MIAMI — Out of the tunnel he emerged, wreathed in smoke and flames as he ran onto the field at Sun Life Stadium. A first-round draft pick, a big-armed quarterback with size and strength, exactly the kind of player good NFL teams are built around.
Pay attention, Jameis Winston. Your story is just beginning.
But this is a cautionary tale about Josh Freeman, who many believe might have ended his career in the Bucs' 22-17 preseason-finale win over the Dolphins on Thursday night. Freeman, 27, is the No. 4 quarterback for the Dolphins, stuck firmly behind starter Ryan Tannehill, backup Matt Moore and McLeod Bethel-Thompson, a second-year pro from Sacramento State who started Thursday.
Two short years ago, Freeman was coming off a season in which he set Bucs club records with 4,065 passing yards and 27 touchdowns. That paled in comparison to 2010, when he passed for 25 touchdowns and only six interceptions in leading the Bucs to a 10-6 record. Yet by 2014, Freeman found himself in exile from the NFL, unable to get a single team to take a chance on him.
"It's definitely been a very humbling experience in a lot of ways," Freeman said. "A learning experience. Talking with older guys and guys out of the league (about) what they miss most, it's the camaraderie. It's being with the guys in the locker room."
It's important to note that nobody knows exactly when or why Freeman began to slip from burgeoning superstar to troubled talent. But even his most loyal supporters began to see a dark side. Maybe expectations swallowed him, Jameis. As a Heisman Trophy winner, national champion at Florida State and No. 1 overall draft pick, you know about expectations.
Freeman was selected 17th overall by the Bucs in 2009. He was only 21 — same age as you, Jameis — when he was given the title as franchise savior.
Maybe success came too fast for Freeman. His younger brother and sister moved from Kansas City to Tampa. Suddenly, he was responsible for more than the huddle. He had fame, fortune and free time on his hands. Sometime after 2010, his good habits began to disintegrate. He was habitually late. He spent a lot of time fighting temptations on Howard Avenue in South Tampa.
Would you like to host a football camp, Jameis? Don't sleep late and essentially miss the first day, calling teammates to cover for you, as Freeman did. Don't do a rambling radio interview when hosts can question your sobriety.
Don't be late for the team picture shoot, like Freeman was in 2013. Or for the bus to MetLife Stadium the morning of the season opener against the Jets.
"I learned more so just to focus more inward than outward," Freeman said. 'Control what I can control. Things might not be great, or what's happening around me. But attitude is one thing I can control."
When somebody revealed to ESPN's Chris Mortensen that Freeman had entered Stage 1 of the NFL's drug program, Freeman had had enough. He said that he had a prescription for Adderall to treat ADHD but he accidentally took Ritalin, which triggered a positive test. As a result, he submitted to frequent drug screenings.
He asked for, and eventually, received his release in 2013 and signed with the Vikings. After one forgettable meltdown on Monday Night Football and a few weeks the next offseason with the Giants, Freeman wasn't heard from again until last spring, when Dolphins GM Dennis Hickey, a former Bucs director of player personnel, brought him to South Florida.
Freeman finished the preseason 23 of 48 passing for 331 yards, with one touchdown and four interceptions. He entered Thursday's game late in the third quarter. His first two drives sputtered. He one-hopped a receiver, threw over the wrong shoulder to another. Then he caught a little spark, leading Miami 60 yards in 10 plays to a touchdown.
Then Freeman had the ball in his hands and a chance to win the game. Two minutes left, the ball on the Tampa Bay 18, trailing by five. He dropped back to pass and fired into the end zone. No Dolphins player was in the area. The ball went right to Bucs safety Keith Tandy, who made an easy interception. Miami got the ball back. Freeman threw another pick to Tandy.
"It was a shame to see it end the way it did," Freeman said. "But I thought all the guys at the end were really battling. I want to keep playing, no question. I love playing football. At the end of the day, I'm going to give it all I can until I exhaust every option."
But that's how fast a game, and a career, can go in the wrong direction. You hope Winston was watching.