TAMPA, Fla. – The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in the middle of a race on two fronts.
The most obvious is the external one involving Josh Freeman(notes), their talented young quarterback. Last year, in only his second season, Freeman put his preternatural skills on display by posting a 95.9 quarterback rating to go with 25 touchdown passes and only six interceptions.
More importantly, Freeman helped keep the Bucs competitive in a division that features Drew Brees(notes) in New Orleans and Matt Ryan(notes) in Atlanta. With No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton expected to start in Carolina, the NFC South may soon be the best division in the NFL when it comes to quarterbacks. The Bucs went 10-6 last season, largely on Freeman's dynamic play, particularly in the fourth quarter (in 25 career starts, he has seven fourth-quarter comebacks).
"You look around in this division, you better have [a good quarterback] or you're going to be behind in a hurry," Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik said.
The other race for the Bucs is less obvious and internal: Can they develop their young talent on defense quickly enough to overcome the leadership problem they have on that side of the ball?
Right now, the best player and leader the Bucs have on defense is cornerback Aqib Talib(notes), whose troubles off the field are just as great as his impact on it. On Tuesday, the talented Talib (15 interceptions in just 41 games) met with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for the second time in less than two years. Three sources familiar with the situation have indicated that Talib can expect a four-game suspension to open his fourth season.
Even worse, Talib's issues appear to be escalating. In July 2008, Talib got into a fight with then-teammate Cory Boyd(notes) during the NFL's rookie symposium, which is like busting someone in the head at an anger management course.
Less than a year later in May 2009, Talib was involved in a heated argument with teammate Donald Penn(notes) which led to Talib swinging his helmet at Penn and inadvertently hitting Torrie Cox(notes) in the face. Cox was trying to play peacemaker.
Three months later, in August 2009, Talib was involved in a fight with a taxi driver which led to him being arrested on charges of resisting arrest and simple battery. Talib eventually met with Goodell after that incident.
The reason for Talib's latest visit to Goodell's office is the most troublesome of all. In March, Talib was arrested for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in Texas after allegedly pistol-whipping and firing a gun at his sister's then-boyfriend. That was after the boyfriend allegedly had two altercations that day with the sister. Talib's mother is also charged with firing at the boyfriend, who was not injured in the incident. Talib is set to go on trial in 2012, but Goodell isn't expected to wait.
Unless "waiting" is defined as the end of this week.
"There's probably enough doubt in this case that he won't go more than four games, but it could be more," a source said. "It's like he says to guys, 'I don't want to see you back here.' "
The Bucs have also wrestled over how to deal with Talib's problems. The St. Petersburg Times previously reported the team was planning to cut Talib when the lockout ended. However, coach Raheem Morris spoke up for Talib and begged ownership to give the player another chance.
But the most important question for the Bucs is whether this team will continue to build on what developed last season or whether Talib will be an anchor. Much of that depends on players such as Freeman and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy(notes).
"I feel like I've gotten to the point that I can say something to the guys when I have to," said Freeman, who is far more mature than your typical 23-year-old. Freeman's father Ron, who also played professional football, schooled his son well on the mental dynamics of the locker room. For his first year, Freeman pretty much shut his mouth and worked.
From there, Freeman let his play build his credibility. In the NFL, that's critical because leaders need a foundation of ability to earn respect.
"Between being in the locker room and just hanging out with guys, you learn what everybody is about," Freeman said. "There are some guys who you have to yell at and some guys you just say, ‘Come on, man.'"
Again, talent and performance drive leadership as much as how something is said.
"They're not exclusive, they work together," said Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber(notes), who is entering his 15th season. "That's the natural ascension of things. … Good players kind of assume the role. Josh is a good leader. McCoy will be a leader."
What about Talib?
"He's a leader in his own right. Just who he is and what he brings. I don't know if he's the alpha male in the locker room, but he has the personality to be that guy," Barber said. "[But] I don't think there's a void there. We have guys who are assuming that role already."
McCoy, the No. 3 overall pick last year who missed the final three games because of a biceps tear, has the talent. Dominik talked about how McCoy was starting to see it all come together last season before the injury (he had three sacks in his last three games before getting knocked out for the season). This offseason, McCoy has spent time reshaping his focus on his faith.
"I spent last season playing for all these other people, playing not to embarrass my parents or my family, I really forgot who I should be playing for," McCoy said. Like Freeman, there is a sense of confidence in McCoy's demeanor. His calm runs in opposition to Talib's frenetic style.
"With Aqib, he can be a really fun, engaging guy, somebody you really are drawn to, but then something will just snap in him," one player said. "You push that red button in his brain and he just loses it and you can't talk to him. It takes him forever to calm down.
"Part of that is great for him. It's part of what drives him to be so great on the field. The slightest bit of disrespect from the other side and he's just playing so hard. But then when he loses control, it's like, ‘How do you handle this?' "
At that moment, it's a race against time. The Bucs are just hoping they have the right leaders to deal with that if it ever happens again.