Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron gets a huge from his son,… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth…)
Two springs ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers used the 17th overall pick in the 2009 draft to take Josh Freeman, a quarterback from Kansas State. If the organization had had the top pick, Freeman would have still been the choice, according to coach Raheem Morris.
"And I brought this to everyone's attention at the time -- that if I would've had the No. 1 pick in the draft, he was certainly the guy that I would like to go target and go get because I knew what type of man he was and what type of character he had," said Morris, who was the defensive coordinator at Kansas State in 2006 when Freeman was a freshman.
That might qualify as hyperbole, but there's no arguing that Freeman has been an important part of the Buccaneers' meteoric rise from last place in the NFC South to playoff contender.
And when the Ravens line up against Tampa Bay on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, they will meet a precocious 22-year-old quarterback who doesn't lack confidence.
That self-assurance propelled Freeman to overtake Byron Leftwich and Josh Johnson as the team's starter just eight weeks into 2009. It's helped him engineer six fourth-quarter comebacks in 19 starts.
And that self-esteem contributes to Freeman's firm belief that he, the fourth-youngest player on the roster, is a leader for the Buccaneers.
"Yeah, for sure, from an offensive standpoint," Freeman said during a conference call with Baltimore media Wednesday when asked whether Tampa Bay is his team. "Yeah, I'm young, but the guys voted me captain. The quarterback's obviously a position of leadership. So I definitely feel like I have a role as a leader on this team."
While his totals in passing yards, completion percentage and touchdowns are middle-of-the-pack, Freeman has demonstrated a knack for smart, resilient football.
His five interceptions are tied for the seventh-fewest in the NFL, and his 93.7 passer rating on third downs ranks eighth. That doesn't include 12 of 15 runs on third down that have resulted in first downs.
But Freeman's most significant contributions have occurred in the fourth quarter, when he has guided the team to four come-from-behind wins just this season. As a result, his fourth-quarter passer rating is 96.1, which ranks seventh in the NFL.
"He runs the whole offense," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "They have an offense that's tailored to what he does well. They've kind of set it up so he can sneak and do it. But he sets up the protections and does some things like that. He runs the quicks, he runs the boots, he runs the drop-back stuff."
All of this may be surprising to everyone but Morris, who watched Freeman blossom into a starter with the Wildcats.
"He gave us a chance to win every single game, and when I was lucky enough and fortunate enough to become a head coach in this league, I wanted to go out and get a man just like him to run my organization," Morris said. "Luckily, he fell to us, and we were able to go get him because he was our guy, our hand-selected guy."
Freeman made the leap from the college to the professional level, altering his study habits, absorbing protection schemes and mastering the offense.
"As I've grown and gotten older and played more games and experienced more, you start to understand how the rhythm of the game goes and what it takes to win games," he said. "The NFL is completely different from college, but I know exactly what I'm trying to do each Sunday. Trying to go out and manage the game and make plays when they're there and not turn the ball over."
Freeman stands 6 feet 6 and weighs 248 pounds, drawing comparisons to the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger (6-5, 241). Those similarities were not lost on Ravens outside linebacker Jarret Johnson.
"He's real big, hard to get down," Johnson said of Freeman. "Big arms, can run around and create plays on their feet. So they are very similar. He doesn't have the experience that Ben has, but he's very, very similar."
Freeman, who has rushed for 236 yards on 39 attempts, and the Philadelphia Eagles' Michael Vick are the only quarterbacks among the top 50 rushers in the NFL. Freeman's ability to extend plays with his legs puts an onus on the Ravens' defensive backs to shadow their assignments for longer periods of time.
"You've just got to stay on your guy," cornerback Chris Carr conceded. "Every single week, you should go in there with the mentality that you've got cover them as long as possible. If you have that mentality every week, you really shouldn't have to change your mindset going into this game."
Because of his age and obvious talent, Freeman has been lumped in with his peers like the Atlanta Falcons' Matt Ryan, the Ravens' Joe Flacco and the New York Jets' Mark Sanchez as the next class of young, promising quarterbacks.
Right now, that's of little concern to Freeman.
"I just play football," he said. "At the end of the day, you're not judged on how old you are. You're judged on what you put on the field and your performances. Regardless of how old I am, I'm trying to go out and play solid football."