Tampa Bay’s offensive explosion over the last four weeks – the Bucs lead the league in that span in both yards and points – has made a star out of rookie RB Doug Martin and propelled Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams into the ranks fo the NFL’s best WR tandems. It is also the result of the team’s concerted efforts this offseason to maximize the talent they believed was residing in their young franchise quarterback, Josh Freeman. Martin, Jackson and Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks (now on injured reserve) were all supposed to give Freeman all the tools he needed to unlock his potential.
Clearly, Freeman is seeing the benefit of those maneuvers, as he is now surrounded with the kind of across-the-board big-play talent that has rarely, if ever, been assembled at one time in franchise history. But there’s an important distinction to be made here: Josh Freeman is not merely reaping the benefits of the outstanding seasons produced by his skill-positions. Rather, he has been the key to making those seasons happen.
“I think most of it is Josh,” said Head Coach Greg Schiano. “Yeah, the weapons around him are great, and the mechanics [are getting] fixed, but he has to do all the work. This guy has worked. From the day we got hired, we had to hold him off, with the rules being what they are. This guy has wanted to do everything he possibly could to become the quarterback that he sees himself as. He’s not where he wants to be and not where we want him to be…not even close, because his upside is way up [there]. But if he keeps working the way he is, he’s going to get there.”
It’s Freeman, of course, who has delivered so many on-target deep balls to Jackson and Williams and even third receiver Tiquan Underwood, and his growing ability to read defenses has helped the rushing attack get the right looks. But Schiano says it goes deeper, that Freeman’s work ethic and dedication have been key to bringing out the best in everybody around him.
“As a leader on our team, that’s critical,” said Schiano. “You can say all you want as a leader, but talk is cheap. What are you doing? What are your actions? This guy’s actions are backing up what he’s asking everybody else to do. As long as he keeps doing that, his mechanics will keep getting better, his reads will keep getting better, his comfort in the offense will keep getting better. All those things.”
Jackson leads the NFL with a 22.9-yard per-catch average and Williams (17.4) and Underwood (15.7) have excelled in that reguard, too. Even Martin, a running back, has a mark of 12.8 yards per grab to go along with his 5.2 yards per carry. Underwood says all of that goes back to the man distributing the ball.
“I give credit to Josh Freeman, our quarterback,” he said. “He’s been playing with a lot of confidence, playing very well, and that’s because our O-Line has been giving him a lot of time. As Josh goes, we go. He’s been studying the game plan, studying our opponent, and he obviously has the physical ability to make all the throws. The more confidence he plays with, the better our offense is going to be.”
Freeman, predictably, bounced the credit back to those around him, with particular praise for the team’s oft-shuffled offensive line. However, he does concede that he is now well ahead of where he was at this time a year ago, when both he and the Bucs as a whole were struggling mightily.
“I think it’s part of the growing-up process,” said Freeman. “More mature, more control of emotions, as far as feeling those urges to go out and making something big happen rather than just letting it happen, letting the defense give it to you. It’s definitely a different feeling; I think I learned a lot from last year as far as growing as a quarterback.”