Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Van Pelt: Bucs QB Freeman nearing elite status
TAMPA - Although Alex Van Pelt has ample respect for Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, he'll take his guy. Josh Freeman. Tampa Bay's first-year quarterbacks coach can't say enough about Freeman, whose development as a second-year pro has been startling for the 6-3 Buccaneers. "There's nobody I would swap Josh for, there really isn't," said Van Pelt, who broke some of Dan Marino's collegiate passing records at Pittsburgh before playing nine seasons in Buffalo. "There's an elite group of veterans at the top. Josh isn't far behind and he's so young. Ryan's very good, but I wouldn't trade Josh for him."Adding Van Pelt to the staff in the offseason has accelerated Freeman's learning curve, while freeing up offensive coordinator Greg Olson. "Last year Coach Olson was drawn into a really tough circumstance, with having to be a quarterbacks coach with a rookie quarterback and also having to call the plays," said Freeman, who has won eight of his past 12 starts. "I spend a lot of time with Alex watching film and learning the game, and Coach Olson now has the time to game plan the defense." Van Pelt deflects much of the credit, pointing to Freeman's natural skills as a leader. "I see a toughness, a desire to win that's very impressive," Van Pelt said. "I can't take the credit ... mom and dad did that. You either have it or you don't. That desire drives Josh Freeman every single day." Freeman's efficient game against Carolina last week improved his passer rating to 90.1, and he has thrown only five interceptions all season. He already has earned a reputation for directing fourth-quarter comebacks heading into Sunday's game at San Francisco. "That's a very composed young man," 49ers coach Mike Singletary said. "He's a good quarterback and Freeman does some smart things with the football." Even though Van Pelt started only 11 games as a pro, his experience has proven invaluable. "Every morning I go in and watch film with him and Coach Van Pelt really gets me prepared for the games on Sunday," Freeman said. "It's protections, looking at coverages, route concepts. Having his knowledge of the game has given me insights in how to perform well. Every week, his cheat sheets have the whole defense broken down." For Van Pelt, preparation is the key to success under center. "I've always been a big believer in giving the guys the answers to the test so there's no anxiety on game day - you just go out and perform," Van Pelt said. "It's easy when you work with a guy like Free. As soon as you give him a coaching point, he applies it immediately. His decision-making has been outstanding and his ability to protect the football is outstanding." According to Fox analyst Brian Billick, one of Freeman's few remaining hurdles is mastering the finesse pass, "over the linebacker and in front of the safety." Van Pelt isn't concerned. He'd rather talk about all the aspects of the position Freeman is excelling in at the age of 22. "He had a play the other day where he could have thrown one into coverage and he actually pulled the ball back," Van Pelt said. "I love where Josh is and what he can do with his physical abilities, not just throwing it but running it. I don't know if there's anyone under 25 in this league who is asked to do as much as he is in terms of protection adjustments and managing the game." Freeman's deft play-action fakes are another plus in opening up Tampa Bay's attack. The Panthers bit several times Sunday, freeing up tight end John Gilmore for completions downfield. Given Freeman's inexperience, growing pains crop up at times. Two weeks ago in Atlanta, Freeman made an errant protection call while the Bucs were in an empty backfield. Defensive end Kroy Biermann roared in untouched from the blind side, pressuring Freeman into a rare interception. "There have been very few of those plays where you go, 'Josh, what were you thinking?' " Van Pelt said. For both teacher and pupil, those early morning film sessions are responsible for much of Freeman's success. "That might be the best time I get to spend with Josh, just the two of us watching game film," Van Pelt said. "We put a lot on his shoulders and this kid has never buckled. When the game's on the line, he's been able to slow his heart rate down and avoid getting nervous. "There's really nothing bad I can say about Josh Freeman. I'm having a blast working with him."