The Rollercoaster Series: Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Over his relatively short four-year career, Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ quarterback Josh Freeman has seen many different sides of the NFL. He was drafted in the first round, 17th overall. He experienced both being a backup, developing rookie quarterback and a first season starter at the position. His second season brought the highs and the rush of success on the national stage, before his third season showed him that the spotlight of failure is inescapable at this level.
After all that, Freeman got the chance to work with a new regime in his fourth season, as Greg Schiano took over for Raheem Morris.
Schiano brought Freeman back to his productive ways. After throwing 16 touchdowns to 22 interceptions in Morris’ last season, Freeman finished his first season under Schiano with 27 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, with a career high 4,065 yards. Yet, despite the upturn in his individual production, Schiano and the Buccaneers weren’t ready to commit to Freeman with a long-term contract after the season.
Instead, Freeman will play out the final year of his rookie contract.
Now, while Freeman has never been considered a superstar, his perception is that of a player who is better than your average signal-caller. That of course is born out of the fact that some teams entered last season with players such as Ryan Fitzpatrick, Blaine Gabbert and John Skelton leading their offenses. Typically, franchises are desperate to lock down adequate starters in order to avoid falling into the pit hole that those teams cannot escape from.
The Buccaneers are following in the footsteps of the Baltimore Ravens, who took the same approach with Joe Flacco before last season. With last year’s Super Bowl trophy in their grasp and a historic new contract, that approach obviously worked out for both the Ravens and their quarterback. However, it’s hard to imagine that Freeman will have the same impact.
Freeman’s statistical fluctuation is largely a result of his supporting cast. The primary difference in his play on the field between the 2011 season, when he threw six more interceptions than touchdowns, and his 2012 season, when he threw 10 more touchdowns than interceptions, was the work of general manager Mark Dominik.
Dominik took a very aggressive approach with the Buccaneers’ offense during the 2012 off-season. He invested heavy contracts in big-name free agents Carl Nicks and Vincent Jackson, before trading up in the draft to snag the electrifying Doug Martin.
The knock-on effect of for the Buccaneers’ offense was vast and decisive. Nicks was injured early on in the season, so he joined right guard Davin Joseph on IR, but the offensive line as a unit held up and Martin was better than anyone ever imagined he would be. Martin became the focal point of the offense, a significant improvement over the relegated LeGarrette Blount, while Jackson not only gave the team a number one receiver, but he improved the impact of Mike Williams with his presence alone.
As the only legitimate threat in 2011, Willliams was easily negated through coverage adjustments or better cornerback play. Once Jackson arrived, the secondary was forced to focus on the former San Diego Chargers playmaker and Williams saw more favorable matchups against second choice defensive backs.
When you understand his situation, it’s easy to see that Freeman is dependant on his supporting cast and doesn’t bring any real value to the position if his salary rises too high. The second contract of a career is typically the big payday, if Freeman wants that payday, he will have to dramatically improve his individual displays this coming season. Much of what he does on the field can be replicated by relatively cheap quarterbacks.
In order to analyze Freeman’s production and how it came about, I took some of his typical plays, not his worst or his best, in order to create a general exhibition of what he had done during the season on a weekly basis.
The Buccaneers come out with three tight ends, two to the right and one to the left, and a fullback in front of Doug Martin in the backfield. Martin had already tallied 14 yards on the drive after the Buccaneers took over a short field because of a muffed punt. The Panthers have come out expecting the Buccaneers to run the ball, with six defensive lineman and a defensive back on the line of scrimmage.
When Freeman fakes the handoff to Martin, the linebackers and safety over the middle of the field all shift their momentum towards the line of scrimmage. At this point, the Buccaneers play still looks exactly like a running play, because none of the tight ends or fullback have made moves that would be considered unnatural for a run over right tackle or right guard.
After Freeman has settled in the pocket, it’s clear that the Panthers’ coverage has blown. All 11 defenders are in shot with no defender in play to cover either tight end over the middle or impact Freeman if he throws the ball. This is the point of the play when Freeman should be letting the ball go, however, he lacks the anticipation to throw the ball before the receiver is in position to make the reception. Therefore, he allows the pass rush time to get to him and affect his throw.
Instead of keeping both feet beneath him steadying his balance and throwing without any obstruction in his face, Freeman holds onto the ball for a split second and drifts backwards. He is throwing from one of the worst body positions a quarterback can throw the ball from and is having to endure a hit as he releases the ball. This throw will be all arm strength, because he cannot contort his body without his feet planted on the ground.
Freeman makes a very difficult throw for the touchdown, but he made it more difficult than it needed to be and wouldn’t have been able to complete the pass if the defense hadn’t so severely broken down in coverage.
His tight end is wide open in the back of the endzone and must wait for the football. The red lines represent the amount of space the player catching the ball had, while the blue lines represent how much more he could have had if he had thrown the ball with anticipation and from the pocket when he had the opportunity.
The argument here is that Freeman made the play so anything else is irrelevant, however, this kind of throw doesn’t always come off for even the best quarterbacks. It also creates bad habits, that eventually lead to bad decisions and bad plays. Just like it did in this game.
Later in the same quarter, the Buccaneers have stretched themselves out to a 10-0 lead. On Second and 6, the Buccaneers come out with four receivers and Martin in the backfield. The Panthers’ formation indicates that they are expecting a pass with five players at the line of scrimmage, five in coverage and one deep safety who is out of the shot.
The Buccaneers don’t run play-action, but Freeman still gets to the top of his drop with time to survey the field in a clean pocket. The Panthers rush the five players who were at the line of scrimmage as the rest of the defense drops into coverage.
While Freeman has time to survey the field and throw the ball from a clean pocket, he also can’t afford to hesitate as the pocket is starting to collapse on top of him. To make matters worse, he is staring down one side of the field as he holds onto the ball, which affects the outcome of the play.
Because he couldn’t make a quick decision, Freeman ultimately releases the ball from a pocket that has all but swallowed him. He is hit as he releases the ball, which means that the ball glides through the air and completely misses it’s intended target down the right sideline.
Even at that, Freeman is very lucky. When he previously stared down the right-hand-side of the field without releasing the ball quickly, he allowed the Panthers’ single high safety to read his thrown and arrive at his intended receiver at the same time as the ball.
Freeman got lucky on this play because the ball was slightly too high for the safety to reel it in, however, his luck would soon run out.
In what proved to be a very telling quarter from Freeman, his poor habits eventually caught up to him. On third and 8 in good field position, the Buccaneers were in a very favorable position with a 10-0 lead. Momentum was firmly working in their direction, but a handful of plays after nearly being intercepted, Freeman finally found a Panthers’ defensive back.
Again, Freeman was able to reach the top of his drop and settle in the pocket with an opportunity to read the defense. For a moment, he stared down the right side of the field before pump faking the ball in that direction. His feet were planted and his throwing motion was as clean as he could have asked for, but he appeared to pull the ball back at the very last second.
In this instance, Freeman’s strength works against him. As soon as he brings the ball back as part of the pump fake, he is hit by an incoming pass rusher, however, because of his sheer size he is able to pull the ball back and release it very quickly despite being off his feet and falling backwards.
When Freeman pump-faked the ball and brought it back, he had his feet set beneath him and a perfect pocket to throw from. Because he held onto the ball, he was now releasing the ball as a defender pushed him backwards and both of his feet were off the ground. Not to mention, he was using an adjusted throwing motion to get the ball out quickly from the original pump-fake.
Freeman chose the right receiver to throw the ball to, because Dallas Clark was wide open coming out of the backfield. However, it wasn’t a matter of who he threw the ball to but when he did. Again, Freeman could have dumped the ball off to Clark when he pump-faked it, but could see the throw before it was there. His anticipation again made his throw more difficult.
Instead of completing a simple pass to Clark, the ball floats high and behind the tight end into the hands of an oncoming defensive back.
The decision to throw the ball in that situation, 10-0, third and 8 in good field position, is an unforgivable mistake from Freeman. Even a completed pass in that situation wouldn’t have gone for a first down, while the worst result meant that the Panthers took away all of the Buccaneers momentum. The worst result being the one that happened, an interception for a touchdown in the other direction.
At the beginning of the second half, Freeman was afforded a perfect opportunity to make amends for his mistakes in the first quarter. Eventually, he would have an easy opportunity for a touchdown, but before getting to there, we must look more at Doug Martin.
Martin was having a decent game against the Panthers, as he did against most teams. Martin is the type of runner who gets the most out of every run and consistently set the tone for the offense on early downs throughout the season. On first and 10 at the Panthers’ 37, this was a prime running down for the Buccaneers.
The Buccaneers signalled their intent with a heavy formation that featured just one wide receiver, Vincent Jackson, at the bottom of the screen. The Panthers responded with nine defenders within eight yards of the line of scrimmage.
At the snap of the ball, Freeman fakes it to Martin running over right guard. That fake brings every Panthers’ defender over the middle of the field towards the line of scrimmage. However, Martin’s threat is so great that it also drew the attention of cornerback Josh Norman at the bottom of the screen. Even though Jackson has blown past him on the inside, Norman’s eyes have turned to the backfield as he watches to see if Martin has the ball.
Crucially, the play-fake slows down the pass-rush. Once Freeman reaches the top of his drop, he has time to survey the field before sliding forward and to the left in order to help his left tackle push a pass rusher past him. Freeman actually manages the pocket perfectly and keeps his eyes downfield.
However, he never sets back into a comfortable throwing motion and trusts his arm too much to make a physically taxing throw to the corner of the endzone.
Because of his poor technique, Freeman takes away an easy touchdown for Jackson with a very inaccurate pass that falls dramatically short of his intended target. Norman had been beaten so badly by Jackson that he was actually in the perfect position to react to the ball and wait for it to come to him.
The plays so far have detailed the Doug Martin effect, but this play in particular shows off the benefit of having two big bodied, athletic play-makers at the receiver positions. This play shows off all of the positives of the Vincent Jackson effect, and he never touches the football.
Even before the snap, Freeman should already be looking to throw this ball to Mike Williams. Both Williams and Freeman are running down their respective sidelines. With Kendrick Lewis shifted to Jackson’s side of the field and Eric Berry moving towards the line of scrimmage at the snap, the space in behind for Williams should be there unless the Chiefs dramatically flip their formation after the snap.
When Freeman drops back, he sees Justin Houston drop in coverage on Dallas Clark and Berry is moving forward towards Doug Martin. Lewis has stayed to Jackson’s side of the field, meaning that Williams is in single coverage against a smaller cornerback going deep down the left sideline.
Freeman recognizes the right decision, but again, he makes a poor throw.
Just like he did against the Panthers, Freeman underthrows the ball. At least this time, he gave his receiver a chance to make a play on a 50-50 ball. Williams wouldn’t have made this play last year, because the opportunity wouldn’t have arisen with a deep safety concentrating on him instead of Jackson and because he would have been going against a better defensive back more often than not.
Even though Freeman throws the ball straight to the Chiefs’ cornerback, who is actually in very good coverage, Williams has reacted to the underthrown pass and shows off incredible leaping ability and physicality to get into position over the defender. The ball still has some distance before it makes it to Williams and the defensive back, but he is able to hang in the air with his huge leap, and some help from the defender below him.
Williams pulls the ball away from between the defensive back’s hands before coming down with the reception.
To further show off how much of an athlete he is, Williams lands on his feet and continues to run down the field. He eventually sprints past the late arriving Lewis for a touchdown. For the Buccaneers, it was an amazing play from Williams, but for Freeman it was a poor throw.
Jackson’s effect puts Williams in position to make the play in the first place. Williams’ ability allows him to make the play, but Freeman’s throw makes him work harder for it. An average NFL quarterback would be expected to make a better throw in that scenario. Although he is given credit for the touchdown, he did very little positive to make it happen.
These types of plays occurred way too often for the Buccaneers’ coaching staff last season. It makes no sense to invest in a quarterback who’s production is dependant on having excellent talent around him. Freeman is carried by his offense more than he carries them.
You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf