Even now, even with all of the losses and all of the interceptions and all of the chaos, it is about the quarterback.
Even now, when no one knows who will be his coach or which teammates will survive or whether next season will be any better than this one, it is about the quarterback.
Even now, with all of the doubts and all of the questions and all of the disappointment, it is about Josh Freeman.
Rescue him, and the Bucs franchise still has a chance. Fail, and the chaos is going to continue. Now, as much as ever, the futures of the Bucs and of Freeman are intertwined. They will succeed together, or they will continue to let each other down.
Soon, we will see what the Bucs plan to do about it.
In the marriage between the Bucs franchise and Freeman, this has been one of those "or worse'' seasons. By any measure, he has had an alarmingly dreadful season. His regression has been historic. His interceptions have more than tripled (from 6 to 19). His touchdown passes have fallen by 11 (from 25 to 14). He has lost 21 points off of his QB ratings.
It has been a wobble wrapped in an overthrow inside of a cry of, "Where in the heck was he throwing that one?'' There have been the times his release has been slow, times his footwork has been off and times his accuracy comes and goes. He has been hurt by slow starts, forgettable finishes and the regrettable decision to play with guns.
It is staggering when a quarterback has a breakdown season after a breakout. Of the NFL quarterbacks who have thrown at least 14 passes a game, there are 25 who have higher ratings. No one has more interceptions. No one else who has thrown 500 or more passes this year has fewer touchdowns. (For that matter, no one within 90 attempts of Freeman's 506 has fewer).
Consider this: According to NFL stats, 76 quarterbacks have thrown passes this year. No one else has five more interceptions than touchdown passes. If he had fallen any further, for crying out loud, Freeman would have landed on Rex Grossman.
Then there are the increased number of checkdown passes. Last year, Freeman's average completion gained 11.9 yards. This year, it's down to 10.5. If that doesn't sound like much, consider this. If Freeman was still at 11.9, his yardage total would be 430 yards higher.
Despite it all, the Bucs still need Freeman. Because, really, who else is there to build around? Because starting over with another quarterback takes so long.
As the Bucs contemplate their future after today's final attempt at football, Freeman should be the utmost concern. If the Bucs hire a new coach, they need to do it with the saving of Freeman in mind. If they ponder possible free agents — as good an idea as ever — they should do so with helping Freeman in mind. As they prepare for the NFL draft, they should do so with Freeman in mind.
After all, a team can't replace everyone. As bad as he has been, Freeman has still outperformed most of the Bucs players. As bad as he has been, you can at least see the possibility of highlights in his future.
Once, the Bucs had another quarterback stand in the middle of the chaos. Back in 1995, Trent Dilfer struggled along with his franchise through a tumultuous season like this one. In 1998, he was blamed heavily as his team regressed from a playoff season.
"I'm a Josh apologist, and I have no problem with it,'' Dilfer, an ESPN analyst, said. "He has the potential, the mind and the will. It's easy to say, 'The team stinks, so he stinks.' Some analysts go whatever way the wind blows. I'm probably overly sympathetic because I've been where he is. My toughest year was 1998. We just played (very poorly), and I got blamed for it.
"He's regressed a little bit. He's made a ton of mistakes. But I'll put my stamp on him right now. This is one of the jewels of the league.''
If he had to bet his house, Dilfer said, he would wager that Freeman will be a success. Not only that, but he says Greg Olson is one of his favorite offensive coordinators in the league.
So what has gone wrong? Dilfer says the wide receivers on the perimeter haven't been as good as everyone expected them to be. He also says the Bucs could use more multiple tight end formations because it gives the quarterback his easiest reads of defense. As much as anything, Dilfer said, the Bucs need to be better defensively.
"You can't be a good quarterback when you're two scores behind,'' Dilfer said. "And you can't play when you're overly conservative. You can't play from the position of fear.''
For whatever reason, Freeman has struggled. For the year, Freeman's quarterback rating is 74.9. Remember Vinny Testaverde's final year with the Bucs? His rating was 74.2. Remember the disappointment in Jack "The Throwin' Samoan'' Thompson? He was at 73.3 in his full year as a starter.
In Dilfer's final year, he was at 75.8. In Shaun King's full season as a starter, he was at 75.8. The Bucs have replaced a lot of quarterbacks who played at the same level Freeman has this year.
You probably remember the closest fall to Freeman's. It was Brad Johnson, another Buc quarterback. In 2002, the Super Bowl season, Johnson threw only six interceptions. In 2003, when the team fell to 7-9, he threw 21. Still, Johnson threw for more touchdowns and more yardage that year, so his overall rating didn't plummet as sharply. In 2006, Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had a similar drop, his interceptions climbing from nine to 23 and his rating falling by 23 points. Still, his touchdown passes didn't fall off in the same way.
Yes, there are factors. Freeman hasn't had a lot of help. The offense lacks speed. It lacks playmakers. It lacks consistency. It lacks points (14 offensive touchdowns in the past 10 defeats).
This season, it has also lacked the promising quarterback it saw the year before. Remember him?
"Here's what the tape says,'' Dilfer said. "Josh hasn't played with the same energy, the same kind of life to his game. You can see some quarterbacks' body language and energy and tempo, and you feel like they're always climbing the hill. That jumps out of the tapes.
"The biggest thing he'll learn for this year is that he didn't change the environment. He wasn't a thermostat player. There are thermometer players who just react, and there are thermostat players who change the environment. It's hard. You get beat down. You feel like it's too steep a hill to climb. It sucks the life out of you. You're watching quarterbacks who are successful, and you know that they don't have half of your talent.''
If that's true, then Freeman needs saving. The Bucs should not make a decision this offseason without considering the impact on Freeman. A new coach? How does it affect Freeman? A new quarterback coach? Can he make Freeman better? A new offense? Does it fit Freeman? A speed wide receiver? Shouldn't that help Freeman? A complete back? An offensive lineman? A better defense? All roads lead back to the quarterback.
Freeman is 24, after all. He has time to smooth out the edges. On the other hand, he is three seasons into his career. It is not too soon to expect more. It is not too much to expect it soon.
Put it this way: One of the last two seasons was a fluke, and the other was the truth. Freeman is either the leader we saw in 2010 or he is the scattergun we saw in 2011. From here on, the goal is to turn things around. The goal is to avoid this kind of misery.
That's true of the franchise, and that's true of Freeman.