SOMEWHERE IN THE TAMPA BAY AREA -- It was late May, and you literally could see the heat waves rising from the football field. Among them and above them, you could see something much larger.
The big man had a football in one hand and his cellphone in the other. He was throwing a pass to one teammate while making plans with another for a future workout.
Through it all, you could see a young quarterback further entrenching himself as the leader of his team. You could see Josh Freeman literally rising up and running the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from all (football) angles.
Very quietly, Freeman has been doing this off and on since late March. While guys such as New Orleans’ Drew Brees and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan have been leading some very public workouts for their teammates during the lockout, Freeman has been keeping things quiet. He asked that the location of Monday’s workout not be mentioned because he doesn’t want distractions.
“We have a lot of good character guys that are willing to put in the time and effort,’’ Freeman said. “It’s kind of a cultural thing around here. It means a lot to everybody. We take a lot of pride. Lockout or no lockout, we’re going to be ready to play.’’
You probably got the sense Freeman was emerging as a leader as the Bucs went a surprising 10-6 with the league’s youngest roster last season. You should have gotten the sense he was getting pretty powerful when he called a players-only meeting last season after a series of off-field incidents and told his teammates the trouble needed to stop.
He might be only 23 with only one full season as a starter, but there’s no longer any question about who’s running the Buccaneers.
“As the quarterback, you’re the leader of the team,’’ Freeman said.
It was more than obvious Freeman was the leader as the Bucs went through Monday’s workout. He’s the quarterback, but he’s so much more than that in the world of lockout limbo. He’s the coach, offensive coordinator, navigation system and travel planner for the Bucs.
As he threw a pass to receiver Arrelious Benn (more on him in a bit), he was talking to a teammate who was having trouble finding the undisclosed location and, a few minutes later, was talking with another teammate about travel plans and the schedule for an upcoming workout.
“Where’s [receiver] Mike [Williams]?’’ Freeman said into his cellphone. “Have you talked to Mike? We need to find out when he’s coming in.’’
Soon after that, Freeman put down the phone and started talking his teammates through a play that got messed up in one of the games against New Orleans last season.
“It’s hard to get everybody free and their schedules lined up,’’ Freeman said. "But, at the same time, we want to provide options for guys to get down here and work out. Everybody knows we’re a young team and we had a lot of momentum coming off last season. We want to build on that and keep that going.’’
Freeman was quick to point out that backup quarterbacks Josh Johnson and Rudy Carpenter have been helping run the workouts and coordinate plans. But Johnson and Carpenter are backups, and Freeman is the franchise quarterback, even though he can’t talk to anyone with the franchise. He’s relying mostly on the experience of going through the offseason between his rookie year and second season, when the team raved about Freeman showing up at One Buccaneer Place to work with offensive coordinator Greg Olson, quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt and head coach Raheem Morris.
“Basically, they taught me how to think like a coach,’’ Freeman said. “I was in there every day. We’d watch film, go out and do field work, and talk about different concepts. We did a lot of protection calls. We would just meet for hours, and I think that helped me get more comfortable with the offense, take more charge, and go out there and play more confident football.’’
That showed on the field last season as Freeman carried Tampa Bay’s offense, and it showed even more Monday. At a time when players aren’t even allowed to talk to coaches, Freeman is the closest thing the Bucs have to a coach.
“Luckily, we kind of prepared for it before the lockout and the coaches said, 'If this thing keeps going, here’s what you need to do in the offseason,'" Freeman said. “We went through the installs and all that, and they let the quarterbacks know what they wanted installed.’’
Freeman has been doing installations and more. He’s focused mostly on the offense so far, but some defensive players have shown up. Freeman said he’s been in touch with veteran cornerback Ronde Barber about getting more defensive players involved and possibly doing seven-on-seven drills if the lockout lingers.
“For a young team, the offseason is especially valuable,’’ Freeman said. “Get the guys together, get the time together and get the work in. You miss getting that time in at the facility, but we’re making do with what we’ve got.’’
Freeman said it’s been challenging at times to get large group practices organized because players are scattered across the country, and a young team such as the Bucs features a lot of players who make low salaries and can’t afford to travel constantly. But Freeman is doing his best to keep the Bucs together.
“Coming down here, there’s a peer pressure aspect to get into the weight room, get out on the field and get your work done,’’ Freeman said.
Speaking of peers, who has caught Freeman’s eye in the workouts?
“I will say [receiver] Sammie Stroughter is having an incredible offseason,’’ Freeman said. “So is [tight end] Kellen Winslow. Arrelious is obviously coming off his [torn ACL] injury, but he’s looking great as well. We have a number of guys playing great football right now. Kellen Winslow is just a guy that’s so impressive. He’s a guy that comes in and works out in the morning, then comes and gets the throwing part in, and then he goes and works out some more.’’
Funny, but it’s easy to see that’s the same routine Freeman is following. The lockout is not an ideal situation for anyone. But with Freeman running things, the Bucs are in good hands.
“We’re just trying to stay together as a team and keep working on things,’’ Freeman said. “We watch some film and talk over plays and stuff like that -- just do the stuff a football team should be doing.”