Who would’ve thought on November 23, 2012, that Mark Sanchez would go on to remain with the Jets longer than Josh Freeman would stay in Tampa Bay?
Only one day earlier, Sanchez had lost to the Patriots 49-19 in the absolutely deplorable "butt fumble" game, and five days earlier, Freeman’s Bucs won their fifth game in six weeks and had scored at least 27 points in each of those games.
But things can change at the drop of a hat in the NFL. It goes to show just how far an authoritarian head coach can go in ruining an organization.
I don’t think anyone would argue that Freeman didn’t look like a franchise quarterback during that six-week stretch, but the same statement could be made about Jay Cutler on the 2008 Denver Broncos and he still got traded. When a coach like Greg Schiano comes in and demands that everything be done his way, it tends to lead to this sort of dysfunction.
But this isn’t a story about Greg Schiano. In a few months he’ll be fired and we’ll forget he ever existed as anything more than a stopgap coach. But Josh Freeman’s career will go on. If he plays his cards right, it could go on for another decade, firmly entrenched in one city as the full-time starter.
Consider the 2010 version of Josh Freeman. He threw for 3,451 yards, 25 touchdowns and six interceptions on 61.4% completions. Where has he gone wrong since then? Mainly, it’s been in how he’s approached the quarterback position.
Fixing Josh Freeman isn’t a matter of reinventing him as a player, but reinvesting in the things that he does well.
Since the start of the 2012 season, he’s thrown for 13.3 yards per completion, up from 11.9 in 2010. Not surprisingly, he threw for 4,000 yards in 2012, but it came at a deep price. His completion percentage has plummeted to 54.8% in 2012 and below 50% in 2013. Freeman has turned his biggest strength as a quarterback, throwing the deep ball, into a massive liability because he’s been doing it far too much.
On a more systematic level, as our own Steve Moore pointed out at the beginning of September, he’s not a fit for the kind of offense Greg Schiano wants to run. He wants to rely on a strong running game and pocket passing. This would be fine with Mike Glennon at quarterback, but Freeman is at his best as an improviser. He loves scrambling outside of the pocket when the play breaks down and creating something out of nothing. Schiano discourages that, and has asked him to sit in the pocket far longer than he’d like.
Fixing Josh Freeman isn’t a matter of reinventing him as a player, but reinvesting in the things that he does well while also encouraging some development in the things that he doesn’t. Remember, Freeman has never had a highly regarded offensive coach. His two head coaches—Schiano and Raheem Morris—both came from defensive backgrounds, and none of his offensive coordinators had, or are likely to ever have, head coaching experience.
This should be Freeman’s first priority in finding a new team for the rest of the 2013 season. It would be very tempting for him to sign with the Jaguars and start, but that would cost him crucial time for development and get him into the habit of losing. If he goes to Jacksonville and continues to put up poor numbers (a certainty in Jacksonville), his career as a starter is likely over.
Instead, he should try to live out the year playing backup for a contender and actually learning something he can use to compete for a starting job next year.
A head coach with experience should be Freeman’s first priority in finding a new team for the rest of the 2013 season.
There are two backup jobs that really stand out as both winnable and beneficial for Freeman: Chicago and New Orleans. In both cases, he’d only have to convince the team he’s better than a lowly McCown. In both cases, he’d be coached by an offensive guru. In both cases, he’d have a chance to sit on the sidelines and watch meaningful football.
Highly drafted quarterbacks get cut fairly often. The ones who come back are the ones who choose their second team wisely. When Kerry Collins was released by the Panthers, he chose to be a backup for the Giants rather than a starter elsewhere. Even though he was traded and not cut, Brett Favre benefited greatly from going from a bad Atlanta organization that had no faith in him to the welcoming embrace of Mike Holmgren and the Packers.
It’s the quarterbacks that go the Byron Leftwich route (signed with the post-Vick, pre-Ryan Falcons after his release) that tend to fade into obscurity.
The obvious goal in this scenario would be setting Freeman up for a starting job in 2014. What sounds like a better opportunity to do that: Losing 10 or 11 games for Jacksonville, or getting a letter of recommendation from Sean Payton or Marc Trestman?
Remember, teams love taking backups from good teams and giving them shots as starters, even if they probably aren’t qualified for the job. Matt Schaub fetched two second-round picks in a trade from Atlanta, teams refuse to stop giving Matt Flynn chances, and so on.
Josh Freeman is far from a lost cause. He’s a first-round talent with a track record for at least some level of success. Failing under a dictator of a head coach doesn’t make him a bust; it makes him a quarterback who can’t be coached by bad coaches. That’s not entirely rare.
It’s going to be an uphill climb, but Josh Freeman should get another chance as an NFL starter if he doesn’t screw it up.