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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Freeman back to where it all began

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Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 04:01 AM
LONDON, England -

It has been only two years, so time has not yet faded their memories. Perhaps it never will. For no matter what happens, they always will look back at this place and that moment as the point when everything changed.

It is their line of demarcation, the point where Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris and general manager Mark Dominik set in motion the events that soon corrected the team's path.

And to think, it all started with a simple phone call, a courtesy call, really.

Morris had made up his mind. The Bucs were well on their way to their seventh loss in as many tries to start the 2009 season, this one a disturbing 35-7 setback at the hands of the New England Patriots here at Wembley Stadium. So, the time had come, he decided, to push the start button on quarterback Josh Freeman.

All Morris needed was tell Dominik, who agreed during discussions the week before that if the game got out of hand they would turn to Freeman and never look back. Nothing has been the same since.

Given the enduing bye week to prepare, Freeman led Tampa Bay to a 38-28 victory - the team's first under Morris and Dominik – in a comeback win against the Green Bay Packers. By the end of the season, Freeman established a pace that has resulted in the Bucs' winning 16 of their past 25 games.

As they prepared this week for their return to Wembley Stadium and today's game against the Chicago Bears, Morris and Dominik couldn't help but smile as they talked about how much has changed since.

"One of the biggest changes obviously is with the roster,'' Dominik said. "I think there's 35 new players on this team now and that's not including the guys that we've added to the practice squad."

Actually, it's 36 new players.

"But I think what's most exciting is how the entire team's level of confidence has changed," Dominik said. "The last time we walked in here, we were 0-6. And it was a hard 0-6 – for everybody. But walking out of here that night, the one redeeming thing that happened here was that Josh Freeman got to play.''

He didn't play much – just a few snaps late in the fourth quarter. They weren't real pretty snaps, either. Freeman never looked comfortable, completing just two of four passes for 16 yards, taking two sacks and scrambling once for 5 yards before fumbling.

That changed, too, and rather quickly. Freeman looked like a poised veteran in rallying the Bucs to victory against the Packers two weeks later. He's grown so much since, in fact, he admits that while it was just two years ago that he made his NFL debut, it seems much longer.

"It seems like it was ages ago,'' he said. "It was cool. It was a great atmosphere here at the stadium and I remember (then-Patriots linebacker) Junior Seau being right across from me when I lined up.

"But now I feel great, I feel so much more confident. I know exactly what I'm seeing now because I'm not seeing ghosts like you might as a rookie making your first start. And there's really no anxiety anymore. I've grown a lot.''

So has the talent level around him. Of the 36 changes the Bucs have made to the roster since their first trip to Wembley, nine were made at the offensive skill positions of running back, receiver and tight end.

That was a big part of Dominik's blueprint. Once he got the franchise quarterback in Freeman, he knew he had to build up the talent around him. In 2010, he spent early-round draft picks on receivers Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams in 2010 and scoured the waiver wire for additions such as running back LeGarrette Blount and receiver Dezmon Briscoe.

"The other thing I needed to do was to make sure Josh was protected,'' Dominik said. "That's why you saw us make the investment in the offensive line that we've made. And the continuity there is important to me, too.

"A lot of people ask why (re-sign tackle Jeremy) Trueblood? It made a lot of sense to me because of the continuity at the position. And after that I wanted to get the defense built up so it can get the ball back to Josh.''

It really is all about No. 5. Everything the Bucs did the past two years was geared toward taking advantage of Freeman's skill set. The building process isn't done, though.

"By no means are we a finished product,'' Morris said. "We won't be until we win our ultimate goal (the Super Bowl). But a lot of the questions we had the first time we came out here have been answered.''

The biggest one certainly has been. The Bucs have a quarterback now, and even the eldest of the Bucs players believes Freeman is the epitome of what a quarterback in the NFL needs to be.

"He's our leader, and that leadership started to emerge that day (here) and it grew in that Green Bay win a week later, right up to now. So, you can definitely say that the future of the franchise was established that day.

"Anything that happened before that is kind of a moot point because that's when the direction turned. We were going to put our lot on Josh's shoulders, and the point in that game where he went in was the beginning of what we're starting to see now.''


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