The Rise and (Giant) Fall of Josh Freeman


Sep 15, 2013; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman (5) and teammates run out of the tunnel prior to the game against the New Orleans Saints at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

I was duped.

In the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Kansas State quarterback Josh Freeman. At the time, I was angry. The guy I wanted to draft was Vontae Davis, who was available at the time of Freeman’s selection. The idea of having Ronde Barber, Aqib Talib, and Vontae Davis at cornerback was one that was incredibly exciting to me.

Quarterback was not on my list of wants in that year’s draft. But when former head coach Raheem Morris (who was K-State’s defensive coordinator for one season while Freeman was their quarterback) saw the rawly-talented Wildcat on the board, he made sure the team traded up to secure his services.

I, like many Bucs fans, tucked my face into my replica jersey and sulked in the fact that we had just hitched our wagon to a quarterback that I knew nothing about, other than that he hadn’t really won anything in college.

Towards the start of preseason, I got over it. It was hard not to; our other options at quarterback were Luke McCown, Byron Leftwich, and Josh Johnson.

Quickly, I think the Tampa Bay fan base realized that we had to hitch our wagon to this kid and hope for the best.

During that preseason, we kept hearing Buccaneer great John Lynch say nothing but great things about Freeman’s arm and work ethic as Lynch began his color commentary career. Hearing that kind of stuff from someone who is so revered in this community was something that a lot of fans took as a sign to give him a shot.

Fast forward a little bit, and the Buccaneers had started 0-7. Luke McCown was let go. Byron Leftwich was benched after just three games. Josh Johnson took over and lost the next four.

Toward the end of that seventh game, Freeman got his first look at NFL action. It was in London against the New England Patriots, during garbage time of a blowout Patriots victory. Josh Freeman looked, like any rookie taking his first NFL snaps against an elite team, puzzled and inept.

The following week, the team had a bye and decided to use it to make the transition to Josh Freeman as the team’s starting quarterback.

Week 9 against the Green Bay Packers was a big week for not just Freeman, but for the Bucs organization as well. For the first time in many years, the Buccaneers were going to wear their orange “creamsicle” uniforms from the 1970’s; uniforms that were condemned since the year 1997 because of their association with losing. They would also be putting former coach John McKay into the Ring of Honor as it’s first inductee.

Oct. 21, 2012; Tampa FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman (5) runs for a first down against the New Orleans Saints during the first half at Raymond James Stadium. The Saints defeated the Buccaneers 35-28. Mandatory Credit: Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports

The Bucs had taken a beating early, but Josh Freeman led the first of many fourth quarter comebacks he would become famous for in his first two seasons in Tampa Bay. By finding fellow rookie Sammie Stroughter in the corner of the end zone, and letting Tampa’s defense do the rest, expectations for Freeman had skyrocketed.

In 2010, Freeman had what will likely go down in history as the best season of his career. He threw for 25 touchdowns and just six interceptions while leading the Buccaneers to a 10-6 record and just missing the playoffs due to a tiebreaker. If you had asked any Tampa Bay Buccaneer fan which jersey they would be purchasing in the future, the likely answer would be a Josh Freeman uniform, followed by Mike Williams.

It was in 2011 where we got our first real glimpse of “bad Freeman.” We saw some of it in his rookie year, but those bumps in the road are to be expected. After playing at a world class level in 2010, 2011 was a giant step backwards. The team was on a downward spiral to 4-12, and Freeman led the NFL in turnovers.

Many fans and experts gave Freeman a pass for 2011 due to poor coaching and lack of discipline. The Buccaneers thought they could cure the team’s woes by bringing in Greg Schiano, a college coach from Rutgers who was known for being a no-nonsense disciplinarian. After many offensive coordinators turned down the opportunity to join Schiano’s staff, Giants quarterback coach Mike Sullivan stepped up to the plate. The New York Giants had won the Super Bowl in the 2011 season, and there was hype around the coach that helped Eli Manning reach that plateau once again.

Year one in Sullivan’s offense was a success, for the most part. Freeman threw for a franchise record 27 touchdowns and 4,065 yards, while leading the most prolific offense in Tampa Bay Buccaneers history. With that being said, he also finished the year with 17 interceptions. Most of his turnovers came late in the season.

“Good Freeman” was never seen again.

2013 began in turmoil. Greg Schiano drafted Mike Glennon in third round of the draft to give Josh some competition, and everyone who witnessed Freeman throw in training camp and preseason came away thoroughly unimpressed.

Something was wrong, but no one wanted to say. Rumors about Freeman’s off-the-field conduct began to heat up in the local papers, but no writer would ever make a specific claim.

Next, Freeman woke up late and missed the now-infamous team photograph, which led to discussions of Josh’s possible love for nightlife and partying.

The team would start 0-3, in large part because of Freeman’s inability to do anything right. He was inaccurate, not making sound decisions, and failed to rally the team to overcome the smallest of deficits.

And then, the nail in Josh Freeman’s coffin: the substance abuse program reports, and the possible leak.

Information leaked out that Freeman was in the NFL’s substance abuse program because of medication for ADHD that was prescribed to him. Some thought that head coach Greg Schiano leaked it in order to give Mike Glennon a chance to start, and almost just as quickly as those reports leaked, Josh Freeman was benched.

And soon thereafter, Freeman was gone.

The Buccaneers cut their once “franchise quarterback”, which everyone thought would complete his fall from grace, and allow him to pick up the pieces in a new city.

Not quite.

The Minnesota Vikings signed Freeman to compete with Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel. They had so much confidence in their new quarterback that they immediately thrust him into the starting lineup for a game against the New York Giants on Monday Night Football.

And that’s when the entire country got to see Freeman at his absolute worst.

He completed a dismal 20 of 53 passing attempts for 190 yards and an interception. His accuracy, which had always been his weakness, had hit a new low.

Oct 27, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Josh Freeman (12) sits by the other quarterbacks during the fourth quarter against the Green Bay Packers at Mall of America Field at H.H.H. Metrodome. The Packers defeated the Vikings 44-31. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Josh Freeman hasn’t played in an NFL game since, and might never get the chance to again.

The New York Giants signed Freeman in April, but released him on Friday.

It is a fall from grace that took less than a year, and happened so rapidly that it makes you wonder what off-the-field factors contributed to Freeman’s failure to succeed in the NFL.

Four years ago, Bucs fans (myself included) were talking about this guy as a possible savior to our franchise.

Now, he’s the guy who had all the talent in the world, but could never overcome his personal demons. Josh Freeman has no one else to blame for his NFL demise other than himself. Once regarded as one of the league’s top young quarterbacks, Freeman now finds himself out of work. The Vikings gave him $2 million last year, and decided he would be better suited on their bench. The Giants, who had almost nothing at all to lose in having Freeman on their roster, didn’t even feel comfortable bringing him to training camp.

This time last year, I was defending Josh Freeman. I was probably his biggest fan among team beat writers because I was in love with his potential. I couldn’t just write off 2010 and the first half of 2012 as an anomaly, and I refused to let people tell me that he was the reason the team was losing games.

I was wrong.

I was duped.

Just as quickly as I had put trust in the quarterback that I thought shouldn’t have been there in the first place (remember, I wanted Vontae Davis), Freeman comes in and completely wins me over.

And after I, like many fans, put all my trust in No. 5, he ripped the hope right out of our hearts.

I don’t know where Josh Freeman from 2010 or early 2012 is. I don’t know what happened to that guy.

But this Josh Freeman, the one that can’t make an NFL roster, is a completely different person. Something inside of him has changed; it could be his love of the game, a substance abuse problem, other personal matters, or a combination of all of these. But this isn’t the guy that gave us hope.

Luckily, for Bucs fans, we can start anew in regards to the quarterback position. We have a veteran who can lead the team in the short term, and young guy that could be the answer long term. We have no idea, or strong opinion, of how either will turn out.

And that, believe it or not, is a good thing. Because with high expectations, comes the risk of plenty of disappointment.

Josh Freeman taught us this lesson all too well.