It was four and a half years ago, when purgatory dwellers New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers commemorated the start of a new page in their respective franchise histories. Rex Ryan and Raheem Morris were appointed to their head coach positions earlier in the offseason and, as often is the case, they selected their quarterback of the future in the first round. Former Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum moved up to the 5th spot to draft Sanchez, while the newly promoted Mark Dominik took Josh Freeman at 17.
After two seasons, Josh Freeman looked like he could end up as the best QB selected in that 2009 draft. After wrestling the starting position from Daunte Culpepper’s tiny hands as a rookie, Matthew Stafford exhibited warning signs of a glass shoulder, only playing in a total of 13 of 32 possible games.
Sanchez improved significantly in his second year after a deplorable rookie season and his future looked bright. Even though the Jets made the playoffs almost entirely off the strength of their stout passing defense and great offensive line/run game, Sanchez played well enough to win the game for New York in the team’s successive trips to the AFC Championship Game.
Freeman, on the other hand, was arguably the best part of the Buccaneers team in the 2010-2011 season. In his first full season as the reins, he threw for 25 TDs against only 6 interceptions and finished with the 6th highest Passer Rating and the 7th best QBR in the league (courtesy of ESPN). Just as impressively was the 22-year old’s precocious ability to get the best out of a middling supporting group, highlighted by rookie receiver Mike Williams, Cleveland Browns castoff TE
Vin Diesel Kellen Winslow, and something called an Arrelious Benn.
As a Falcons fan, I believed that the Buccaneers only had an upward trajectory and would challenge alongside Atlanta and New Orleans for years to come. Freeman looked like the real deal, current Patriots backup RB LeGarrette Blount was rushing for 5 yards a carry, and the team had stockpiled its defensive line with young talent.
Despite having pretty much the same players around him the next year, however, the former Kansas State Wildcat did not have the same success. While Tampa Bay started the season with a 4-2 record, including an ugly/gritty victories over reigning NFC South division rivals Atlanta and New Orleans, the team plummeted after week 6 and lost ten straight games to end the season, effectively causing Raheem Morris to lose his job.
While Freeman did not play particularly well during the team’s free fall, he certainly did not play a key role in the season’s demise. He only threw three more interceptions than touchdowns over the ten game span and passed for at least 250 yards in four of the games. The run game took a massive step backwards, from 8th to 30th (!), and the Tampa Bay defense was the worst in the entire league. Freeman was almost always playing with a deficit which, as in the case with the Oakland Raiders last season, undermined the run threat and pressured him to force more throws.
Tampa Bay’s front office ultimately hurt Freeman’s development by hiring Greg Schiano, a guy who had no history with developing quarterbacks and has basically pissed off the entire roster within two years on the job, and replacing Freeman’s main middle-of-the-field target, Winslow, with Vincent Jackson. Dallas Clark helped mitigate Winslow’s departure, but did not provide consistency at the position.
Predictably, Freeman’s passing yardage increased significantly with a top-end deep threat, but his accuracy dipped by eight percentage points, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. Based on numbers accrued by ESPN, Freeman was successful in completing 62% of completed throws to Winslow in his final season with Tampa Bay. When throwing to Jackson, by comparison, he only connected with the wide out 49% of the time.
Perhaps the most surprisingly fact is that Freeman’s success in connecting with Wallace actually fell by 3% last season, even though Jackson was sharing the defensive attention that Wallace had received for two seasons before the former Charger’s arrival (via ESPN).
Despite Freeman’s slip in accuracy, he threw for a career high in TDs (27) and threw five fewer interceptions than the previous season. Once again, while the offense was merely middle-of-the-pack, the defense bore a greater share of the burden for falling below .500. While the young defensive line players and linebackers showed tremendous improvement in run defense (went from surrendering 5.0 yards per carry in 2011-12 to 3.5 in 2012-13, via PFR.com), passing defense was, yet again, one of the worst in the league.
This season’s failures in Tampa has rested on Freeman’s shoulders and, frankly, his implosion has been spectacular. Part of the blame goes on the team’s failure to, once again, give Freeman a middle-of-the-field target (I don’t even know who their TE is), leaving him only with a check down option in RB Doug Martin and two deep options in Williams and Jackson. Kevin Ogletree is awful.
With that said, there is no binary for success and Freeman’s decline this season has been a testament to that. It is impossible to gauge the extent to which Schiano, the offensive coordinator that he hired, Mike Sullivan, and new quarterbacks coach, John McNulty (the Cardinals’ QB coach from last season!), have impacted Freeman’s play, but there is (absolutely) nothing to suggest that (at least) the latter two were intelligible hires by the organization.
I believed that Tampa Bay would contend for the NFC South title this season, but that clearly will not happen now that Freeman has been benched and rookie Mike Glennon will step in and likely provide his best Kellen Clemens impersonation. I have said all I ever want to say about Mark Sanchez and his/the Jets’ collective failures here, here, and here, but Freeman was different.
It was really in the first few weeks of last season when it became apparent that Mark Sanchez was not going to improve into the quarterback that Jets nation envisioned him to be when he won against Peyton in Indy and Brady in Foxboro in that second season, with the final crescendo on Thanksgiving night of last year.
Even though Freeman never even made it to the playoffs, he should have had a different fate than Sanchez in NY, rather than having to start looking for a new home. When a player shows the amount of talent that Freeman did at such an early stage in his career, you assume that he will only improve as the team builds him. The case of Josh Freeman shows that production today does not guarantee production tomorrow, and that no amount of promise is immune to an unholy combination of change and individual circumstance.