Freeman impresses as Bucs start new era

Josh Freeman(notes) followed his untouched, 28-yard touchdown run through Jacksonville’s busted defense with an amusingly awkward celebration that some fans in Tampa Bay may look back and proclaim as the moment they knew.

Photo In his second preaseason game, Josh Freeman showed he’s got some decent wheels for a 6-foot-6 quarterback.
(J. Meric/Getty Images)

The moment they knew that Freeman was the big, athletic and gifted quarterback they expected when the Buccaneers took him in the first round of the 2009 draft.

While stories of Freeman’s exploits will have to wait awhile, the more important part of that impressive scoring run during the third quarter of Saturday’s exhibition game was what happened before it.

Almost as impressive as the way he explained it.

“It was like a third-and-7,” Freeman said, remembering the down and distance. “We weren’t going for sticks [the distance to the first down] because they [the Jags’ defense] had been sitting on the sticks, right in front of the first-down marker.

“So we had another play farther down the field that took a little longer to develop. Initially when I dropped back, I was looking off the play, waiting for a dig [route] to come on the backside [the left side] of the route. When I got back to the dig, I saw the linebacker start to blitz, so we’ve got a voided zone and I wanted to dump it down to the back. Then it just opened up and the back hadn’t quite squeezed out, so I started running. The next thing I know, the back is right in front of me and it’s like let’s go.”

Those not well-versed in football jargon may be lost, but bear with the point for a moment. What Freeman is saying is an aria to a coach. He broke down the play in exact detail.

Or as Tampa Bay personnel executive and former quarterback Doug Williams put it:

“He went through his progressions and let the play unfold. He didn’t just run to make that play and use his athletic ability, he let it happen. You could see he understood how to make that play happen.”

All of that is what allowed the 6-foot-6, 248-pound Freeman to display his above-average running skills. Or as veteran tight end Kellen Winslow(notes) pointed out, “He looked like a big tight end running down there.”

More important, Tampa Bay looks to finally have a promising future after six years of wallowing in a post-Super Bowl haze of mediocrity. In the impulsive world of the NFL, teams, players and fans have become less accepting about the concept of rebuilding. To those people, measuring the performance of starting quarterback Byron Leftwich(notes) and backup Luke McCown(notes) might be interesting. Those people miss the point of what’s happening in Tampa. Trying to figure out if Leftwich’s sun-dial release and fastball delivery is better than McCown’s collection of middling talents is irrelevant to the big picture.

Understanding whether Freeman is making progress is the key.

“[The game] definitely slowed down and I felt good managing the game,” Freeman said. “I knew exactly what they were trying to do and what we were trying to do. The first [game on Aug. 15] night it was exciting, I could actually feel my heart beating and it was like, ‘Wow.’ This game it was more back to the mentality of, ‘Hey, let’s get this thing done.’ I guess the shock and awe was gone from the first snaps.”

The Bucs have done a good job of extinguishing immediate expectations of Freeman. In an era when rookie quarterbacks have successfully hopped on the backs of talented teammates to find early success (Ben Roethlisberger(notes) did that with the Pittsburgh defense, Joe Flacco(notes) with the Baltimore defense and Matt Ryan(notes) with Atlanta’s running game), the Bucs are resisting the temptation that comes with seeing other young throwers succeed.

“Our plan for Josh is that we want him to take it all in and watch guys like [Leftwich] and understand why we do certain things,” general manager Mark Dominik said. “When we call a certain play on third-and-7, we want him to sit back and take in why we’re doing that.”

To say this is a significant shift in the way the Bucs do business is like saying the Grand Canyon is sort of deep. For years under coach Jon Gruden, the Bucs were about the immediate. That was perfect when Gruden first arrived in 2002 and led Tampa Bay to the Super Bowl title. By 2008, Gruden’s act resembled a snarling hamster on a treadmill. No matter how much Gruden tried to stare down the truth, the Bucs were stuck being a mediocre team with no real long-term plan to break out of that.

Gruden went from one over-30 quarterback to another, making one pit stop for a short-lived experiment with Chris Simms(notes), a player he hated from the time Simms was drafted without Gruden’s approval, according to multiple current and former team sources.

Gruden then wanted to surround those aging quarterbacks with similarly aging veterans. Folks around the team still joke that Gruden wanted no part of anybody he had to teach how to play.

“It was always, “I need guys who know what they’re doing,’ ” one team source said.

The decision to fire Gruden this offseason was part of a philosophical shift. Instead of taking the Band-Aid approach to building, the Bucs imploded the building and went for a new look. General manager Bruce Allen was also let go as the team turned to the combination of Dominick and coach Raheem Morris.

The first order of business for those two was to get a potential franchise quarterback, which Morris and Dominik did in drafting Freeman out of Kansas State. The next step is to make sure Freeman is fully prepared for when he gets a real chance.

So far, so good.

“You’re seeing the progression out there from the first time to now,” Dominik said. In the exhibition opener, Freeman threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown. In Saturday’s game, he was 3-of-5 for 47 yards. The lone blemish was an intentional grounding call during a play where Jacksonville called a strong blitz.

“He has a quarterback’s personality, the temperament,” said Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Jim Bates, who has been watching Freeman from a healthy distance. “He doesn’t repeat those plays where you’re going, ‘Hey, what the heck is he thinking?’ He makes a mistake and corrects it.”

Or as Freeman put it: “This is something that I’ve done all my life. I’m a football player. That’s my element out there. I’m hoping to continue building on everything I’ve done so far and hopefully get this thing going pretty good.”

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Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Aug 23, 2009