Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach, general manager risking own future on rookie quarterback Josh Freeman

If rookie quarterback Josh Freeman fails as the Bucs starter, he could take his coach and general manager down with him.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

If rookie quarterback Josh Freeman fails as the Bucs starter, he could take his coach and general manager down with him.

For you and me, the decision seems simple enough.

The Buccaneers stink, their offense is going nowhere, and the future of the franchise is standing just a few feet away on the sideline. So why wouldn't you start Josh Freeman at quarterback when the Bucs return to the field in 12 days?

Ah, but for Raheem Morris and Mark Dominik, the decision is a bit more complicated.

By destiny and design, the Bucs coach and general manager have become inextricably linked with their rookie quarterback. In a season that appears hellbent on disappointment, Freeman's development is the last opportunity for a positive vibe.

So if the kid shows us a glimpse, a peek, a tease at better days to come, the front office can declare an early victory in the renovation of a franchise. And if the kid looks like he's in over his head, then the coach and GM could be the ones who drown.

Nothing like putting the careers of three men in the hands of a 21-year-old, eh?

The point is that Dominik and Morris cannot be swayed by emotions in this matter. An 0-7 record should not matter. Newspaper headlines and radio callers should not matter. Empty seats at Raymond James Stadium should not matter.

The only consideration should be whether Freeman is ready. That's it. And the only people who can make that determination are the coaches and executives who have been monitoring his every move for the past six months.

It is their necks, so it has to be their call.

If they doubt that, they might want to ask Bruce Coslet how his career worked out after starting Akili Smith in his fifth game as a pro. Or they might want to check with Marty Mornhinweg, who put Joey Harrington in the lineup in his third game. Ask Dom Capers about David Carr or Mike Nolan about Alex Smith. The roadside is filled with NFL coaches whose careers were dinged by first-round quarterback flops.

Now were the careers of those quarterbacks ruined because they were rushed into the lineup? Maybe. Maybe not. Some of them were surely overrated and wouldn't have made it as NFL quarterbacks if they had Bill Walsh, Sid Gillman and Don Coryell as their personal tutors and 10 years to study playbooks and refine their throws.

On the other hand, we'll never know exactly how their careers might have progressed if they had been given a little more time — with a little less pressure — to figure out how to be an NFL quarterback.

(And, now, a pre-emptive strike. Yes, I know about Ben Roethlisberger. I know about Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco. They were starters early in their rookie seasons and were huge successes. What does that tell you? It tells you they were extremely talented and mature players. It tells you they were further ahead of the curve than most rookie quarterbacks. It tells you they were in the right system with the right talent around them. And none of that automatically or necessarily applies to Freeman.)

In the 10 drafts before the Bucs chose Freeman, there were 28 quarterbacks taken in the first round. The majority, it must be said, have not been saviors. Of the 28, only 11 have winning records as starters. About the same number are still holding starting jobs.

That means, based on recent history, there is better than a 50 percent chance that Freeman's career will fall short of its promise. Actually, if you want to be technical, there is better than a 60 percent chance.

With odds like that, it makes sense to hedge your bet in any way you can. If that means giving Freeman a few more weeks of mop-up duty to get ready, so be it. If that means handpicking his first opponent, so be it. In a season going nowhere, there is no need to rush.

Another consideration is Freeman's age. At 21 years and nine months, he would be one of the youngest starters in the past decade. Only Matthew Stafford (21 years, seven months) Alex Smith (21 years, four months) and Michael Vick (21 years, four months) made their starting debuts at such a tender age.

Based on the resumes of the 28 first-round quarterbacks in the previous decade, the typical starting debut is around Game No. 12. If you take away some of the extreme cases on both ends, the average is closer to Game No. 9.

In other words, we would seem to be getting close to Freeman's time.

Yet, in the face of all of these trends and statistics, there is still one overriding consideration in Freeman's timetable. And that is whether his bosses believe the time is right to throw him to the wolves.

Their careers are on the line as much as Freeman's. If he turns out to be a bust, it is hard to imagine the Bucs being a competitive team in the next couple of seasons, and it is hard to imagine Morris and Dominik surviving that kind of ride.

So it is their call, no matter what you or I think.

They just better be sure they're right.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Mixed results

The Bucs appear to be considering starting Josh Freeman after the bye week. In the 10 drafts before this season, 15 quarterbacks taken in the first round made their starting debut by the halfway point of the season. Those quarterbacks with their career starting records:

Ben

Roethlisberger

Year: 2004

First start: Game 3

Record: 56-22

Matt Ryan

Year: 2008

First start: Game 1

Record: 15-7

Joe Flacco

Year: 2008

First start: Game 1

Record: 14-8

Vince Young

Year: 2006

First start: Game 4

Record: 18-11

Michael Vick

Year: 2001

First start: Game 8

Record: 38-28-1

Byron

Leftwich

Year: 2003

First start: Game 4

Record: 24-25

Kyle Boller

Year: 2003

First start: Game 1

Record: 20-24

Matt Leinart

Year: 2006

First start: Game 5

Record: 7-9

Patrick Ramsey

Year: 2002

First start: Game 5

Record: 10-14

Tim Couch

Year: 1999

First start: Game 2

Record: 22-37

Alex Smith

Year: 2005

First start: Game 5

Record: 11-19

David Carr

Year: 2002

First start: Game 1

Record: 23-56

Joey

Harrington

Year: 2002

First start: Game 3

Record: 26-50

Cade McNown

Year: 1999

First start: Game 6

Record: 3-12

Akili Smith

Year: 1999

First start: Game 5

Record: 3-14

Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach, general manager risking own future on rookie quarterback Josh Freeman 10/26/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 27, 2009 8:54am]

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