2.) The Emergence of Josh Freeman

Josh Freeman threw just one pick the last half of last season.
Josh Freeman threw just one pick the last half of last season. /
by Edmund D. Fountain, St. Pete Times photopraph
Josh Freeman threw just one pick the last half of the season. /

In it’s entire 35 year history the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have never had a franchise quarterback. Players have performed admirably at the position, most notably Brad Johnson as he stewarded the team to a Superbowl in the 2002 season. But in terms of a true, top-tier NFL quarterback, Tampa’s never had anything close.

When Josh Freeman got here, he was hardly prophesied as the first. Bucs fans were generally just angry at the time, angry about the way the last season had ended, angry about ownership, about coaching decisions and personnel choices. The trade up from 19 to 17 only cost the Bucs a sixth round pick, but it was the perceived nepotism (that Raheem Morris had coached Freeman for a season at Kansas State) that really seemed to set off the fan base.

Freeman struggled in 9 starts during his first season, going just 3-6 and throwing 18 interceptions and just 10 touchdowns. But Freeman inherited a bad Bucs squad and had little to work with as a rookie, despite the tall odds facing him he still started to win over the fan-base by winning his first career start against the Green Bay Packers as well as two of the Bucs last three including a win in New Orleans against the eventual Superbowl Champion Saints. Coming into this season, the Bucs needed big things out of their second year quarterback.

On September 12, 2010 Rick Stroud wrote a piece on Josh Freeman detailing his off-season and the faith he was beginning to instill in his teammates. In it, he discussed Freeman’s short hiatus after the season ended before almost immediately returning One Buc Place and insisting his teammates join him for extra off-season work. Freeman tirelessly reviewed his first NFL season, going over every snap in detail and gleaning any useful information possible from his film sessions with Scott Olson and QB Coach Alex Van Pelt.

He made himself extensively familiar with the offense, far beyond his own role, so that he knew everyone’s responsibilities and could be far more prepared. He developed rapports with his existing receivers as well as the new receivers the Bucs had drafted.

But perhaps most importantly, he hadn’t allowed the trials of his rookie season to weigh on him. He moved on, used them to get better and kept looking forward to next season. That and he took the time to really get to know his guys, his linemen, his receivers, the players he would be going to work with.

All of it came together, all of the off-season work and time spent developing skills and chemistry let Freeman experience an unreal season in 2010, which is what Stroud was basically predicting at the time he wrote his preview of Freeman, however, Stroud did lament the complete lack of talent the Bucs had surrounded Freeman with…

"The Bucs have high expectations for Freeman, although it’s not as if they’ve surrounded him with everything he needs. The Bucs drafted two receivers — Mike Williams, a fourth-round pick from Syracuse, and Arrelious Benn, a second-rounder from Illinois. Williams will start, and the “veteran” wideout in the lineup is Sammie Stroughter, a second-year pro with 31 career catches.But Freeman, at 22, appears oblivious to the pressure he’s under to resurrect a franchise that has lost 17 of its past 20 games. He has his share of doubters around the league, but nobody has more confidence in Freeman than Freeman."

Kind of ironic to read that now, considering the year the Buccaneers just had and the fact Mike Williams finished as a finalist for most of the league’s rookie of the year awards. Freeman did end up having some pretty solid weapons around him, but make no mistake about it, a lot of that success was born out of extra work put in during the late spring and early summer when other players were vacationing and taking it easy. Freeman and his receivers were throwing during that time. They were developing chemistry and learning to work with one another.

That’s a nod to Freeman’s leadership. Something he displayed in droves this season. It’s funny, the aforementioned article includes a quote from Jeff Faine about Freeman’s general temperament and demeanor. It was obvious he was developing as a leader for the way he had brought the offense together to work and improve during the offseason, but on the field it had yet to be tested.

"“I don’t think we’ve been in a hot enough situation where I can say I’ve experienced it and can vouch for it, but he’s that guy who is cool under fire. And he might be able to crack a joke when we’re in the huddle and keep everybody else loose.”"

That premonition was dead on. On the season Freeman led 7 comeback wins on the way to a 10-6 record in his first full year as a starter. In fact for the entire first half of the season the Buccaneers’ MO seemed to be to start slow, dig a bit of a hole and then let Freeman bail them out. Fourth quarter heroics, implausible completions and scrambles to buy time and convert vital first downs became regular occurrences for the Buccaneers this year.

It was uncanny for any second year quarterback to have such moxie and be so cool under pressure, let alone one in his first full year as a starter or a 22 year-old guy at that. Freeman delivered for the Buccaneers all season, making far more plays than mistakes and always feeling like a quarterback that would actually win a team games rather than just not lose them. That’s what a franchise quarterback is folks, and while it’s too early to call it, Josh Freeman played like one in 2010.

He continued to improve throughout the season as well, he threw just one interception in the second half of the season and did not have any in the final four games. In his last two games, against two playoff teams (Seahawks and Saints), Freeman completed over 80 percent of his passes in both games for a combined 492 yards and 7 touchdowns.

On the season Josh Freeman completed 61 percent of his passes for 3,451 yards, 25 touchdowns, just 6 interceptions and a 95.9 QB Rating. That’s an unreal jump from his first season. In just over half a season Freeman had 18 interceptions last year and he cut that down to just 6 in a full season.

Because Matt Stafford has only played 13 games in his career he really can’t be a part of any comparison, but the other quarterback taken in the first round of the 2009 draft was Mark Sanchez. Sanchez tossed 12 touchdowns and 20 interceptions in 2009. This season he improved, but modestly, hurling 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. With less experience to draw from after his first year, Freeman was head and shoulders better than Sanchez in year two. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if the Jets had taken Josh Freeman in 2009 they would be playing in the Superbowl on Sunday.

But it’s the Bucs that have their signal-caller of the future in Freeman. As the offense continues to mature and grow, his weapons will only get better. But what will make Freeman great is that he will continue to improve as well. His work ethic and motivations are such that he’s going to reach his potential at some point. And at 6’6 246 with a very cerebral QB mind and impressive athletic ability, that ceiling is pretty damn high.