Buccaneers tight end Kellen Winslow planned to work out in San Diego this offseason until quarterback Josh Freeman gave him a call.
Freeman was organizing his own practices during the NFL lockout and requested Winslow's presence in Tampa. There would be no pay. There would be no coaches to give instructions. There would be no trainers to tape them up. There would be no cold tub after practice. There would be no facility to watch film.
Winslow's response to Freeman reflected the respect he and other teammates have for their leader.
"There is no question he is the leader of this football team," Winslow said.
Freeman began working out in April with running back Cadillac Williams and former Bucs receiver Michael Clayton at the IMG Academy in Bradenton. As the lockout lingered and more team-organized workouts were missed, Freeman took it to another level.
He found a facility in Tampa willing to host his daily workouts, and asked teammates to practice with him. The plan was to lift weights for 90 minutes and then hit the practice field for an hour or two, depending on what Freeman wanted to accomplish that day.
Receiver Micheal Spurlock flew in from Mississippi. Backup quarterback Rudy Carpenter flew in from California. Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood flew in from Indiana. Receiver Arrelious Benn flew in from Washington, D.C.
At times, more than 30 Bucs players have attended Freeman's daily workouts. Even former Bucs tight end Alex Smith, who played with Cleveland last season, usually attends.
"It was definitely necessary," Freeman said. "With a young team, you've got to get together. You've got to get this work in. It's good. It was a great week. We had a couple of guys get in from Cali. We hit the weight room hard and the field hard. It's real good."
Coach Raheem Morris heard about Freeman's practices and was not surprised.
"I'm fired up for Freeman," Morris said. "That's the type of leader we brought here and I had no doubt in my mind he would be doing that type of thing. It's not shocking to me. It's kind of expected from the standpoint of business as usual for that guy."
Freeman was more the type to mind his own business when Tampa Bay made him a first-round draft pick in 2009.
The Bucs already had quarterbacks Byron Leftwich, Luke McCown and Josh Johnson. Leftwich and McCown were battling to be the starter, while Johnson was in his second season. Freeman was the odd man out and forced to follow Tampa Bay's other leaders.
"His first year when he came in, you could tell he was wet behind the ears a little bit," Winslow said. "He was just raw."
After Tampa Bay began the season 0-7, Freeman made his first start in the season's eighth game. He led a surprising 38-28 victory against Green Bay, throwing for 205 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. Yet, it was during a loss the next week when he earned Winslow's trust.
Freeman helped erase a 13-point deficit at Miami. He led a go-ahead drive, running for 14 yards on first down and throwing to Winslow four times. Cadillac Williams scored on a 1-yard run to give the Bucs a 23-22 lead with 1:14 to play. The defense collapsed and the Bucs lost, 25-23.
Yet, that loss is when Freeman earned the leadership role on his team.
"We were driving the ball and it was like an 'Any Given Sunday' moment," Winslow said. "He was like, 'This is what I'm talking about. Let's go. It's us or them.' I was like, 'All right, this is the dude right here.' "
Freeman did not fully embrace his leadership role until last offseason. He and Greg Olson, Tampa Bay's offensive coordinator, began watching film daily and the quarterback made it his goal to have an impact in 2010.
"By the time we got to the offseason, I took it upon myself to have no reason not to be a leader," Freeman said. "I wanted to take that role upon myself. You have to step in and do the work. As a leader, you have to clean up your yard before you start talking about other people's yards. I made sure to have all my stuff in order.
"I was hoping to put a good product on the field. Guys followed that. If I'm not playing good football or taking care of business, how can I be a leader? I just feel like it's my job as a quarterback to take care of business."
As Freeman became more comfortable and confident in his abilities, he also learned how to get the most out of each teammate.
"Certain people react to leadership in certain ways," Freeman said. "If somebody busts a route, and I'm just giving you an example, if it's Kellen, he draws motivation from you getting loud and getting in his face and that's good for Kellen.
"You might have a guy like Mike (Williams). He and I are on the same page, so if one of us messes up, there is really nothing that needs to be said. I know that I messed up or Mike knows that he messed up."
Freeman was able to lead effectively in 2010 because he rarely made mistakes. He became the first quarterback younger than 23 to lead his team to a 10-win season since Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. Freeman threw for 3,451 yards with 25 touchdowns and six interceptions, and established himself as Tampa Bay's go-to guy because of his late-game heroics.
Seven of Freeman's 13 career victories are fourth-quarter or overtime comebacks, including an NFL-best five last season. With only 25 career starts, he is tied for the most fourth quarter/overtime victories in a player's first two seasons, matching Indianapolis' Peyton Manning (seven in 31 games) and Denver's Jake Plummer (seven in 25 games).
"Leadership for Josh is natural," Bucs fullback Earnest Graham said. "He's a leader because of how poised he is, how talented he is. Respect comes to him. It's not something that he really demands. It just happens by way of him being calm in tough situations.
"To be honest, I've been around for a long time and for us to win as many games as we did last year, we had a team, but we had Josh Freeman on the field, as well. A lot of games are decided in the fourth quarter. There is a lot of parity in the NFL and what you do on those last couple of drives in the NFL will determine it all, and Josh Freeman stepped up. We had other guys, of course, who had to catch balls and run balls, but having Josh Freeman is putting this franchise in good hands for a while."
Freeman plans to call teammates soon and inform them about his next practice. He expects, eventually, to have full participation if the lockout continues. They likely will give their leader the same reply Winslow did.
"He's the dude. I'm not leaving him," Winslow said. "If it's my decision, I'm never leaving him. I want to play with him until he retires. I wouldn't want to play with anybody else."
"That's the type of leader we brought here and I had no doubt in my mind he would be doing that type of thing." -Raheem Morris, Bucs coach, on Josh Freeman leading team workouts in the offseason