Josh Freeman became Tampa Bay's first 4,000-yard passer and also threw for more touchdowns in a season than any player in franchise history, yet the NFL playoffs will begin without the Buccaneers for the fifth straight year.
Sunday's 22-17 victory over the Atlanta Falcons stopped a five-game losing streak and enabled the Bucs (7-9) to finish with three more wins than they did a year ago, when a season-ending 10-game skid led to the dismissal of former coach Raheem Morris and the hiring of Greg Schiano.
"Ending the season like this and not making the playoffs, it's unacceptable and it's not where we want to be," said Freeman, who threw for 4,065 yards and 27 touchdowns en route to also becoming the team's all-time leader in TD passes with 78.
"Obviously, it's what you play for. If you end the year without winning the Super Bowl, your season can't be considered a success," the fourth-year pro added. "But certainly I'm optimistic. We've got a lot of pieces and a number of guys we'll get back on the team this offseason. Looking forward, I'm really excited."
In addition to Freeman's record-setting season, Tampa Bay had a 1,400-yard rusher in rookie Doug Martin and a 1,400-yard receiver in Vincent Jackson. One of Freeman's other playmakers, Mike Williams, finished four yards shy of giving the Bucs their first pair of 1,000-yard receivers.
Still, Schiano enters an offseason in which one of the major priorities will be improving a porous pass defense and answering questions about whether Freeman, who has one year remaining on the contract he signed as a rookie, is the club's quarterback of the future.
Another unknown is the status of 16-year veteran Ronde Barber, who made the transition from cornerback to safety this season. The 37-year-old is one of 10 Buccaneers who will be free agents and has not indicated whether he would like to return in 2013.
For his part, Schiano said Monday that he's going to evaluate every aspect of the team in coming weeks, including Freeman, whose inconsistency contributed to the late slide that knocked the Bucs out of playoff contention.
"What I can say is, a 4,000-yard passer, touchdown record, there are a lot things that you say, `Wow.' Are there things that frustrate you? Yeah. There are things that frustrate him, too," Schiano said.
"But I'm not ducking the question, because quite frankly, I like Josh Freeman. But I don't want to get ahead of my skis here and really evaluate every single thing about what's best for this organization," the coach added. "Do I think Josh Freeman is going to win Super Bowl's in this league? I do. I hope that happens here. But at the end of the day, I have to evaluate everything before I can say, `That's what we're doing."'
Schiano said one thing he'd like to do before training camp next summer is increase competition for jobs at every position, including quarterback. Backup Dan Orlovsky appeared in one game this season, throwing seven passes in the fourth quarter of a 41-0 loss to New Orleans.
The coach met with the team collectively on Monday and said he planned to meet with Freeman individually.
"It was an up and down year, but ... there's a lot of positives, though. Certainly when the expectations level is what we make it and then you don't reach that, there is also disappointment," Schiano said. "Josh is probably his own toughest critic. So I don't know if anything I'm going to tell him is going to shock him."
The Bucs set club record for points (389), touchdowns (44) and yards gained (5,820). They also led the NFL in rushing defense, allowing a franchise-low 82.5 yards per game.
General manager Mark Dominik said he feels the team is headed in the right direction, despite fading after a 6-4 start. The Bucs last earned a playoff berth in 2007, and haven't won a postseason game since winning the Super Bowl 10 years ago.
Schiano, who left Rutgers to take over the Bucs last January, thinks there's been progress in changing the culture of the organization.
"Pro football is a little more difficult to do that because you constantly have turnover. You're bringing guys in from other places in the middle of the season, so what you need to do is make your culture so strong that anybody that comes in from the outside, whether it be a rookie, a free agent, in-season signing, that they just get swept up in the way things are done," he said.
"We're not there yet, we're getting closer."
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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