It’s Josh’s time in Tampa

By Ira Kaufman
Updated: November 13, 2009

TAMPA — Each time Josh Freeman straps those pads around his thick neck, he carries the weight of a franchise across his shoulders.

Football has often been called the ultimate team sport, but Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris has talked up the rookie as a savior since the Buccaneers traded up in the first round to select the strong-armed quarterback out of Kansas State.

“Raheem came into our meeting the other day and said, ‘It’s time to put in the guy (Freeman) I’ve hitched my wagon to,’ ” said Fox Sports analyst Tim Ryan, who worked Sunday’s home game against the Packers.

Freeman threw three touchdown passes and appeared poised in his first pro start as the Bucs posted their initial victory. His progress during the final eight games will be a huge factor in determining how ownership views the season as a whole.

“I always tell Josh that he’ll be here longer than anybody,” said Bucs veteran quarterback Byron Leftwich, selected seventh overall by Jacksonville in 2003. “Every team that drafts a quarterback in the first round makes a big commitment to that guy. Once that happens, everyone knows their jobs are on the line. It’s been going on since before I was drafted, and nowadays those quarterbacks are even more important because this is a win-now league more than ever.”

Morris has acknowledged the Bucs “are married” to Freeman, who made his NFL debut in London against New England, playing briefly as the Bucs fell to 0-7.

After biding his time behind Leftwich and second-year pro Josh Johnson, Freeman is expected to start the rest of the way, barring injury.

“When we drafted (Freeman), the talk was about No. 5,” said offensive coordinator Greg Olson. “When we started training camp, we spoke with the team about let’s make sure everybody in this building understands we’re all about the development of No. 5. He’s a first-round draft pick who we want to be the face of the franchise.”

For now, that face is free of worry lines.

“Freeman is very confident in his ability,” Ryan said, “but there’s still so much unknown about him. One of the things that set him back was not having enough reps in the summer. So far, I’m impressed. I know he can stand in the pocket, and I know he can deliver the ball.”

Like their franchise quarterback, Morris and General Manager Mark Dominik are in their first year on the job.

If Freeman keeps progressing, those jobs will be far more secure.

“This has always been a quarterback-driven league, and the Bucs are no different,” ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski said. “They’re going through a transition, and it may take a few years to rebuild in Tampa. It’s hard to see light at the end of the tunnel when you go through a season like this, but make no mistake … Freeman’s the key to the plan.”

Leftwich is a productive mentor for Freeman, 21, who entered the draft after his junior season.

“When I was in Jacksonville, the turnover was huge and we seemed to have new offensive coaches coming in every year,” Leftwich said.

“Things can go wrong in a hurry for a young quarterback. But at the same time, when you have a game like Josh had Sunday, when it goes good, that’s the other side of the story and everyone feels good about the future.”

While he likes Freeman’s potential, Ryan is wary of Tampa Bay’s track record.

“You look back at the history of their first-round picks, guys like Trent Dilfer, Doug Williams, Vinny Testaverde … they all went on to do better somewhere else,” Ryan said. “That can’t happen here. Yes, there’s a lot of pieces that need to be improved, but there’s also no doubt Josh Freeman has to be the guy. That organization is absolutely tied to the quarterback, and he’s got to come through.”