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Fixing the QBs: Josh Freeman, and the lag between potential and greatness

Josh Freeman and Greg Schiano are still figuring each other out. [AP Photo/Chuck Burton]Josh Freeman and Greg Schiano are still figuring each other out. [AP Photo/Chuck Burton]

When former Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano took that same job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before the 2012 season, he was faced with an interesting task: Evaluate whether Josh Freeman, who had been selected in the first round of the 2009 draft, was his franchise quarterback going forward. Freeman had shown glimpses of potential, especially in his 2010 season, when he threw 25 touchdowns and just six interceptions, but he’s been erratic at best otherwise. The 2010 season was the only one in which Freeman ranked in the top 10 in any of Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted metrics for qualifying quarterbacks, and after one season under Schiano, in which he threw for 27 touchdowns but only completed 54.8 percent of his passes, Freeman was put under the gun. Schiano and Bucs general manager Mark Dominik selected North Carolina State quarterback Mike Glennon in the third round and declared an immediate quarterback competition –- or, at least that was the reasoning behind their mandate to see Glennon in the preseason as much as possible.

“We’re going to put a lot of pressure on him and see a lot of reps from him in the preseason," Dominik recently told NFL.com (via JoeBucsFan.com). "He’s got to play. We may not see as much of Dan Orlovsky or even of Josh Freeman somewhat in the preseason as much as you’re going to see Glennon. We’re excited about just the little bit we saw from him [during rookie minicamp] in terms of mentally what he could handle. We kept piling more on him and he kept doing a great job digesting it, regurgitating it and running the team.”

Meanwhile, last December, Schiano was asked about Freeman as he went into the 2013 preseason, which just so happens to preface Freeman’s contract year.

"What I can say is, a 4,000-yard passer, a touchdown record – there’s a lot of things you say, 'Wow,'" Schiano told the Tampa Bay Times. "Are there things that frustrate you? Yeah. There’s things that frustrate him, too. And I’m not ducking the question, because quite frankly, I really like Josh Freeman. But I want to make sure I don’t get ahead of my skis at all here and really evaluate every single thing to what’s best for this organization. Do I think Josh Freeman is going to win Super Bowls in this league? I do. So, I hope that happens here. But again, at the end of the day, I have to evaluate everything before I can say that’s what we’re doing."

That evaluation will be key to Schiano’s future with the Bucs, and Freeman’s future anywhere in the NFL. And through Freeman’s first four seasons, figuring him out has been a tough task.

  • What others think

“Freeman is a frustrating player to evaluate,” ESPN’s Ron Jaworski said in this year's “Jaws QB Countdown” for ESPN, where Freeman ranked 21st. “He’s a big physical athlete with a strong arm and excellent movement, but he still struggles to play with consistency on a week-to-week basis.

“He had a six-game stretch last season that began against the Chiefs in which he played very well: 16 touchdowns and only three interceptions. Freeman was a confident and aggressive downfield thrower, effectively utilizing Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, the biggest pair of starting wideouts in the NFL. The Bucs won five of those six games.

“Following that game, Freeman regressed. He was erratic with his accuracy. He had many communication issues with his receivers. He struggled against the blitz. Only Mark Sanchez had a lower quarterback rating versus pressure. And Freeman was unpredictable reading coverage and with his decision-making. Freeman is an enigma. He has a lot of talent, but he should be a better quarterback after 56 NFL starts. He has a lot of snaps under his belt. This is a crossroads season for him. The Bucs drafted Mike Glennon. Freeman is on the clock.”

Greg Cosell of NFL Films, who produces Jaworski’s “NFL Matchup” show and did the same for the QB Countdown, had this to say about Freeman on Tampa radio.

“In his first full year as a starter ... there was a sense that this kid was on his way to being elite. When I looked at that year carefully after the season, I thought many of his plays came off improvisation, came off movement.

“I am not suggesting that is a negative. [But] it is very hard to be consistent playing that way because there is such a random and arbitrary element to that. We never talk about the plays that don’t work when quarterbacks move, we only talk about the plays that do work. I thought even in that first year he needed a lot of work as a consistent, precision pocket passer. And I think he has been very erratic in his development in that area.”

It’s easy to agree with Jaworski and Cosell, two of the better quarterback evaluators in the media today.

Based on tape study, I’ve come to the conclusion that Freeman’s problems are not all his own, but that he must take responsibility for most of them. Offensive concepts and protection troubles add to the murky picture, but he’s got an estimable backlog of mechanical issues that will prevent him from becoming a consistently great quarterback until he solves them. He tends to freeze under pressure, he’s still balky and uneven in the pocket, his footwork is inconsistent at best, and he tends to zoom passes that should be relatively simple as much as he makes the “wow” throws that speak to his impressive potential. Why is this so?

  • Mechanics

We often wonder why a quarterback’s footwork is less than optimal; i.e., why they don’t all drive their bodies through throws all the time to reduce the boom-and-bust nature of those inconsistencies. Some quarterbacks, like Jay Cutler, have the arm to overcome these problems, and develop adaptive strategies to deal with them. It’s a bit like a guy with a twitchy golf swing learning around his own weird setup. Problem is, that’s not generally a recipe for repeatable excellence, and Jim Furyk never had to nail a three-wood to the green from 250 yards out with an angry defensive end in his face.

Joe Bussell (the must-follow @NFLosophy on Twitter), who worked for the Buccaneers as an Operations Assistant and Coordinator from July 2009 through January 2012, has seen more of Freeman than just about anyone but his coaches, and he was a valuable source of information when analyzing where Freeman’s faults lie, and how fixable they are.

“He’s such a tall and lengthy guy,” Bussell told me. “His front step in throwing is a lot larger than it needs to be, and he eats up a lot of ground when he really steps into a throw. This leads to him to be less inclined to take that step, and leads to him throwing off his back foot or leaning back when he throws, which inhibits Freeman's ability to stay balanced over his front leg. If he shortens his step, he'll be much more consistent in controlling his balance. Josh also has what I call a locked knee. Freeman will step and stick his front foot in the ground and his front knee locks in a straight position. This keeps him from coming all the way forward and overtop of his front leg where his balance should be. This is what gives Josh that look of leaning back on every play instead of a top half that is straight up and down."

Those lower-body issues transfer up the body and through the kinetic chain, just as they do for pitchers, golfers, and anyone else who must use his or her entire body -- from the bottom up -- to execute what they’re asked to do.

“Following up the chain, Freeman gets his hips and shoulders open way too early, especially when throwing to the left," Bussell continued. "His shoulders are torquing right-to-left, rather than in a more top-to-bottom motion. This is why his elbow and arm lag so far behind when he throws. This is also why the majority of his throws are off-target to the right, and his release point is inconsistent. On the followthrough, Josh's right leg will swing around and his foot placement will end up parallel to the line of scrimmage. This is clear evidence that his body is moving sideways rather than toward his intended target.”

  • What the greats do

Comparing Freeman with Joe Flacco, another tall quarterback with lanky limbs who has reduced and economized many of the aspects of his throwing motion, provides an interesting contrast. You can see what Bussell is talking about in these comparative screencaps.

Here’s Flacco from last year’s AFC Championship game, displaying ideal root-to-top throwing action, allowing him to get the throw off despite the fact that New England Patriots tackle Vince Wilfork is bearing down on him.

Joe Flacco's mechanics allow him to drive the ball accurately under pressure. Joe Flacco's mechanics allow him to drive the ball accurately under pressure.

Here’s a two-play sequence of Freeman against the St. Louis Rams in Week 16 of the 2012 season. He’s got a clean pocket in the first play, and a defender bearing down on the second, and he’s unable to throw from the legs up in either instance. The first throw shows him releasing the ball flat-footed (something Jay Cutler also does too often), and the lag is clearly visible in the second play.

Freeman's mechanics aren't consistent, which leads to errant stretches. Freeman's mechanics aren't consistent, and that leads to errant stretches of play.

This particular throw against the New York Giants last season provides an example of another one of Freeman's problems -- he does not throw the ball from a straight and even base. Instead, he flies out of motion when he shouldn't.

Freeman is off-balance and wide when he should be straight. Freeman is off-balance and wide when he should be straight.

"The first picture stuck out to me because of the lag of Freeman's arm behind his shoulders," Bussell said. "The second picture is a good example of how far out to the side Freeman typically releases the ball. You can also see that his right foot is beginning to swing around to the outside. He's stepped towards his target but his body is falling off to the side. He actually looks like he short-arms this pass even though he throws it 22 yards in the air on a line. This play reminds me a little of Jay Cutler. Like Cutler, Freeman has enough 'arm talent' to get away with mechanical inadequacies, but sometimes they cause him to make major mistakes."

  • Scheme and opportunity

Another comparison between Freeman and Flacco – former Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron preferred isolation routes for his receivers, leaving Flacco with a lower margin for error when things went wrong. When Cameron was fired on Dec. 10, Flacco had seven games in the regular season and postseason with new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, who brought more diverse concepts to the table. Flacco’s stat line in seven games under Caldwell: 122 completions in 210 attempts for 1,737 yards, 15 touchdowns, and one interception. That includes a postseason with 11 touchdowns and no interceptions, something that only Joe Montana (1989) has done in a single stretch.

Tampa Bay’s offense frequently uses the ISO concept as well, and though the Bucs have receivers who can execute physical wins over cornerbacks in Jackson and Williams, it still leaves Freeman with fewer escape routes than he would have in a more varied offense.

As Bussell said, the way the Bucs apply the ISO concept also takes away one of Freeman’s primary attributes – his ability to throw on the run, which he did a lot in his best NFL season of 2010.

“The belief is that a wide receiver matched up one-on-one with a cornerback should be an incredibly favorable matchup for the receiver. Both Jackson and Williams are perfect for this offense because of their ability to go up and get the ball. Most of these passes are determined before the snap ever occurs. Freeman knows where he's going with the ball because of the matchup. A lot of the reads are predetermined in this type of offense.”

Problem is, what happens when the first read is closed? The Denver Broncos dealt with this situation when Tim Tebow was their quarterback – offensive coordinator Mike McCoy set the passing offense up so that Tebow’s first read was open as much as possible, and when a quarterback’s modus operandi is based on either easy reads or sketchy improvisation, the ideal in the middle – play-to-play consistency – gets lost.

  • Can Freeman’s issues be fixed?

“I absolutely believe his mechanics are fixable,” Bussell said. “That falls solely on the coaching staff. Josh can take a look at the tape himself and try to find out what's going on but this is something that the coaches shouldn't have to rely on Josh to do. They should have addressed this in OTAs and currently should be addressing it in camp. I haven't been to camp to see if they have.

“Hopefully, with a better understanding of the offense, he will be able to go further into his reads and understand where his safety valves should be. This is another reason why I believe that Josh should run the ball more when his reads aren't there. That's an acceptable safety valve. As long as he slides or gets out of bounds that's a low risk/high reward option for him. ‘Tuck it and run’ is better than a throwaway, a bad decision, or an interception.”

If Freeman wants to stay in Tampa Bay, allowing Schiano to cross “franchise quarterback” off his list of things to worry about, the time to change is now.
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