Don't sweat Josh Freeman's interceptions — at least not yet

Roll back the tape. Run the play again. Study the images as they flash across your screen.

Finally, after a couple of hours of review, you will conclude this about all of those interceptions thrown by Josh Freeman last season:

Man, they still look ugly.

True, Freeman had a lot of promising flashes last season. At his worst, however, there were bad throws and bad decisions, bad reads and bad routes. There were overthrown balls, underthrown balls and shouldn't-have-been-thrown balls. There were deep passes that went to cornerbacks, quick slants that went to safeties and play-action passes that went to linebackers.

In all, Freeman threw 18 interceptions in nine starts. In eight of those, he threw at least one ball to the wrong team. He threw five against the Panthers. He threw three against the Saints, three more against the Jets. In five division games, he threw 12.

Now, here comes the surprise.

Once you get past the scar tissue, it wasn't as bad as you might think. Really, it wasn't.

First things first. This isn't meant to downplay the offending nature of interceptions. They are horrible plays, of course, tiny bursts of betrayal that strip a team of its momentum and a fan of his hope.

Nor is this meant to suggest that Freeman, 22, doesn't have to cut down on them. Freeman has said as much himself, emphatically and repeatedly, since the season ended. To be successful, he seems aware that he has to be more accurate, more decisive and more efficient.

As the Bucs get closer to training camp, however, it seemed worthwhile to revisit Freeman's interceptions. So, after boiling over statistics, old play-by-play books and broadcast replays of all of his interceptions (spliced together by my friend Nick Hollins), it added up to this: It wasn't as bad as two-picks-per-start might sound.

For instance:

• Freeman didn't throw an interception all year when his team had the lead. Not one. Now, part of that may be because the Bucs didn't have a lot of leads last season. Still, Freeman didn't throw any away. Only four of his 18 interceptions came when the score was tied. On five of the picks, the Bucs trailed by at least eight points in the fourth quarter.

In other words, when the Bucs get better around him, there is reason to think Freeman will get better, too. There were too many times Tampa Bay asked a rookie to lead a bad team from behind.

• Three of Freeman's interceptions came in the final minutes of a lost cause, when the Bucs were out of the game but had the ball. Granted, no one wants to see an interception then, either, but when a quarterback is throwing into a crowd with no chance of winning, an interception isn't as unforgiveable as it is when there is a chance of winning.

• All 18 of Freeman's interceptions came when he was throwing to a wide receiver. The more you look at the interceptions, the easier it is to understand why the Bucs tried so hard to upgrade their receivers in the offseason.

Think about that. Bucs tight ends caught 95 balls last season, and running backs caught 67. But it was only when Freeman threw to his wideouts that trouble occurred. And, frankly, you don't see a lot of separation on the interceptions, either. Where, exactly, are the open receivers on these plays? Downfield, it looks like a crowded bus stop.

Of the 18 picks, seven of the passes were intended for Antonio Bryant. On one, in the first Saints game, Bryant slipped on a slant. In the second Saints game, Freeman approached him immediately after an interception as if to suggest he hadn't run the proper route (or that he ran it halfheartedly).

On another interception, against the Dolphins, Freeman hit Michael Clayton perfectly. Clayton didn't hang onto the ball cleanly, however, and officials ruled it popped up into a Dolphin player's hands. You can blame Clayton or the official on that one, but it's hard to blame Freeman.

• On the day Freeman threw three picks against the Jets, the Bucs had 43 yards rushing. On the day he threw two against the Falcons, they had 38 yards rushing.

In other words, Freeman fares better when opponents have to respect the run. Don't most quarterbacks? Consider this, too: Two-thirds of Freeman's interceptions came when he was in the shotgun.

So how bad was it? If you eliminate the three lost-cause interceptions, and the three that appear to be the fault of the receiver, you're down to 12. If you pardon the four that came in victories, you're down to eight.

Of course, life doesn't work that way. Football doesn't, either.

How many interceptions was Freeman responsible for last season? Too many. He still threw three dreadful red zone interceptions at Carolina when the Bucs were still within a touchdown. He threw a pick when it was 10-10 in the fourth quarter against Atlanta, and another when his team trailed by seven with four minutes to play. He had two games where his first pass of the game was picked off. He still sailed passes and failed to see linebackers.

Of course, that's the challenge when young quarterbacks play for bad teams. There are always going to be interceptions. The only quarterback in the same situation as Freeman last season was Detroit's Matt Stafford, who also threw two picks per start — 20 in 10. And, no, the Jets' Mark Sanchez wasn't in the same boat. He played for a playoff team with a strong defense and a strong running game.

Historically, that shouldn't surprise anyone. As a rookie on a 3-13 team, Peyton Manning threw 28 interceptions in 16 starts. In '89, Troy Aikman threw 18 interceptions in 11 starts for a 1-15 Dallas team. In '87 and '88, the Bucs' Vinny Testaverde threw 41 picks in his first 19 starts.

It's a tough position to play, and it's harder when a team expects to be carried. For instance, the Bucs had the 23rd best running attack in the NFL last season. Given that, how many interceptions would you think a rookie would throw in nine games? Ten? Twelve? Eighteen?

Better question: How many should a second-year player throw?

Answer: A heck of lot less than two a game.

Stay tuned.

Don't sweat Josh Freeman's interceptions — at least not yet 07/10/10 [Last modified: Sunday, July 11, 2010 12:20am]

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