The Bucs no longer have Sapp, but they still have a few of his contemporaries, most notably Barber, who against the Packers returned a blocked punt 31 yards for a touchdown. Once a young sprite in the secondary, Barber is now one of Tampa Bay's remaining sages, along with defensive tackle Chris Hovan (10th year), center Jeff Faine (seventh), receiver Michael Clayton (sixth) and linebacker Barrett Ruud (fifth). "I think it came down to what was going to be our future path," Barber says. "Was it going to be with Jon and Bruce and continuing to accumulate veteran guys—because it was no secret they liked veteran guys, and they played well for us—or were we going to go young and build this team up like we did in '95, '96, '97 and '98? Going young and starting fresh with a new coach was what they decided to do."
The start of the season wasn't promising. Ten days before the opener the Bucs fired offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski and promoted Olson from quarterbacks coach, leaving the latter little time to work with the roster. (Morris said the move was necessitated by the offense's need for more direction and precision.) Veteran import Byron Leftwich started the first three games at quarterback, and 2008 fifth-rounder Josh Johnson the next four. Tampa Bay was young and energetic but losing games badly.
"I understand the reality, especially from an offensive standpoint—losing our offensive coordinator and the things we worked on all off-season," says Clayton. "You just can't step into this league and expect to win. When everybody makes just one mistake, you've got 11 mistakes."
It was at the time of Olson's promotion that Freeman started leaning on his home study group, even though he was a backup. When the Bucs named him the starter during their bye week, Freeman's prep load got heavier. He had the Tampa Bay staff make him a DVD with every game the Packers had played this season plus additional video cut-ups of Green Bay's third-down defense, base-blitz and nickel-blitz defenses, and red-zone defense.
Six days before the Packers game—an off day for the players—Freeman was at One Buccaneer Place, studying. Two mornings later he beat Morris into the facility and stared at Packers film in the darkened quarterbacks room. Last Friday the rookie walked up to Winslow in the locker room.
"Hey, Josh," Winslow said. "When are you going to watch [film]?"
"Three minutes," Freeman said. "Blitz cut-up from Green Bay."
Winslow: "Yeah, the hot [reads]."
Freeman: "We just need to be on the same page."
They were against the Packers. Freeman—mobile, strong-armed and massive at 6'6" and 248 pounds—stood tall in the face of pressure and rolled out when necessary, as he did to his left on a seven-yard touchdown pass to Winslow that cut the Pack's lead to 28--23. He followed with another seven-yard touchdown to Sammie Stroughter, on fourth-and-four with 4:14 left, and then a two-point conversion to Clayton, to put Tampa Bay in front 31--28.