Losing a game is never enjoyable for fans, but yesterday's game had plenty of positive notes among the disastrous feeling of the final quarter of the game, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were outscored 25-7 by the New York Giants. The Bucs may have lost the game 41-34, but they came away with plenty of positives: a team that didn't give up, fought hard to the end, and an offense that finally produced some explosive plays. That's what I want to focus on, because those explosive plays were few and far between last season - but they appear to be a major part of this offense.
On Sunday, the Buccaneers managed to produce five passing plays of 20 yards or longer, all of them Josh Freeman passes and three of those passes went to Vincent Jackson. In fact, we saw Jackson targeted repeatedly on deep plays. It's clear why the Bucs decided to add the big receiver to their roster this offseason: he brings a big-play-element to the offense that was missing last season. Mike Williams is a nice receiver who can excel on jump balls, and he had his own 41-yard touchdown last Sunday, but he won't consistently run by defenders and catch a deep ball. That's exactly what Jackson did, however. The receiver is fast, big and talented and can threaten defenses deep in a way we haven't seen in Tampa since Joey Galloway.
It wasn't just good to see Vincent Jackson flourish, but Josh Freeman looked closer to his 2010 self as well. Despite one poor decision resulting in an interception and another late turnover as he tried to force matters with just a few seconds remaining, the embattled quarterback managed to be accurate and productive for most of the game. While the offense sputtered at times, some of that was simply a result of playcalling: draws and screens won't pick up 3rd-and-long very often, but somehow the Bucs thought that was exactly what would happen. To Jack's complete lack of surprise, the Bucs kept failing to convert third down. I wonder why.
Still, Freeman showed why he can be an elite quarterback on the final two drives of the game. First, he produced a five-play, 80-yard drive to tie the game at 34-34. When the Bucs promptly gave up a touchdown he was called upon to produce once again, and produce he did. On consecutive plays, he hit Vincent Jackson for a 19-yard gain, and then threw a perfect 29-yard pass to Mike Williams on a sideline throw. That play was rightly ruled incomplete after a replay review, but that wasn't Freeman's fault: the ball was on the money, New York safety Antrel Rolle just jarred it loose after Williams had secured it. That ended any real chance of a comeback, and some 40 yards removed from the endzone Freeman threw a bad interception on the next play, wildly overthrowing Dallas Clark and reminding us that bad Freeman still exists, too.
Still, Freeman ended the day 15/28 for 243 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions - a much better statline than he usually produced last year. Meanwhile, Vincent Jackson gave us 5 catches for 128 yards and a touchdown and showed some great chemistry with Freeman. That should give us some hope for the future, and plenty of reason to celebrate.