Tampa Bay's postseason hopes have slipped away during a four-game losing streak that's also raised questions about whether Josh Freeman is the Buccaneers' quarterback of the future.
The fourth-year pro is closing in on becoming the first 4,000-yard passer in franchise history. Still, his inconsistency has created concerns about whether there is a limit to how good the Bucs can become with Freeman running an offense that sputtered again during a mistake-filled 41-0 loss to New Orleans.
The current skid ensures Tampa Bay (6-8) will miss the playoffs for the fifth straight year, yet Freeman said Monday there's still plenty to play for in the final two games of the team's first season under coach Greg Schiano.
The Bucs host St. Louis on Sunday, then finish at Atlanta.
"After every game we talk about just sticking together as a team," said Freeman, who threw four interceptions and also lost a fumble in his worst performance of the year against the Saints.
"You hate to see it come down to a game like that, but I think this is going to be a great time for our team to come together. We had a rough one. We dropped the ball, but now how do we respond to adversity? ... It's times like these when you really forge the nucleus of your team."
Before Sunday, the Bucs had not lost a game by more than eight points. Schiano gave players Monday off in hopes that an extra day away from the practice field will help them get refocused for the Rams.
"I think our team is disappointed in what we did," Schiano said, explaining the decision to give the players the day following a game off for the first time all year.
"Thirteen games, every one of them either we won or it came down to a one possession game where we could have won if we had a possession to do it. That's competitive football," the coach added. "And then we go out and throw our first clunker. ... But the sky's not falling. We've got a lot of good young players. We have some experienced really good players. We threw a clunker. Now, we've got to get over it."
Freeman, who has one season remaining on a five-year contract that will pay him $8.43 million in 2013, said the remaining two weeks are about getting better.
He vowed to clean up the mistakes he made against the Saints, miscues he attributed mostly to some "miscommunication" between him and his receivers.
"I've got to communicate better, I've got to make sure everybody's on the same page, make sure everybody's doing exactly what they need to do," Freeman said, adding that he's also committed to making sure the team's preparation and effort doesn't suffer now that Tampa Bay is out of playoff contention.
"As a quarterback that's what I do every day. Everybody has their own style of leadership, but to the best of my ability I try to convey the message of do your job, sacrifice for your brothers," Freeman said.
"Even late in the game, guys were still trying to do everything they could to get something going. It says a lot about the character of the guys on our team. Even when the game's out of hand and things aren't going great, guys are still giving effort," Freeman added. "There's no quit in this team. As the quarterback, as the captain, as a leader, it's great to see that. It makes it that much easier to motivate guys and lead."
Schiano reiterated that while Freeman can play better than he has the past month, he's not concerned about his young quarterback, who's completed just 54.8 percent of his passes for 3,471 yards, 25 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
Two years ago, Freeman led the Bucs to 10 wins in his first full season as a starter, throwing for 25 TDs against six interceptions and narrowly missing the playoffs.
The 24-year-old took a step back in 2011, throwing for 16 TDs and 22 interceptions en route to a 4-12 record that included a 10-game losing streak to end the season.
"If Josh Freeman wasn't coming in and just spending all kinds of time, and I wasn't getting texts ... asking questions at 10 o'clock at night about coverages and things like that, then yeah I'd have reason to be concerned," Schiano said.
"But I know everybody goes through better times and lesser times. I also know that those who persevere, those who work and tend to their knitting, are going to be fine," the coach added. "Josh is tending to his knitting, so we're going to be fine. Just collectively we've got to fight our way out."
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