In his first season as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Greg Schiano isn’t interested in looking back.
That’s fine with quarterback Josh Freeman.
The Bucs bottomed out last season, going 4-12, losing 10 games in a row in one stretch, while Freeman regressed, throwing just 16 touchdown passes and 22 interceptions.
Out went head coach Raheem Morris. In came Schiano, the former Rutgers head coach, scrubbing off the residue of a broken season, intent on recharging a sagging franchise.
“It’s a deal where if you have a good year, if you have a bad year, nothing is given to anyone. You have to go back to work and earn it every year,” Freeman said.
“We’re starting a new season. We have some new faces, a new offense. It’s been a busy offseason, learning things.”
Schiano isn’t doing a complete overhaul of the offense, but with Vincent Jackson on the outside and running back Doug Martin tucking in behind Freeman, the Bucs have key pieces in place.
It’s more a change in terminology and philosophy than scheme, Freeman said.
“Football is football,” Freeman said.
The essential element is getting Freeman back to where he was two seasons ago, when he emerged as a potentially dominant player, throwing 25 touchdown passes with only six interceptions. His preseason numbers were pedestrian, with 18 completions in 34 attempts for 164 yards.
As the Bucs’ season cratered last year, Freeman took a substantial amount of the blame, though Schiano said there was plenty to go around.
“(It was) a whole bunch of things. I don’t think you can put your finger on one thing,” Schiano said of Freeman’s struggles. “The people around him did not play as well as the year before. Josh didn’t play as well as he did the year before. He got a little bit unlucky with a few passes.
“At the end of the day, you add them all up and you have a perfect storm. It’s probably a little bit on the other end when you look at the year before (when the Bucs went 10-6). He got a few tips. I don’t think it’s as severe either way. I just think it’s somewhere in the between is reality.”
Schiano said he’s been pleased with Freeman’s progress in their relatively short time together, saying he’s “grown up before our very eyes.”
At 6-foot-6 and having dropped 20 pounds, to 240, Freeman has a commanding physical presence on the field. Unlike Carolina’s Cam Newton, however, Schiano doesn’t plan to use Freeman as an extra running back. There will be situations, Schiano said, when Freeman will be forced to run, but it won’t be by design.
The challenge for Freeman, playing under his third offensive coordinator in four seasons, is not trying to do too much. That was part of the problem last season.
“When we fall behind, fighting that urge to go out and wanting to make a play right away,” Freeman said of his biggest challenge. “Forcing the issue and get the game back in one play. You’ve got to learn when the play is there, and when it is, you’ve got to take it.
“You have to continue to run the offense. When you try to go out and force things and make things happen, that’s when turnovers happen. That was a big point of emphasis in preseason. Huge. We’ve got to protect it this year.”
With approximately 9,000 unsold tickets for the season-opener earlier this week, the Bucs are trying to reconnect with their fans. Sunday could be the 14th television blackout in the past 16 home games for the Bucs.
They were beaten twice by the Panthers last season by a combined score of 86-35.
Picked to finish fourth in the NFC South, many analysts believe the Bucs aren’t as far away from success as their struggles last season suggest.
“We have to look at it like it’s 16 one-game seasons. We’re not looking at anybody else but the opponent we’re facing,” Freeman said.