TAMPA, Fla. – Josh Freeman says he's focused on trying to lead the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the playoffs, not the big contract he probably will command if he's able to accomplish that mission.
The Bucs have not earned a postseason berth since 2007. Freeman's coming off the most productive season of his career, but remains under pressure to prove he's worth the kind of money it could take to keep the 25-year-old in a Bucs uniform for the long term.
Freeman threw for a club-record 4,065 yards and 27 touchdowns in 2012, his first season in a system installed by offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan.
The quarterback, Sullivan and coach Greg Schiano all agree Freeman's familiarity with the scheme should give him a chance to be even better in the final year of his contract.
"It's the second year in this system. I feel that much more comfortable," Freeman said. "Last year was kind of a whirlwind, trying to pick up things and trying to learn them on the fly. This year I had an entire offseason to kind of go back, study and really take my game to the next level."
Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik have surrounded Freeman with some talented players who give Freeman a chance to be successful.
Vincent Jackson averaged over 19 yards per reception after being signed in free agency a year ago, Mike Williams fell 4 yards shy of giving the Bucs a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in the same season for the first time, and running back Doug Martin rushed for 1,454 yards and made the Pro Bowl as a rookie last season.
And with guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph returning from injury, the offensive line figures to improve, too.
"There's always going to be pressure, but it's all internal," Freeman said. "When I look at things, look at what I want to be and who I want to be as a player, it exceeds everything that anybody else could hope for. I want to push it. When I leave the game I want to be regarded as one of the best who ever played."
In four seasons, he's completed nearly 59 percent of his passes for 12,963 yards, 78 TDs and 63 interceptions. He was having a Pro Bowl-caliber season a year ago until consecutive four-interception games contributed to a late season-collapse that cost the Bucs a shot at a playoff berth.
After throwing for 18 TDs and just five interceptions in the first nine games, he threw nine TD passes and 12 picks over the final seven weeks.
"Whatever the reason is, you've got to find a way to not let that happen. Regardless of circumstances or situations, late in the year it's unacceptable," Freeman said.
"Yeah, I played well up until then, but it's always what have you done for me lately. We finished the year winning in Atlanta, but I feel like we had the potential to go a lot farther. Those things happen. You've got to learn from them. I continue to move forward."
A starter since midway through his rookie year, Freeman potentially could be one of the most attractive free agents available next winter if the Bucs don't sign him to an extension before his contract expires.
The young quarterback met with Sullivan after last season to discuss ways Freeman can build off his success of a year ago.
"He said you're going to get better, but find a way to get as good as you possibly can be," said Freeman, who went back watched film of every snap from 2012. "There are a lot of different things you can do from a physical standpoint, from a mental standpoint."
Sullivan said the extra work is paying off, noting Freeman has "improved command of the offense."
"He was able to look at himself and see things he did well and the things he needs to improve on," the offensive coordinator said.
Teammates notice a difference in the huddle, too.
"He's way more comfortable. You can see that already, his confidence on the field. It's fun to watch because he gets to let his physical tools take shape," Jackson said.
"He's a hungry guy. He wants to get better. He's wants to be one of the best," added Jackson, who had 72 catches for 1,384 yards and eight TDs in his first season with the Bucs. "He puts in the time in the meeting room, in the weight room, does all the things he needs to do. ... You can see the kid wants to be great. Other guys feed off that energy."
Freeman's base salary for 2013, the final season of a five-year deal he signed as the third quarterback selected in the 2009 draft behind Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez, is $8.43 million.
"He should have a lot of motivation seeing all these quarterback signings," left tackle Donald Penn said, commenting on Freeman's potential a day after Atlanta's Matt Ryan agreed to a five-year, $103.75 million deal. "I know I would if I were him."