Raheem Morris has two basic bits of criteria by which he measures the performance of Josh Freeman, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' young franchise quarterback. That criteria is found right at the top of the team's stat page, which is about as far down a stat page as Morris ever likes to go. They are the numbers you find next to "W" and "L."
As such, Morris assesses Freeman's performance so far in 2011 this way: "Right now, Josh Freeman is a four-win quarterback."
And in that regard, the Buccaneers feel about Freeman's 2011 first half the same way they feel about their own 4-3 record and second-place standing in the NFC South – not bad, but there is certainly room for improvement.
Even by that black-and-white measurement, Tampa Bay is one game behind where it was at the same point in 2010, when Freeman had his breakout season and sparked hopes for an even bigger campaign in his third NFL year. Most notably, Freeman had a fabulous 25-6 TD-INT ratio in 2010, one of the better single-season marks in league history and evidence that the then-22-year-old passer had the arm, the brain and the field vision to do big things in the NFL. Even optimistic analysts didn't necessarily think Freeman could repeat that lopsided ratio, interceptions sometimes being a simple matter of chance, but there are other ways beyond the stat page for a quarterback to take another step forward.
Simply by the win-loss test, one can't say that has happened yet for Freeman in 2011, but the team is still very confident that it will. Some of that will come with better play by the entire team, particularly in terms of avoiding the self-inflicted wounds that have too often put the Bucs in comeback mode. Most of it, though will come from the hard work that the dedicated Freeman will undoubtedly put in.
"When you talk about Josh Freeman you've got to talk about how many wins you have and how many losses you have," said Morris. "His individual performances? He'd like to get better, of course, obviously. He wants to lead this franchise and be the very dominant figure that he can be. Hopefully in the second half of this season we can focus on some of the turnovers, focus in on some of the penalties, we can will some of those things back so we can become a better team in the second half."
The most notable difference for Freeman through seven games this year, if one does care to look a bit deeper into the stats, is his 10 interceptions, four of which came in last Sunday's loss to the Chicago Bears in London. Morris conceded that Freeman has tried to force a few more throws than last year, when his decision-making played a large part in the low interception ratio. He said the young passer did a better job in 2010 of working through his progressions and accepting the checkdown throw when necessary.
Considering that Freeman planned to head over to One Buccaneer Place to watch game tape on Thursday, the beginning of a long stretch of player off-days afforded by the bye week, it's clear that he will do what is necessary to correct those issues. Quarterbacks Coach Alex Van Pelt has no doubt he will succeed in that task.
"The worker he is," said Van Pelt, when asked why he believes in Freeman. "The self-pride that he has. The fact that what he did last year is a reflection of what he can do every year. We just have to maintain consistency in our preparation each week and come out with expectations that we're not going to turn the ball over. I know he'll buy into that. He did last year and we just need to get back on track.
"There's a lot of optimism here. We have a long way to go and we've got a lot of improvement to make on our side of the ball, especially at our position, but the arrow is pointed up. We're encouraged to get a little break, come back with a fresh start and get it going in the second half."
Morris joked that Freeman might be going for the big touchdown pass because he owns himself in fantasy football leagues. Freeman seems a bit too focused to dabble in that pastime during the season, but there is no doubt that fantasy football players have noticed a particular change in his game lately. Last year, Freeman ranked second only to Michael Vick in rushing yards by a quarterback, and he was averaging 26 rushing yards a game through the first four contests in 2011. In the last three outings, however, he has taken of just five times for five yards, and a few of those were kneel-downs in the victory formation.
In 2010 and the first month of 2011, Freeman's legs were a key weapon for the Bucs' offense, as he often converted critical third downs in that manner. While he is a pocket passer first, the occasional well-timed scramble would certainly seem to be a good thing for Tampa Bay's offense. Freeman hasn't changed his way of thinking on that matter; he simply hasn't seen the opportunities in recent weeks.
"I'm not the fastest guy in the world," he said. "If I've got an open running lane, I'm going to run the ball. But I haven't had a chance to get out. The one time I tried to scramble versus the Bears I got run down by an end and ended up having to throw it away. If it's there to do, and we can do something with it, then I'm going to do it. But the lanes just haven't been there.
"They're running some stunts and different things underneath that really take away the rush lanes for the quarterback. They've been doing that and also they've spied me a little bit. It's by design. That's how the league is – if you do something successful, defenses are going to start doing something to take it away."
Of course, it's not a simple issue, tweaking Freeman's game in terms of either running or throwing the ball. The Bucs want to tap into his mistake-free performances of last year without dampening his overall aggressiveness. They know he inherently is a playmaker. Halfway through his second full year as a starter, Freeman is still looking to take that next step forward that the Bucs know he will take. Chances are, it will happen after the Buccaneers' bye week, and that one stat Morris cares about when it comes to his quarterback – wins – will follow in bunches.
In the end, that's all Freeman cares about, either.
"Right now he has a little bit too much confidence in what he's doing with his arm, and forcing some things in there," said Morris. "We'll just roll back some of those things and get better and better. He knows the deal, he knows the issue. He's not one of those guys that's more concerned about himself than winning. He's one of those guys that likes winning more than he's concerned about losing."