Roughly an hour after engineering the fourth-quarter comeback victory Sunday against the St. Louis Rams, second-year Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman(notes) was shuttled from the locker room to his car at Raymond James Stadium on a golf cart, reminiscent of the way closers used to be brought into baseball games in the 1970s.
It was perfect for a guy who is something of a throwback when it comes to finishing games.
In less than two full seasons as the starter since being the team's first-round pick in 2009, Freeman has led the Bucs to seven wins in the 15 games he has started or played the majority of the game. Four of those victories have come this season as the Buccaneers have gotten off to a somewhat surprising 4-2 start. While that has led to some big talk from coach Raheem Morris – love ya, Raheem, but calling your team the best in the NFC is a bit of a stretch – it also has led to some lofty comparisons for Freeman.
Specifically, one Tampa columnist dared to compare Freeman to John Elway, who along with Dan Marino made the fourth-quarter comeback a specialty.
Through their first two seasons after being first-round picks in 1983, Elway and Marino each had three fourth-quarter, come-from-behind victories. Freeman isn't halfway through his second season – and he has five.
Projecting that number over a 16-year career would be something like 75, which again is more than Marino (37) and Elway (34) combined. That, of course, is absurd. The Miami Heat has a better chance of winning 75 games in the regular season than Freeman has of getting 75 comebacks over an entire career.
Moreover, having a lot of fourth-quarter comebacks isn't a true sign of greatness for a team. It's a nice quality to have (just ask Joe Montana and all 49ers fans), but you don't want to live by it because it usually means your team isn't that good. In a lot of cases, it really means that your team is about average and happens to have a good quarterback.
In this instance, Tampa Bay has someone special in Freeman. He is far from perfect, as his league-average 82.8 season rating shows. But he's improving quickly (his rating was 59.9 last season).
The quality Freeman has that's undeniable is his composure in the face of moments when lesser players fold.
Even before Sunday, Tampa Bay veteran cornerback Ronde Barber(notes) said, "Josh has some qualities – and not just the physical characteristics – that make you say, 'Hmmm, this could be really special.' "
One of those obvious qualities is his combination of size, strength and mobility. At 6-foot-6, 248 pounds and blessed with enough speed to be a concern for defenses, Freeman is hard for one man to tackle.
Early in the game-winning drive against St. Louis, Freeman and the Bucs faced second-and-11, an obvious passing situation for the offense and an obvious blitz situation for the defense. Freeman dropped to throw and the Rams brought extra defenders, one of them getting through for a clean shot at Freeman's front shoulder.
Instead of going down, Freeman shed the tackler and scrambled for eight yards, turning third-and-hopeless into third-and-3.
Later in the drive, Tampa Bay faced first-and-22 after a penalty. It took all four downs, including a 9-yard strike to Winslow on fourth-and-3, but Freeman kept the drive alive.
"You don't ever see him get frazzled," one scout from and NFC team said. "You can see that he has a real understanding of what he wants to do next, so he's not ever running around, screaming, looking like he's trying to figure out what's going on."
In fact, that may be part of what is holding Freeman back early in games.
"He obviously knows the situations and understands what they're trying to do," the scout said. "He's holding the ball too long, but it's not because he doesn't see the play. It's because he's waiting for the play to develop perfectly. That doesn't happen a lot in this league. Plays breakdown, you just have to get rid of it sometimes.
"That's what shows up in the comeback drives. He's not waiting for everything to be perfect. He's going with the best early read and that's what you have to do most of the time in this league. Don't stand around wait. Get rid of the ball."
Jumping at the opportunity
Prior to their Week 6 game, the St. Louis front office was debating whether to activate rookie wide receiver Danario Alexander(notes) from the practice squad. While the 6-foot-5, 221-pound Alexander is an enticing combination of size and speed and even some interesting success (he led the nation with 1,781 yards receiving last season at Missouri, getting 113 catches and 14 touchdowns as well), Alexander has had four surgeries on his left knee in less than three years.
Alexander knows enough about knee surgery that he's almost qualified for med school at this point.
"Yeah, if all I had to do was knee operations, I could probably handle it," Alexander said, jokingly.
At that moment, however, Alexander had to find a way to prove to the front office and the team's medical staff that he could handle the rigors of playing in the NFL. He offered to do a backflip right there in the training room.
"I told them I would do it and land it right where my feet were when I jumped," said Alexander, who admitted later than he hadn't done a backflip in almost a decade.
Suffice it to say, Alexander nailed it like an Olympic gymnast. That was good enough for the Rams. Through two games, Alexander has five catches for 78 yards. He's not quite ready for stardom, but at least he now has more catches than surgeries.
"It definitely can get frustrating," said Alexander, who three times has had to have the ACL in his left knee repaired. The first time was in December 2007, but that was an allograft (a piece of tissue harvested from a cadaver) that his body eventually rejected. It was repaired in June 2008 (this time with tissue from his patellar tendon), and he came back four months later. When the second repair got loose, he had to have a "double bundle" procedure on the knee, combining hamstring tissue from his own body with cadaver tissue.
That was done in early 2009. He came back for his exceptional senior season, but then had cartilage damage at the Senior Bowl in January, had surgery in February and went undrafted in April.
"Having to be patient is the toughest part. You're sitting there on the sideline while the rest of your team is practicing, but you have to really wait and wait to make sure you're healthy," he said. "You start to feel good and think you're ready to do more, but that's not really the case. You have to keep waiting."
Then again, sometimes you have to do backflips when you're ready.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-1): How stupid is it of the NFL to have refs in a game from a city of one of the two teams playing? Incredibly stupid.
2. New York Jets (5-1): After a couple of close ones before the break, we'll see how prepared the Jets are after a rest.
3. Indianapolis Colts (4-2): Losing Austin Collie(notes) for a month is tough, but maybe this will allow Anthony Gonzalez(notes) to get back on track.
4. New England Patriots (5-1): Once again, the Chargers handed the Pats a critical win on a silver platter in San Diego. Very strange.
5. Baltimore Ravens (5-2): I've been saying for awhile that I think the Ravens defense is nothing like what it once was. The win over Buffalo is proof.
28. Jacksonville Jaguars (3-4): Getting drilled by K.C. and Tennessee in back-to-back games is a bad indication of things to come.
29. Carolina Panthers (1-5): The Panthers get in the win column, but beating San Francisco is no huge accomplishment.
30. Denver Broncos (2-5): After winning his first six games as a head coach, Josh McDaniels is 4-13 and getting worse by the week.
31. San Francisco 49ers (1-6): The house cleaning is not only going to include Mike Singletary, but also QB Alex Smith.
32. Buffalo Bills (0-6): A valiant effort by the Bills to take Baltimore to overtime. Head coach Chan Gailey will keep the Bills plugging.
This and that
• New England coach Bill Belichick isn't in the Pro Football Hall of Fame yet, but he already has made it into the Denver Art Museum. While strolling through the DAM last week with the wife, I happened upon a great three-paneled, large portrait of Mount Blanca, a mountain in southern Colorado that sits adjoining to Great Sand Dunes National Park (a place that is awesome itself). Upon closer inspection of the work by local artist Stephen Hannock, it includes a number of eclectic features. Among them were pages from Dr. Seuss stories that are painted over (but still visible at close range) – inscriptions from the artist almost like a diary. Among those inscriptions is one regarding Belichick (along with a small photo of Belichick from 1978, featuring a curiously bushy mustache). The message from Hannock reads: "Bill Belichick lived in Denver in 1978 while coaching special teams and defense. Here he's building his and [now ex-wife] Debby's first house with Mark and Pete Fredland. Their dads were both on the faculty of the U.S. Naval Academy. Bill's friend Josh [McDaniels] is with the Broncos now. I wonder if he still has that Broncos tee-shirt?"
• Speaking of Belichick, his dry wit was on display again this Monday. After hearing that free safety FS Brandon Meriweather(notes) was praised by the NFL for improving his hitting, Belichick was asked if he could remember another time that the league praised a specific player? "No, I think that would be a first for me. The officials are now evaluating the players and their performance. That's great. I can't tell you how much that means to me, really." That said, Belichick can be given credit for being consistent. In 2008, Belichick complained loudly to former NFL head of officials Mike Pereira when Pittsburgh free safety Ryan Clark(notes) leveled Pats receiver Wes Welker(notes) after an incomplete pass. It was a vicious and unnecessary hit. When Pereira tried to defend the play, Belichick countered by telling Pereira, "OK, then I'll start teaching our players to do that." Two games ago, when Meriweather landed his cheap hit on Ravens tight end Todd Heap(notes), Belichick pulled a Meriweather.
• While agent Gary Wichard – whose client list includes Jason Taylor(notes), Dwight Freeney(notes), C.J. Spiller(notes), Antonio Cromartie(notes) and Jimmy Clausen(notes) – has yet to be disciplined by the NFL Players Association for his involvement in the scandal at the University of North Carolina, some of the players Wichard represents are expecting him to have problems. At least three of Wichard's clients are quietly looking for new agents, according to sources.
• Congratulations to Cleveland Browns linebacker/defensive lineman David Bowens(notes), who had the game of his life with two interception returns for scores on Sunday against New Orleans. There are few better people in the league than Bowens, who went from being a self-professed knucklehead early in his career (he went through cash his first two years the way New Orleans coach Sean Payton goes through chewing gum) to one of the best multi-purpose players in the league (special teams included). Bowens can play four positions (inside or outside linebacker, defensive end and even defensive tackle in pass-rush situations). More important, he fits well in any locker room.
• Great stat Monday night from ESPN that six of New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning's(notes) 11 interceptions this season are on tipped passes on high throws. Long ago, former Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi realized that one of Manning's issues was the tendency to throw high passes. That's one of the big reasons why Accorsi signed former wide receiver Plaxico Burress(notes) as a free agent. The 6-foot-5, long-armed Burress was the perfect antidote for that problem.