The Inevitable Benching of Josh Freeman

Winslow Townson/Getty Images Josh Freeman

Well, that certainly didn’t take long. The Buccaneers officially benched Josh Freeman for rookie Mike Glennon on Wednesday, ending his five-year reign as the team’s starting quarterback just four weeks into the 2013 season. Of course, it’s a move that many have seen coming for a while: The Buccaneers refused to commit to Freeman over the offseason in terms of his role with the team or on a new contract, and after three disappointing starts to begin the season, the 0-3 Bucs made a change.

For Freeman, this news is catastrophic. I wrote before the season that nobody had more to gain from playing well in 2013 than Josh Freeman; with Freeman approaching unrestricted free agency, the difference between his next contract following an above-average season and following a horrific one was likely $30 million or so in guaranteed money. That’s all clear. There are a whole bunch of other questions worth asking about the logic behind this move and what the Bucs are thinking, which I’m going to try to answer.

Is Freeman playing poorly enough that he deserves to be benched?

I think so, yeah. Freeman’s numbers through three games are pretty gruesome: He’s completing 45.7 percent of his passes and averaging a mere 6.1 yards per attempt. Those are sub-Tebowian numbers. And while three games don’t necessarily represent a player’s true level of ability, let’s throw in that ugly five-game stretch to end the 2012 season, for a half-season’s worth of games. Let me also throw in the numbers from his seven-game run from a year ago, which immediately preceded this eight-game horror show, for comparison:

It’s hard to fall off much further than that; it’s like Freeman went from Joe Flacco during the playoffs last year to Joe Flacco after a late night at Sonic.

More distressingly, this isn’t a situation where the numbers are lying. Freeman has been, perhaps, even uglier on the field this season than his statistics suggest. His footwork is wildly inconsistent, which has led to throws that don’t remotely come near his receivers. He will occasionally back into a great throw, but that seems to come almost by accident at times. Freeman has probably been lucky in terms of defenders dropping interceptions, and his receivers, while they’ve dropped a few passes, have bailed him out with some nifty catches. He looks scattershot and totally bereft of confidence.

Is Glennon ready to take over?

No, but I don’t think it really matters. For one, the Buccaneers aren’t benching Freeman because they’re truly excited about Glennon being ready; they’re benching Freeman because he’s barely resembled a pro quarterback through three games. The Buccaneers might have made this move earlier if they had a better veteran backup around; it’s a bit of a surprise they didn’t consider turning the ball over earlier to third-stringer Dan Orlovsky, who showed flashes of competence during an extremely difficult Colts season in 2011 (admittedly relative to Curtis Painter). I wouldn’t be surprised if Orlovsky ended up holding this job by the end of the year.

Even coming out of school, Glennon was regarded as a raw project who would need some significant development time at the pro level. Glennon is 6-foot-6 with a cannon for an arm, so he certainly looks like a professional quarterback, but he badly lacks for accuracy. Glennon completed just 58.5 percent of his passes during his final year at North Carolina State, one of his two years as a college starter. It’s hard to imagine his completion percentage and his functional accuracy improving at the professional level, especially after just a few months of practice as a backup.

The scary thing is that Glennon doesn’t even really have to be ready in order to play better than Freeman has over these past three games. Freeman’s rate statistics this season are comparable to the worst rookie quarterbacks from this millennium — players like Ryan Lindley and Craig Krenzel, who were thrown into the fire long before they were ready and burned before they could ever expect to improve. Glennon can be a below-average rookie and still be an upgrade on Freeman’s level of performance; all he has to do is avoid being historically bad.

Did the Buccaneers ruin Freeman?

I think you can make a case they certainly will leave Freeman in worse shape than the state he was in before Greg Schiano arrived in town. Freeman, remember, had a staggeringly good 2010 season at the ripe old age of 22, completing 61.4 percent of his passes while averaging 7.3 yards per attempt and throwing 25 touchdowns against six picks. That’s a superstar, and Freeman did it while throwing to a crew of not-yets and too-lates: His primary receivers that year were rookies Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn, with Kellen Winslow and Cadillac Williams chipping in as ancillary targets. And Freeman was younger that year than Andrew Luck was during his rookie season. That’s scary potential.

Since then, Freeman struggled through a disappointing 2011 season, had a hot start to the 2012 campaign, and then fell off a cliff near the second half of 2012. Part of that has to fall on his coaches, who don’t exactly have the best pedigrees in dealing with quarterbacks. Schiano’s gruff nature doesn’t endear himself to just about anybody on the roster, but the coaches he hired to help Freeman develop are about as curious as can be. For his first staff in 2012, Schiano hired former college coach Ron Turner to be his quarterbacks coach. During the 2011 campaign, Turner had been the quarterbacks coach for the Indianapolis Colts, who got virtually nothing that season out of their young starter, Curtis Painter. When Turner left to take over at FIU, Schiano looked around and ended up hiring John McNulty, who had recently been let go with the remainder of the coaching staff in Arizona. There, McNulty was in charge of helping to develop Lindley, John Skelton, and Kevin Kolb. That’s right: Since Schiano took over as head coach, the guys Josh Freeman has had as quarterbacks coaches have been partly responsible for two of the worst quarterback situations in recent memory.

Remember that this was all very close to going very differently. The Buccaneers were reportedly very close to hiring Chip Kelly during the 2011 offseason, with Kelly reportedly changing his mind at the last moment to stay at Oregon. When Kelly spurned them, the Buccaneers went back to the drawing board and ended up surprisingly choosing Schiano. There’s no guarantees that Kelly would have “fixed” what ails Freeman, but it seems fair to say he probably would have done a better job than Schiano & Co. have.

Could the organization have made it easier for Freeman to succeed?

To some extent, yes. When Tampa traded away Winslow after that 2011 campaign, it failed to sign a real replacement at tight end who could catch passes over the middle of the field. It likewise lacked a slot receiver who could run option routes and make the occasional safety miss on a tackle for a big gain. Watch the Buccaneers offense with Freeman and you’ll see a lot of arching throws toward the sideline on pass attempts to Vincent Jackson and Williams. The Bucs run a ton of isolation routes with those wideouts and often fail to provide Freeman with a simple checkdown or safe option on his dropbacks. They have two good wide receivers, but those players are very similar physically and share many of the same traits. Having a group of receivers with diverse skill sets is generally the best way to build a set of options for your quarterback.

Has anyone ever played as well as Freeman did and failed to develop into a perennial starting quarterback?

Tough to say, but I think so. In terms of Pro-Football-Reference.com’s quarterback index statistics, which compare a player’s stats to the league average after adjusting for era, Freeman’s 2010 campaign was above-average in every facet of the game, peaking with an impressive interception index (123) and passer rating index (113). It’s difficult to build an era-independent model that finds similar players to Freeman, but there are two players I was able to find who had similarly impressive second seasons before failing to really improve on their prior performance and/or hold on to their starting jobs.

The first is near and dear to the boss’s heart: Tony Eason. In 1984, his second year in the league and his first year as a full-time starter (after starting four games as a rookie), Eason completed 60.1 percent of his passes, averaged 7.5 yards per attempt, and threw 23 touchdowns against eight picks. Like Freeman, his numbers were above-average or better just about across the board. Eason had a disappointing follow-up season in 1985, as his interception rate spiked and he missed time with a separated shoulder. The Patriots made it to the Super Bowl that year, with Eason playing efficiently during the playoffs, but he was benched halfway through the Super Bowl after starting 0-for-6 against the Bears. After 1986, Eason was never a regular starter again.

The more recent example would be Brian Griese, who stepped into the Denver lineup as a replacement for John Elway and produced impressive numbers in his second season as a starter (but third year in the league), leading the league in passer rating while throwing 19 touchdowns against just four picks. Those numbers came across 10 games, and after that season, Griese was never as effective. His interception rate spiked the following year and never dropped, and three years after his breakout campaign, he was allowed to leave Denver to sign with Miami. He ambled on as a borderline starter for a few more seasons, never reaching the heights of his breakout year.

It seems likely now that Freeman is the next quarterback to follow in those players’ footsteps. He’ll probably get a chance to compete for a starting job elsewhere, since he doesn’t turn 26 until January and has nearly 2,000 pro passes under his belt, but there’s no steady employment or long-term deal awaiting Freeman.

Why would Schiano do this right now?

Beyond the fact that Tampa has gotten nothing out of its passing game, the Buccaneers are 0-3 and about to play the Cardinals before going on their bye week. It was entirely possible, given the nature of how this season has gone and the variety of complaints fielded about Schiano, that an 0-4 Buccaneers team might have let him go during the bye week and replaced him with an interim coach for the remainder of the year.

By replacing Freeman now, Schiano basically buys himself time to get through the bye with the implied argument of “You can’t fire me until we see whether the rookie can solve our problems at quarterback!” It’s not scapegoating Freeman, since he hasn’t played well and probably deserves to be benched, but the timing is pretty curious, especially considering Schiano was calling Freeman his starter several days ago.

Would the Buccaneers have benched Freeman if they were 2-1?

This is the big question about where the Buccaneers are at as an organization. While Tampa is 0-3 and got manhandled in New England last weekend, it could very easily be 2-1 without having to make any changes to Freeman’s level of play. As bad as he was, the defense and running game left Tampa in situations in which it could have essentially sealed two wins with two plays. If Lavonte David doesn’t commit a late hit on Geno Smith in Week 1, and Rian Lindell hits a 47-yard field goal in Week 2 to stretch Tampa’s lead to four points with 1:10 left, the Buccaneers almost surely start the season 2-0. And that’s with Freeman playing just as bad as he has; neither of these plays involved any improvement from him.

So, with that being said, would the Buccaneers bench Freeman if they had started 2-1? I don’t think that they would. Freeman’s numbers would still be terrible, but Schiano would likely look past the numbers to point out how well the team was playing, given its win-loss record. He might even throw in a “stats are for losers” quote. And if I believe that, because Freeman’s performance is the same in both scenarios, I have to accept that the primary reason the Buccaneers are benching Freeman is because of their win-loss record. And I do believe that too. I think Freeman has played awfully enough to lose his job, and I believe the Buccaneers can do better than him at quarterback, but I think the move to an inexperienced, raw Glennon is a desperate attempt to turn around a rapidly spiraling season.

Filed Under: NFL, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell