Relieved Bucs eye brighter future with Freeman
No longer winless, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are feeling pretty good about themselves. Music blared in the locker room Monday, a day after rookie Josh Freeman led the team to its first victory, a 38-28 upset of Green Bay that heightened expectations for the remainder of the season. Freeman, the third quarterback selected in this year's draft, was far from perfect in his first NFL start. Nevertheless, the 6-foot-6, 248-pound first-round pick did enough well to not only to beat the Packers but raise questions about why the Bucs waited until they were 0-7 before giving him a chance. First-year coach Raheem Morris said it was simple: The Bucs are determined to not rush the 21-year-old's development. "We still have to be patient. We still have to let him grow," said Morris, who has known Freeman since the quarterback was a freshman at Kansas State and Morris was the defensive coordinator there. "He made some mistakes he can go back and look at ... that will allow him to get better and better. It was a nice start, very similar to the one I saw him do in college. Coming back, leading your team down with a two-minute drive, scoring a touchdown," to win. Freeman threw two of his three touchdown passes after the Bucs fell behind 28-17 early in the fourth quarter. He took advantage of a long kickoff return to cut into the deficit, then led an eight-play, 72-yard march to put Tampa Bay ahead with under five minutes to go. Freeman finished 14 of 31 passing for 205 yards. He was sacked once and threw a first-half interception that Green Bay was unable to turn into points. "He was fine - like he's been doing it for 20 years," tight end Kellen Winslow, whose leaping catch in the back of the end zone pulled Tampa Bay within 28-23. "Six or seven weeks ago he was nervous and messing up on plays - just not ready. He's really made strides. We're proud of him." There were a few hiccups, too. Tampa Bay's first possession of the game ended poorly when Freeman, scrambling on third-and-5 from his own 25, started his slide early and was ruled down after a 4-yard gain instead of getting the first down. He also had an awkward moment in the second quarter when he fumbled a snap at the Bucs 3 before recovering on second down. Thinking fourth down was coming off, he began to walk off the field before being waved back to the huddle. "He made some mistakes, which all young quarterbacks do," Morris said, adding that Freeman also exhibited the type of composure that inspires confidence among teammates looking to a quarterback for leadership. "That's why we brought him in to lead this franchise," the 33-year-old coach added. "I'm sure there's guys that feel how poised he was out there, never really rattled." Morris is the NFL's youngest coach. Freeman became the youngest player to start a game at quarterback for the Bucs, who had dropped 11 straight dating to an 0-4 December that cost them a playoff berth after a 9-3 start last season. The atmosphere at the club's training facility was much more relaxed Monday. Players wandered in and out of the locker room, cracking jokes and talking about making the most of the rest of the season. The schedule is tough, including four games against NFC South rivals New Orleans and Atlanta. But the Bucs also face three teams on the road - Miami, Carolina and Seattle - that currently have losing records. The other remaining game is at home against the New York Jets, who are 4-4. While winning bolstered the team's belief in themselves, Morris said there's little chance his players will enter next Sunday's game against the Dolphins (3-5) overconfident. "I don't think we can because we are 1-7," said Morris, who got congratulatory calls or text messages on his first victory from a number of friends, including Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and former BuccaneersDerrick Brooks and Warren Sapp. The first-year coach added he never feared he'd lose the team during the 0-7 start. "All the guys in my locker room, they're so young they're all fighting for their jobs. Everybody. ... Coaches, players, myself. So, there's no quit," Morris said. "We don't have a veteran led team. We don't have a bunch of guys who can shut down and say I'll be back next year because my contract says this. So it was never a problem. These guys want to win."