It's been awhile since any of us Bucs fans have been able to reflect on a meaningful win. Coming into this week at 0-7, off a bye week, starting a rookie quarterback, the buzz was around the possibility of going 0-16. I never entertained those thoughts, mainly because it was depressing to think about, but partly due to the number of things that have to happen to go 0-16. I thought that we would encounter a game at some point where things would go our way, a few breaks, a defensive or special teams touchdown and a few turnovers would give us enough to win. It almost worked against Carolina. It did work against Green Bay.
So how did this win happen?
The funny thing about this win, there were some different names on the field, but the play was still remarkably similar to weeks past. On the defensive side, we gave up the long touchdown to start the game (a punch in the gut). But we also were able to pressure the quarterback as we have the last few games. Taking Rodgers down six times was a great way to help our secondary out. Sometimes we got pressure, other times Rodgers just held the ball, but any play that ends with the opposing quarterback on the ground is a good one in my books.
The secondary also chipped in witha few interceptions. Mack redeemed himself with a nice interception, Talib took a tipped ball and secured the pick (and then got blasted by Driver) and Tanard Jackson returned one for a touchdown. By the way, on that return by T-Jack, did anyone else think that Rodgers was head hunting as he went for the tackle? Looked to me like he made a swipe at the face mask.
The special teams also made huge contributions. A blocked punt by Geno Hayes returned by Ronde Barber got the play going, but big returns by Clifton Smith (welcome back) made a huge difference. They gave Freeman and the offense a chance to work with shorter fields. Any quarterback, particularly young ones, can use the advantage of a short field. I'd also like to note perennial whipping boy Dirk Johnson had a few nice punts. Whether they were wind aided or not, I don't care at this point. Was just happy to see some fly over 40 yards in the air.
The biggest surprise of the day had to be the offense, particularly Josh Freeman. We didn't know what to expect, but lets face it, we set the bar pretty low. He came out and looked a bit jittery with a missed swing pass and a slide on a scramble that came up a yard short. But he settled down fairly quickly. He completed some nice passes, made some nice plays and showed more poise than I thought I would see from him.
The big surprise? His ability to keep his eyes down the field as he moved around. Most young QB's watch the pass rush and take off scrambling as they take their eyes off the receivers. Freeman seemed to keep his eyes on the developing routes and created enough time to find open receivers. I'd much rather him stay in the pocket and sling it around, but if/when he has to scramble, he showed the poise and skills to get it done.
The run game still seems like an afterthought (21 called runs to 35 called passes), but was effective enough to move the chains when needed. This was a game where everyone contributed, even beleaguered WR Michael Clayton who came up with a huge catch and a two point conversion reception.
I didn't see much difference in play from the team to be honest. The results sure were different, but lets do a quick check. The offense ran the ball well, but not spectacular, a few passes were off target, including a bomb or two just overthrown. The defense gave up some big plays. They weren't stout against the run (5.3 YPC against) and had a few coverage mixups. They also made a play when the opportunity presented itself. Finally, the special teams unit. Blocked a punt, some big returns. All three units played very much like they have all year. It just so happened that this time those breaks were enough to win. The big plays were made when we needed them, as opposed to watching a team stuff it down our throats in the 4th quarter.
So where do the Bucs go from here? I'd love to predict a 9 game winning streak, but I don't think it's possible. The easiest thing to point to is something I'm sure will be covered multiple times over the next few weeks. Josh Freeman and his future. I've heard comments ranging from "He's a top 5 NFL QB" to "He got lucky and isn't any good." The truth is probably somewhere in between. As I noted above, he played extremely well for making his first start and showed a good arm, some decent touch, and a knack for making plays on the run. He even threw the ball away at the right times, which is a dumb thing to get excited about, but I may have been most proud of the passes out of bounds than anything else. Shows an ability to understand the situation.
Freeman will surely experience some growing pains. Not every game will end with 3 TDsand 1 INT. The truth is, there was enough good in this game to be genuinely excited for the Freeman era. While he was set up with a short field multiple times (kick returns, interceptions etc), he delivered when he had the opportunity. There is no guarantee he will be the real deal. This could be his best game as a Buc over the next few years, but I'd bet against it. To echo Coach Morris, lets not thrust our expectations on Freeman's shoulders. Lets allow him to grow and develop as a young quarterback. He made some great plays and gave a pretty good foundation to build on for the future.
Lastly, a congrats goes out to the Bucs. Congratulations on the first win of 2009. Congrats to Freeman for his first win as a starting NFL QB, to Morris for his first win as an NFL head coach, and to Joe Barry for his first win since December of 2007.