LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 23: Josh Freeman #5 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers passes the ball during the NFL International Series match between Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Wembley Stadium on October 23, 2011 in London, England. This is the fifth occasion where a regular season NFL match has been played in London. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Last season, Josh Freeman was a solid quarterback inside the pocket but he seemed to perform miracles once he started to scramble. His ability to create plays outside of the original design of the play led to incredible highlights like this. But this year, those plays have been entirely absent. And the reason for that is that Freeman is trying to take the next step in his development: he's trying to become a pocket quarterback.
Throughout this season, Josh Freeman has avoided scrambling, instead choosing to stand in the pocket and deliver the ball. No more crazy scrambles and sandlot quarterbacking, but disciplined play within the structure of the offense. Josh Freeman wants to become Tom Brady, not Ben Roethlisberger.
In the long term this is a good thing - you cannot be an elite quarterback while relying on improvisational quarterbacking. But in the short term this is hurting Freeman's play.
The difference between Josh Freeman playing sandlot football and Josh Freeman being a pocket quarterback is visible in how he handles pressure. Last season, Josh Freeman reacted to pressure by scrambling. This year, he's reacting to pressure by getting rid of the ball. The problem this creates should be obvious: instead of trying to create an opening in coverage by extending the play, he is forcing the ball into coverage, often off his back foot. That leads to off-balance throws, incompletions and interceptions.
When done right, getting rid of the ball to the right player when under pressure is absolutely the right thing to do. Every good quarterback knows where his outlet receiver is at all times, and gets the ball there when pressured. In the long term, that's something Freeman needs to learn to do. But he can't do this right now, for whatever reason.
Instead of finding an outlet receiver or throwing the ball away when pressured, Freeman tries to force the ball to a downfield receiver. This wouldn't be much of a problem if he was seeing the field clearly and stepping into his throws, but he suffers from Jay Cutler disease, also known as Eli Manning disease: he thinks he can make every throw in any situation.
Strong-armed quarterbacks do this a lot. They know they have a strong arm, they see a window and they go "I can totally make that throw" and just fling it in there. Result: ugly interceptions, like that last interception against the Chicago Bears. This is compounded by the fact that when he is under duress Freeman doesn't seem to see the field clearly, throwing too many passes into coverage.
There's an upshot to this, however: Freeman is giving up very few sacks. Last season he was sacked on 5.6% of plays, which ranked 14th in the NFL. This season he's being sacked on 3.2% of his throws, which ranks third in the NFL.
The ironic thing is that the offensive line has actually been playing well, but opposing teams have seen Freeman's tendency to just loft balls into coverage when under pressure and they are blitzing him to death. The exception was last Sunday, when the offensive line couldn't really protect Freeman. Part of that was Jeremy Trueblood, part of it was Derek Hardman being forced into action, and part of it was simply the quality of a very good Bears defensive line.
The solution here is complicated, however. Freeman needs to go back to a little more sandlot quarterbacking and scrambling for yardage if he wants to win now, but the best thing for the long term is to stick with developing as a pocket quarterback. Freeman and his coaches have the bye week to figure out which way they want to go this year and to fix this issue. But looking at Jay Cutler and Eli Manning, it's not necessarily something that goes away quickly.