Where do you put the blame for the 2012 season? With Josh Freeman? With the injuries to key players? With the team's pass defense? With the trade of Aqib Talib, or the failure to build adequate depth at the cornerback position? With a lack of pass rush pressure? With the failure to find a third receiving option? With some bad luck late in some games? With poor schemes and badly called games? Answer that question for yourself before you go on -- and then continue reading.
I'll give you my answer to the question: all of the above.
Blaming Freeman or the pass defense
Most of this offseason has been defined by one debate: that of Josh Freeman's future. Can he win for the Buccaneers? Part of this is intertwined with how you view the 2012 season: if you define it by Josh Freeman's failure down the stretch, then you won't view his future kindly. If instead you focus on other reasons, you'll be more inclined to have a positive view of his future. The most common version is to focus on the pass defense, which took on some historically inept aspects. Either version is flawed, in my opinion.
You can see one of the flaws in the basic framing of the debate: we're talking about the blame Josh Freeman takes, versus the blame the entire pass defense plays. The entire offense is defined by Freeman alone, while the defense is seen as a complex whole of many different players. To an extent this denies the importance of non-quarterbacks on offense, as if Vincent Jackson and Doug Martin are not part of that offense, and as if the loss of two Pro Bowl guards matters not. If you take this line of reasoning to its conclusion, you determine that it doesn't matter who you have on offense or defense -- you can't win with Trent Dilfer, Christian Ponder, Tim Tebow or Rex Grossman.
But the other version denies another basic fact: that Josh Freeman was part of the problem, too. It wasn't just the pass defense, though that was part of it. It was also Josh Freeman and his atrociously high adjusted interception rate coupled with accuracy issues. But it's important to keep one thing in mind: football is a true team game, more than any other sport I know. 46 players are active on game day on either side -- not just two quarterbacks.
Blame does not lie in just one place
The Bucs clearly collapsed down the stretch last season, although many of the issues were visible early in the year as well. Josh Freeman was part of the problem in some games, and he was part of the solution in some games. Similarly, the pass defense was part of the problem in some games and part of the solution in others. When you give up more passing yards than any team in the NFL and more net yards per pass attempt than all but one team, clearly you cannot say that the pass defense is not part of the problem here.
I would argue that, given most statistical rankings (both conventional and advanced) the defense deserves a larger portion of the blame -- but that does not mean that somehow, Freeman is free from blame and did not play poorly in several games. He clearly did. I don't know anyone who denies that. But he was far from the only thing that was wrong with the team -- and given the fact that seven of the team's nine losses came in one-score games, improvement in either offense or defense could turn a 7-9 team into a playoff team.
And yet, that's exactly what some people deny: it's all Freeman's fault! One version starts with the rather narrow view of quarterbacks that judges them by wins. Josh Freeman hasn't won (except when he did, in 2010), therefore he is not a winner, therefore he can never win -- as if somehow winning games is a trait of a quarterback. That magical winning trait sure must be handy! If things were that simple, why are there quarterbacks who win games one year and then lose games the next? Hint: the answer is that that magical trait doesn't exist.
But that's a little besides the point. If we look at Freeman's play it was simply too inconsistent last season both within games and throughout the season. He has to improve on those aspects, and we'll see this year if he can do that. That's why he does not have a new contract right now. But the simple fact that he was at times part of the problem does not mean that he must be replaced to win games, nor does it mean that just fixing Freeman will turn the Buccaneers into a good team -- as if that was all that was wrong last year.
A polarized debate
Somehow, debates like this become polarized. For some, a lack of belief in Freeman's ability to perform is somehow turned into a doom for the Buccaneers: they can't possibly ever win with Josh Freeman and he was the singular problem that defined last year's Bucs. Similarly, there are those who think that Josh Freeman will undoubtedly improve this season, with Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph returning and Freeman having a second offseason in the same season. The first seems ludicrous to me, effectively denying that there was anything wrong with one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL, while the second is unknowable at this point.
Ultimately it doesn't matter which side you are on. The Buccaneers themselves are the ones who are going to have to show it on the field. I just think the whole discourse could become a lot more intelligent if people would stop trying to polarize the debate. Not that that's going to happen. Ref: Bayless, Skip.