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When Tampa Bay free safety Cody Grimm goes golfing with quarterback Josh Freeman, they put a little money on a hole or three. Grimm's a five handicap, he says, Freeman about a 15, but the safety also says of the quarterback, "He'll never take a stroke. Most guys, they're happy to take one. They want to win the money. Josh wants to win, but he doesn't want to be handed anything."
"He told you that?!'' Freeman said. "He's not better than me! And he is not a five."
Further investigative reporting by SI did reveal that Grimm is about a five handicap and Freeman shoots in the 80s. But if you'd seen the look on Freeman's face, you'd know something about him. It was a combination of disgust and Wait till I get my hands on Grimm. This is one competitive fellow.
The Bucs need a quarterback who is this fired-up, this young (23) and this good (his touchdown-to-interception ratio, 25 to 6, was second-best in the NFL last year) to compete in the NFC South. Tampa Bay has to face 32-year-old Drew Brees and the Saints, and 26-year-old Matt Ryan and the Falcons, twice a year for the foreseeable future. If Cam Newton is the answer in Carolina, this will be the NFL's power division for quarterbacks. It already might be. Point is, it looks like Tampa Bay has the caliber of quarterback to stay competitive for the next decade—and to contend for the division title with a very young team in 2011.
"I do love competition," says Freeman, who's an imposing 6'6" and 248 pounds, "and I just love football—that's a huge part of it. It's not like work when you love something. I want to be great. I want to master my craft. And every day I want to push myself to get better."
To that end, Freeman helped pay the way for nearly two dozen teammates to attend a minicamp in Bradenton, Fla., during the lockout. In all, 53 Bucs showed up. "It was good to focus on football and not really anything else for a week," Freeman says. "We tried to do as much as we'd do during a normal minicamp."
When Freeman was drafted out of Kansas State in the first round in 2009, his dad, Ron, called former Bucs coach Tony Dungy, who lives in Tampa, and asked if he'd check in on Josh a few times a year to be sure he was staying focused. Dungy and Josh talked by phone and met a couple of times in person. Eventually Dungy concluded, "You don't need me." On Feb. 8, 2010, one day after the Super Bowl following his rookie season, Freeman was on the Bucs' practice field at 8 a.m., throwing to equipment guys. He just gets it.
As Bucs G.M. Mark Dominik builds for the future, with the youngest talent core in the league, he's thrilled to have someone so mature as the team's unquestioned leader. "After all the quarterbacks we considered, his time with us stood out," says Dominik. "He retained information and could regurgitate our offense well, but more than that, he just fit. To see how he's developed at 23 gives this whole building a level of confidence it hasn't had in a while."
There aren't many teams in recent NFL history with the kind of prominent youth the Bucs have, which makes them potentially so dangerous this season. Look at the defensive line. Dominik has taken linemen in both the first and the second rounds of the last two drafts—tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price in 2010, ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers in '11. With those four, plus tackle Roy Miller and end Michael Bennett, Tampa Bay should have a strong six-man rotation, all of whom are 25 or under. (Bowers is 21, Price 22, McCoy and Clayborn 23, Miller 24 and Bennett 25.) Similarly, the two offensive weapons most important to Freeman's success, wideout Mike Williams and running back LeGarrette Blount, are both 24.
Freeman knows part of his job will be to lead the young Bucs to the playoffs—they just missed at 10--6 last season—and he's comfortable with the task. "He's the kind of guy everyone looks at, and it's a positive for the team," says Grimm. "I asked him to go to dinner the other day after practice, and he said, 'Just give me a few minutes. I need to look at this goal line tape.' Like, yeah, the same tape you're going to see tomorrow morning. But that's just him. When that's important to him, you know your team's in pretty good hands."