Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The First 16

There's a lot to like in the accumulated numbers from Josh Freeman's first "season" as a starting QB, beginning with the seven wins in his last 10 starts

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Josh Freeman's first "season" as a starting quarterback in the NFL covered almost exactly one calendar year.

On Sunday in Arizona, 357 days after his starting debut against the Green Bay Packers on November 8, 2009, Freeman took the opening snap for the 16th time.  And what a season, or year, it was.

No homegrown Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback has ever started all 16 games of his rookie campaign, a la Peyton Manning with the Indianapolis Colts in 1998 or, more recently, Matt Ryan with the Atlanta Falcons in 2008.  Freeman is no exception, having watched the action from the sidelines for the first seven games of his '09 rookie campaign before he was handed the reins.

Reaching a 16th start with the Buccaneers is a noteworthy milestone, however, a nice spot at which to stop and assess how the young quarterback has developed over his first season's worth of games at the helm.  Freeman is now the seventh quarterback drafted by Tampa Bay to reach 16 starts, joining Doug Williams, Steve Young, Vinny Testaverde, Craig Erickson, Trent Dilfer and Shaun King.  Since he got to 15 starts with the Buccaneers (his 16th came with the Denver Broncos), we can throw Chris Simms in for good measure.

Here's a look at how those eight Buccaneer quarterbacks fared over their first 16 starts:

Player

Comp-Att (Pct.)

Yards

TD

INT

W-L

Freeman

291-510 (57.1)

3,372

18

21

8-8

Dilfer

214-415 (51.6)

2,652

3

16

7-9

Erickson

243-474 (51.3)

3,190

18

21

5-11

King

250-439 (56.9)

2,801

21

14

10-6

Simms**

266-453 (58.7)

2,853

12

16

7-9

Testaverde

254-550 (46.2)

3,784

14

36

3-13

Williams

132-352 (37.5)

2,048

17

17

9-7

Young

228-415 (54.9)

2,722

9

16

3-13

It's that last column, of course, that is most important, and it's rapidly getting better for Freeman.  He doesn't quite match King or Williams in the win-loss category over those first 16 starts, but considering the context the Buccaneers couldn't be happier with how they've fared with their young passer at the reins.

In December of 1999, King took over a 7-4 team that was riding a four-game winning streak, had one of the NFL's best defenses and was talented enough to reach the NFC title game that year – with his help, of course.  Williams' first start came at the opening of the 1978 season, for a team that had been 2-26 over the previous two years, and he deservedly gets a good amount of credit for helping that team turn around.  His situation is a little more similar to Freeman's; he went 4-6 as a rookie starter and then was at the helm of a team that turned things around in his second year (and had the NFL's top-ranked defense).

Freeman won his very first start, with what at the time seemed like an impossibly steady performance for the 21-year-old against a powerful Green Bay team last November.  The Bucs would lose their next five, but finish strong in 2009 with victories at Seattle and New Orleans, and now Freeman is leading one of the NFL's breakthrough stories of 2010.  At 5-2, Tampa Bay is tied for the best record in the NFC; no one argues that Freeman is one of the main reasons why.

"Any time you've got a quarterback in this league you've got a chance to win football games," said Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson, "and we feel like we have one."

Here, the listener understands immediately what Olson means by "a quarterback."  Of course, every team has a quarterback in charge of the offense, and at least one or two more on the sidelines.  Olson is obviously referring to a franchise quarterback, that Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers that locks down the position for years and makes everyone around him better.  There are only two kinds of teams in the NFL: Ones that have that type of quarterback and ones that are actively searching for one.

One full season of starts into his career, Freeman appears to be developing into just that sort of asset.  His 16th start, a masterful 18-of-25 outing for 278 yards, one touchdown and – critically – no interceptions, is the latest and perhaps best indication of that promise.  His passer rating was 121.8, he added 22 critical yards with his feet, he completed 72% of his passes and had three or four on-target throws dropped, and he averaged 11.12 yards per pass attempt.

That latter figure, pumped up by key downfield completions to rookie receivers Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn, is his best yet in a single game and the best by any Buccaneer passer since Jeff Garcia set the team record at 15.19 against New Orleans on September 16, 2007.

"The big thing yesterday was that Josh was able to connect on some of the deeper play-action passes that we had off the run-fakes," said Olson, once again speaking to the development in Freeman's game since start number one.  "That was very encouraging.  I felt like Josh might have played his best game as a Buc.  It was really a game where he was hitting hands and was very accurate.  He was in the flow of the game and the game came to him yesterday.  To see him do that on the road in that environment, a hostile environment where he had to make a lot of calls at the line of scrimmage and communicate to everybody – that's really a tribute to him and what his preparation has been like."

Freeman's win-loss record as a starter would be less impressive if he hadn't developed into a clutch performer so quickly.  Amazingly, he has already rallied his team from a fourth-quarter deficit to victory six times in just 16 career starts.  In four of those six games, he brought the Bucs back from a disadvantage of 10 or more points.  At this point, his teammates have come to expect Freeman to be the rock in the emotional eddy of a game on the line.

"On the sideline [in Arizona], there was no panic because of what Josh has been able to do in the past," said Olson.  "There was no panic, no anxiety.  I think guys felt like, 'Here we go again.'  He went out and, obviously, performed again and made plays down the stretch.  He made good decisions and made the big plays when he needed to make them."

Statistically, Freeman's output through 16 games looks like a very competent full season for a starter, though the Buccaneers obviously hope for more in the future.  Freeman's yardage total would rank as the sixth-best in franchise history if it were contained in one season, and he also rushed for 332 yards in those 16 games, or roughly 20 per game.

Freeman's passer rating over those 16 starts is not overwhelming, at 71.8, and that is primarily the result of his 21 interceptions.  Cut that number roughly in half, to 10 interceptions, and the same numbers would produce a healthier rating of 80.8.  Of course, you can't revise history in that manner, and those 21 interceptions exist.  But a quarterback can cut down on his picks as he improves and gains more experience, and that's exactly what Freeman has done.  He threw 18 interceptions in nine starts and 286 passes last year; in 2010, he has just three picks in seven starts and 224 passes.  He has thrown 132 straight passes without an interception and is second in the NFL to Peyton Manning in interception percentage.

It's only one statistic, but it is always encouraging to see your team's young quarterback compared to one of the league's greats.  Nobody from Freeman to Olson to the staunchest Buccaneer fan would try to claim that Tampa Bay's young passer is in the same category as Manning at this point – the entire body of work just isn't there yet.  But Freeman's first 16 starts certainly provide hope that he can be just as important to the Buccaneers' long-term future as Manning has been in Indy.  Just for the sake of comparison, here are the numbers from the first 16 starts for Freeman, Manning and a handful of other recent NFL notables at the quarterback position:

Player (Team)

Comp-Att. (Pct.)

Yards

TDs

INT

W-L

Freeman (TB)

291-510 (57.1)

3,372

18

21

8-8

P. Manning (IND)

326-575 (56.6)

3,739

26

28

3-13

Brady (NE)

313-481 (65.1)

3,360

23

13

13-3

Brees (SD)

320-526 (60.1)

3,284

17

16

8-8

Favre (MIN)

323-502 (64.3)

3,390

20

17

9-7

McNabb (WAS)

280-508 (55.1)

2,753

20

16

8-8

Aikman (DAL)

239-433 (55.2)

2,664

12

25

2-14

Elway (DEN)

196-389 (50.4)

2,448

10

21

10-6

Esiason (CIN)

232-404 (57.4)

3,069

24

11

10-6

Kelly (BUF)

285-480 (59.4)

3,593

22

17

4-12

Marino (MIA)

292-468 (62.4)

4,044

37

9

14-2

Montana (SF)

297-464 (64.0)

3,242

21

11

8-8

Simms (NYG)

188-392 (48.0)

2,471

19

20

7-9

The numbers are all over the board.  Manning had the second-most yards but also the most interceptions, plus a 3-13 record.  Marino set the standards in almost every category while Elway's best numbers are in the W-L column.  Perhaps the most statistically comparable player in the bunch is Drew Brees, and that's certainly not a comparison a Buccaneer fan would mind.

Again, none of that is meant to usher Freeman into such an elite group before his time.  It his, hopefully, just an encouraging set of comparisons for a young player at an early milestone moment in his career.

"Josh has got to win a lot of games here to be thrown around with those names, and he understands that," said Olson.  "But from early on in his stage of his development, everyone noticed it, not just the coaches but his teammates.  They said, 'This guy's got it.'  It's difficult to describe but he's so cool under pressure.  He's got that short-term memory where if he makes a bad play he doesn't let it affect him.  He moves on to the next play and he's always under control. On top of that, obviously, he's extremely talented."

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