addition of wideout Vincent Jackson in free agency should afford Freeman a big, productive target. Tight end Dallas Clark isn’t the player he was three years ago, but he figures to be a dependable mid-range option. Third-year veteran Mike Williams has demonstrated more discipline that he did a year ago, when his standout play from his 2010 rookie campaign seemingly went to his head. Getting guard Carl Nicks in free agency will upgrade the line. The surprising pick of tailback Doug Martin late in the first round adds versatility and flexibility to the running game, and it puts starter LeGarrette Blount on notice that his fumbles won’t be tolerated.
And, of course, there is Freeman, whose work ethic is exemplary, who wants to be good, and who is more than ready to shoulder his share of the blame for 2011.
"The important thing," said Freeman who has logged 40 starts the past three years, "is to learn from everything. Not so much to dwell on it, but to use it to your advantage, and that’s what I’m trying to do. You know, make everything a lesson."
For the Bucs and Freeman, the most important lesson for 2012 might be this hackneyed but critical one: Less is more.