Alan Dell

Commentary | Tampa Bay Buccaneers not sure which Josh Freeman they will get; no doubt about Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton

The prevailing opinion is that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' opener today against the Carolina Panthers is about Josh Freeman vs Cam Newton.

But it's really about Josh Freeman vs Josh Freeman.

The NFL rookie of the year in 2011, Newton can afford a bad game without creating panic among the Panthers.

The unofficial NFL disappointment of the year in '11, Freeman already has people around One Buc Place feeling edgy.

The two quarterbacks are coming off totally different seasons.

A bad game by Freeman can set off alarms. With all their question marks on defense and injuries, the Bucs can't afford a repeat of last season, when he threw 22 interceptions and only 16 touchdowns.

Freeman can't afford it either, which is why he put in a lot of overtime during the preseason.

With new offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan coming over from the Super Bowl champion Giants, Freeman is supposed to be better. But in the preseason, he looked familiarly inconsistent.

The now-24-year-old had a lot of excuses last season. He was hurt and didn't have a deep passing threat, and 2010 rookie sensation Mike Williams took the season off (at least in his mind).

The Bucs' defense was so bad Freeman found himself nearly always behind at halftime and needing to throw the ball. Defenses teed off on him, and he didn't respond well.

Forced to spend money under the new collective bargaining agreement, the tight-pocketed Glazer family, which owns the Bucs, went out and got Freeman some weapons.

The best was free-agent receiver Vincent Jackson, who gives Freeman a le

gitimate deep threat. They got Carl Nicks, arguably the best offensive guard in the league, and drafted running back Doug Martin. The latter won't have to be taken off the field on third down like LeGarrette Blount is because of an inability to pick up blocking schemes and catch.

Martin's presence alone should be enough to boost Freeman's confidence against Carolina. In their two meetings last year (both won handily by the Panthers), Blount rushed for a combined 30 yards on 13 carries.

The Bucs were in the midst of a 10-game losing streak both times these teams met, and Tampa Bay's defense had clearly given up. Freeman didn't, but Williams checked out along with Kellen Winslow, who was being his surly, selfish self. Blount was handicapped by his limitations and a coaching staff not equipped to take advantage of his strengths.

There are no excuses this time. Winslow has been sent to the NFL's version of the Siberian wasteland, Williams has seen the light, and Blount will see the bench with Martin getting most of the touches at running back.

In '10, Freeman put up numbers that get you into Canton with 25 TD passes and only six interceptions in leading the Bucs to a 10-6 record. Those stats were deceiving because they were built on a weak schedule and Freeman engineered four fourth-quarter comebacks.

Last year's drop into the abyss is distressing, and Freeman is clearly entering a crossroads season. Optimists say Freeman's bad season was due to poor decisions rather than lack of talent. Others say he has never been an accurate passer and was exposed. Let's not forget Winslow and Williams letting him down.

His biggest supporter is Jackson, who could be Freeman's life jacket.

"He can make every throw," Jackson said. "He's athletic, can move in the pocket, he's mobile. He just has a presence in the pocket back there."

Jackson was targeted 38 times on passes more than 20 yards last season for the San Diego Chargers, which tied for the league lead. He converted those passes into 464 yards and six touchdowns. He expects more of the same and is enamored with Freeman's work ethic.

"I know he is going to be great because he has the drive and he has all the abilities and tools to be great," Jackson said. "I've never come here in the morning without his car being there first. He is one of the last guys out of here at night."

Freeman is considered the worst of the four quarterbacks in the NFC South behind New Orleans' Drew Brees, Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Newton.

The truth should show this season because in Jackson he has one of the best deep-ball threats in the NFL, and he finally has an all-purpose back in Martin.

But things are not so simple. The offensive line lost anchor Davin Joseph for the season and lacks depth, and there is a new center in Jeremy Zuttah.

Freeman has said it's not about him, but about winning and lauds Schiano's emphasis on ball security and the new people the organization put around him.

But it is about Freeman. It's Freeman vs Freeman.

Which one wins will likely determine the Bucs' fate.

Alan Dell, Herald columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7080, ext. 2112.