New-look Bucs flatten Panthers 20-7 for 2-0 start
With Josh Freeman's dramatic improvement and a suddenly effective defense, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' rebuilding project may be ahead of schedule.
The winless Carolina Panthers may be set to begin one themselves - with rookie Jimmy Clausen behind center.
With a mistake-free Freeman outplaying an error-prone Matt Moore, the surprising Buccaneers got two-thirds toward their win total from last season with a dominant 20-7 victory over the Panthers on Sunday that produced a full-blown quarterback controversy in Carolina.
Coach John Fox, in the last year of his contract and himself facing an uncertain future, said it was ''way too early'' to declare former Notre Dame star Clausen the starter after he yanked Moore early in the fourth quarter.
''We'll go with whoever gives us the best chance to win next week,'' Fox said, ''and that will take time.''
The Bucs (2-0) have certainly settled on Freeman, whose up-and-down rookie campaign in the Bucs' 3-13 season a year ago included a five-interception game at Carolina. This time he completed 12 of 24 passes for 178 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and four timely runs for 43 yards.
''It feels good to win,'' said Freeman, who has Tampa Bay off to its best start since it began 4-0 in 2005. ''It feels good to win in a team effort. The offense came out and got some points on the board. The defense played lights-out in the second half. They held them out of the end zone and shut them out. It felt great to go out and play a divisional opponent and get the win.''
Carolina (0-2), meanwhile is staring at trouble with Cincinnati and New Orleans up next and no semblance of offensive consistency.
Moore, who has committed six turnovers and produced two touchdowns in two games, said he can't ''put my finger on'' what's gone wrong after he threw eight TD passes and one interception in a 4-1 finish last season that ended Jake Delhomme's seven-year hold on the starting job.
''I don't know what the biggest difference is,'' said Moore, who was booed in the first quarter, had trouble finding receivers and completed just 6 of 16 passes for 125 yards, one interception and one lost fumble.
Moore's lone bright spot was a 37-yard TD to Steve Smith, Carolina's only reliable receiver, a week after Moore was knocked out of a game with a concussion.
Moore was replaced after his sack-fumble early in the fourth quarter, producing cheers from the sweaty and irritable crowd who sat through 90-degree weather.
''As a player you take pride in going out there and doing your best and trying,'' Moore said of his benching. ''I respect their decisions, but I think, individually, anybody would be a little disappointed.''
Clausen completed as many passes as Moore did all day on his first drive, but it ended with Jonathan Stewart stuffed shy of the goal line with Carolina trailing 20-7.
Clausen was later picked off by Aqib Talib, in his first game back from suspension, and finished 7 of 13 for 59 yards.
''It's not my decision,'' Clausen said on whether he expected to start against the Bengals.
Freeman threw touchdown passes to Earnest Graham and rookie Mike Williams, avoiding sacks and showing a strong arm. And Tampa Bay's defense, which had allowed 299, 267 and 157 yards rushing to Carolina in the previous three meetings, held DeAngelo Williams (54 yards) and Stewart (43 yards) in check.
Yes, with Carolina struggling with the passing game, the Bucs were teeing off on the run.
''Not that he couldn't do it, but he's a young quarterback,'' said cornerback Ronde Barber, who picked off Moore. ''They don't have a lot in the way of threats over there at wide receiver.''
With Williams catching his second TD in as many weeks, Tampa Bay is getting more depth. Carnell ''Cadillac'' Williams added 51 yards on the ground and Tampa Bay is thinking big heading into next Sunday's home game against Pittsburgh.
''You go out there and he tells you to calm down and bring your route and he has you,'' Mike Williams said of Freeman. ''You here that from a quarterback and you're like, `Dang, all I have to do is just catch the ball.'''