TAMPA, Fla. – At 6-foot-6, 240 pounds and playing the highest-profile position on the field better than he ever has as a pro, it's difficult to imagine Josh Freeman being overshadowed in the emergence of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense.
The suddenly potent Bucs averaged more points, yards and yards per play than any team in the NFL in October and have won four of five games, including three straight, to turn their season around following a slow start.
Rookie Doug Martin grabbed headlines by racking up 214 yards in a nationally televised victory over Minnesota and following up with a 215-yard, four-touchdown rushing performance against Oakland. Receiver Vincent Jackson had a seven-catch, 216-yard day vs. New Orleans and has been applauded for making others around him better. Mike Williams has drawn rave reviews for making acrobatic receptions.
Yet the stellar play of Freeman, who's thrown for 13 TDs with only one interception in the past five weeks while re-establishing himself as one of the league's top young passers, largely has gone unnoticed.
"I think it's part of the growing-up process, being more mature and in control of whether it's emotions or whatever, as far as feeling the urgency to go out and make something big happen as opposed to just kind of letting it happen," Freeman said.
"It's definitely a different feeling," the fourth-year pro added. "I think I learned a lot from last year as far as growing as a quarterback."
Two years removed from leading the Bucs (5-4) to 10 wins and narrowly missing the playoffs in his first full season as a starter, Freeman has Tampa Bay back on a track after a 4-12 finish that included 10 straight losses to end 2011 raised questions about whether the franchise made a wise choice in drafting him in the first round in 2009.
The soft-spoken former Kansas State standout threw for 25 touchdowns with just six interceptions in 2010, then took a step back with 16 TDs and 22 interceptions last season.
Freeman averaged a league-leading 336.6 passing yards per game in October, thriving in an offense that's taken off since sputtering to a 1-3 start that included losses to the New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins by a combined 15 points. The Bucs averaged 472 yards total offense and scored 34 points per game — both NFL highs — during the same stretch.
First-year coach Greg Schiano attributes some of the success to offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan and quarterbacks coach Ron Turner, who worked with Freeman during the offseason on the 24-year-old's mechanics and decision-making in the pocket.
Freeman also has benefited from a more aggressive approach to throwing the ball down the field that began during the second half of a 24-22 loss to Washington that dropped Tampa Bay to 1-3.
Jackson and Williams are averaging 21.4 and 18.3 yards per catch, respectively, and Martin has come on strong to rank among the league's leading rushers with 862 yards and seven TDs.
Freeman, meanwhile, is averaging an NFL-best 8.27 yards per pass attempt.
"I think most of it is Josh. The weapons around him are great and the mechanics are fixed, but he had to do all the work. This guy has worked from the day we got hired," Schiano said of the turnaround.
"He wanted to do everything he possibly could to become the quarterback he sees himself as," the coach added. "He's not where he wants to be. He's not where we want him to be because his upside is way up there. But if he keeps working, he'll get there."
Freeman is appreciative of the talent that Schiano has put around him.
The Bucs signed Jackson to a five-year, $55.55 million in free agency, a contract written in all 5's in honor of Freeman's jersey number. Martin was drafted late in the first-round in hopes he will develop into the complete, every-down back the Bucs have craved for more than a decade.
"They're all tremendous in their own right," Freeman said, including another free agent acquisition, tight end Dallas Clark, among the group that's helped transform the offense into an entertaining high-scoring act. "They all make plays."
The Bucs have scored 28 or more points in five consecutive games for the first time in team history. They've averaged 37.3 during the winning streak they'll try to extend to four games Sunday at Carolina.
Schiano said one of the keys to Freeman's success is the quarterback has simply made plays, not try to be a hero each Sunday.
"He understands better what we're doing, what we're asking of him, and he's playing within himself. He's not trying to make plays, he's just trusting his training and executing what he's been trained to do, and the plays come," Schiano said.
"When you're as talented as Josh Freeman is and you're as talented as we are at wideout and tight end and running back, if you just go out there and process, process, process, the plays will come," Schiano added. "And more importantly, the negative plays won't come."
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