HERE'S THE paradox fifth-year quarterback Josh Freeman faces in Tampa Bay this season: The 25-year-old is likely to set several career franchise passing records in 2013, but how likely is it that he will still be Tampa Bay's starter next year?
You can make statistics say almost anything you want them to, and Freeman's cut both ways. As he enters his pivotal contract season with the Bucs, is he the playmaking quarterback who led Tampa Bay to a surprising 6--4 start a year ago under new head coach Greg Schiano, throwing 21 touchdowns and just seven interceptions in that stretch? Or is he the inconsistent passer who tossed 10 of his 17 picks in three Bucs losses, the last two of which were killer four-interception showings against the Rams and the Saints in December?
Freeman's breakthrough 2010 season (25 TD passes, six interceptions) was followed by a subpar '11 (16 TDs, 22 INTs), a season that unfolded with roughly the same streaky pattern as '12 would. That's why the Bucs have said contract-extension talks will not begin until the end of the season. To be fair, Freeman is further along as an NFL quarterback than he gets credit for, but he hasn't arrived either—and that's why there's so much on the line for him and his team.
"Josh took a huge step last year," insists Schiano. "But now he has to take that next step to where we need him to be. I think he can do it this year, and when he takes that next step, we take that next step."
Tampa Bay's drafting 6' 6", 232-pound North Carolina State quarterback Mike Glennon in the third round this spring could be perceived as a sign of the franchise's lack of belief in Freeman. There has been no quarterback controversy, however. For a team that hasn't made the playoffs since 2007 and hasn't won a postseason game since its lone Super Bowl title in '03, this is a very big year, and the Bucs will let their hopes ride on Freeman's shoulders.
"There is a lot of significance on this season," says Freeman. "Maybe it's my last year [here]. I want to go out and be a franchise quarterback and make my mark in this league. This is by far the most talented team we've had."
That's true, and the talent the Bucs have stockpiled puts them on the fringes of the postseason discussion. Tampa Bay's pass defense was abysmal last year—their 297.4 yards allowed is the second most in NFL history—and that had more to do with the team's 7--9 record than Freeman's three worst games did. So Tampa Bay went on a spending spree to dramatically upgrade the secondary, signing Pro Bowl free-agent safety Dashon Goldson away from San Francisco, swinging the blockbuster trade for Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis and using their top remaining draft pick, a second-rounder, on Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks. Tampa Bay's front seven remains a strength, as the rushing defense ranked No. 1 in the league (82.5 yards) last season.
Helping Freeman's chances is the fact that this will be his second consecutive season under offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan, the former Giants quarterbacks coach who helped mold Eli Manning's game. The Bucs have burned through three offensive coordinators and four quarterbacks coaches in Freeman's five seasons, and Sullivan says Freeman's game looks smoother because of his increased familiarity with the offense.
"Josh has been on a roller coaster here," says Bucs general manager Mark Dominik. "And I understand that from the outside there's a lot of uncertainty about him. But we know how much his being in Mike Sullivan's offense a second year will mean for his game. That continuity will make a difference."
On offense, with standout second-year running back Doug Martin, receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, and the expected return to health of Pro Bowl guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph, Freeman doesn't have to be the whole show.
"All arrows are pointing up right now, and I think he's going to handle this year fine," says Schiano. "But until you do it, it's not reality. There's no better example than last year's Super Bowl champs, right? [Ravens quarterback Joe] Flacco did it, and Baltimore paid him for it. We should all have that issue."
THE CASE FOR...
If new cornerback Darrelle Revis (left) recovers fully from last September's torn ACL and is again inhabiting Revis Island, Tampa's secondary won't be recognizable. That's a good thing. An April trade for the former Jet was the headline move in a near total makeover of the NFL's worst secondary, and the Bucs intend to use their new hire's shutdown skills in order to play a more aggressive style of D—something right out of Rex Ryan's daring playbook. Revis, who hasn't appeared in any preseason games, says that, when he returns, coach Greg Schiano will ask him to blanket each opponent's No. 1 WR while rolling coverage to the opposite side of the field, where the likes of two-time Pro Bowl FS Dashon Goldson, SS Mark Barron (a 2012 first-round pick) and CB Johnthan Banks (second round) are well-positioned to create matchup problems. In a division featuring receivers Roddy White, Julio Jones, Marques Colston and Steve Smith, Revis will have little time to ease back into dominating form, but teammates expect nothing less. "You don't [trade for] Revis to play him over the top," says Goldson. "You let him do what he does. Whenever he comes back, he's going to have to be Darrelle Revis."
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