Opportunity lost. In a season that already has seen more than its fair share of disappointing defeats, this one may stick in the craw of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a little while.
Tampa Bay got a 300-yard passing game from their rookie quarterback. The offense rolled up 469 yards and had six opportunities in the Carolina red zone. Their franchise player put on a show. Their running game churned up 154 yards on the ground.
After bending for 100 yards rushing in the first half, the Buccaneers defense shut down the Carolina running game during the second half and, for the first time in three games, held them under 160 yards rushing. Tampa Bay allowed just one touchdown, limited the Panthers offense to 309 total yards and held Carolina to 16 points.
There was just one problem. The team that was second in the league in red-zone scoring couldn't find the end zone in this one. Worse, two botched field goals and three terrible interceptions kept the Bucs from scoring any points. Going two-for-six in scoring territory, the Buccaneers suffered their 11th defeat of the season, a tough 16-6 loss to the Panthers.
This one was on the kid. Every quarterback in the NFL goes through these kind of games. Drew Brees did. Peyton Manning did (in fact, he threw six in one game). Both fellow first-rounders Mark Sanchez and Matt Stafford have had them.
This was Josh Freeman's lesson game. Intercepted five times by the stingy Carolina Panthers secondary, including three killer picks in the red zone, Freeman got a tough lesson in ball security and the Bucs paid the price.
There's still plenty to be excited about with Freeman. He threw the ball all over the field, hitting lasers to Mo Stovall, Sammie Stroughter, Kellen Winslow and Antonio Bryant.
But Freeman was so eager to cash in on drives, he forced passes to Bryant in the red zone. Twice, linebacker Jon Beason dropped back into coverage and found easy picks. The third time, on fourth-and-goal, Freeman had no one to throw to. Instead of attempting to run it in himself he forced a pass that was picked off by safety Chris Harris.
Some of this has to go on offensive coordinator Greg Olsen. How about pounding the football in the red zone, Coach Olsen? How about a roll out with a run/pass option?
Instead of pounding the rock, they repeatedly put the ball into Freeman's hands in a situation where decision making and precision passing is paramount.
Perhaps this was the plan. Maybe it wasn't about winning, but teaching Freeman what to do in these situations. Still, after the first couple of interceptions, you'd think the Bucs would be a little wary the third time around.
The other two times in scoring range, kicker Connor Barth, who appeared to have solidified the Bucs kicker position, yakked two field goals.
Six trips into the red zone. Six points total.
It should have been a lopsided Buccaneers win, but that's what happens when you're playing a rookie quarterback. Freeman will learn from this and be better for this.
On the bright side, the Buccaneers defense continued to play tough football—winning football. The Bucs finally found their running game. Bryant finally played like a franchise player (five receptions, 116 yards) and the Buccaneers remain solidly in the Nadamukong Suh sweepstakes.
If his recent history is any evidence, expect Freeman not to make these same mistakes next week. Perhaps it will be enough for the Bucs to pull one out in a battle of rookie quarterbacks.
Or the Bucs will find another way to lose. Unfortunately, a young team needs to learn how to win first and it's been a tough process for this band of Buccaneers.
If Raheem Morris is retained for the 2010 season, job No. 1 will be to find a few veterans who can show the young cats how to win.