|Chris O'Meara/Associated Press|
|Bucs QB Josh Freeman followed up his 25-TD, 6-INT season in 2010 with a 16-TD, 22-INT performance in 2011.|
TAMPA -- Sweat beading on his noticeably skinnier face, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman was happy to talk Tuesday about his motivations for dropping nearly 20 pounds this offseason, a goal driven by little more than the casual suggestion of a friend.
This, after all, is the type of fodder that helps pass the time on an afternoon in May, still months from the start of training camp, during an era of the NFL when even a simple voluntary veteran practice attracts a full complement of news trucks to the Bucs' parking lot.
"Well, I stopped going to Taco Bell late at night," joked Freeman, who also started a workout regimen unrelated to football that included more cross-fit training. "I eliminated the fourth meal."
But the true beauty of Freeman's approach to his slimmed-down frame (he went from weighing 260 pounds to nearly 240) is the honest candor that came with it. No, he doesn't really feel any faster. No, it doesn't make him feel any more like Superman.
And no, despite everything that everyone will want to say about his lighter body helping him move on from his 2011 slump, it isn't the cure to such ills.
"You do all this workout stuff, and I'm thinking I'm going to be lighter and flying around, but I've never really been that good of a runner," Freeman said. "And honestly, I was heavier in 2010 than I was last year, and I was playing better then."
Freeman knows he needs to convince the NFL world that his future will be filled with more of the highlights of 2010 than the lowlights of 2011, and he easily could use his sleeker shape as the perfect sales pitch. But he instead avoided spinning this as such, even if 20 less pounds will still certainly give him more energy (he's eating healthier), more "torque" (he's throwing with more ease, he says) and more internal confidence (he doesn't need it).
I'm glad Freeman didn't lower himself to such desperation, particularly when there are two more appropriate testimonials to support my belief he will be the Bucs' answer at quarterback for years to come. One of those testimonials is linked to his second NFL start in 2009. The other is from the current year.
The first: On Nov. 15, 2009, moments after the Miami Dolphins escaped with a 25-23 win against the Bucs by countering Freeman's fantastic late touchdown drive with a last-second field goal, former Dolphins linebacker Jason Taylor offered his unsolicited opinion of the quarterback.
"I tell you what, the kid is going to be good," Taylor said. "I could be wrong, but in my opinion, he's going to be a really, really good quarterback. He's got tremendous poise for a young guy, he has tremendous size, and he moves around looking to throw the ball downfield, and still checking down, and running for the first down.
"I've got respect for the young kid."
Taylor, during his career, was always the last to praise a rookie, let alone a rookie quarterback. He wanted young guys to earn respect, which left the few who heard him to take notice. After all, Taylor is better suited to evaluate a quarterback than any analyst or reporter I've ever met.
Now fast-forward three years, skipping past Freeman's sophomore season, which included 25 touchdowns and just six interceptions, skipping past a third year that went the other way, with 16 touchdowns and 22 interceptions, toward my phone conversation Tuesday with wide receiver Vincent Jackson.
Jackson, who recently signed a five-year, $55 million contract with the Bucs, said he was swayed to join the team more by Freeman's potential than by the paycheck.
"One of the biggest things for a wide receiver to consider is the quarterback situation," Jackson said Tuesday. "You want to go where there's a guy who can make plays. When I met Josh, I knew right away he was special. I'm a football guy. I study film. I've seen some of Josh's games. I know he's special."
Just as it would be absurd for his 2010 season to define Freeman's legacy, it would be equally absurd to cast him aside because of his 2011 campaign. At this point, yes, an endorsement of his future is nothing more than that: An unproven prediction about where he might be headed. But Freeman has all of the skills, all of the work ethic, all of the potential. There's simply no reason to also rip away all of the hope just because of one, lone less-than-adequate year.
So how, then, will this quarterback, entering a fourth year that's as critical as Sam Bradford's third in St. Louis and Matt Ryan's fifth in Atlanta, get back on the path to becoming one of the league's elite?
Fortunately for Freeman, the Bucs' front office is doing a diligent job helping him out. The team added more weapons in the form of a wide receiver (Jackson should help make Mike Williams more effective) and a running back (first-round pick Doug Martin will provide LeGarrette Blount with some much-needed motivation). They also gave Freeman better protection (the newly signed Carl Nicks is among the best guards in the game).
Oh, yes, and a new offensive system altogether, created by former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano and his staff in an attempt to put his own fresh stamp on the organization. While the changes don't mean inevitable success for the team, Freeman has, so far, embraced the possibilities, with nearly 80 percent of the new offense now installed.
"This offense is allowing a lot of guys to step up and shine," Freeman said. "There are so many different venues for these guys to display their talents -- whether it's intermediary routes, option routes, going deep -- we're going to give everybody a chance to make plays."
But just as with the pounds that Freeman recently shed, there is no reason to oversell this situation. No need for hope-filled propaganda. No sense in trying to convince anyone that 2010 was a better indication of the future than 2011. At this point in Freeman's career, there's only one way to prove as much. So if we're going to take anything away from Freeman's weight loss this offseason, if we're going to deduce anything from the team's additions through free agency and the draft, it should instead be the grip on reality that Tampa Bay currently has.
The Bucs and Freeman are pushing forward, recognizing the potential of their situation, believing they remain on the cusp of getting back on the proper track. But rather than talking about it, they're choosing to show it instead.
And there's nothing wrong with that.
"I feel like I have the potential to be elite," Freeman said, when I asked if he is, indeed, an elite quarterback. "But before you can be labeled elite, you've got to get a lot closer to having rings."
Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington