Senior NFL Columnist

Less could be more for young quarterback Freeman and revamped Bucs


Josh Freeman admits giving up on Taco Bell cold turkey was not possible. (AP)  
Josh Freeman admits giving up on Taco Bell cold turkey was not possible. (AP)  

TAMPA -- The first thing you notice is the face. The chubby cheeks are gone, replaced by narrow, more-chiseled features that force a visitor to do a double-take just to make sure it's the same Josh Freeman who has started at quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the past three seasons.

Gone, too, is the longer, curly hair, in its place a shorter, trimmed look that makes Freeman look 50 pounds lighter rather than the 20 or so he says he lost.

"The haircut exaggerates it," Freeman said. "But the last time I was down to this weight was right before the combine. Even then, I still had the baby fat. I just worked out hard, ate right and it just fell off."

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Next thing to shed: The label that he is a regressing quarterback.

In 2010, Freeman threw 25 touchdown passes and six interceptions as the Bucs won 10 games. The future looked bright. He was considered a top 100 player, with breakout star potential.

Then 2011 came. His numbers tanked. He threw 16 touchdown passes and 22 interceptions as the Bucs went 4-12.

That led to a lot of changes in his diet, his workout routine and, maybe most importantly, to the coaching staff and the team's roster.

Freeman needed help -- a lot of it.

In studying his tapes from last season, a horrible defense coupled with limited outside speed at receiver led to Freeman's miscues. Many of his mistakes came when forced passes as he tried to rally his team from behind.

Quite simply, he was trying to do too much.

"Yeah, no question," Freeman said. "When things aren't going your team's way, you want to make a play to win a game. You have to let the plays come to you and play within the system."

The poor performance cost coach Raheem Morris his job and former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano taking over.

"I think he might say he tried to do too much, but I don't know if it was as good as it was surrounding him as it was the year before," Schiano said. "There was a slippage of play."

Schiano brings with him a new staff and a new system, which means Freeman is learning a new offense, making him feel like a rookie again.

"It's completely different in terms of terminology," Freeman said. "It's all labeled different. There have been a lot of hours put in getting all the concepts, getting everything down and getting ready to go for this thing."

Even though he has 41 career starts, Freeman is only 24. He is a pup. That's why there is still so much hope around him.

But as the Bucs ready to enter 2012, he is now considered the fourth quarterback in the pecking order in a quarterback-strong division. New Orleans has Drew Brees, Atlanta has Matt Ryan and Carolina has 2011 rookie sensation Cam Newton.

That's strong competition in a league where quarterback is now 70 percent or so of the game.

That's why Tampa Bay did something it didn't do in recent years, which is to spend to get him some help. The Bucs signed receiver Vincent Jackson to help open up the deep passing game, added Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks to help the running game and signed veteran tight end Dallas Clark to give Freeman a nice reliable weapon in the middle of the field. They also drafted back Doug Martin to give them a more elusive runner.

During the work I saw, it was easy to see that Freeman has already formed a nice bond with Jackson, whose long stride and ability to go up and get the football will help back off opposing defenses.

"He's 6-5, he's fast, he catches everything," Freeman said. "Who wouldn't want to play with him?"

Freeman said the change in diet helped him go dip from his previous 260 to 265 pounds -- "depending on the water weight," he said -- but it wasn't about football. He said he just wanted to feel better. So he cut out much of his plentiful Taco Bell dining -- just not all of it.

"I used to tear it up," Freeman he said of Taco Bell.

So you're done?

"No, you can't quit Taco Bell cold turkey," he said, laughing.

Once in a while, sprinkled in with all the fish, chicken and vegetables seems to be OK. He said he doesn't feel any quicker or faster despite the lost weight, but he said it helps in terms of energy and flexibility.

"I feel the same on the field," Freeman said. "I wish I could say I was faster. But my energy level is much better. I can stay up late studying and wake up and have a lot more energy. I am looking forward to this year. I feel great."

Looks it, too -- even if he might need a new driver's license picture to prove it's really him.

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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