If a team's success is based on how much everyone likes each other, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers should be Super Bowl contenders this season.
They're forming quite the mutual admiration society down there. Everyone is smitten with free-agent acquisition Vincent Jackson (more on that in a minute), but not as smitten as Jackson is with fourth-year quarterback Josh Freeman. The preseason is a time for everyone to be happy and excited about everything, but Vincent Jackson is positively drunk with optimism. Jackson on Freeman:
"We have tight ends, running backs and obviously, Josh Freeman, and he's a quarterback I think should be mentioned among the top five in the league.''
Rodgers, Brady, Brees, Roethlisberger, Rivers. That's five. Plus Eli and Peyton. Stafford, Ryan, Romo, Schaub, Vick. Or any of the rest of the 24 quarterbacks who had a passer rating better than Josh Freeman's last year, which includes Mark Sanchez, Kevin Kolb and Tarvaris Jackson.
I guess Vincent Jackson and I just define "five" differently.
Not that there's any harm in Jackson showering Freeman with effusive, insane praise. Jackson's the new kid in class, trying to fit in with his teammates. And Josh Freeman could probably use the confidence boost, after his passer rating tumbled from 95.9 in 2010 to 74.6 in 2011. If he's got a star receiver who believes in him, even to a level that makes him sound delusional, it can't hurt the Bucs.
With Jackson, meanwhile, it's a little bit easier to digest the singing of his praises. Backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky spoke about Jackson in reverential tones.
"What don't I see?" Orlovsky said. "I've been as impressed with Vincent, as I've had a chance to play with some Hall of Fame receivers, with Andre Johnson in Houston, Reggie (Wayne), and Calvin (Johnson) in Detroit, and the similarities between them are scary. (Vincent) has an unbelievable amount of humility. I say that they have talent and perform like elite players, but work like they're undrafted rookies."
There's no question that Vincent Jackson is a stud. How he'll be able to help transform the Bucs offense has yet to be seen ‒ Jackson didn't even have a pass thrown his way in the first preseason game ‒ but he's a game changer. He's had some off-the-field legal problems, but no one's ever had anything bad to say about his work ethic or focus when he's on the field.
The bigger question (at least to everyone but Vincent Jackson) is if Josh Freeman is good enough to make use of a weapon as dangerous as Jackson. Freeman was, to be kind, a below-average starting quarterback in 2011. If Jackson's presence is going to translate to more wins, Freeman's going to have to get better so he can make use of him. To compete in a division with Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton, you're going to have to be able to score some points, and the Bucs only scored 17.9 per game last season. If that number doesn't improve, the Bucs will finish last in their division again in 2012.
Freeman did get off to a decent start in the Bucs' first preseason game, going 4 of 5 and leading a touchdown drive. The passes were all of the shorter variety, but of course, the preseason is the preseason. With a new coaching staff and new toys to work with, we won't know how much the Bucs will improve until the regular season is underway.
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