They say death and taxes are the two inevitables in the world. You can probably add Josh Freeman starting for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to that list, provided Raheem Morris is still head coach, of course. We've all heard the comments; "We're married to him", (nice photoshop work BTW), and how the Bucs would have used Detroit's #1 pick on him, if they were selecting that high. But here we are in week number 4 and a quarterback change has been called, yet it's Josh Joshnson, not Freeman, getting the nod. Considering he spent most of training camp behind the big battle between McCown and Leftwich, it’s probably for the better. So when then? When do the Glazers, who are "pumped up" over finally getting to have a franchise quarterback, get to see him take the lead?
Most Bucs fans are excited enough about the starting of Josh Johnson, looking forward to seeing him show off his stuff in a meaningful game. His electrifying TD run in the preseason, the result of a semi-busted play is the fuel for many fans that could really care less to ever see Mr. Freeman. They point to his lack of high caliber opponents while at Kansas State, and still did not really put up great numbers like a 1st round standout QB is supposed to.
Yet this wasn't a case of Raheem Morris falling in love like Gruden used to with his guys in Free Agency. This was a group decision according to Morris, who refused to try to sell Freeman to Bucs higher ups or decision makers, instead bringing him in to Tampa to meet everyone in a pre-draft visit. Afterwards, the consensus agreed; Freeman was the solution.
So when is the right time? When is too early, so as not to do damage to his psyche? Or maybe more importantly, when is too late, to have not taken the most advantage of a learning experience for next year? We can go back and look at our last two highly picked signal callers, but 1987 and 1994 were a long time ago and the landscape in the NFL is much different. Back then you said "Dan Marino is the only guy to win in his first year". Now, the list of first year successfuls has grown to a handful. So lets look at a situation that’s a little different, yet still close to home.
No, he wasn't a top round draft pick, but lets look at some of the facts surrounding his starts, and take a look at someone of whom popular opinion has judged as a mistake. After the week 14 halftime switch to Tim Rattay, there was an offensive outpouring of 28 points against the eventual Superbowl participant Chicago Bears which led everyone to ask Jon Gruden why he didn’t make that move much sooner. By looking at why, or why not, we can look at similar timing issues that Bucs coaches may go into when finally making the big choice.
Week 4- @ New Orleans; First Start. Gradkowski has great stats, 20/31 225 with 2 TD and 0 Picks. - This was pretty much the Best we were going to get, ever, from Bruce Gradkowski. His first start was solid, one mental mistake that resulted in a turnover. If Freeman can come out and have a game like this, the Bay area will go nuts! We ended up losing on a Bush Punt Return, but the outlook for Bruce was very positive.
Week 5- Cincinnati- This is the game Michael Clayton scored a TD at the last minute (his last TD until the Oakland game last year) which was ruled incomplete but required a review. Gradkowki didn't have a great game, but he did lead the final drive into FG range.
Week 6- Philadelphia- The Matt Bryant game. Another declining performance for Bruce, however it should be said, he led the team into FG range to extend the lead to 7, and after the Eagles tied it, he did get the team the extra yards to get into that 62 yard range.
Result- Win. His Performance continued for the thirdsss straight week to decline, but how do you bench a guy who is winning?
Week 7- @NY Giants- The Wind Game- Gruden's game plan was to put 48 balls in the air with 30-40 mph winds circling the Meadowlands, and to be honest, if not for drops by Joey Galloway and Michael Clayton, the plan may have worked! Down 0-14, Gradkowski passed 14 of the next 16 plays to finish out the half. You can hardly blame Bruce for this one; he did what he could, all things considered.
The losses started to pile up. It’s here I ask Bucs fans to tell me when they would have pulled Bruce Gradkowski out of the QB role. But Gruden kept his faith in the youngster, as the losses got worse and worse.
Actually a win over Washington who was starting their rookie QB Jason Campbell was in the mix here. But the Pittsburgh Steelers embarrassment, where Jon Gruden elected to kick a FG on 4th down under a minute left in the game to avoid the shutout, and the National disgrace against the Cowboys on a day we had little to give thanks for, and Bruce was in the hot seat along with his coach.
This is what the Bucs want to avoid with Josh Freeman. They want to provide him an atmosphere in which he is properly prepared for his start, and a supporting cast that is going to let him balance the attack and not have the Bucs relying on him to win the game with his arm (unless a late game heroic is needed).
So ultimately, when will the Bucs be able to provide this supporting cast?
OFFENSIVE LINE: The Return of Jeff Faine is critical. At LEAST two weeks of practice taking snaps from him too.
WIDE RECEIVER: Having a healthy Antonio Bryant is essential, or at least a WR who is on a hot streak so as to take the role of a primary threat to balance out the offense.
RUNNING BACKS: Returning to the efficiency of week 1 is critical for the passing game. The return of Faine is sure to help, if not actually be the cure-all.
DEFENSE: Freeman is going to need his chances to get a rhythm. Having the ball for only 16 minutes is not going to cut it. A defense that either has the right personnel or that is running the system correctly so it can get off the field and give some snaps to the Offense is going to be essential to this goal.
So in short, do we do it this year? Is the Bye week the time for Freeman? It gives the team two full weeks for him to practice with the starting 11, and the irony of "The Franchise" wearing the uniform of the last time the franchise turned the ball over to a savior, is quite fitting. But is it too early? Perhaps simply one start in the last game of the year, the week 16 game at home against Atlanta. This would give Freeman some film for the coaches to look at and work with him during the offseason on correcting mistakes.
Bottom-line though, it’s how Josh Johnson does that will really tell the tale. The Bucs would rather have their youngsters get valuable playing time while giving J.J. his as well. Like it or not, Freeman will be handed the keys to One Buc eventually, JJ will be the guy who will find himself one play away from starting again, and this team could prepare itself doubly so this way. By starting next year, Freeman could have the benefit of a complete offseason of OTAs and Camp as "The Man". The reps will be all his, the preseason starts will be all his too. The Team will all be his, and if done right, the Fans should be too.