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Recency bias, narratives and clutch performers: evaluating Josh Freeman fairly

Cognitive biases play too big of a role in Josh Freeman's story.


How different would your opinion of Josh Freeman be if he ended the season with an eight-game stretch where he threw for 17 touchdowns, 2,074 yards, 3 interceptions at 7.5 yards per pass attempt after two four-interception games earlier in the season? I know the answer to that question: Freeman would be seen as someone who had turned the corner, who was going to be a star in this league and who was emerging as a franchise quarterback. Unfortunately for Freeman, he posted those numbers from game six through game thirteen, rather than the final three games.

Human beings suffer from many cognitive biases, and one of them is called the recency effect: more recent events are easier to recall and tend to dominate human memory over older memories. In the case of Josh Freeman's 2013 season, his three-game late-season stretch is easier to recall than the preceding seven-game stretch I just described. During those three games, Freeman passed for 873 yards at 6.4 yards per attempt, amassing just two touchdowns against a whopping 9 interceptions.

Those numbers are bad, obviously. But the fact that those games occurred at the end of the season isn't particularly relevant.

The problem with narratives

The human mind loves stories, and it creates them easily from just a few facts. Narratives are great: they make for exciting, enjoyable reads and are a crucial part of why we enjoy sports. The underdog story, chasing a championship, the fourth-quarter comeback: they're all stories we create in our consumption of sports. Unfortunately, objective analysis is rather hard when trying to frame everything as a story.

This is what happens with quarterbacks, though. They're termed 'clutch', or 'winners', or 'chokers'. Everything focuses on clutch performance and performance under pressure. This is how Tom Brady is seen as the ultimate winner, while Peyton Manning sometimes is still seen as someone who can't handle pressure. This despite the fact that Peyton Manning has won more Super Bowls than Tom Brady in the past eight years. Bill Barnwell did a great job deconstructing this narrative.

After the 2010 season, Josh Freeman was the comeback kid. He had posted a league-leading five fourth-quarter game-winning drives. He had seemingly won 10 games all by himself, limiting turnovers throughout the game and then elevating his game to new heights in the fourth quarter. The Buccaneers didn't make the playoffs, but that was just because of some bogus tiebreakers, of course. He was clutch! A winner! Hell, he posted a game-winning drive even in his first NFL game in 2009, giving the Bucs their first win after starting 0-7.

Two seasons later, and the narrative has shifted. He can't handle pressure, doesn't win when it counts, can't bring his team to the edge. That is the new story of Josh Freeman's career. And yet, he is still the same player he was in 2009 and 2010. He hasn't changed. Only our framing of his career has changed. The new narrative of Freeman is inaccurate, but so was the 2010 narrative.

The myth of "When it counts"

Our love of stories has created one big myth: the myth of when it counts. The fourth-quarter comeback has been embedded in our memory. Story after story has been written about John Elway's comebacks. When you say "The Drive" or "The Catch" an image pops into your head: John Elway and Joe Montana, willing their teams to victory in a tough game. Games like that have elevated clutch performance and late-game drives to the epitome of quarterback play.

These narratives are enthralling. They're part of what makes this game great. They're also bullshit.

This should intuitively be true. Yes, performing in the clutch is obviously important when needed. But it's a lot more important to be able to score early in the game. Pull out to a three-score lead, and you can make the opponent one-dimensional. You dictate the pace of the game and the score early in the game reverberates throughout the game, making every subsequent play a little easier -- including the ones in the fourth quarter. A great team jumps out to big leads, and doesn't need a clutch performance to frequently win games, because that kind of team can't consistently win games.

Of course, that doesn't mean that performing when you do get the opportunity for a game-winning drive isn't important: of course it is. But we shouldn't elevate that to the single most important aspect of quarterback play.

I can live with judging a quarterback by their fourth-quarter performance, though. What gets me going is when people start to complain that quarterbacks don't win "when it counts" during the regular season. When people claim that somehow, the fact that a quarterback had his worst games at the end of the season is more relevant

Every game in the NFL counts equally. You could argue that division games and to a lesser extent conference games are more important, but you can't really make the argument that late-season games are more important than early-season games. For one simple reason: a win is a win, whether it occurs in September or December. In fact, if you amass early-season games you suddenly don't even need to win your late-season games. And if you lose enough early-season games, those late-season games become completely irrelevant.

But what about momentum, you ask? Well, that doesn't matter either. Football Outsiders has shown (insider content, sadly) that "entering the playoffs on a hot streak doesn't matter much at all". In fact, "peaking in December is meaningless when it comes to predicting the winner of playoff games."

Momentum is bullshit.

So is the idea that playing worse at the end of the season is more significant than doing so at the start of the season. The fact that Josh Freeman had his worst games at the end of the season, and he undoubtedly did, is less important that his overall play throughout the entire season. After all:

Josh Freeman actually is a clutch performer

As you may have noticed, I am not a fan of narrative descriptions based on vague impressions. 'Winner', 'clutch' and the like do nothing for me. The NFL has 53-man rosters and too many moving parts to hang wins and losses on just one player on any team, and our tendency to evaluate quarterbacks by wins is too simplistic and, more importantly, unnecessary.

In Josh Freeman's case, the idea that he isn't clutch, doesn't win "when it counts" and wilts under pressure is easily disproved. If you look at fourth-quarter comebacks, only five quarterbacks have posted more of them than Josh Freeman has since entering the league. If we look at game-winning drives, only six quarterbacks have performed better than him. If we look at his fourth-quarter statistics, he looks better in the fourth quarter than in any other quarter except the first quarter. Except for overtime, when he was a perfect 3/3 for 32 yards and a touchdown last year.

But then people claim that he cost the Buccaneers a playoff spot last year. There's some truth to that, of course. When you throw four interceptions in a game, even if they aren't all your fault, you're costing your team. When you consistently miss open receivers, you're costing your team. Freeman wasn't the only reason the Buccaneers failed to make the playoffs. The league's worst secondary had much more to do with it than an inconsistent quarterback. But he was part of those performances.

However, that has nothing to do with playing wen it counts. That's just about Freeman's overall play, which was too often too poor. He didn't play well during the first few games of the season, either. Until the league starts handing out bonuses for late-season wins, the fact that he played poorly early and late in the season has as much meaning as the fact that he played very well in October and November.

Harping on those late-season is little more than cherry-picking: choosing the games that fit your story best. You can't ignore those seven games when Freeman looked like a superstar any more than you can ignore the lack of production early in the season, or the turnovers late in the season. Evaluating a quarterbacking means looking at his entire body of work, not just the most recent games.

Moving forward

That's not to say that Josh Freeman is free from blame. As I have said many times, he has issues he needs to solve. But we can look at those issues without needing to result to our flawed narratives and impressions tainted by cognitive biases. We can just look at his tape. He shows poor footwork, misses too many throws, throws far too many balls into coverage, struggles to throw the ball in a muddied pocket, and is lucky not to have turned the ball over even more often than he did. Those are issues we can see clearly on tape. Going forward, he has to clean up those problems if he wants to remain a Buccaneer beyond the 2013 season. Can he?

The fact remains that we simply don't know what will happen with Josh Freeman. Anyone trying to proclaim him doomed or great is jumping to conclusions. He's shown far too many positives to be written off, and he's also shown too many bad traits to proclaim the future of the franchise. Let him play out the 2013 seasons, show where his development takes him, and then the Buccaneers will have to make a real decision. Because at this point, we just don't know.

No one's going to listen, though. We'll just have to discuss this over and over again. Because that's what the internet is for.

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