What a difference a year makes.
A promising 2010 campaign in which Josh Freeman pulled out last-minute wins and threw a career-high 25 touchdown passes led to high expectations for the following season.
Well, not quite.
Freeman threw for a career-best 3,592 passing yards last year, but was picked off 22 times with 16 touchdown strikes. Was the previous season smoke and mirrors? Did former head coach Raheem Morris' laid-back style play a role?
Nobody knows for sure, yet everybody, it seemed, had an opinion as to what went wrong for Freeman and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Bucs' young quarterback brushed aside the unrelenting scorn and has put together an excellent 2012 season. Through seven games, Freeman has 1,800 passing yards, a 93.3 quarterback rating and 14 TD passes to five interceptions. Freeman's 55.2 completion percentage could be better, but as long as the Bucs are winning, that's most important.
Freeman's play -- and that of the entire Tampa Bay team -- says enough.
Tampa Bay opened Week 8 of the NFL season with Thursday's 36-17 road rout of the Minnesota Vikings. Freeman was as efficient as one could be, throwing for 262 yards -- his lowest since 110 yards in a loss at Dallas in Week 3 -- and was not intercepted for a second straight game. By the way, he collected three touchdown passes and a rating over 100 for a third week in a row.
Coming off a short week and a tough loss to the NFC South-rival New Orleans Saints, Freeman said it was important to get off to a fast start and hold it in Minneapolis, especially after blowing a 21-7 lead just a few days earlier. The Bucs stormed out to a 13-0 advantage against the Vikings, who disabled Freeman somewhat by containing wide receiver Vincent Jackson.
Jackson broke out against the New Orleans Saints with 216 yards and a touchdown on seven receptions, but found it tough at the Metrodome. Freeman said the Vikings took Jackson out of the game with cloud coverage and cover 2 defenses. Safety help on Jackson's side also made it difficult for Freeman to find his big target.
"Vincent kept trucking, kept doing his thing," Freeman said.
Freeman added that when that happens, Mike Williams, Tiquan Underwood and Dallas Clark have to step it up. The defense can't cover everybody tight, so someone has to be open. Perhaps Freeman tipped his hand as to who he will target when Jackson's not producing. He ended with two catches for 40 yards, while Williams hauled in a team-high six receptions for 68 yards and a touchdown. Underwood and Clark combined for 67 yards and six catches.
"I'm just really proud of the way that the guys continued to fight throughout the game," Freeman said.
Freeman was sacked just once on the night against a dangerous pass rush.
First-year head coach Greg Schiano credited the team for getting comfortable with the system and each other for the recent success -- two wins in the last three weeks. Paying attention to detail and "making good adjustments" on a short week played into what the Bucs wanted to accomplish. After a heartbreaking loss to the Saints, Schiano said this win was great for the fans and was proud of how the Buccaneers "answered the bell" to improve to 3-4.
Speaking of positive reactions, it wasn't all about Freeman and his hot hand against Minnesota. Rookie running back Doug Martin had his breakout party at the expense of the Vikings, racking up 135 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries and catching three passes for 79 yards and another score. Martin fits Schiano's system to a tee and is often compared to Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who played under Schiano at Rutgers.
"Doug had a huge night tonight," Freeman said. "Doug's one of those guys that not only does he do a great job catching the ball out of the backfield, does a great job in pass protection, but he does a tremendous job just getting ready for the game and preparation. The moment's never too big for Doug."
Martin has been consistent all season and is making a strong case for NFL Rookie of the Year. A few quarterbacks around the league may have something to say on their own behalf, but Martin's doing a nice job in Tampa. Martin even stole some the spotlight from Vikings All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson. Peterson, though, did get his with 123 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries.
Schiano said Martin is getting better each week and that the game is beginning to slow down for him. That's a dangerous combination for a team on the rise with a quarterback playing at his best. Keep in mind, however, Freeman and the Bucs flopped after a 4-2 start a season ago, losing 10 straight to finish out the season. Freeman missed a game in that run due to injury and Morris lost his job at the conclusion of the season.
The Buccaneers will have plenty of time to rest for their next game, a road encounter against the Oakland Raiders on Nov. 4. Their four losses this season have been by seven points or fewer, so it could be different as far as the NFC standings are concerned.
Tampa Bay, who sit second in the NFC South, will alternate road and home games for the remainder of the season. The Bucs may not catch the division-leading and red-hot Atlanta Falcons, but right now they're in the running for a wild card berth unless an unforeseen development for the worse unfolds.