At just 23 years old, Josh Freeman on the verge of elite
Bucs' Josh Freeman on verge of being an elite quarterback
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Patience is a virtue but even virtues have their limits.
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made Josh Freeman their No. 1 pick in 2009, they decided to bring him along slowly.
"That was the plan," says Bucs general manager Mark Dominik.
Good plan. Workable. Sound. But when the Bucs' record skidded to 0-7, time ran out on patience. Freeman needed to play and the Bucs needed him to play.
Face it, '09 wasn't going to be the Bucs' year. They'd fired general manager Bruce Allen and coach Jon Gruden, brought in Domenik and promoted Raheem Morris to head coach. Even then the changes continued.
"We fired the defensive coordinator and the offensive coordinator and we didn't get it together until the end of the year," Freeman says. Continuity going forward into 2010, he says, "made us really feel like 'We have the opportunity to play with anybody and beat anybody.' "
That's very much the way it unfolded and Freeman played no small part in the Bucs' resurgence. Remember that 0-7 opening in '09? The Bucs won three of nine games that Freeman started and began to find the essence of their personality. In 2010, Freeman blossomed and so did the Bucs, going 10-6 and just missing the playoffs on a tiebreaker.
Freeman exceeded all expectations. He passed for 3,451 yards and threw 25 touchdown passes and only six interceptions. The TD-INT ratio was second best in the NFL to that of New England's Tom Brady (36-5) and the six interceptions tied a Bucs' franchise low for a starting quarterback.
For fantasy football aficionados, Freeman brought something else to the table — a strong finish. Over the final seven games, he threw 13 of his touchdown passes and only one interception. At a time when fantasy football leagues are segueing into the playoffs, Freeman picked up his game. His passer rating from Week 11 through the end of the season: 103.6.
"It's always difficult to see another young, challenging quarterback develop right before your eyes in your division," says New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton. "Now it's Josh Freeman."
In many ways Freeman represents the prototype of the next generation at his position. At 6-6, 248, he has the size of a tight end but can escape the pocket and run like a back. He rushed for 364 yards last season, trailing only Philadelphia's Michael Vick among quarterbacks.
He could be well-positioned for big fantasy football numbers again. In the NFC South, Atlanta ranked 22nd in pass defense and New Orleans, while fourth, only came away with nine interceptions. Carolina was more susceptible to the run and has a new coaching staff this season. Freeman and the Bucs can take advantage of all of that in their division games.
He was the third quarterback taken in the '09 draft and is arguably the one with the best statistics since then. Detroit's Matthew Stafford has been out more than he has been healthy and Mark Sanchez of the New York Jets, while having gone twice to the AFC championship game, is more the caboose than the engine of that train. Freeman turned his team around.
Size, speed, general pocket awareness, an ability to extend plays and make them on the move. Perfect for fantasy football. Perfect for real football.
"The ability to make people miss as a quarterback is critical," says San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh.
There's another aspect to Freeman, though. He plans his work and works his plan. He studies, puts in extra time, and inspires his teammates to do the same.
"He prepares like a coach," Morris says. "It's definitely showing up."
In the lockout of 2011, it was Freeman who organized in late June a three-day minicamp for players that featured two-a-day workouts.
"We didn't come out here to sit around and look pretty," he says. "We came out here to get some work in."
Improvement is a journey for Freeman, not a destination.
"When you get good, it's not a time to relax. It's a time to move forward and see what your limitations are. I'm going to keep going," he says.
The players were not allowed any contact with coaches but Freeman brought the playbook that he had kept from the previous season. He wants to get somewhere in this game and he knows he can get the team to follow.
"My job as a leader is not to say, 'Hey, look at me, I'm a leader.' It's to lead," says Freeman, whose father Ron played in the USFL in the 1980s. "There's a lot of different ways you can lead."
Start with 'by example.' That's the way Freeman did it, in his very first start. The '09 Bucs, stumbling along at 0-7, came out of their bye week with a new look, that being Freeman at quarterback. He threw three touchdown passes, each to a different receiver and two in the fourth quarter, to lead a comeback from 11 points down and turn that seeming defeat into a 38-28 triumph over Green Bay at Raymond James Stadium.
"When he goes out there," Morris says, "you have to feel that you have a chance to win, you have the ability to win."
Freeman remained the starter and posted a record of 3-6, throwing 10 touchdown passes and 18 interceptions. Then the Bucs added some fresh offensive talent in the 2010 draft, handing him receiver Mike Williams and running back LeGarrette Blount and Freeman, as anticipated, worked overtime in the offseason learning the system and his teammates.
He's got the will and the skill. Dominik can't forget receiving a text at the Super Bowl from Freeman, who simply said he was sick not to be playing in a game of this magnitude and wanted Dominik to know it was a priority for him to do so.
"I think there's a lot on his shoulders," Dominik says. "I think that's why with some quarterbacks, people go, 'How could that guy not make it?' Because of the expectations can be such a heavy burden. What makes Josh special is … that nothing is too high or too low and that's how he handles it."
•Consistency: Freeman threw at least one touchdown pass in 15 of 16 games. He never, however, passed for more than 300 yards in a game.
•Supporting cast: Receiver Mike Williams played very well as a rookie, catching 65 passes for 964 yards and 11 touchdowns. Arrelious Benn tore knee ligaments in Week 16 but the team is hopeful he'll be ready to go in Week 1. LeGarrette Blount supplies the power on the ground. The offensive line has to improve and Blount's blitz pickup does too. Tight end Kellen Winslow may be critical to Freeman's success. He led the team in receptions with 66 and was second with five touchdown catches but he is not seen as a player on the ascending side of the curve.
•Opportunities: The Bucs aren't a pass-first team and probably won't be. They're comfortable with Freeman tucking and running rather than forcing a throw. They had a pass-run ratio of 53-47%, putting them in the bottom quartile of the NFL. That doesn't mean Freeman can't succeed as a quarterback, but his team's style may be a liability in terms of his chances to put all-world fantasy points. The Bucs rushed for only nine touchdowns. If they're more productive in the red zone with their backs, they'll reduce Freeman's shots at the end zone.
Gotta respec' it
[pic - click to view] Bucs' Josh Freeman on verge of being an elite quarterback - USATODAY.com
Last edited by Jayceon; 08-16-2011 at 04:49 PM..