Josh Freeman: One Season In

Josh Freeman is already organizing unofficial team workouts in Tampa, whether there's a lock-out or not.
Josh Freeman is already organizing unofficial team workouts in Tampa, whether there's a lock-out or not. /
Josh Freeman is 8-8 in his first 16 starts.
Josh Freeman is 8-8 in his first 16 starts. /

Last weekend Josh Freeman completed his 16th start, a rousing victory over the Arizona Cardinals on the road. That brings Freeman’s record to 8-8 through his first “full” season as a starter. I’ve avoided the temptation to break down Freeman too much with such a small sampling of work under his belt. But through his first 16 games is as good a time as any to take a look at the Bucs franchise quarterback and how he’s fared thus far in his promising young career.

The most remarkable thing Josh Freeman may have done last year is save Raheem Morris‘ job. After starting the season 0-7, murmurs were beginning to seep out about whether Morris could a one-and-done coach in the vein of a Cam Cameron. Morris was young, considered highly inexperienced and unorthodox, not to mention the decision to draft Josh Freeman had been somewhat controversial. Many Bucs fans were thrilled to have Freeman, but a large contingent (larger than they would now care to admit) resented the pick and accused Morris of a borderline nepotism.

Then, in the week after the bye, with things looking bleak and the Bucs planning to return to the creamsicle throwbacks that had been synonymous with their ineptitude for decades, Josh Freeman made his first start.

That first start is a perfect microcosm for Freeman’s first 16 games as a whole. Though he was far from the polished quarterback you hope he will one day be, he showed incredible flashes of ability and demonstrated the type of intangibles a quarterback is just imbued with. Freeman lead the the Bucs to their first win of the season in a gritty comeback performance in which he completed three touchdown passes.

Freeman went on to take his knocks over his first season. His numbers were far from stellar and the Bucs still didn’t win a ton of games. But for a 21 year-old quarterback on a very bad team, all you had to do was watch him and you could see he possessed the traits it takes to win in this league. Whether it was the knack for escaping a pass rush and improvising a pass play or a good scramble or it was just a good throw with defenders bearing down on him, even despite going 1-5 in his first six starts, you could see Freeman developing.

In Freeman’s last ten starts though, he’s 7-3, including a 5-2 start to this season. Freeman helped the Bucs win two of their last three at the end of last season, including a very good road win against the Superbowl champion Saints. He would finish his rookie season with 1,855 yards, 10 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. Far from a spectacular statistical season.

The better indicator is Freeman’s improvement over the course of his first 16 starts though. After going 3-6 with unspectacular stats in his first year, Freeman went into the offseason dedicated to taking the next step.

"“The offseason really paid off for him, being with one coaching staff without all the changes. Being the guy from the go since we started with OTAs (workouts) in the spring, you give him more time. Everything was focused on him. He worked with his receivers the whole offseason and that made a big difference, rather than just show up and play,” Davin Joseph said.“He’s not forcing the issue. He’s throwing to guys who are open and not forcing the ball, and that’s going to help our offense. It’s a major improvement,” Joseph said. “He’s not a kid any more. He has grown into an NFL quarterback now.”"

The development has been noticeable. After putting up less than stellar stats and a 3-6 record last season, this year Freeman is 5-2 with 1,533 yards, he’s now completing 60 percent of his passes (compared to 54% last season) and he has eight touchdowns to just three interceptions. His record is now 8-8 as an NFL starting quarterback and he’s really beginning to look the part.

Since his debut Josh Freeman has been steadily improving.
Since his debut Josh Freeman has been steadily improving. /

But more impressive are those intangibles I referred to earlier. The moxie and confidence Freeman brings to the Bucs offense, the feeling that no game is out of reach and the poise to bring his team back are things that most NFL quarterbacks can only hope for, Freeman has them in spades. Of his eight wins, six have been 4th quarter comeback wins. In fact, in the 4th quarter with defenses bearing down on him (on plays with at least five men rushing the passer) Freeman has an ungodly degree of confidence, Freeman’s completion percentage is 68.8 and his passer rating is 134.9. He’s thrown two touchdowns and no interceptions in those situations and he’s averaging 8.6 yards per attempt.

The guy is 22, and in the most pressure-packed position any NFL QB can find himself in, Freeman becomes a machine. The rest of the nuances of being an NFL quarterback will come to him with coaching and experience. But Josh Freeman already possesses the difficult traits to find. You can’t coach up a knack for making the big play at the right moment, you can’t teach moxie. It’s kind of like arm-strength, you can work on it a little bit, but for the most part you’re born with it or you’re not.

Arm strength is something else Freeman possesses plenty of, along with size and mobility. In fact I’m sure if you started to poll a lot of the league executives around the NFL, a growing number may concede on the basis of physical measurables, athleticism and the already-demonstrated knack for bringing his team back, that Freeman would be the ideal up-and-coming QB to build a team around.

I’m not going that far yet. I do think of the three first round picks made in last year’s draft, Freeman is easily better than Matthew Stafford. I’ve never liked Stafford though. I did gain a lot of respect for him when I watched him play through a shoulder injury in last year’s Thanksgiving Day game, but based on what he was supposed to be in college and how he actually performed, I never thought he merited being the first overall pick.

Mark Sanchez is another story, I don’t know that you could argue Freeman is better than Sanchez yet. He’s done more with less, but Sanchez was in the AFC Championship game as a rookie. Granted, it was almost in spite of his performance at times, but a fair degree of credit is deserved in making it that far.

Regardless, I don’t think the Bucs would rather have anyone else.

"“Make no mistake about it, he is our quarterback,” Raheem Morris said. “We moved up two spots to get him. I remember how people said we were crazy to do it, and how they booed the pick at the draft party.“What he’s doing might surprise some people, but I am not surprised. That’s why I wasn’t afraid to say crazy things like, ‘I would’ve taken him with the first overall pick,’ or that ‘Josh is a franchise quarterback’ or that ‘I’m married to him,’ or ‘it’s all about 5.’ I knew what he was then, and he’s proving it now.”"