0 and 7 and counting
The game was out of hand in the fourth quarter when Bucs coach Raheem Morris went to the sideline phone and dialed upstairs to general manager Mark Dominik. After exchanging a few words, he quickly turned to offensive coordinator Greg Olson and said, "Give me Five."
With that command, Josh Freeman, the quarterback the Bucs have protected like the Crown Jewels, took his place in the huddle. His Kingdom come. That was the most significant development in the Bucs' 35-7 loss to the Patriots on Sunday before 84,254 at Wembley Stadium.
The Bucs made the switch to Freeman after Josh Johnson threw three interceptions. Two came in the first quarter by safety Brandon Meriweather, including one returned for a touchdown on the fifth play of the game.
At 0-7 and entering a bye week, the move to the rookie from Kansas State could be permanent. Morris wouldn't commit to it. But even Johnson, who was 9-of-26 for 156 yards and a touchdown, sounded resigned to it.
"I told (Morris), 'You don't have to say anything.' I understand," Johnson said. "It's just the same situation as Byron (Leftwich). If we don't win games, maybe Josh is going to play. It's about taking advantage enough, and if we are not winning football games, I'm not taking advantage of that opportunity. We are an 0-7 football team. So somebody has to step up and do something about it."
Not that Freeman did anything but get his feet wet Sunday. In two series, the 17th overall pick completed 2 of 4 passes for 16 yards, was sacked twice and scrambled once for 5 yards. "That's not my call," Freeman said of starting Nov. 8 against the Packers. "It's not something I'm really going to think about."
Johnson, who has made only four starts, has thrown eight interceptions. "Most of the turnovers have been when I try to do too much, trying to get big plays," Johnson said. "And me being a mobile guy, that's the thing that's most frustrating because I can do things with my feet. But I'm just trying to do things down the field and give guys opportunities to make plays."
The Bucs trailed 21-0 before Patriots quarterback Tom Brady got warmed up. Their defense didn't play that badly in the first half, intercepting Brady twice and forcing three punts. But the Bucs could not cover receiver Wes Welker on screens and crossing routes. Brady targeted Welker 10 times, and he caught all 10 for 107 yards and a touchdown. "I went to him after the game and told him, 'Hey, man, get out of the game,' " Morris said of Welker, "because he's a problem."
At times, the Bucs defense made it easy for Brady. Linebacker Barrett Ruud's missed tackle allowed receiver Sam Aiken to turn a short pass into a 54-yard touchdown. The Patriots took the second-half kickoff and overcame two holding penalties to put the game away. On first and 20, Morris decided to blitz Brady. But tight end Benjamin Watson beat linebacker Geno Hayes for a 35-yard touchdown.
"It's tough playing a quarterback like that," Morris said. "You have to make some decisions that you might not necessarily want to."
Morris was careful not to heap all of the blame on Johnson. There were penalties, protection breakdowns and dropped passes. Morris even punted on fourth and 6 from the Patriots 35 late in the third trailing 28-7. Brady made the Bucs pay by leading an 89-yard touchdown drive.
But the decision to finally play Freeman was one he made after consulting with Dominik. "We evaluate. We talk. We communicate everything," Morris said. "Just letting him know and giving him the heads-up. We talked about it, and we're okay. We're comfortable about our decision and going with (Freeman)."
Center Jeff Faine said Freeman took command. "He spoke up," he said. "You could hear the entire play call throughout the entire huddle. That was the biggest step. So we're looking at baby steps."
Losing aside, the Bucs enjoyed their trip to London. The atmosphere during the game was electric. Fans cheered good plays for both teams. Bucs flags waved from every corner of Wembley Stadium. Where else would you come to pass the scepter?
But Freeman might want to be careful. Heavy is the head that wears the crown.
Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 26 October 2009