No player in football has more riding on the 2013 season than Josh Freeman of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It’s a sentiment I discussed with Simmons when I put Freeman in the leadoff 50th spot of this year’s NFL Trade Value rankings, which went up earlier this week. Other players certainly have higher expectations or loftier goals, but this one season could essentially decide Freeman’s professional future. If he has an impressive season and leads Tampa Bay to the playoffs for the first time since Jon Gruden left town, Freeman is likely to get a lucrative contract extension that will pay him $30 million or so in guaranteed money. Otherwise, if he struggles to perform, gets benched, or suffers an injury, he’ll hit free agency as a good backup/subpar starter type, in a crowd with the likes of Jason Campbell, Chad Henne, and Matt Moore, and he’ll probably book only $5 million or so in guaranteed returns. Just like Joe Flacco last year, Josh Freeman is betting on himself.
Well, not really. Joe Flacco chose to bet on himself. Josh Freeman might very well not have a choice, because after a dismal run toward the end of the 2012 season, the Buccaneers showed little interest in locking him up to a long-term deal or even guaranteeing him the starting job. So, with that arduous stretch of football now behind Freeman, I went back, watched those four games, and crunched the numbers to actually get a sense of why Freeman fell apart. And, more importantly, I want to figure out whether Freeman will fall apart again.
That stretch came during a five-game losing streak that pushed the Bucs from 6-4 playoff contenders to a disappointing 6-9 (they would end the season at 7-9). The opening game of the streak was a heartbreaking 24-23 loss to the Falcons in Tampa, and it was a game in which Freeman actually played reasonably well. He made one notable mistake, missing an open Mike Williams on a corner route for a would-be touchdown, but he was otherwise consistent and effective. There was no reason to think that anything truly vile was about to happen.
Gah. That’s roughly the difference between, say, Flacco and Blaine Gabbert’s rookie season. Freeman put up consecutive games with a completion percentage in the mid-40s in losses to the Broncos and Eagles, then followed it with an eight-interception binge while getting manhandled by the Saints and Rams. Struggling against Von Miller & Co. is one thing, but getting shut out by the Saints, who might have had one of the worst pass defenses in league history? That’s how you get Craig Macked, man.
I had a few hypotheses surrounding Freeman’s dreadful performance before I hit the tape. Some of them actually play a huge role in explaining why he played so poorly, but others have little or nothing to do with how Freeman actually played. Let’s go possibility by possibility.
Excuses and Justifications
Injuries: Freeman wasn’t listed on the injury report last season, but guys play through unreported injuries all the time, so I was looking to see whether there was some indicator of a possible ailment or a notable play that brought about a sudden decline in his performance. No such play arose, and while Freeman’s overall performance was terrible, he frequently mixed above-average stretches of performance with just jaw-droppingly bad moments. If an injury was secretly causing him trouble, I didn’t see it.
Bad Luck: There was some level of bad luck mixed in with Freeman’s mistakes. Of those eight interceptions, three weren’t his fault. There’s this interception against the Saints, where Freeman clearly expects the intended receiver to break off his pattern as his hot read to the blitz, only for him to run blissfully up the seam until he realizes the ball is in the air. A week later, he had Mike Williams fall down and create a pick-six (albeit on a late throw). His final interception of the stretch was tipped at the line and caught by Rams defensive lineman Eugene Sims. Just under 6 percent of passes batted at the line of scrimmage result in interceptions.
That’s really it, though, and Freeman had a lot of good luck going his way, too. I counted two dropped pick-sixes and a half-dozen other dropped interceptions. There were a few drops and quasi drops, notably from Tiquan Underwood, but I don’t think Freeman was particularly unlucky.
It’s Just a Small Sample: Well, it is. And I wanted to point out other bizarrely poor stretches from some interesting quarterback seasons of the past, like this gruesome run from a similar point of the season by a notable passer a few years back:
Who was that troglodyte stuck under center for some woebegotten team? Probably can’t handle the bright lights and big games of December, right? You’ve probably heard of him and what he did that year. He followed that awful stretch by playing just a tiny bit better:
And after that dramatic finish to the 2007 regular season and his performance during a stunning playoff run, nobody questioned Eli Manning ever again. The difference, of course, is that Manning got five games to overcome his ugly stretch and prove that it was a fluke of a small sample; Freeman hasn’t had those five games to prove as much, because his team failed to make the playoffs. (He was competent in Week 17, going 19-of-35 for 222 yards with one touchdown and one pick.)
In any case, though, this wasn’t merely a performance skewed by a small sample. Sure, there was a disproportionate number of situations in which Freeman got the team into no-man’s-land, with drives stalling in awkward places on the opposition’s side of the field, but that’s not enough to justify how poorly he played. And the actual tape of his performance matched the numbers.
The Running Game: We’re getting warmer. Tampa’s running game was a revelation during the first part of the season. Halfway through, the seasonal rushing lines for Doug Martin (154 carries, 794 rushing yards, seven touchdowns) and Adrian Peterson (151 carries, 775 rushing yards, four touchdowns) were virtually identical, with Martin pacing the league in rushing yards. Of course, after that, Peterson ran for 1,322 more yards, while Martin mustered up a “mere” 660.
More important than the numbers is the inefficiency of the running game and how it created more difficult situations for Freeman as a passer. Over the first 11 weeks of the year, the Buccaneers averaged 4.8 yards per rush, which was the ninth-best average in the league. During the five-game losing streak, however, they couldn’t get the running game started on first down, averaging just 3.6 yards per attempt. Only four teams offered less on the ground from the league’s most basic down-and-distance.
You might normally chalk that up to the rookie wall, but even beyond a study I conducted with Mike Tanier several years ago finding no evidence of said wall, Martin simply didn’t play like a guy who had hit the rookie wall. He was still making guys miss up and down the field, extending plays for extra yards, and manufacturing modest gains out of would-be losses. He was iffy as a pass protector, but nobody says a player hits the rookie wall because he gets his pass-blocking responsibilities wrong, right?
The Offensive Line: The more obvious cause for Martin’s decline comes from the players in front of him. As I’ve mentioned before, the Buccaneers intended to build around Martin’s running with two dominant guards, but their plan quickly went awry in 2012. Incumbent right guard Davin Joseph tore his patellar tendon before the season and missed the entire campaign, and left guard Carl Nicks, imported in free agency from the Saints, lasted only seven games before suffering a season-ending toe injury.1 If this were a quarterback who had two elite wide receivers and got them to produce only seven of their 32 combined expected starts over the course of a season, we would immediately ignore that quarterback’s performance and write it off as irrelevant. It’s not quite as obvious with a set of guards for a running back (or for a quarterback, for that matter), but in terms of losing significant talent, this was a really huge problem for the Buccaneers last year, especially during the Nicks-less second half.
By the time that blowout loss to the Saints occurred, just one starting lineman from training camp — left tackle Donald Penn — was starting in the same spot on the line. Center Jeremy Zuttah moved to left guard, opening up a spot for utility lineman Ted Larsen at center, while execrable right tackle Jeremy Trueblood was benched after a mere week for Demar Dotson. None of these guys was particularly good. In fact, in a three-week stretch from Weeks 13 to 15, the Tampa offensive line committed an incredible 10 offensive holding penalties; the league average is just 1.2 holding calls per team per game.2
And once that offensive line started to struggle, well, that was the end of Josh Freeman. If I learned anything from watching those five games, it was just how awful Freeman was with a pass rusher bearing down. While Freeman would occasionally sidestep a rusher or step up in the pocket and make a good throw, he would often panic. He would throw off his back foot. He would lob one up and hope for the best, which often was “hope this gets out of bounds so nobody intercepts it.” He would even more frequently flutter a difficult-to-catch, end-over-end pass in the vague direction of a receiver, either getting his target laid out or creating an opportunity for a turnover. No quarterback is particularly effective under pressure, but with a pass rusher in the vicinity, Freeman looked like he had signed up for the wrong rec league and expected to play no-blitz flag football.
This is fortunately a sentiment shared by somebody much smarter than me, ESPN analyst and former quarterback Ron Jaworski, who rated Freeman 21st in his quarterback power poll from this past month. We saw the same things: a quarterback who loses his accuracy under pressure, makes shortsighted decisions, and often fails to account for defenders on the field after he becomes aware of the rush, leaving him subject to interceptions by robbers and underneath defenders like James Laurinaitis here. And it doesn’t take a brilliant mind like Jaws or a slack-jawed yokel like myself; watch those two four-interception games yourself and you’ll see the same things I did.
I don’t know that Josh Freeman will be capable of suddenly taking a leap forward in terms of handling the pass rush in 2013. Anything is possible, of course, but when I think about other quarterbacks who have struggled with that very same issue, guys like Kevin Kolb and Jason Campbell come to mind, and they never got any better. The best thing for Freeman, then, would be to ensure that the rush stays as far away from him as possible. That includes a healthy, productive offensive line, so the availability and effectiveness of the returning Nicks and Joseph will be key. I wish Freeman had a slot receiver or reliable tight end to check down to on those plays, but it seems like he will instead have to find Martin, Brian Leonard, or Luke Stocker when Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams are otherwise occupied downfield. If he can’t adapt or if the offensive line remains in shambles, teams are going to big-blitz Freeman on third down and he’s likely going to throw up a number of ducks in response.
Of course, that’s what will make Freeman and the Buccaneers so exciting this year. The possibilities are boundless. They’ve made significant investments in top-level talent on the defensive side of the football, they’ll get healthier on either side of the offensive line, and they could possibly have one of the best young cores of talent in football. Or, alternately, they could have spent money on an overrated safety and an injured cornerback, the line could come back well short of their previous level of performance, and they could be shopping for a quarterback at the top of the draft next year. Will Josh Freeman fall apart? Only if the Bucs fall apart. And will the Bucs fall apart? Only if Josh Freeman falls apart.