Sunday, June 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Josh Freeman must step up for Bucs to succeed

It is probably Doug Martin — unless, of course, it is Darrelle Revis.

It could be Vincent Jackson or, perhaps, maybe Gerald McCoy.

You could make an argument for Carl Nicks, or for that matter, Lavonte David.

And on it goes. The longer you stay in this spirited debate over who the best player is on the Tampa Bay Bucs, the more you realize the conversation can go on for a while. Heck, you could also mention Dashon Goldson or Davin Joseph, Donald Penn or Mike Williams, just to notice how many candidates there are.

Probably, the list will grow for a while before you get to Josh Freeman.

And that's the problem.

This is not meant as a shot at Freeman, the Bucs quarterback who takes a good many of them. My long-standing opinion on Freeman is that he is not yet as good as the Bucs need him to be, but he's better than most of his followers seem to believe. If you are fair, you would say that Freeman has had marvelous games; he just hasn't strung enough of them together.

The thing is, it's a quarterback's league. On any team that matters, it is usually because there is a quarterback who has made it so.

Look at the best teams in the league, the teams that made a run at last year's Super Bowl, the teams that are probably going to make a run for this year's. Look at their best players. What you will find is quarterback avenue.

For instance, you don't have to ask who the best player is in New England; it's Tom Brady. And it's Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay. It's Peyton Manning in Denver. Any argument would be silly.

New Orleans has Drew Brees, and Atlanta has Matt Ryan, and Carolina has Cam Newton. And defensive coordinators across the league are aware of it every week.

The Giants have Eli Manning, and the Redskins have Robert Griffin III, and the 49ers have Colin Kaepernick. Keep up with them if you can.

The Steelers have Ben Roethlisberger, and the Seahawks have Russell Wilson, and the Ravens have Joe Flacco. And their teams follow without question.

As for everyone else? Pretty much, they have a guy named Ned.

Sure, you can quibble here or there. You can argue that Ray Rice is really Baltimore's best player, or that Patrick Willis is San Francisco's, or that Steve Smith is still the guy in Carolina. But the quarterbacks are in the argument, too, and without them, their teams don't win.

Which leads us to this, the latest in a never-ending discussion that eventually finds its way to Freeman. Let's agree on this: For the Bucs to succeed, Freeman has to become one of those guys. Being good most weeks isn't enough. Freeman has to be the difference maker. Every week. He has to be dangerous. Every game. Heck, even Mark Sanchez plays good some of the time.

Consider this: Last year, Freeman played good enough to win in 11 games, all but Dallas, Denver, Philadelphia, St. Louis and the second New Orleans game. But is being good two-thirds of the season good enough for a quarterback? Of course not.

Overall, Freeman is pretty close to middle ground in the NFL quarterback hierarchy. He was 18th on the ESPN total quarterback rating, a statistic that is so befuddled no one is sure what it means. He was 19th in the traditional quarterback rating. He was ninth in passing yards, but only four quarterbacks threw more interceptions. He was tied for seventh in touchdowns, but only 29th in completion percentage.

Yeah, yeah. Teams can try to go around their quarterback to win. That used to happen a lot when guys like Trent Dilfer and Jeff Hostetler and Mark Rypien were being measured for rings. It happened last year in Minnesota, when the Vikings squeezed into the playoffs because Adrian Peterson was so good. It happened with Cincinnati, which got in behind a good defense and a soft schedule. But neither team lasted very long.

Even with Martin, even with an improved secondary, the Bucs aren't dominant enough in other areas to win that way. They need Freeman taking advantage of Jackson and Williams to have a chance.

The Bucs seem fully aware of that, which is one reason Freeman doesn't have a new contract yet. No matter how often coach Greg Schiano tells the world how much he loves Freeman, everyone knows the bottom line: It's a big year for the franchise, and it's a big year for Freeman.

Look, it isn't just Freeman. In Chicago, they are saying similar things about Jay Cutler, and in St. Louis about Sam Bradford, and in San Diego about Philip Rivers, whose performance fell off a cliff last year. Andrew Luck, as impressive as he was as a rookie, still needs to show growth. Matt Stafford needs to show that the Lions don't have change coming.

That's how it goes. No one is happy unless you have one of the elites. The NFL is a prove-it league, and quarterback is a show-me position.

Freeman, one assumes, knows all of this. He knows he has to be more efficient, more consistent, more dynamic.

In other words, as impressive as some of the players around him are, Freeman needs to be his team's best player, not fifth or sixth. Any debate needs to start with him.

Finish with him, too.

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