Freeman ready to lead new-look Buccaneers

Published Apr. 3, 2012 5:31 p.m. EDT

TAMPA — He is the Tampa Bay Buc with the most to gain
from the new regime of head coach Greg Schiano, the centerpiece of a revamped
offense and focal point of a franchise hoping to get back on track.

For fourth-year quarterback Josh Freeman, the stakes are particularly high now.
This is his proving-ground season, a chance to return to his standout form of
2010 after an unexpectedly rocky performance in 2011.

The good news for Freeman is that he has a head coach who believes in him and a
new offensive coordinator in Mike Sullivan, who had a hand in shaping Super
Bowl champion Eli Manning’s success with the New York Giants.

On top of that, general manager Mark Dominik and the Glazer Family have
provided their quarterback with some formidable free-agent weaponry:
play-making wide receiver Vincent Jackson from the Chargers and star
pass-protecting guard Carl Nicks from the Saints.

No wonder the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Freeman has been so eager to get rolling this
week at One Buc Place. With the offseason conditioning under way this week,
Freeman finally has had the chance to meet in depth with Sullivan, start
developing a bond with Schiano and begin building toward the 2012 season.

“Yesterday sitting down (with Sullivan) was the first time we’ve really got to
talk any football,” Freeman said during a break on Tuesday afternoon. “(We got)
to open it up and really kind of see an overview.

“For now, we’re starting off real slow. He wants to build
from the ground up and make sure we have everything down. Because with an
offense with different terminology, you need really to start with the
fundamentals ... for everybody.”

Freeman compares the challenge of absorbing a completely new offensive scheme
to the one he faced as a rookie in 2009.

“I’ve got a lot of confidence in all the guys around me, whether it’s the
coaching staff or the quarterbacks in the quarterback room, as far as really
sitting down and getting to the core of this offense,” he said.

Freeman went from 25 touchdown passes with six interceptions in his first full
season two years ago to 16 TDs and 22 picks in last year’s dismal 4-12
campaign. His quarterback rating plummeted from 95.9 to 74.6, and his spirits
plunged along with the numbers.

With an offseason to reflect on what went wrong, Freeman attributed his
troubles to trying to make too much happen on his own.

“Really, it was just pressing too hard,” he said. “I felt like I had a good
offseason of work, but at the same time, you get into games, and coming off a
good year in my sophomore year you feel like you can do so much more.

“You can continue to get better. I was working harder, felt
better and was throwing the ball better. Just sometimes you try to force things
... and you kind of have to go back to (the mindset) after your rookie year and
just let it come to you.

“When you’re playing your best football, you’re not making plays. You’re just
running the offense and letting the playbook and letting the system make the
plays for you.”

That’s what he hopes to do this time around. He’s been a frequent visitor to
One Buc Place in recent months, but league rules have prohibited any work with
Sullivan or strength coach Jay Butler until now.

“Moving into a situation where you’re going to start learning a new offense,
you want to get to work as soon as possible,” Freeman said. “But with certain
rules, it’s kind of a deal where they can’t teach anything. It was frustrating
because they’re right in your backyard.”

Instead, Freeman traveled south over the Skyway Bridge to work out at
Bradenton-based IMG Academies.

“I just tried to get away and focus on more of the physical conditioning aspect
of things, and throwing the ball and working on fundamentals,” he said.

Though he has only skimmed the surface so far with Sullivan, Freeman describes
the scheme as one that will be based on the Giants offense: with the run
setting the tone and opening up the passing game, and the quarterback taking
shots down field.

But he doesn’t have a sense of the specifics of Sullivan’s playbook just yet.


“Not really as far as different pass-patterns and things,”
he said. “Watching film, we’ve kind of got an idea. But right now we’re just
working on formations. We’re getting into protections ... just the whole standard
operating procedure of calling the play at the line and the different cadence.”

Freeman has enjoyed working with Sullivan in their brief time together.

“He’s awesome, real big on discipline, real big on hard work
and mental toughness,” Freeman said. “Getting to talk to him and sit down to
learn his offense, we’re going to have a good time.”

And what about Schiano?

 “A really strong
personality,” Freeman said. “He’s kind of old school, but I’m really excited
just sitting down and talking to him about different leadership aspects. You’re
going to get 100 percent football, but at the same time you go into life.

“It’s kind of deep. But there’s a lot of stuff he’s going to
cover and ultimately it’s going to be about winning football games.”

Freeman can already detect renewed enthusiasm in the locker room. Having
recently added to the mix an All-Pro in Nicks and a Pro Bowl receiver in
Jackson certainly hasn’t hurt.

“I’m really glad to have them,” Freeman said. “I noticed out there in workouts
and seeing them in the weight room, both those guys are freaks. They’re going
to be great.”

The mood overall stands in stark contrast to the one when the Bucs lost its
10th consecutive game to end last season in disarray, leading to the quick
dismissal of coach Raheem Morris. Now it’s Schiano’s team, and an opportunity
for Freeman and his fellow Bucs to find their footing again.

“Everybody is really excited,” Freeman said. “Coming to meetings, going out and
working out, it’s kind of a different energy. You don’t really know how
everybody’s going to take to the change. But at the same time, I think coach
Schiano gave a great opening speech, telling us about himself and what he
believes and how we’re going to win football games.

“I think everybody’s buying in, and the workouts have been
great. And I’m really excited moving forward.”