TAMPA — So much has changed since Josh Freeman launched that majestic pass at Bank of America Stadium.
As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers prepare for Sunday’s game at Charlotte, N.C., to face the streaking Panthers, the teams have taken divergent paths since that fateful afternoon last November, when Tampa Bay pulled out a 27-21 overtime win to improve to 6-4.
A split-second before he was leveled by defensive end Charles Johnson, Freeman capped an 80-yard drive by dropping in a perfectly thrown 24-yard touchdown pass to Vincent Jackson with 12 seconds remaining in regulation.
A few days later, ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski described the pass as perhaps the best throw he had seen all season, especially given the circumstances.
Freeman then found Jackson with a 2-point conversion pass to tie the game before hitting Dallas Clark from 15 yards out in overtime.
While Tampa Bay fans started to talk playoffs, the Panthers fell to 2-8 and coach Ron Rivera’s hot seat threatened to burst into flames.
A year later, the Panthers are the hottest team in the league, while the Bucs are trying to dig out of a hole that seemed unthinkable the last time they ran off the field in jubilation at Charlotte.
“It’s just so hard to win in this league, and you’ve got to develop your team first,” Rivera said. “I think people have to be willing to take the lumps and accept it.”
Since their last meeting in Charlotte, the Panthers are 13-4 and the Bucs are 4-13.
“I think Freeman is on his way to becoming a superstar in this league,” Jaworski said after that late fourth-quarter comeback. “He’s got all the attributes you would want in a quarterback.”
If Freeman lives up to Jaworski’s expectations, it won’t be in a Tampa Bay uniform.
Bucs coach Greg Schiano benched Freeman three weeks into this season. Rookie Mike Glennon has provided remarkable ball security the past six games, throwing 10 touchdown passes and only one interception.
Meanwhile, the Panthers ensured Rivera’s return by winning five of their final six games in 2012 to finish 7-9, matching Tampa Bay’s record in Schiano’s first year on the sideline.
And after a 1-3 start that generated fresh questions about Rivera’s job security, Carolina has reeled off seven consecutive victories behind the NFL’s No. 1 scoring defense and a maturing Cam Newton under center.
“Ron has done a great job with them,” said Schiano, who worked with Rivera on Dave Wannstedt’s staff with the Chicago Bears in the late 1990s. “(Offensive coordinator) Mike Shula has been able to get Cam to stay within himself. He still runs, he still does all the things that makes him exciting, but he doesn’t force passes. He’s doing all the things that winning quarterbacks do.”
When the Panthers and Bucs met Oct. 24 at Raymond James Stadium, the differences between the teams were evident throughout Carolina’s 31-13 triumph.
Tampa Bay never led, and Glennon was forced to throw 51 times. A late touchdown pass from Glennon to rookie tight end Tim Wright made the final score a little more respectable, but Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp, working the game for NFL Network, labeled it an embarrassing performance by the home team before a national audience.
Newton, who threw two touchdown passes that evening and ran for another score, has emerged as a poised leader who has learned the hard way that you can’t always get what you want in the NFL.
“I still have the same aggressive mentality, but I also take what the defense gives me,” said Newton, whose third-down passer rating (101.8) ranks fourth in the NFL. “My main focus right now is trying to help my team to become 9-3. If we do that, we’ll be great. A lot of pressure has been taken off so many players buying into the ‘we’ rather than the ‘me.’ With that mentality, we’ve been great.”
By any standards, things haven’t been great for the Bucs since their last visit to North Carolina’s most populated city.
A 24-23 home loss to Atlanta the following week ushered in a December collapse, keyed by awful defense and a flurry of Freeman interceptions.
This year’s 0-8 start and array of off-field distractions have given way to a three-game winning streak and Glennon’s startling development.
“Greg’s done a good job of just being steadfast and consistent,” Bucs defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan said. “I think the players appreciate that. We have confidence in them and they’ve kind of stuck to the game plan. Now, it’s starting to show its benefits.”