The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have gone where Josh Freeman has gone - or, more accurately, where his interception rate has gone. Since drafting the quarterback in 2009, the Bucs have gone 3-13, 10-6 and 4-12 in consecutive seasons. Freeman's interception total in those years: 18, 6 and 22 respectively. Throwing interceptions leads to losses - I'm as shocked as you are. More importantly, though, that inconsistent performance has given rise to some questions about freeman's long-term viability as a quarterback. The team must find out soon, and that's exactly what Mark Dominik told Pat Yasinskas at ESPN:
"He's got two years remaining on his contract and we need to find out," general manager Mark Dominik said.
The Bucs firmly believe Freeman has all the mental and physical skills to be their franchise quarterback for years to come. It's just that they don't know with any certainty if Freeman is the quarterback who showed so much promise in 2010 or the one who threw 22 interceptions last year in a season in which the Bucs lost their final 10 games.
Before Freeman ever gets close to free agency, the Bucs need to know if they want to sign him to what's sure to be a huge contract extension. They need to find that out before Freeman gets into the final year of his contract. They need to find out now and that's why the Bucs have spent the entire offseason and training camp trying to find ways that assure success for Freeman.
"It's been important for us as an organization to equip Josh Freeman with all the weapons we can give him," Dominik said. "I know Josh wants to play great and have the opportunity to be successful like he was in 2010, but we also want to give him all the weapons we can to let him have a chance to be the quarterback he can be."
But is this really a make-or-break year for the young quarterback? Will the team give up on him if he doesn't take some massive steps forward? I sincerely doubt it - the Bucs have invested too much in their young quarterback and, quite frankly, it's much too hard to find a good quarterback anyway. More importantly, perhaps, is the body of evidence that suggests that giving up on quarterbacks early in their careers is a terrible idea. Drew Brees left the San Diego Chargers after five years - and then turned into a superstar. Eli Manning got a massive contract extension after winning a Super Bowl in his fourth year, but he was still widely criticized for some mediocre play. Since then, he's turned into a superstar at the position.
Quarterbacks often take time to mature, and keeping in mind that Freeman is just 24 now it certainly wouldn't be surprising to see him show some improvement this year but still be lacking in a lot of areas, only to take some massive steps forward later in his career. And there's certainly proof to suggest that Freeman will get better: he has improved his completion percentage in both of his past two seasons, as well as his sack percentage. In fact, he actually looked better in certain areas of his game last season than he did in 2011, specifically in his pocket presence and ability to manipulate the pocket to his advantage.
Two problems plagues Freeman in 2011: he had trouble reading defenses correctly, and his footwork and mechanics deteriorated until they were absolutely godawful at the end of the season. It's impossible to say whether he's gotten better at reading defenses this year based on the handful of throws I've seen him make so far. But I can say something about his mechanics and footwork, and they look much improved. He looked much more comfortable in the limited glimpses I've seen of him in training camp and, more importantly, in the preseason. While he didn't do anything spectacular during the team's first preseason game, he stepped into his throws, transferred his weight and simply looked much more natural throwing the ball.
If that holds up, there's every reason to believe that the team won't need to ask whether Freeman is the real deal at the end of the year. But if, for some reason, he falters - I don't think the Bucs will be ready to give up on him. If only because finding a replacement is going to be much harder than hoping that he will improve in his then fifth year in the league.