This sort of game to be expected from rookie QB
This is what you get with a rookie quarterback. It was the first drive of the second half and the Bucs had the ball, down 10. Would Josh Freeman lead the Bucs on a drive, cut into the deficit, change momentum and set the stage for a shocking upset?

Not exactly. After grinding out a first down, Freeman brought the Bucs to the line expecting to run a draw play. He called a quick hard count to see if the Saints' defense would tip its coverage, which it did. What he saw dictated an audible to a pass.

"I'm thinking (pass) protection the whole time, pointing and calling protection and telling our back who he's going to," Freeman said. "(But) I forgot to actually alert the play."

The team thought the original call was still on. "So I snapped it and everybody else was still running a draw and I was running a pass," he said. "That was a stupid mental error."

The play predictably blew up. Freeman tried to roll away from the pressure but he had no chance to get away. Making it worse, he fumbled. New Orleans recovered and scored three plays later. Soon, fast-emptying Raymond James Stadium began to take on the feel of an abandoned warehouse as thousands of fans figured they'd catch the final score (pssst, it was 38-7) later on the highlight shows.

Freeman had the kind of day we all knew he eventually would. He threw three interceptions, two of which led to 10 points. His fumble, as we saw, led to seven more. He missed open receivers on makeable passes that could have kept drives alive. His 33.1 passer rating for the day basically tells the story.

After two weeks of superlative play, Freeman "took some steps back today, obviously." That was Coach Raheem Morris talking. "He was just off as a thrower today. We ran a couple of wrong routes, we slipped on a couple of routes," Morris said. "I'm not making excuses for the kid; he'll bounce back. He's mentally tough. He didn't blink one bit."

The Bucs probably would have lost even if Freeman played a perfect game and he certainly wasn't the only one who made mistakes. There is also no question he put his team in a bad way too many times. Against a Saints team missing three defensive starters - including both cornerbacks - the Bucs averaged only 2.8 yards per pass attempt.

Throw in four turnovers and you've got a blowout. "He's developing. Right now, that's what it seems like we're out there doing. We're developing Josh more than really trying to compete. That's the situation that we're in, but as a veteran I understand that," said receiver Antonio Bryant, who returned after missing two games.

"To me, the whole feeling is just a different game plan. The two weeks I sat out, it was like bombs away and today it was very, very conservative. I don't feel like we made the adjustments we could have made to go out there and make the plays down the field to beat them deep, especially with the situation given. They weren't in first team completely. That was kind of weird to me, but it is what it is."

Not that Bryant is complaining about his quarterback. "We believe in him. The coaches believe in him and the players ... we have to rally behind him because he's key in us taking the next step toward being a better franchise. It's definitely about him," he said.

"It's easy to want to go out there and throw everything at him, but we can't do that. ... That would disadvantage him. Every week it's just about making him a better player and that's getting better with him as well."

After a day that could have left him puzzled, bummed and beaten, Freeman's postgame demeanor was no different than it was two weeks ago after the Bucs beat Green Bay. That's encouraging.

"Starting (today), I am going to go in and watch this game and it's going to be out of my system," he said. "I am going to move on to Atlanta (next week's opponent), start with a clean slate and get ready for Atlanta."

We saw him generate fourth-quarter rallies the previous two weeks. We saw him overcome mistakes. We saw a team respond to him. It couldn't go on without some bumps. "We were living in a fantasy world a little bit there the last two weeks," Morris said.

Not any more. We may have always known he is a rookie, but now we have proof.

Joe Henderson, The Tampa Tribune 23 November 2009