Nothing is ever as bad as it seems or as good as it seems. At least not in the world of sports, but instant reaction sometimes makes it seem like the world is ending. "Fire Mike Sullivan", "Vincent Jackson sucks" and, most comically of all, "Put in Dan Orlovsky". Those are some of the cries we heard last night from Bucs fans, and they're all understandable after a pathetic night on offense - they're also all overreactions. It's easy to forget the good when the bad is the most recent thing you've seen, but I'll try to add some perspective in this story on Josh Freeman's future.
I believe that Josh Freeman won't just get this year to prove his worth, but he'll get next year to develop as well. I've explained why before, but I'll give you a short recap and expand a few points:
- Freeman is in a new system, which takes time to learn. This is related to a lot of the problems we saw crop up yesterday. It's amazing what extended time in one system can do for a quarterback. It's also known as the "Alex Smith effect". Or at least, that's what I'm calling it. Not that Smith is a great quarterback, but he's gone from a disaster to a perfectly serviceable, Brad Johnson-esque player just by virtue of being in the right system for a few years.
- He's shown his talent repeatedly in the past, and it's still much too early to give up on that talent. Many quarterbacks have taken longer to develop. See: Eli Manning, Alex Smith, Drew Brees and others.
- Finding a better quarterback is much easier said than done. A lot of teams have young, talented QBs - but how many of them will really pan out? Stafford looked great last year, but looks to be in a slump this season. Cam Newton was amazing - but hasn't been that good in 2012. Sam Bradford was the first overall pick in 2010, but has never lived up that status. Jake Locker looks like he's a problem, Blaine Gabbert continues to look awful, the Arizona Cardinals are a complete trainwreck at the position, Mark Sanchez isn't good enough, Tim Tebow is a personal protector on punts. It's easy to find hope, but it's hard to turn that hope into reality - and a lot of teams are struggling, even with highly drafted quarterbacks. You can call for Freeman's head - but you don't cut a player without having a replacement ready.
The question we all have isn't whether Josh Freeman is talented - he is extremely talented. The question is whether that talent is ever going to translate into consistent, high-quality quarterback play. That's a tough question to answer, but I'm going to make a start to it in this story anyway. Note: this is going to be long and complicated, so I'll try to give you a little structure. I'll try to establish what I look for in a quarterback step by step, discussing why this is important, where Freeman is in his development, and how likely it is he improves in that area.
Quarterback Attribute Number One: Arm Strength
Wait, I start with Arm Strength? What kind of madness is this? We all know that Jamarcus Russell flamed out despite his arm strength!
That may be true, but arm strength is still crucial for any quarterback - because it determines the ceiling of that quarterback's play. And let me get one thing straight: arm strength is not the ability to throw a ball 70 yards down the field. It's the ability to drill a ball into tight windows before coverage has a chance to close. It's the ability to see an open man, throw it, and have the ball arrive near instantaneously. A few quarterbacks in the league are exceptional in this area, and Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matt Stafford stand out among them. A lot of Stafford's success last year wasn't based on being accurate or making the right decisions. It was the ability to get the ball to a receiver almost immediately after seeing that the receiver was open that made Stafford successful - and it helps when that receiver is Calvin Johnson, of course. The same is true for Cam Newton, who routinely hit his receivers in small windows 30 yards downfield.
A lot of quarterbacks are ordinary in this area, and that means they're limited in the throws they can make. Hitting the deep out, hitting a receiver in a small opening in zone coverage 20 yards down the field - you won't see Alex Smith or Andy Dalton make these throws, and that limits what they can do, and hence what their offense can do. Brad Johnson is, of course, another example of a quarterback lacking arm strength, as is Jeff Garcia and, really, any Jon Gruden quarterback ever. Arm strength is crucial to opening up an offense.
Arm Strength: Where Josh Freeman Stands
In theory, Freeman has an incredibly strong arm. He shows this at times, when he steps into his throws. He's at his best when he has to get the ball out down the field and be decisive with his throws, which leads to tough throws into tight windows. A lot of the Bucs' 2010 success on offense was based on Freeman making those tough throws into tight windows down the field. He could only make those throws because he had the arm strength to do so. A more recent example happened last week, when he hit perfectly Mike Williams on the sideline, behind the cornerback and before the safety could get there. That was a throw that not a lot of quarterbacks could have made with that velocity, and it could have won the team the game - had Williams hung on to the ball.
There's a caveat, though: Freeman only has a strong arm when he steps into his throws. And he doesn't do this consistently enough, especially when there's pressure in his face (when, admittedly, it's very hard to step into throws). A lot of this is related to his footwork, which gets sloppy at times and leads to bouts of inaccuracy and relatively weak throws. This was on display during the team's Week 3 preseason game against the New England Patriots, when Freeman was just wildly inaccurate, spraying balls all over the place. Freeman must become more disciplined with his footwork and mechanics if he wants to succeed and use this major attribute to his advantage.
Arm Strength: Can Josh Freeman Develop?
Short answer: yes, but it takes time. This has been an issue for Freeman throughout his career, but one thing stands out: when he's comfortable in the pocket and can go through his reads comfortably, he's outstanding in this area. We saw this last week on that same throw to Williams: he took the drop, set his feet and threw the ball. He knew where to go, recognized that Williams was open, and made the decision quickly. Problems occur when he's not seeing things clearly, not recognizing where to go with the ball and being indecisive. That's when his mechanics break down, when he loses arm strength, and when bad things happen in general.
This is where being in a new system makes evaluating Freeman problematic. He's shown in the past that he has the ability to be decisive and quick in his reads, especially toward the end of 2010. At other times, he's struggled, even when he'd been in a West Coast Offense for three straight years. Is this a problem that can be solved by learning the system, or will it never go away?
Quarterback Attribute Number Two: Accuracy and Touch
Accuracy and touch are important. You can have the strongest arm in the league, but if you're not hitting your target it doesn't matter. Accuracy and touch consist of more than just hitting your target, however. The best way to evaluate accuracy is to see where quarterbacks are hitting their targets: are they leading their targets to open field and away from defenders? Are they taking their receivers into big hits or away from them? Are they throwing the ball where only the receiver can get it, or are they throwing contested passes? Watch Drew Brees do work and you'll see all of this come into play.
Touch is also important. That's been one of Matt Stafford's problems: he has one way of throwing, and that's a rocket at a receiver's facemask. That's fine when that receiver is further down the field, but when he's five yards from the line of scrimmage, that leads to tipped passes and other problems.
Accuracy and Touch: Where Freeman Stands
Josh Freeman is not overly accurate, has never been overly accurate and likely never will be overly accurate. There are simply too many poorly thrown balls, especially on quick out routes where he seems to hit the sideline more than his receivers. Some of these problems come back to footwork: when he's comfortable, reading the defense well and can just dropback and throw, he's fine, because his footwork is good. When he's not comfortable, his footwork sucks, and the accuracy drops.
Freeman does, however, possess a good feel for touch. He throws a catchable ball, generally knows when to thread the needle and when to take something off the ball. He's not perfect in this area, but with a few exceptions you won't see him zipping dumpoff passes at a back's facemask. His touch on deep passes is especially good.
Accuracy and Touch: Can Freeman Improve?
Yes, Freeman can improve - but he'll never be a star in the accuracy department. He's not going to be Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers, but he could be Eli Manning. The one thing he has to correct here is his footwork, as is the case with his arm strength. And as we've talked about, all of that comes back to one simple aspect: he has to be comfortable with the system and his reads, and be decisive in the pocket. If that happens, he'll be fine. If he can't develop that level of comfort, the Bucs need to start looking for replacements.
Quarterback Attribute Number Three: Decision Making and Aggression
Making the right decisions is important. That's not a profound statement in any way, of course, but it's also very hard to evaluate because there are so many moving parts on offense and defense, although the advent of All-22 tape will make this easier to do going forward. Still, finding the open receiver makes your life as a quarterback a lot easier. This starts before the snap and extends after the snap: identify coverage before the snap, make any necessary adjustments to the called play, then evaluate any rotations on defense after the ball is snapped, make your read and throw the ball.
One corollary to this is being aggressive and decisive. A good quarterback makes his read quickly, then throws the ball when he sees it. Being indecisive leads to coverage sacks, closed coverage windows and balls thrown too late - leading to interceptions. This means that being aggressive and forcing balls into coverage is one of the key attributes of a quality quarterback. When you watch Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, (old) Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and others you'll routinely see them throw balls to what looks like a covered receiver - but they'll put it in a spot where the receiver can make a play, while the defensive back will have a tough time getting his hands on the ball. They also know when to do this and when not to do this, of course.
Decision Making and Aggression
This is probably Josh Freeman's number one problem right now, and it's at the core of almost every one of his issues as a quarterback. He isn't making the right decisions, he doesn't appear to trust what he sees, and he isn't decisive with the football. This means he holds on to the football too long, isn't comfortable in his drops as he's still trying to decipher what he's doing, then throws it too late with poor footwork. Part of this is a result of being in a new system, but part of it has always been there. He's always stared down receivers, fixating on a target to decide whether he's open or not. That's an issue that hasn't gone away, and it may never go away.
The weird part is that one of the things I really liked about Freeman's 2010 season was how decisive he was throughout the season. He threw the ball early, or scrambled, but he didn't stand around staring down receivers waiting for them to come open down the field - yet that is what we're seeing now. The only exception: when Freeman is down late in the game and has to make tight throws or the team is doomed. As long as there's still time on the clock, Freeman appears to be conservative, he's not making downfield throws instead preferring to take sacks or checkdowns.
Decision Making and Aggression: Can Freeman Improve?
First, can he improve his decision making? I believe he can, but that he appears to have taken a step backwards in part because he's in a new system. A new system means new route combinations, new ways to make reads and new things to memorize and look at. This slows a quarterback down until he's comfortable, and we should see Freeman get better throughout the season. If he doesn't get better by the end of the year, well, then we might have a serious problem. It's also important to keep in mind, though, that Freeman's struggled with decision-making throughout his career and this could be a long-term problem that will never go away, but can only be mitigated - as was the case with Brett Favre.
One thing that he can most certainly improve on and has been better at in the past is being decisive and aggressive, however. It's this conservative attitude that needs to go, as Freeman needs to appreciate that being decisive is a good thing. Yes, the result will be more interceptions, but that's not the worst thing in the world. Any productive offense comes with turnovers. But turnovers are far preferable to what we saw yesterday. It's no coincidence that in 2010, Josh Freeman was the second-best quarterback on third downs in the entire NFL. Third down is a make-or-break down, when the need to play it safe ends. In 2010, he was decisive and aggressive - and that led to quality results. In 2011 he wasn't as decisive, leading to some late throws, he made some poor reads and his aggression cost the Bucs. Has that shell-shocked him into refusing to attempt tough throws unless he's absolutely certain they're good?
Fortunately, we still have evidence of good, decisive and aggressive Josh Freeman being hidden away somewhere this season. We need look no further than the late-game drives in the past two games, when Freeman was down and had to come up with game-winning drives. While he didn't do that, he got the ball out quickly, to the right people, with accuracy, aggression and decisiveness. Was that because throwing an interception at that point in the game doesn't matter much anyway? Because playing it safe was a horrible proposition? It's no coincidence that of his 110 passing yards yesterday, 71 came on the final drive of the game. Nor was it a coincidence that of his 243 week 2 passing yards, 96 yards came on the final two drives of the game. He was forced to be decisive in his reads, and he produced. That needs to happen throughout the game, not just in the fourth quarter. If Freeman can learn to do that, he'll be fine. If he can't, the Bucs have a problem.
Quarterback Attribute Number Four: Pocket Presence
This attribute can make or break quarterbacks. If you can't feel the rush, don't know when to get rid of the ball and can't use your blockers to evade pressure, you're going to have a very hard time functioning in this league. Tom Brady is by far the best player in the NFL at using his blockers to create time, at getting rid of the ball in time and at shifting inside the pocket. Watch him for a while, and you'll get a masterclass on how to move in the pocket. He solves a ton of problems with the offensive line that way. Conversely, Michael Vick is absolutely horrendous at this, routinely stepping up into pressure, holding on to the ball too long and putting his line in tough spots by scrambling. He makes his line look much worse than it really is.
A corollary here is pocket toughness: the willingness to stand in the pocket, take a hit and still deliver the ball. That was Matt Ryan's strength: he'll take some monstrous hits to get the ball off, despite a relative lack of pocket presence - a problem he seems to have solved this year, by the way. Pocket presence allows you to naturally extend plays, avoid sacks and get the ball off at the last possible second. It's a crucial attribute to functioning as a quarterback inside the pocket.
Pocket Presence: Where Freeman Stands
It's a little odd, but the one thing I thought Freeman improved on last season was his pocket presence and movement inside the pocket. He compensated for his offensive line by moving inside the pocket, managed to create extra time, did a good job avoiding the sack and getting the ball off in time. That disappeared a little down the stretch, but there was a noticeable improvement in his play there. Oddly enough, none of that has been on display the past few games as his pocket presence appears to have disappeared. He holds on to the ball too long, he's not using his blockers, he's completely oblivious to the rush, and even appears to panic at times. This leads to a lot of problems and broken plays that could have been solved simply by sliding around in the pocket, scrambling, or (shock of shocks) throwing the ball.
Pocket Presence: Can Freeman Improve?
Yes, he can. Again: he's shown us in the past that he can move in the pocket, feel the pressure and get rid of the ball. This problem is a relatively new development, which is why he should be able to get back to his 2010 and especially 2011 form. Being more comfortable in the system should help as well. It's problematic that he's now started to develop a lack of pocket presence, but I don't think this is much of a long-term concern - unlike the other attributes.
There are a lot more attributes I could talk about, but they're all secondary to these four. Rushing ability is nice, but it's just an extra. Improvisational ability can get you out of some spots, but ultimately the game is played from the pocket and within the system - otherwise you get erratic results (hi there Michael Vick).
Arm strength, accuracy/touch, decision making/aggression and pocket presence to me determine who is and isn't a great quarterback. Right now, Josh Freeman is lacking in each of those areas, in various different ways. But all of it comes back to one thing: being comfortable in and understanding the offense. That's not something Freeman can do right now, and it's not something he could do last year. Perhaps it was the lockout, or perhaps he'll never be comfortable in an offense. For now, though, it's too early to say that he won't grasp it, and he's simply too talented to throw to the wayside.
So what happens now? We watch Josh Freeman over the coming 13 (or hopefully 16 or 17) games to see how he improves. As he continues to play in this system, he should improve his reads, continue to get more comfortable, and continue to improve in all aspects of his game. If he does not do this, the Bucs could be in serious trouble - and it might be time to think about finding a replacement. That's very hard to do, however, and as long as the Bucs don't actually have a better player in the building it would be foolish to cut the cord.