Winless Bucs turn to rookie QB for help

Minutes after the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers dispersed for a four-day, bye-week break, rookie coach Raheem Morris was asked how his players were holding up under the strain of an 0-7 start.

“We actually talked about it this morning. … Going 0-7 didn’t start yesterday. It didn’t start at the beginning of the season when we played Dallas. It started in weight training. It started in OTA days. It started in training camp,” Morris said.

“Everything we’ve done to this point is who we are. These guys are holding up, but we’ve got to do more than hold up. … Holding up got you to 0-7. We’re here to fight through, we’re here to power through, we’re here to be our best selves.”

When the struggling team takes the field for its next game on Nov. 8, it’ll be clad in creamsicle uniforms and helmets bearing a winking pirate logo – just like the old ’76 Bucs, who stumbled to an 0-14 record that stood as the standard for NFL futility until Detroit went 0-16 a year ago.

Sitting on an 11-game skid that’s the franchise’s longest since Tampa Bay dropped a league-record 26 straight during its first two seasons, it’s difficult to not wonder whether the current Bucs could wind up winless, too.

Five of their seven losses have been by double-digits, the remaining schedule is difficult, and now they’re turning the offense over to rookie quarterback Josh Freeman, the 17th pick in this year’s draft.

It’s been three decades since Doug Williams helped Tampa Bay leave its ugly beginning behind and reach the NFC championship game in 1979.

The ex-quarterback isn’t making any bold predictions about Freeman, but he sees no reason why the Bucs can’t win – and soon – with the 21-year-old leading the way.

“We’re in that position where if we find a way to win one game, you’re going to win two games,” said Williams, now the Bucs‘ director of pro personnel.

“It’s going to take the guys believing that they can get it done. No matter’s who’s at running back, no matter who’s at quarterback. It’s a matter of whether or not you believe you can win.”

Six of the remaining nine games are against teams with winning records, including two with unbeaten NFC South rival New Orleans. The three against clubs that currently have losing records are on the road.

But the schedule is the least of the team’s concerns.

The defense is a shell of the unit that ranked among the best in the league for more than a decade before playing poorly during an 0-4 December that cost the Bucs a playoff spot after a 9-3 start last season.

The offense has sputtered despite the offseason acquisition of tight end Kellen Winslow and running back Derrick Ward, in part because of inconsistency at quarterback – first with veteran Byron Leftwich starting, and then with second-year pro Josh Johnson.

Morris and general manager Mark Dominik were hoping Freeman would not have to play as a rookie. At 0-7, no one is expecting him to be a savior – at least not right away.

“He has to understand, there’s no pressure on him right now. We’re 0-7,” said Williams, who was a first-round pick in 1978 and played right away.

“We’re 0-7. But they gave him the keys. They gave him the car and it hadn’t even been to the car wash. He’s got to take it to the car wash. It’s his job to clean it up. And he can take time. He’s got the next nine weeks to clean the tires and the rims and make it sparkle.”

After sitting behind Leftwich and Johnson for seven weeks, Freeman thinks he’s ready for the challenge.

He made his pro debut last week, playing two series in the fourth quarter of a 35-7 loss to the Patriots in London.

In his first practice as the starter, he and the rest of the team worked out in the throwback helmets the Bucs will wear when they resume the season next week at home against the Green Bay Packers.

“Obviously, it’s something that’s very exciting to me. It’s something that I’m not taking lightly,” Freeman said of taking control of the huddle and officially becoming the face of the franchise.

“I come out with a different swagger, I guess, because I’m the guy who’s taking the majority of the snaps, and I’ve got to go out and radiate that type of deal or that type of swagger, so my teammates can catch on to it.”

Williams, who won a Super Bowl with the Redskins late in his career, likes the sound of that.

He thinks the Bucs have enough players around Freeman “who believe they can win and have won” to help the rookie through some of the growing pains that are inevitable with a young quarterback.

It starts with the offensive line protecting him, and Freeman realizing he needs help to get the job done.

“We didn’t intend to be 0-7, and I’m sure if we were 4-3 Josh would not have a chance to go to the prom in the car. They’d drop him off,” Williams said.

“But we’re 0-7. It’s a perfect time for him. No pressure. It’s no different from Mariano Rivera coming in the eighth inning with a six-run lead. There’s no pressure. Throw strikes. That’s where he is right now. He has to understand it and not put pressure on himself.”