Interception leaves Freeman pondering 'what if'
Josh Freeman began his description of the final, painful pass he threw in Sunday's 28-24 loss to Atlanta by praising Falcons cornerback Brent Grimes. That's what you'd expect Freeman to do, I suppose.

Grimes had anticipated where the pass to Mike Williams was going and made the interception that, well, could wind up meaning just about everything to the Bucs. It sucked the life out of Raymond James Stadium. We'll know later if it did the same to the season. "I put the ball right where I wanted to just a great play by Grimes," Freeman said.

But as Freeman continued to speak, the more his regret came through. Even though his demeanor remained stoic and composed, you could tell this loss and his role in it will gnaw at him, forcing him to wrestle with that most frustrating of questions: What if? "If I could have recognized he got such a good jump sail it out of bounds," Freeman said.

What if? He kept talking, punctuated by a deep sigh. "I would have liked to lean out, give him a go-route. (Williams) would have stuttered him, gone right by touchdown, different day. But we didn't."

To add blood to insult, Freeman's upper lip was red and scratched from a collision he had with Grimes on the interception return. Freeman hit Grimes hard on the return, knocking him into the Bucs sideline into assistant coach Pete Mangurian. Freeman was flagged on the play for unnecessary roughness.

Could there have been a more bizarre ending to his day than drawing a personal foul penalty for dishing out a hit that looked like it came from Ray Lewis?

"I was surprised to see the flag. Obviously I'm not in that situation often, to make a tackle. But what's going through my mind is that there's no way this guy is going to return this ball," Freeman said. "I made the mistake. There's no way I'm going to let him get down the sideline. I felt like I was the last line of defense."

Until that moment Freeman had been what we have come to expect. When the Bucs began their last drive, 4:31 remained in the game and they were 77 yards away from the touchdown they needed to win. "No doubt, we think we're going to win that game," Williams said. "When he comes into the huddle with four minutes to go, we know we're getting into the end zone."

They have good reason to believe that. In a little more than a year as a starter, Freeman has a reputation of succeeding in situations just like that. "It's Josh time," receiver Sammie Stroughter said.

The Bucs ran 10 consecutive pass plays on the final drive. They had one timeout left plus the two-minute warning, but they didn't even consider running the ball. This game belonged to their quarterback. "We wanted to put it in Free's hands," Coach Raheem Morris said.

They didn't do that the last time they faced Atlanta and wound up losing at the end when rookie running back LeGarrette Blount got the ball with the game on the line. That wasn't going to happen again. "There wasn't a moment in that last drive when I didn't feel we were going right down and score a touchdown," Freeman said.

Most of the announced crowd of 53,955 no doubt felt the same way as Freeman moved his team with the same kind of late flair he had shown in leading six comeback wins in his time as a starter. When he hit Stroughter for 19 yards on fourth-and-12 with 2:18 to play, the Bucs were at Atlanta's 27.

"What was going through my mind was to eat up a little clock and not give the ball back to Matt Ryan with a lot of time left," Freeman said.

Freeman turned to his right for the pass to Williams, reading a defensive look he had seen three previous times in this game. This time, though, Grimes broke on the ball.

In an instant the comeback was over. The game was over. And Tampa Bay's path to the playoffs just got a lot tougher. There are three games coming up against sub-.500 teams and the Bucs need to win them all after this one got away.

Granted, it was a clutch play by a top cornerback. As he walked away from the stadium after the game, though, Freeman said it came down to just one thing. "It's on me as a quarterback," he said.

About the writer
Joe Henderson writes a regular Sunday column for The Tampa Tribune for many years although during the NFL season, turns his attentions to the Buccaneers and often writes gameday features for the paper and TBO.com.