TAMPA, Fla. (AP)—Wearing one of those ghastly creamsicle jerseys that are an ugly reminder of Tampa Bay’s past, rookie Josh Freeman(notes) gave the struggling Buccaneers plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future.
The third quarterback selected in this year’s NFL draft led the previously winless Bucs to a 38-28 victory over the Green Bay Packers in his first start Sunday, ending the league’s longest losing streak at 11 games.
Playing with poise that belied his inexperience, Freeman passed for 205 yards and three touchdowns, including a 7-yard throw to Sammie Stroughter(notes) on fourth-and-4 for the go-ahead TD with under 5 minutes to play.
“I didn’t get too high or two low,” the 21-year-old said. “I can’t say I did anything spectacular. I just played within myself, and when we had opportunities I took them.”
Freeman became the youngest quarterback to open a game for the Bucs, who have had 10 different players start at the position since winning the Super Bowl seven seasons ago. He’s the third this year.
“That’s a great start to how we want to be, how we want to work, how we want to play,” said the 33-year-old Raheem Morris, who has known Freeman since the rookie was a freshman at Kansas State and Morris was the defensive coordinator there.
“However you do it, it’s impressive. His age really doesn’t matter at this point. … He’s got to lead us to where we’ve got to go.”
Freeman completed 14 of 31 passes with just one interception. A critical second pick by Green Bay’s A.J. Hawk(notes) was wiped out by an illegal contact penalty against Hawk during Tampa Bay’s go-ahead drive.
The Bucs (1-7) are the last team in the NFL to win this season, ending a skid that was the franchise’s longest since 1976-77 when they dropped an NFL-record 26 in a row wearing the uniforms the team donned against the Packers.
Aaron Rodgers(notes) threw for 266 yards and two touchdowns for Green Bay (4-4). The league’s top-rated passer also threw three interceptions and had one returned for a TD that put the game out of reach in the final minute.
Rodgers was also sacked six times, hiking Green Bay’s NFL-worst total to 37 in eight games.
“It’s pretty frustrating,” Rodgers said. “I think our offense and special teams put our defense in a tough position.”
In addition to wearing retro uniforms, the Bucs made Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon the first inductee into the Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium. They trailed 21-17 during the halftime ceremony, but Freeman refused to let them lose.
The rookie threw second-half TD passes to Kellen Winslow(notes) and Stroughter, a seventh-round draft pick who was wide open in the right corner of the end zone with 4:14 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Freeman’s 2-point conversion pass to Clayton put the Bucs up 31-28. The defense, which had all of its sacks after halftime, ensured victory when Tanard Jackson(notes) picked off Rodgers and—instead of going to the ground with under a minute left—weaved 35 yards to a clinching TD.
Rodgers threw a 74-yard TD pass to James Jones(notes) on Green Bay’s second play from scrimmage, then led an 11-play, 69-yard march that Ryan Grant(notes) finished with a 3-yard run that made it 14-7 late in the opening quarter.
Cornerback Elbert Mack(notes), beaten badly on Jones’ long touchdown, returned one of Tampa Bay’s interceptions 36 yards to the Packers 8 to set up Freeman’s first pro TD pass, a 6-yarder to Derrick Ward(notes).
Trailing 14-7, Tampa Bay’s Geno Hayes(notes) blocked a punt that Ronde Barber(notes) scooped up and ran 31 yards for his 14th career touchdown. Freeman led a 74-yard field goal drive just before the half, trimming Tampa Bay’s deficit to 21-17.
Rodgers looked like he might have put the game away when he scrambled 12 yards on third-and-goal to give Green Bay a 28-17 lead.
But Clifton Smith returned the ensuing kickoff 83 yards to set up Freeman’s 7-yard TD pass to Winslow and spark the comeback.
“It doesn’t feel good. This one definitely hurt,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I’m disappointed in the way we played. We have some recurring problems that we have not cleaned up yet.”
Notes: Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber got his 13th career return touchdown on a blocked punt. Barber is tied for the third-most return touchdowns all time. He trails Deion Sanders (19) and Rod Woodson (17) for the most return touchdowns in NFL history. … Green Bay running back Ahman Green(notes) gained 45 yards rushing and has 8,208 yards rushing with the Packers, surpassing Hall of Famer Jim Taylor (8,207) for the most rushing yards in franchise history. … Bucs WR Antonio Bryant(notes) was inactive because of a sore left knee. … Jones finished with four receptions for 103 yards for Green Bay. Grant rushed for 96 yards on 21 attempts. … Packers RT Mark Tauscher(notes) (knee) played for the first time this season, but was not able to finish the game.