Josh Freeman had a better passer rating over the last four weeks of the 2010 season than the great Tom Brady.
Freeman is also the first starting quarterback under the age of 23 to lead his team to a 10-6 season since Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. He is only the second passer that young to throw at least 200 passes and get picked off six or fewer times, joining the legendary Dan Marino on that very brief list. Only four quarterbacks who were active in 2010 have ever had at least 20 TD passes in a season and a better TD/INT ratio than Freeman's 25/6 in 2010: Brady, Favre, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers.
Don't want to put him in the company of those elite quarterbacks quite yet, after just one full season as an NFL starter? That's fine, but don't make the mistake of damning Freeman with faint praise, either.
Mark Dominik thinks it's time people reconsider how they categorize the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' young starter.
"I think it's very fair to say that the perception of, 'Is Josh Freeman a franchise quarterback?' should be gone," said Dominik, the Tampa Bay general manager who drafted Freeman 17th overall in 2009. "Josh Freeman is a franchise quarterback in the National Football League, bottom line. I feel very strongly about that, and I think everybody around here does too, but there are still some times when you read that he's 'promising,' he's 'up-and-coming,' he's 'doing a good job.' He's a franchise quarterback in the National Football League and we're happy he's here in Tampa."
Some of the outside accolades may have to wait for Freeman. He finished 2010 sixth in the NFL and third in the NFC in passer rating but is currently a Pro Bowl alternate, awaiting a potential call to Hawaii. And while no one in the NFL was hotter than him in the playoff stretch run, he didn't get a chance to join Brady, Manning, Rodgers, Michael Vick and Drew Brees in the intense postseason spotlight. Freeman Bucs finished 10-6, like Rodgers' Packers, but lost the last playoff spot on a fifth-level tiebreaker.
"Until you get in the playoffs and start winning playoff games, it's difficult for him to be thrown into those conversations [regarding the league's best quarterbacks]," said Bucs Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson. "But like I said last week, we're real happy that we have him."
Of course they are. Tampa Bay selected Freeman 17th overall in 2009, in the same draft that Matthew Stafford went first to Detroit and Mark Sanchez went fifth to the New York Jets. Due to their relative draft positions, Stafford and Sanchez were immediately thought of as franchise-quarterbacks-in-waiting, while Freeman was viewed as more of a 'project.' It's doubtful anyone would still put Freeman in a different category as his draftmates after the last two seasons.
Dominik and Head Coach Raheem Morris had stepped into their respective roles in January of 2009, a few months before that draft, and had made finding a long-term solution at quarterback one of their top priorities. They quickly honed in on Freeman, the Kansas State starter who had shared a season in Manhattan with Morris when the latter was the Wildcats' defensive coordinator in 2006. The Bucs scouted Freeman thoroughly and became convinced of his NFL potential, none more so than Morris.
Maybe only Morris could have seen Freeman developing as rapidly as he has.
"Nobody finished stronger than him that last quarter of the season," said Morris. "He finished [right with] Tom Brady when you talk about that last quarter of the season, and that's certainly a great person to be compared to in this league. I think he said that when he took over. Everybody wanted to compare him to all his rookie classmates, Sanchez and Stafford, and he said, 'Really, I want to be compared to Tom and Peyton.' And he put himself in that category in that last quarter of the season."
In fact, Freeman's 127.8 passer rating over the final four weeks of 2010, when his team's playoff hopes were on the line every Sunday, was the best in the NFL. Brady, who rightfully was drawing headlines and MVP consideration for his flawless play in guiding the New England Patriots to a 14-2 finish, had a 116.2 rating in the same span. Rodgers and Manning were the only other NFL quarterbacks over 100 during that time.
"That's when you're supposed to be playing your best football, and he was, and he did play his best football right there," said Dominik.
Freeman certainly had the 'measurables' coming out of K-State. He could throw the football a mile. He had the size coaches covet in the pocket, standing 6-6 and weighing in at a hard-to-sack 250 pounds. He could make plays with his feet and throw every route.
But he wasn't the first NFL prospect to measure out well. To actually develop into a franchise quarterback, he would need to be good under pressure. He would have to have an innate feel for the game and an ability to see the field and read defenses. He would need leadership skills, a cool demeanor and a creative playmaking mind.
In just two years, Freeman has proved he has all of that, too. Perhaps most welcome is how quickly he has become a team leader and how seriously he approaches his craft, despite his age.
"That's a part of drafting Josh," said Morris. "I've got a feeling that a lot of things we've had to do around here in the past as coaches that we won't have to because of that guy, because of who he is and what he wants to do. He's got special goals for himself, lofty ones. Bold, arrogant…whatever you want to call him. A lot of that stuff will be on our quarterback and he'll handle it. I have a lot of faith in him."
That all of this comes in such a young package is doubly encouraging for the Buccaneers. Freeman is already the team's most efficient field general since Brad Johnson, the quarterback of the '02 championship team, and Johnson was 32 when he arrived in Tampa in the spring of 2001. Freeman's 2010 season, one of the best ever by a Buccaneer quarterback, is only the starting point.
"I think he's getting better," said Olson. "Again, when we drafted him we thought the ceiling was very high. We knew that he had a tremendous amount of talent and we knew he'd have a real high ceiling. We don't think he's reached that ceiling yet. He got better every week, and he got better last year when he was a rookie. But this year, certainly the comfort level for him was much greater, and we don't see it dropping off at all, his play. You look at the numbers he had, and it will be difficult at times to match those numbers, but we think he can get better and will get better."
Still, one shouldn't lose sight of just how good Freeman was in 2010. Here are a few other notes, some of which we alluded to above, that bring that fact into sharp relief:
- Freeman's 25/6 TD/INT ratio (4.17 to 1) is the ninth best single-season mark in NFL history among players with at least 20 touchdown passes.
- By combining those numers with 3,451 passing yards, Freeman joined Johnson (2002) as the only quarterbacks in franchise history to record a season with at least 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns but fewer than 10 interceptions.
- Freeman's full-season passer rating of 95.9 is the second-best single-season mark in team annals, after Brian Griese's 97.5 in 2004. Note that Griese started 10 games and threw 336 passes in '04, to Freeman's 16 starts and 474 passes in 2010.
- Freeman's interception rate of 1.27% is the second-best mark in franchise history, behind Jeff Garcia's record of 1.22% in 2007. Again, Garcia started 13 games and threw 327 passes to Freeman's 16 and 474.
- Freeman's 364 rushing yards in 2010 were second among all quarterbacks in the NFL, trailing only Michael Vick's 676.
Freeman's touchdown/interception ratio is obviously the highlight of his 2010 statistics, and it represents significant and deliberate improvement over his rookie campaign. Freeman was often impressive after taking over in Week Eight last season, especially in leading the team to three victories after an 0-7 start. However, a few rough games led to a TD/INT ratio of 10/18, not unexpected for a rookie starter but also not something he planned to repeat in 2010.
"We set a goal – we wanted mid-20s [in touchdowns] with five interceptions and I ended up having six," said Freeman. "You set lofty goals and we were that close. It says a lot about the guys I have around me. I had a good season, but Josh Johnson and Rudy [Carpenter] were right there working with me every day and watching film with me, [as was Quarterbacks Coach] Alex Van Pelt. It was always a point of emphasis in our room, interceptions. It started in training camp. We talked about high completion percentage and no turnovers, and that was an attitude we took into the season. And it showed."
As Olson suggested, Freeman could have another outstanding season in 2011 and not quite hit that same TD/INT ratio. The Saints' Brees, for example, went from a 34/11 ratio in 2009 to a 33/22 this past year, but he was every bit as dangerous as always.
Freeman will likely set similar goals anyway; in fact, he'll be working on his game through another full offseason, planning on finding other areas in which to improve in order to establish himself among the league's elite.
"I'm going to work on my footwork, I'm going to work on understanding defenses, throwing the ball…I mean, everything, all around, trying to improve in every aspect of my game," he said. "I'm just going to work on my game, fine-tune it a little more and try to come back and play the whole season last year like I finished it up this year."