Mike Sullivan, the new offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, inherited a Josh Freeman who is coming off two widely disparate seasons. In 2010, Tampa Bay's 21-year-old quarterback was seen as a rising NFL star when he threw 25 touchdown passes against just six interceptions; in 2011, Freeman struggled along with the rest of the team, with 16 TDs and 22 picks. The Buccaneers want Sullivan to help get Freeman's career back on a steep upward trajectory, much as he did with Eli Manning as the quarterbacks coach for the New York Giants.
For Sullivan, that involves film study of Freeman's work before he arrived and, more importantly, the on-field time that he and Quarterbacks Coach Ron Turner have had with their new charge this spring. And in both endeavors, part of the process is determining what are and are not actual issues to be addressed with Freeman's game, from his head to his hands to his feet.
For instance, a quarterback who struggles with accuracy under pressure are often accused of "throwing off his back foot," and certainly Freeman heard some of that criticism last year. However, that particular issue, says Sullivan, is often misconstrued, and passers are blamed for bad mechanics when in fact the situation – say, a gang of pass-rushers arriving suddenly at the quarterback's feet – dictated the throwing motion. Since quarterbacks don't often get the perfect practice-field environment in which to step up and throw during an actual game, they must make the most of such opportunities but also be prepared for the alternative.
"I think there may have been instances where he could have set a better platform and had better balance, but I think it just comes down to when there are those opportunities where the quarterback can set his feet that he does so," said Sullivan. "And then we also have drills where he has to make those off-balance, because that's where a lot of throws occur, and I think we've done a great job with that. Coach Turner, working with him this spring, has done a great job in that regard."
Sullivan and Turner have identified some mechanical issues for Freeman to work on, of course, as well as areas that need improvement in terms of decision making. Those issues are being addressed methodically in these pre-training camp weeks, and Sullivan has been pleased with Freeman's progress.
"It's really a combination of things that maybe a player is aware of and other things that maybe a player does subconsciously," said the coach. "For example, a good one for the quarterback is keeping two hands on the football in the pocket. It can be instinctive, but sometimes there's that bad twitch of taking that hand off. Really trying to reinforce it over the course of the spring is one of those details. It's so critical that we maintain possession of the ball. It's all about the ball. That's something that we're continuing to focus on and he's shown great improvement in that regard this spring."
The specific assessment of Freeman's play in 2011 that has been judged to have some merit – and Freeman himself has spoken on the topic – is that he may have been trying to do too much by himself when things started to go badly for the team. His coaches then and now have chalked that up to his intense desire to win, but they don't want him to maintain that same mindset in 2012.
"At times perhaps Josh may have been trying to do a little bit too much," said Sullivan. "I think that he's a very competitive young man, he's a very talented player, and Coach Turner has done a phenomenal job with him this spring homing in on some of the specific fundamentals and some of the mechanics and so forth. We've talked about decision-making and the importance of it within our scheme and where we need to go with the football. If it's not there, taking a sack is not only okay but can be a good thing. Working on those decision-making processes is something that's gone well this spring."
Sullivan agrees that Freeman's performance in 2012 will probably go a long way towards determining the Bucs' win-loss fortunes, but that doesn't make football any less of a team game. Sullivan says the goal is to put Freeman in position to succeed not only by working with him on his own game but by improving the situation around him. For instance, a stronger running game – which is definitely the centerpiece of Head Coach Greg Schiano's offensive approach – should help the young quarterback significantly.
"Certainly our ability to run the football will be a big part of his success, being able to open up some of the things in the play-action pass game and in terms of taking some of the pressure off," said Sullivan. "[Running Backs Coach] Ernest [Byner] talks about some of the protection assets in terms of keeping the defense off balance."
Also, the pairing of free agent guard Carl Nicks with fellow Pro Bowler Davin Joseph should provide Freeman with a lot more of those clean drop-back opportunities that allow for proper mechanics.
"And when you look at having two big guards, that kind of solidifies that pocket," said Sullivan. "We're able to do what we need to do in a drop-back pass-protection scheme for the quarterback to step up. He's got those two big bodies in there and the center hopefully gives you a nice wall so he can go ahead and see down the field and make the right decision about where the ball needs to go. Having that pocket to step up into is great when you have such talented, big, strong guards as we're fortunate to have."
The process of putting Freeman in position to succeed this fall has been underway since early in the spring. It will kick into high gear in late July when the team gathers for training camp and the more intense work begins. The real results won't be clear until September and October, but for now Sullivan feels like the team is on track, with one last three-day mini-camp this week to make a difference.
"We're making progress," he said. "Things are coming along, coaches are working very hard, players have adapted well, we're all starting to speak the same language. So I'm really excited about where we're at. We're about on track, so I'm looking forward to putting the finishing touches on and getting ready for training camp."