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No Debate: Is Josh Freeman Where He Should Be in His Development?

After four seasons, Josh Freeman seems to have come apart at the seams. But is this normal for a fourth year quarterback?

Don't give up on me yet!
Don't give up on me yet!
J. Meric

There have been few weeks as brutal as the last two for the starting quarterback. His team has lost six of seven games, he's thrown for 9 interceptions and completed under 55% of his passes. He is blamed for ruining a promising start to the season and there are questions about his accuracy, his leadership skills, ability to read a defense and whether his team will ever be a consistent winner with him at the helm.

Some have gone as far to claim he's a bust like Ryan Leaf and Trent Dilfer.

His name is Eli Manning and in 2006 he didn't have a Super Bowl ring. He just had legions of doubters and people who were certain they had seen enough of the younger Manning.

After their week 16 game in which Eli completed just one of the worst games of his Pro career and the NY Daily News proclaimed in a huge headline: "THE ELI MISTAKE".

He would go on to finish a disappointing fourth season with a 56.1% completion percentage, 23 touchdowns and 20 interceptions - a QB Rating of 73.9 - his worst since his rookie season.

His QB Rating had yet to crack 80 and he hadn't had a season where he completed more than 57% of his passes. After all, you can't teach accuracy right? You either have it or you don't.

Sound familiar?

Indeed, there's plenty a Bucs fan who are ready to toss Josh Freeman to the curb. He doesn't have that "IT" factor - whatever "IT" may be. Eli didn't have "IT" either, until he finally matured and the football team around him got better. Two Super Bowl rings and multiple trips to the playoffs, plus not a single season with a QB rating under 85 followed (until this season).

Of course, Eli is just one guy.

Surely big brother Peyton dominated from the outset.

Indeed, like Josh Freeman, Peyton experienced some early success, particularly in his second season as a starter. But even for the elder Manning, his fourth year was the worst since his rookie year. Manning threw 23 interceptions and 26 touchdowns in route to an 84.4 QB rating.

What about Drew Brees - who is breaking all kinds of records? In Brees fourth season starting at least seven games (he started just one in his rookie year), Brees struggled, too. Throwing 15 interceptions and managing 8 fumbles against just 24 TD passes. The Chargers had such a lack of faith in Brees, they drafted Phillip Rivers in 2004 (two years before Brees would leave).

Josh's game has been compared most to Ben Roethlisberger - who has two Super Bowl rings on his finger. However, Big Ben had a great year in his fourth season but in year five not only did he just throw 17 touchdowns but he threw 15 interceptions and fumbled the ball 10 times.

Phillip Rivers has been playing for nine years and has gone from one of the most consistent, dominant quarterbacks in the game to an inconsistent wreck.

In Josh's own draft class - we all know how Mark Sanchez imploded with the worst season of his career and Matt Stafford has seen his QB Rating plummet from 97.2 to 79.2 while throwing just one more touchdown pass (17) than interceptions (16).

The list goes on and on, folks. Top notch quarterbacks who didn't really have that light turn on until years five, six or seven to become the players they are today.

Of course, there are the exceptions. Tom Brady has been brilliant throughout his NFL career. After spending four seasons on the bench as Brett Favre's backup, Aaron Rodgers has never had a bad season.

Matt Ryan has been steady (if not spectacular) throughout his NFL career.

The point is - most young quarterbacks go through the highs and lows early in their careers until they finally figure out who they are.

Inconsistency is abound except for the really special ones like a Brady or Rodgers - and these guys come once a generation.

Fans point to rookies coming in and doing better than Freeman - Andrew Luck is the 29th ranked passes in the league and has thrown 21 tds to 18 interceptions.

Russell Wilson and RG III certainly have been great this year, but so was Cam Newton last season. Only recently has Cam come around and put together a solid second half of the season. He still has less touchdowns and yards than Freeman.

Some have mentioned that while it's easy to compare Freeman's numbers to great ones and extrapolate their tough early history to his but there's far more evidence for guys like Jason Campbell or Vince Young or Matt Cassel.

Sure, there's truth there. But Jason Campbell never put up more than 20 touchdowns in a season his career. Never threw for more than 3600 yds or had an td-to-interception ratio greater than 5 or a QB Rating higher than 86.

Jake Delhomme (other player mentioned) had a nice run in his career of three or four seasons where he led the Panthers to multiple playoff appearances before injuries took their toll.

Vince Young, who some have compared Freeman to, never threw more than 12 touchdowns in a season and never cracked 2,600 yds passing.

Matt Cassel threw for 3600 yds and 21 tds in New England's high octane offense in place of Tom Brady. He's had an up and down career in Kansas City with the high point being a 27 TD and 7 interception campaign in 2010.

Again, injuries have dogged Cassel much like they did Delhomme, plus the team around him disintegrated with multiple fired coaches and players.

As I mentioned in my 10 Things article, other suggested replacements for Freeman include Alex Smith (never thrown for more than 3100 yds or 18 touchdowns in his career) and Michael Vick (can't complete a full season, has only been over 60% completion percentage once in his career, has never thrown for over 3,100 yds or 21 touchdowns in his career).

Folks, in Josh Freeman's young career:

  • He's completed over 60% of his passes in two of his three full seasons as a starter.
  • He's thrown for at least 3,400 yards and 17 touchdowns in each season as a starter
  • He's broken the Bucs single season passing yardage mark this season.
  • With one touchdown pass against the Falcons this week, he'll break the single season TD pass record.
  • With 157 yds passing he'll be the first 4,000 yd passer in team history (Eli, Roethlisberger, Brees, Brady didn't do it until their sixth seasons).
  • He's already had a season where he posted a 95.9 QB rating (2010), Eli has never achieved that high of a rating in his career.
  • This season, only five QBs in the league have more touchdown passes than Freeman.
  • No player in the league has completed more 40+ yd passing plays than Freeman (16).
  • Freeman is tied with Tom Brady and Tony Romo for 7th in passes over 20-39 yds (52).
  • Over 20+ yds, Freeman has completed 68 plays. Only Drew Brees (74), Andrew Luck (73), Joe Flacco (71) have completed more.
  • If the Bucs score 28 points against the Falcons this Sunday, Josh will have quarterbacked the most prolific scoring offense in Buccaneer history.
  • He is +10 in td-to-interceptions, tied for 9th in the NFL
  • He's missed just one start in 55 games.
  • His 4.2 TD-to-Int ration in 2010 (25 TDs, 6 ints) was the 11th best in NFL history.

Has the last three weeks been a nightmare for the Bucs' signal caller? Absolutely. Does he need to be more consistent? Certainly.

Has this been a terrible season for Freeman? No, it hasn't. Not by a long shot. Has he regressed? No, he hasn't. It's been a tough few weeks but this isn't the season in it's entirety.

The old adage "You're only as good as your last game" seems to never be more prevalent than with the Bucs fanbase. Suddenly his 8 interceptions in two games is what he is, while the 13 other games where he threw for 25 touchdowns and 8 interceptions is the fluke.

Freeman has thrown for 3 or more interceptions just 6 times in 56 starts. But the other 50 games are flukes? This is your quarterback?

Has Freeman put his football team in position to win in the fourth quarter or overtime?

In 9 of Tampa Bay's 15 games, the Bucs held a fourth quarter lead. They have led at least once in 14 of the 15 games this season. They have led (and blown for losses) double digit leads in 3 games this season.

You can't expect the Buccaneers to average 30 points a game over the course of a 16 game season. Only 46 teams in the 92 year history of the NFL have ever accomplished that feat (and one this season, the Patriots). It doesn't happen that often and it's a lot to ask of a fourth year quarterback in a new offense.

It's the defense, folks. Fix the defense and this is a playoff team. Don't waste time or salary cap space with "competition". Even in my frustration I've fallen into that trap.

No, it's not Josh. Josh is fine. His numbers are fine, he's put the team in position to win on countless occasions. He's where he should be right now.

There's about 20 teams in the NFL that would love to have a quarterback who thrown for 3,843 yds, 26 touchdowns and 16 int heading into the final week of the season.

If the Bucs had even Atlanta's bend-but-don't-break mediocre defense, the Bucs would already have a playoff berth wrapped up - right now - today.

It's been awful the last three weeks. We know it, he knows it - the entire league knows it. I don't work for the Bucs, I'm not a pom-pom waver for Josh Freeman and if you've been reading my columns you know I've been very critical of his play this year. Yet I'm not crazy enough to suggest the Bucs dump him for Alex Smith or (God help us) Tim Tebow (okay, yes I did write that article last off-season but that was a Pro vs. Con kind of thing and I drew the short straw).

Freeman has improved dramatically this season, give him a second year in this offense and a defense that can at the very least protect a lead and I think you'll see this team go places. That should be Tampa Bay's focus this off-season.