TAMPA — Josh Freeman always has been effective directing an offense with the clock winding down. Those skills will be put to full use next season because time might be running out for the enigmatic quarterback in Tampa Bay.
Freeman likely will play out the final year of his contract without a new offer from the Bucs, who could use the franchise tag on him after 2013. Coach Greg Schiano said he believes Freeman can win Super Bowls but plans to provide more competition next season.
Freeman became the first Buc to pass for more than 4,000 yards and set a franchise record with 27 touchdown passes. But he struggled down the stretch, throwing nine of his 17 interceptions over the final three games.
The Bucs started 6-4 but lost five in a row before beating the Falcons 22-17 on Sunday to finish 7-9 in Schiano's first season. He plans to begin an evaluation of all coaches and players. Asked if he was "all in'' with Freeman, Schiano stopped short of an iron-clad endorsement.
"I'm not all in with myself yet. So how could I be all in with Josh Freeman or any other player?" Schiano said. "I'm not sidestepping (the question), but I need to evaluate. What I can say is he's a 4,000-yard passer, a touchdown record — there's a lot of things you say, 'Wow.' Are there things that frustrate you? Yeah. There's things that frustrate him, too. I really like Josh Freeman. But I want to make sure I don't get ahead of my skis at all here and really evaluate every single thing for what's best for this organization.
"Do I think Josh Freeman is going to win Super Bowls in this league? I do. But again, I have to evaluate everything before I can say that's what we're doing. The one thing I do believe in is competition at every spot, including the quarterback."
Freeman, 24, never has been pushed since the first-round pick from Kansas State started the final nine games of his rookie season in 2009. This season, he was backed up by Dan Orlovsky, who has four career starts.
Freeman had a strong supporting cast that included Vincent Jackson, who led the Bucs with 1,384 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. Mike Williams had 996 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. Doug Martin set a franchise rookie record with 1,454 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, and his 1,926 yards from scrimmage were third in the NFL.
"It was an up-and-down year. But you look at 4,000 yards, records all over the place, there's a lot of positives there," Schiano said of Freeman. "Certainly, when the expectation level is what we make it and then you don't reach that, then there's also disappointment. 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."
Schiano said while the season was a "disappointment,' he's encouraged by the Bucs' future.
"We didn't win the Super Bowl, and I'm very disappointed about that,'' Schiano said. "Did I think that we could? Yeah. You look at the Super Bowl champs from last year (the Giants), they were 7-7. They were playing the final week to get into the playoffs. They did, and then they went on a run. People say why you? Well, why not us? That didn't happen.
"Am I a silver lining guy? Yes. There were a lot of positives that give me motivation and encourages me, our fans, our team and everybody involved with the Buccaneers that, hey, there are brighter days ahead."
Seven Bucs losses were by one score, and they blew fourth-quarter leads in four of them. Fielding a more competitive team was a good sign for general manager Mark Dominik, but he said he expected more wins.
"I'm encouraged by the progress and direction of the franchise," Dominik said. "I think the most exciting thing about the 2012 season was the competitive level of our football team and the leadership that came to this football team; specifically from our head coaching position and Coach Schiano.
"Now certainly, 7-9 is not where we want to be as an organization. That's not the expectations we have. I know Greg has, and I share the same feeling, that we're in this to win. And that's really at the bottom line how we're all judged. But I'm encouraged and excited about the direction of our football program and where it's headed in 2013.''