Freeman leads Bucs to first win, 38-28 over Packers
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune, published 9 November 2009

It has to have a starting point. Every escape from the darkness does. Maybe that game-winning drive late Sunday against the Packers, which produced a 38-28 victory, was it.

It wasn't necessarily one for the ages. But coming as it did, with rookie quarterback Josh Freeman at the wheel and in a uniform that has come to symbolize a losing era, it was enough to make some believe better days are just ahead.

"You've got to think it's the start of something special," Bucs receiver Michael Clayton said of Freeman's work during the eight-play, 72-yard touchdown drive that completed Tampa Bay's comeback from an 11-point, fourth-quarter deficit and ended an 11-game losing streak.

"That's why we brought him here to lead this franchise," said first-time winning Bucs coach Raheem Morris, a former Kansas State defensive coordinator who had as much to do with bringing the former K-State quarterback to Tampa as anyone. "It reminded me of his first college start."

Freeman, a Kansas State product who was recruited to the school by Morris, brought the Wildcats back from 10 points down to beat Oklahoma State in that one.

"It was similar," Freeman said. "But I wasn't feeling pressed at all. Of course the situation was kind of stressful, but the feeling in our huddle was, 'We have to get it done.' I didn't have to come out with a big rah, rah speech. Everybody knew it was our time to make something happen."

No one made more happen than Freeman. Ad-libbing on several plays, including the game-winning touchdown to Sammie Stroughter, he started out by firing a sharp pass down the right sideline that tight end Kellen Winslow snared as he dived out of bounds for a 22-yard gain to the 50-yard line.

One big break later, after linebacker A.J. Hawk's interception was nullified by a holding penalty on Hawk, Freeman freelanced a pivotal 29-yard completion to Michael Clayton on third down, lofting a high pass. "He had it in his mind to ad-lib a little bit and he gave me an opportunity to adjust to the ball," Clayton said.

Three plays later, on fourth-and-goal from the Packers 7, Freeman read a zone defense designed to allow the corners to jump any route the receivers run. He faked a throw to freeze the defense, then lifted a ball into the back right corner of the end zone for Stroughter.

"He showed you why he's a franchise player," Stroughter said. "But that's what's expected of him. Coach Raheem expects greatness from him. The same as he expects it from Ronde Barber, he expects it from Sammie Stroughter and from Josh Freeman."

No one will misconstrue Freeman's overall performance as an example of greatness. He completed just 14 of his 31 throws and, in addition to sliding too soon on a third-down run on his first drive, also threw one interception that stuck.

When the Bucs needed him to, though, Freeman made plays for them, throwing for 205 yards, three touchdowns and a 2-point conversion, and running four times for 20 yards. At 21 years, 299 days, Freeman is the youngest quarterback to start or win a game in franchise history. His three TD passes also set a team rookie record.

But Freeman wasn't alone. In addition to getting help from his supporting cast on offense, Freeman also benefited from what may have been the best performance yet this year by the Bucs defense and special teams units.

On defense the Bucs sacked league passing leader Aaron Rodgers six times and picked him off three times, including once late in the game on a play that safety Tanard Jackson returned for a touchdown.

"That's the name of the game for us," said cornerback Aqib Talib, who intercepted Rodgers at the goal line. "We want to score on defense, get the ball back and get pressure on the quarterback. We did all those things."

The Bucs did just about everything they wanted to do on special teams, too, what with Barber scoring on a 31-yard return of a blocked punt by Geno Hayes, and Clifton Smith setting up a touchdown with an 83-yard kick return.

"We put the total package together today," said Clayton, who was the recipient of Freeman's pass on the 2-point conversion. "That's something we've been waiting all year to dial up and we got it."

They got their first extended look at Freeman, too, and while it was well worth the wait, no one in the Bucs camp is suggesting the hard times are over. For at least a day, though, it seemed as if an end to them was in sight.

"You saw how poised he was, how he never really got rattled," Morris said. "He made some mistakes. All quarterbacks do. But when he goes out there you feel like you've got a chance to win with him."