Returning to the site of the worst game in his brief pro career, Freeman threw for 178 yards and two touchdown passes in Tampa Bay's 20-7 win on Sunday that produced a full-blown quarterback controversy for Carolina and gave the Buccaneers their first 2-0 start in five years.
"We're not really worried about what people are saying," said Freeman who took over last year as a rookie in Tampa Bay's 3-13 season. "It's a great feeling."
Nine months removed from his five-interception nightmare against Carolina, Freeman and the Bucs were turnover-free. The miscues were made by the Panthers (0-2), who couldn't move the ball as Matt Moore had two more turnovers and was benched for Clausen in the fourth quarter.
Coach John Fox said it's "way too early" to say who will start at quarterback next week against Cincinnati, with Carolina in danger of its second straight 0-3 start with Fox in the final year of his contract.
"Matt has not been benched by any stretch," Fox said. "We'll go with whoever gives us the best chance to win next week and that will take some time."
Moore, who has committed six turnovers and produced two touchdowns in two games, said he can't "put my finger on" what's gone wrong after he threw eight TD passes and one interception in a 4-1 finish last season that earned Jake Delhomme a ticket out of town.
"I don't know what the biggest difference is," said Moore, who was booed in the first quarter, had trouble finding receivers and completed just 6 of 16 passes for 125 yards. It included a 37-yard TD to Steve Smith, Carolina's only reliable receiver.
Clausen completed that many passes on his first drive, but it ended with Jonathan Stewart stuffed shy of the goal line with Carolina trailing 20-7. Clausen was later picked off by Aqib Talib, in his first game back from suspension, and finished 7 of 13 for 59 yards.
"We just have to keep getting better," Clausen said.
The sturdy, elusive, 6-foot-6 Freeman has done just that despite still recovering from a broken right thumb. He threw touchdown passes to Earnest Graham and rookie Mike Williams, and also scrambled for 43 yards on four carries for the Bucs, whose rebuilding process may be ahead of schedule.
After beating Cleveland with a solid second-half defensive effort in Week 1, Tampa Bay held Carolina's running game in check by daring Moore to throw.
"They don't have a lot in the way of threats over there at wide receiver," said cornerback Ronde Barber, who had an interception.
Freeman, who last season led Tampa Bay inside the Carolina 30 eight times but produced just six points, showed his versatility early in staking the Bucs to a 7-0 lead. After his 17-yard scramble on third-and-11, Freeman found an open Graham in the flat for a 14-yard touchdown.
Freeman was even more impressive on Tampa Bay's second TD. He eluded a sack twice on third-and-long, then threw a bullet to Kellen Winslow, playing despite a sore knee, for a 40-yard gain. On the next play, he threw a 35-yard, catch-and-run TD to Williams to put Tampa Bay ahead 14-7 midway through the second quarter.
That would be all the Bucs would need in a matchup of the NFL's youngest teams.
It didn't take long for the crowd, sitting in 90-degree heat, to grow restless with Moore. Clausen, the second-round pick and former Notre Dame star, trotted on the field with 10:03 left to loud cheers one possession after Moore fumbled on a sack.
"To be honest, I really wasn't paying attention," Clausen said of the crowd reaction.
The Bucs, who had allowed 299, 267 and 157 yards rushing to Carolina in the previous three meetings limited DeAngelo Williams (54 yards) and Stewart (43 yards) to mediocre performances.
"We've just got a bunch of guys that don't care what people think about them," Barber said. "We're young, we know we're young and that nobody has any expectations for us. [Coach] Raheem [Morris] has done a great job of preaching what this team is and what our identity is going to be."
The Panthers went 2 for 3 on fourth-down conversions. ... Panthers rookie WR David Gettis got the start ahead of Dwayne Jarrett with Brandon LaFell (hamstring) sidelined. ... Bucs WR Micheal Spurlock threw an incomplete pass that was nearly intercepted on a first-quarter trick play. ... Jeremy Zuttah rotated some with Bucs LG Keydrick Vincent.
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