Rookie quarterback Josh Freeman still has a lot to learn, according to his head coach Raheem Morris.
Freeman completed 23-of-44 passes for 321 yards and tossed no touchdowns and five picks in Carolina.
On the season, the former first-round pick has completed 54.4 percent of his passes, 1,114 yards, and tossed seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions. However, the 21-year-old was intercepted five times in Tampa Bay's 16-6 loss at Carolina on Sunday, including three inside the Panthers red zone. The 469 total offensive yards were the most by the Bucs in two decades and the fifth-best in franchise history.
But Freeman's immaturity and rawness as an NFL quarterback is not a justification for losing, coach Raheem Morris said Monday.
"That is what it boils down to yesterday," Morris said. "We had over 400 yards of offense, the fifth-best total of offense around here in team history, and you have six points to show for it. We get to the red zone, and we do it consistently. You are not doing it one-dimensionally. You are running the football. You are throwing the football, you are getting the ball to your big-time players. You're getting the ball to the guys in the run game. [Freeman] is going through his progressions. It was a check down here. It was a shot here. It was a throw there. It was a scramble here. Everything is working well."
"Then you get in the red zone, and you just make [three] critical mistakes. You can't do that. It is an 8-8 league, and we got to find a way to get four of those games that you lose. We are not able to do that right now."
"These guys want to win, in particular that No. 5," Morris said. "He's not going to give you an excuse for why he lost the football game for his football team, and the guys around him are not going to give you an excuse. This defense, this offense, those guys on the special teams, they go out there to win every week. We haven't had the success you would like, but there's no passive, 'It's okay,' type of mentality. Those guys are hurting in there. They want to win those games."
"Just like [Sunday]. You say, 'You played better; do you feel like you should've won the game?' No. We didn't win the game. We had an opportunity to win it, and we didn't take it. That's where we are."
Morris still believes that his team and staff are behind Freeman. So they should be, as the rookie passed for a career-high 321 yards against the Panthers. His record as a starter has now fallen to 1-4.
Give the boy some slack though—he is a rookie in what is turning out to be one of the worst Bucs teams in memory.
"He made three mistakes in the red zone," Morris said. "He's going to put more pressure on himself. He puts pressure on those guys to run the right routes. I think the days of calling him a young quarterback are over in that room for those guys. He went out there and didn't make the plays he's supposed to make in the red zone."
The Bucs are now 1-11 under Morris, their sole victory coming in Freeman’s debut versus Green Bay in week nine.
Morris maintains he's not worried about the possibility of a “losing” atmosphere in the Bucs' locker room—despite a Bucs team looking very capable of being the first to lose more than 14 games in a single season.
"No, because of the guys that are here," Morris said. "You're talking about the young guys that are going to bring you through this thing. How well Quincy Black is playing these last two weeks and his production speaks volumes. You're talking about young guys who are going to get better and better together and grow together. If we were around here and we were a veteran team and we had this kind of culture and this kind of development of losing, it would be a problem."
"Every time we come off the field and every handshake at the end of these games with opposing coaches, they're getting a little bit easier because I know they understand that, too."
The Buccaneers have been steadily improving. Opportunities to win three of their past four games were not taken, by either the offense's miscues or defensive lapses. They took Miami and Atlanta (both on the road) down to the dying embers of the game and outplayed Carolina on both sides of the ball for much of the game. Between the 20s, Tampa were efficient but were at or inside the Panthers 30, eight times, only scoring a paltry six points.
"There's progress in how we're playing," Morris said. "We just have to make better decisions at the end. We've got to make better plays at the end."
"We're still looking for that guy to stand up and be the closer for us. We've got one at quarterback. He just didn't have a good day in the red zone."
Freeman’s development will continue on Sunday against the Jets, where fellow rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez had started fast but since struggled. Sanchez was a higher first-round pick from this year's draft class, but the two have had mixed results in their time on the field.
This time last season, the Bucs were 9-3 and 2nd seed in the NFC before Carolina decimated them on Monday Night Football. The Panthers game last Sunday was very different—but the Bucs still came out losers.
Morris said the Bucs can create impetus and momentum over the next four games by concluding on a winning note—something they couldn’t do a year ago.
"That was kind of my cry to these guys, December football. Good teams play great football in December. [Sunday], we went out there and played okay football in December. You have to find a way to play great football in December, not only this year but for the future."