Rookie quarterback Josh Freeman wiped the sweat off his forehead, took a deep breath and answered another question about taking over the offense of the only team yet to win a game in the NFL.
Ready or not, the 17th pick in this year’s draft will make his first start for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, facing the Green Bay Packers (4-3) on a day the Bucs (0-7) will reflect on the past while looking to the future.
Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon will become the first inductee into the Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium, and the Bucs will don throwback creamsicle uniforms and helmets that are an ugly reminder of the franchise’s winless inaugural season in 1976.
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The 1979 Bucs, who reached the NFC championship game, will be recognized, too. But the main attraction will be Freeman, the third quarterback selected in the draft behind Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez.
“The good thing about him is there’s no pressure on him. He can go out and relax because of where we are right now,” said Doug Williams, quarterback of the ’79 Bucs and currently the team’s director of pro personnel.
“I told him I wish I would have had an opportunity to be in his position, where you didn’t have to go out there and put the team on your back from the start. He’s got to let the other guys make plays for him.”
Conventional wisdom says young quarterbacks benefit more by being given time to develop as backups, much like the Packers groomed Aaron Rodgers while the fifth-year pro sat behind Brett Favre.
The Bucs drafted Freeman, hoping he would not have to play as a rookie. Veteran Byron Leftwich led the team for three weeks before second-year pro Josh Johnson was given the first four starts of his career.
At 0-7, and riding an 11-game losing streak that’s the longest in the NFL, rookie coach Raheem Morris and first-year general manager Mark Dominik decided it’s time to see what the 6-foot-6, 248-pound Freeman can do.
The 21-year-old out of Kansas State doesn’t see himself as a savior. However, he is well aware of the expectations that come with being the new face of the franchise.
“Obviously that’s been brought up to me. A lot of people have said things,” Freeman said. “But that’s not all that heavy on my mind. … I think the pressure I put on myself kind of outweighs that.”
Rodgers, in his second season as Green Bay’s starter, is the NFL’s top-rated passer through seven games. He has no problem with the way the Packers brought him along as a first-round draft pick.
“I think there’s merit to waiting and learning, and also merit to being on the field and taking your bumps and bruises, and learning and improving and getting experience that way,” Rodgers said.
“Personally I wouldn’t have done it any other way. Although you think you’re ready to play in Year 1, you look back for me, and the lights kind of came on in Year 3. That’s when I really felt like I was ready to play at the level that I would have wanted to play at.”
Williams was a first-round pick in 1978, joining a team that was a combined 2-26 the previous two seasons. The Bucs won five games his rookie year, then nearly reached the Super Bowl in 1979.
Freeman made his regular-season debut in London two weeks ago, playing two series during the fourth quarter of a 35-7 loss to the Patriots. Williams was standing outside the locker rooms at Wembley Stadium when Freeman and New England’s Tom Brady walked out at about the same time. He asked the rookie if he noticed anything about the championship-winning quarterback.
Brady was wearing a business suit. Freeman had on jeans.
Lesson learned going forward.
“I told him you’re a businessman, you’re the CEO of this team right now. Look the part,” Williams said. “I think when you get to that point, when you look the part you’re going to feel the part. He has to realize he is the face of the franchise. He’s got to carry himself like it, he’s got to act like it.”
Green Bay, which has feasted on bad teams while not quite measuring up against stronger teams on its schedule, figures to be a tough initial assignment for a rookie quarterback leading an offense that’s sputtered all year.
The Packers are ranked in the top 10 offensively and defensively, and Rodgers has been very productive despite being sacked a league-worst 31 times.
Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said he was impressed with Freeman coming out of college, even though hasn’t seen much of him on film.
“You have a college grade on him. You have their college workout and things like that, so you kind of have an idea of his ability,” McCarthy said.
“But that’s part of playing a quarterback that is going into his first NFL start. We’re just going to focus more on the concepts of what they have been doing in the run protection and the passing game.”
The Bucs know if Freeman is going to be successful, they are going to have play better around him than they have for Leftwich and Johnson.
When the team reconvened for practice following last week’s bye, Morris showed players video cutups of everything he felt the Bucs did right during the first seven games. The first-year coach also challenged the offense to become the “lifeline” of a team that’s been driven by defense for more than a decade.
What Morris did not discuss was St. Louis and Tennessee winning while Tampa Bay was off, leaving the Bucs as the NFL’s only winless team.
“I’m not interested in sharing misery with anybody else in the league,” Morris said. “I’m not interested in who else doesn’t have a win, I’m interested in getting our own win.”