This article has been 3 years coming. It's content is something that we've talked about on here since the NFL Draft in 2009. We have heard the criticism, embraced it, then ignored it, then brought it up again and now it seems to be something that won't go away. It's a criticism that few NFL quarterbacks ever shake as it's a problem that isn't resolved overnight. There may be no cure for it. It may be something that no amount of hard work, weight lifting, off season work, coaching, or blind luck can remedy.
The issue of course is how to read a defense.
This was one of the big criticisms, if not the only worthwhile one, touted on draft day. Coming from a spread offense and seeing relatively weak defenses week in and week out, the jury was out on Josh Freeman's ability to read a defense. This includes understanding the route tree, progression, as well as determining what type of defense the opponents were in and calling out line assignments. These are all things that most quarterbacks struggle with early on, but the thought on Freeman was that this was a bigger hill for him to climb.
2009 is an unfair season to judge him on. A team with very little talent and a rookie QB aren't the type of situations that lend themselves to growth and understanding, particularly when the leadership of the team was not strong. 2010 was a statistically good year off of a weak schedule, but the glimpses of ineptitude were still there. 2011, well there isn't much I have to say. Freeman forced the ball into bad spots, relied too much on a few players, and just looked out of sorts.
There are a few contributing factors in my opinion. While at the end of his career as a ball carrier, Cadillac Williams proved more than useful at helping Freeman adjust to calling out blocking assignments. It was a fairly regular sight to see Freeman in the shotgun and Cadillac leaning over and pointing out potential blitzers. I have no idea if he also helped call out defensive coverages, but it's something to speculate on. What we do know is that Faine was relieved of his line calls, they were given to Freeman, and Cadillac became the Peyton Manning (in regards to the gestures) of the backfield. This seemed to free up Freeman a bit and it was reflected in his statistical output.
The 2011 season was sans a veteran running back but still left the line calls with Freeman. There's no doubt that Freeman struggled with pass protection calls and with reading a defense. While Freeman had a down year, it wasn't a fluky down year with tipped balls and bad luck. It was bad reads, bad blocking, bad coaching and a bevy of predetermined throws to covered targets. This was never more obvious that watching Freeman throw to the player formerly known as K2. Freeman often forced the ball in coverage to the target he allegedly felt most comfortable with, which often ended in the ball hitting the grass or being taken the other way.
To come full circle, we've been paying extreme attention to Freeman this offseason. There are a few reasons for that. There is the talk that if we are going to extend him, we want to do it in Year 4 (with a year left on his deal) and hope that we can lock him up before he breaks out if/when it happens. We want to see if 2010 was the closer to the normal output or if 2011 is closer to home. These are all good reasons to watch the alleged franchise guy.
But my reasons for watching Freeman had to do with the knock on him. I've never been convinced that he's properly learned how to read a defense or make adjustments on his own. There has been talk about bad footwork and I hope that someone pens an article on this, it could be interesting. But what I'm targeting is his knowledge of defenses. I believe he knows the playbook, and I'm not questioning work habits to be clear. I'm questioning his understanding of schemes thrown at him by defensive coordinators.
This weekend against the New England Patriots, we knew Freeman would see a good bit of playing time. I'm not questioning his physical ability to rip a ball downfield or avoid a sack, but focused more on what he sees and how he interprets, handles, and finishes passing plays. From a blocking standpoint, I didn't see Freeman calling out pass protection so either it's predetermined, someone else is doing it, or the Bucs came out with a block who's in front of you mentality.
What I did see in regards to his actual progression was more of the same, and it was disappointing. Let me be clear, most, if not all quarterbacks have a security blanket or safety valve. Vincent Jackson was brought in to assist with this and K2 was sent packing to ply Freeman out of his "rely on an aging player" mentality. But if you watched Freeman, you saw him take the snap, look toward his primary read and stay locked on. He waited and waited for that player to come clean, but whether he did or not, he went that way with the pass. The two biggest targets and perhaps offenders were Vincent Jackson and Dallas Clark. This makes sense. V-Jax is 12 feet tall and the best receiver Freeman has played with at this point in his career. Clark is a reliable target that is the Ronde Barber of the offense. The physical talent may have diminished, but the understanding of the game enables him to be valuable (we think).
Too often on Friday night I saw Freeman drop back and fail to go through his progression. There are two potential issues here, both are equally bad. FIrst, the overriding issue is it appears Freeman is uncomfortable or unable to go through his progressions at game speed. This leads to our two issues. The first is Freeman exhibits a propensity to lock onto one target through the entire play. This can be OK if this lock on is done by identifying single coverage or defensive coverage prior to the play. You often see quarterbacks signal or gesture towards a teammate when single coverage is identified. I have no issue with Freeman locking on in these cases. After all, it means he has called and understood the play, read the defense pre-snap, identified a weakness or chance for success, and now intends to go after it. But this is not what is happening in my opinion. Instead, Freeman walks to the line, understands who the primary read is based on the playbook, not on the defense. The ball is snapped to him, he drops back and his eyes never leave that target. This means either the player is open and all is well, the ball is forced in that direction, or he takes a sack (or drops his eyes to the pressure and runs). There are too many bad things that happen here. This means that Freeman is not going through his progressions. He locks on to a target presnap and moves forward, no matter what is presented.
The other issue is a larger one that can lead to disaster. He fails to diagnose defensive coverage prior to the snap and assumes what he sees is what he gets. He often doesn't see the free roam safety, particularly in single high and also fails to diagnose dropping lineman.
Sander has pointed out that his decision making was not bad last night. I tend to agree with that statement for the most part, but I believe that's more luck than skill and not repeatable. If I stare down V-Jax on every play and throw it to him when he's open, this does not mean I can read a defense or made a good decision. It means my offensive line protected me long enough to allow Jackson to get open and then I relied on my God given talent to rifle the ball in there. The top tier quarterbacks, where Freeman is rumored to be as of 2010 don't do this often. You see Brees, Brady, both Mannings etc read the defense and then go through progressions. To notice the difference, try a simple, almost stupid game. When the ball is snapped for any quarterback, focus on their helmet and line of sight. Freeman's head moves to one side and stays there, with no movement in angle or eyeline. This is because he isn't looking for other receivers. Either he is so focused on one player that he can't come off them or he doesn't read the defense. Watching the true top tier guys, their heads are scanning and searching for a hole to exploit.
This would explain Freeman's high number of pass attempts to K2, regardless of coverage and Mike Williams, regardless of separation.
Unfortunately, there are no stats or ways to diagnose this issue. It's simply observation. Freeman can have a great statistical game, but fail in the process of being a quarterback. This is an issue that I would venture he as tried to solve. We've heard of his film study and work with various players and coaches. However, he either doesn't get it or doesn't trust it far too often in game situations. He misses key points in his presnap determination, he determines where he wants to go with the ball presnap, which is only OK if you've identified a hole. Then, he stares down that receiver until it's too late.
The Bucs can remedy this by either giving him a back or OL that can call out pass protection presnap or by running limited routes. Truth be told, we've passed the point where we only send 2-3 guys on a route to help Freeman. That should have been 2009 stuff. By leaving extra blockers in, you increase the protection and also reduce the amount of reads in a progression.
2012 is an important year for many reason. It's contract time allegedly, it's a new coach, but it's time for Freeman to make the leap we've all been waiting for. The sole issue holding him back, in my opinion is not decision making, but rather the ability to make the appropriate reads and know when to get to his secondary and tertiary reads. This takes work, but for 2+ years it's something he has been unable to grasp.