Friday, January 19, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs QB Josh Freeman possibly emerging as a star

Once again, he stands tall in the pocket.

Do you trust him to stay that way?

Once again, he looks like a man in control of the moment.

Do you think it will last?

Once again, Josh Freeman looks like a talented passer. Once again, he looks calm and strong and dangerous. Once again, he looks like an answer instead of another question.

Do you trust him yet?

For 3½ games now, Freeman has been excellent. He has thrown deep, and he has thrown accurately, and he has thrown efficiently. Finally, he has been the quarterback the fans have wanted to see, the quarterback the front office has expected him to be, the quarterback who may yet start a playoff game.

For 14 quarters, since halftime of the Washington game, it has been hard to ask for more of Freeman. Since then, he has thrown 10 touchdown passes to only one interception. He has thrown for 1,228 yards. He has had a rating of 116.0.

Are you convinced yet? And if not, how many more good outings will it take?

"He has played really well,'' said ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, a former Bucs quarterback who works as hard on breaking down video and numbers as anyone. "I always look at the hard stuff; at the critical aspects of playing quarterback — what produces points and extends drives — and he's doing the hard stuff. At the same time, he's cleaned up some of the things that gave him problems last year.''

Want to hear an interesting statistic, courtesy of Dilfer's spreadsheets? If you weigh passes that are in the air for 21 yards or more — not catch-and-run plays, but actual down-the-field passes — Freeman has been particularly impressive. Across the NFL, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Eli Manning are tied for the second-most completions with 14. Freeman leads the league at 16, and his completion percentage is second only to Dolphins rookie Ryan Tannehill.

"We're talking about the accuracy of challenging throws,'' Dilfer said.

That said, everyone wants to see more out of Freeman, don't they? That's fair when you consider last year's performance. It's also fair when you considered the slow start Freeman got off to this season, when he and his new coaches seemed to struggle to adapt to each other.

In his first 14 quarters of the year — from the opener through a pedestrian first half against Washington — there were those who questioned whether Freeman would ever get back to his 2010 form. At the time, the fourth-year quarterback had passed for only 579 yards and had a rating of 66.9.

Starting in the second half of that game, however, Freeman has been sharp. He led the Bucs from 18 points down in that game to give them the lead. (The defense surrendered it late.) In the Saints game, he threw an apparent touchdown in the final seconds that would have tied it if Mike Williams had not been pushed out of the end zone.

In other words, the 24-year-old has been superb for a while now. It's that his past makes it awfully hard for some fans to say it out loud.

What's the difference? Perhaps it is newfound comfort in a new offense. Perhaps it is his new teammates such as Vincent Jackson and Doug Martin. Perhaps it is his mechanics, which, in turn, have bolstered his confidence.

"It shows up on tape,'' Dilfer said. "You see him more decisive. His eyes are in the right place. So are his feet.

"A quarterback's eyes are tied to his feet, which is one of the principles of quarterback play that I didn't figure out until it was too late. Last year, he was all over the place. I don't know the reason why, but they were never tied together.

"When you see a clearer picture, you become more decisive. He hasn't been awesome on third down, but he's been good. Stats don't tell you everything. He's been willing to punt. He hasn't tried to put on a `man cape.

"It's hard to reprogram yourself. It took him a few weeks to realize what he needed to do in this new offense. I saw the Dallas game (Sept. 23), and it looked like he was unsure of what he was seeing. It seemed as if the offense was throwing things against the wall to see what would stick, and he played that way.''

In the weeks since then, however, Freeman has been a very good quarterback. Once again, he has been accurate. Once again, he has become the player that teammates look toward in the tough moments. Williams, for instance, refers to Freeman as the "Truth.''

The truth about the Truth?

"I think he's a guy you build a team around,'' Dilfer said. "I don't like to use terms like 'franchise quarterback.' So much of that depends on the players around you. He's a guy you say, 'Okay, we have three more years to get completely built around him.' You have to get him to that point.

"There will be more rocky hills. He's going to have some stinkers. What I'm looking at is how he responds to those stinkers. He has proven he can have those great days. What you don't want is the low floor.''

For all quarterbacks, the relationship between him and his fans is a matter of trust. Everyone throws interceptions; the difference is how you feel about the next pass to come. Do you trust the player when the game is on the line? Do you believe there will be more good days than bad?

For Freeman, that, too, is a work in progress. He has enough ability. He has enough charisma.

Does he have an argument that will convince you he is here for a long time to come?

We'll find out Sunday. And on a few Sundays yet to come.

Listen to Gary Shelton weekdays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. on 98.7-FM the Fan.

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