Tales of Bittersweet Loyalty

The Joshie Franchise in Tampa Bay

August 2, 2011

Craig Erickson, Trent Dilfer, Eric Zeir, Shaun King, Brad Johnson, Rob Johnson, Brian Griese, Chris Simms, Bruce Gradkowski, Tim Rattay, Jeff Garcia, Byron Leftwich, Luke McCown, Josh Johnson, and finally… Josh Freeman.

The first 14 men on this list welcomed me to the rough and heart-wrenching road of what its like to be a Tampa Bay Buccaneer fan. Like every team, the Bucs have gone through transformations through the years. Bucco Bruce and his orange and white turned into the pirate ship of pewter and red. The Old Sombrero became Ray-Jay Stadium. The team went from laughingstock to Super Bowl champions to bottom feeders to up-and-coming. And the team calling card changed from dominating defense to an offensive force, led by the ultimate gamer: Josh Freeman, our franchise quarterback.

What is a franchise quarterback? What defines a Peyton Manning or Tom Brady or Drew Brees? For years I looked at those teams and watched in envy as season after season having a steady QB ensured stability in the entire organization. Fielding a franchise quarterback meant having the position locked up for the next 10 years. It meant having an identity molded after his personality and a team led by his leadership. The Colts are meticulous and ultra-prepared for every game. The Patriots have the swagger of a winner and can’t ever be counted out. And the Saints have the biggest hearts and theatrics in the league. For the Bucs, we’ve relied on journeymen, backups and busts for too long. Now we have our own answer.

In a little over a season and a half, Freeman has turned our franchise around and led a revolution in Buccaneer fandom. In my 20 years of following the Bucs, I’ve never followed a signal-caller that truly lived up to the hype as a franchise quarterback. We drafted Trent Dilfer and watched him break our hearts too many times. In his rookie season, Shaun King almost led us to victory in the NFC Championship Game over the eventual Super Bowl winner Rams, but fell short and then fell off the map. Next came Brad Johnson, who was an accurate and successful QB, but hardly the franchise cornerstone. I started saying to myself, who needs a franchise QB if you’ve got a defense that’s humming, and the defense was the one thing you could always rely on in Tampa Bay. Our dominating Super Bowl win not only left us on top of the football world, but proved that we didn’t need a franchise quarterback—just a really good one as long as our defense was rolling and Gruden’s mastermind was scheming. But that’s when the wheels started falling off. After a couple of years of giving it another go with Johnson, we started searching for our next answer. Brian Griese was the next Rich Gannon, until we found out he was best suited as a backup. Chris Simms was our future until the Panthers jack-knifed his spleen. Soon, in a series of moves that left me questioning everything about the Bucs, Gruden was out and unproven rookie head coach, Raheem Morris, was in.

In the 2009 draft, the Bucs had the 19th pick. They traded up to take Josh Freeman? At the time, I hated everything about the move. Who was this Josh Freeman? What had Kansas State done? I know Raheem was the former defensive coordinator there, but did that mean he knew more about the kid than most others or was he blinded by his biases? Could we afford trading away a draft pick—even a sixth rounder—when we had so many holes to fill? And wasn’t this a weak quarterback draft? Why were we reaching for the position when most other teams were steering clear of QBs? I hated this new regime.

As a rookie, Freeman didn’t get a start until our season was lost. By that time, we’d been through a brutal half season of Leftwich, McCown and Johnson, and two departed coordinators who left us way out of the playoff picture. This was a far cry from Gruden’s division-winning teams, and I was still wishing all the moves were a bad dream. As for Freeman, I wasn’t excited about him and didn’t think he was our long-term solution, but his play on the field soon won me over. We didn’t win a lot of games, but Freeman was showing a flare for the dramatic. Fourth quarter scores to win rivalry games against the Packers and Saints and competitive losses were all we could ask for at this point, and Freeman made our season exciting again. He made our receivers look serviceable and Kellen Winslow like a top tight end in the league. We finished the season 3-13, but I held my breath all off-season wondering if we’d finally found a franchise quarterback. Our own Peyton that we drafted and played as a rookie and would be here to stay until the end. But I’ve seen this movie before—young quarterback wows us at the end of the season, we get our hearts broken and then we’re looking for a signal-caller in the first round of the draft again. Let’s wait a bit before we put the “F” word on him.

In 2010, Freeman’s sophomore year, the Bucs went in with low expectations and became the feel-good-story of the season. Going 10-6 with the youngest roster in the league and then missing out on the playoffs because of tie-breakers with the eventual Super Bowl champion was an extremely successful year for a club that was supposed to finish last in the division. The main constants of the team throughout the year were Raheem Morris and Josh Freeman. The way Raheem has changed everyone’s opinion of him in the span of eight months is enough for another article. In Josh Freeman, we got to watch a player blossom on the field into the gritty fourth quarter hero that he is now. Five of our ten wins were decided in the fourth quarter with Freeman making game-winning drives. Winning games is how you make a name for yourself. Coming up clutch is how you become a legend. And in Tampa right now, there’s no bigger sports figure than Josh Freeman.

In this off-season, Freeman continued building on his resume with his off-the-field leadership. Before the lockout was lifted, Freeman was running camps for the entire team. You might expect that from a Drew Brees, but from a third-year quarterback on a team lacking veteran leadership, Freeman taking initiative turned heads. He’s said all the right things and has connected with the players, including talented stars with baggage like Mike Williams and LeGarrette Blount. It’s on Freeman to get the team to perform to their fullest potential, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. In this upcoming season, Freeman will have to deal with the pressures of expectations, multiple personnel issues on the defensive side and an increasingly harder division. Still the Bucs look to contend not only for the NFC South, but also to be the “best team in the NFC.” A lot falls on the shoulders of the twenty-three-year-old, but that’s how being a franchise quarterback works.

We finally have him Bucs fans: the franchise quarterback who’s going to deliver. Thanks to Freeman, there’s optimism all around the Bucs organization. We’re a young, exciting team that’s fearless against any opponent. People still doubt our abilities, but we’ll keep proving them wrong and keep getting better. We’re a team on the rise, and we’ll beat you with talent, guts and style. We’re a team molded after our quarterback, Josh Freeman, our franchise now and tomorrow.