Better than Mark Sanchez. Better than Tony Romo. Better than whatever is left of Brett Favre. Logic tells you it is awfully early for a measurement, of course. And still, here Josh Freeman is. Already. His resume pretty much consists of two half-seasons, and there are still memories to make and improvements to pursue. He is just getting started. And yet, when you mention the top quarterbacks of the NFL, it does not take long to get to his name.
Better than Joe Flacco. Better than Michael Vick. Better than Donovan McNabb, certainly in the final two minutes.
He has grown from an unpopular draft choice to an awkward rookie to the face of his franchise with the speed of a deep pass. He is better on third down than on second and better in the fourth quarter than the third, and if the Bucs can build around him, you get the feeling he will be better tomorrow than today.
That said, Freeman looks pretty good these days, too.
Better than Matt Schaub. Better than Carson Palmer. Better than the comedy stylings of Jay Cutler.
Freeman has found success in a microwave. His quick rise has been almost historic. Sure, there have been young quarterbacks succeed before — Dan Marino, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan and Flacco come to mind — but usually, those players were on playoff-ready rosters with good defenses and solid running games. Rarely do you see a young quarterback grow up as his offense does and still be successful.
There are times, when the offense is moving and Freeman is making big plays, that you cannot help but wonder — even now — where Freeman ranks among his peers. This is what we do, after all. We watch. We rank. We discuss.
So how good is Freeman, at this precise moment? At age 22? With only 18 games under his belt?
• He is one of the top 10 quarterbacks. Right now.
• He is the No. 1 quarterback in the league you would want to build a franchise around. Today.
• He is destined to be the best quarterback in the history of the Bucs franchise. And it might happen any day now.
Yes, this sounds bold, and yes, this sounds a tad premature. The temptation is to still think of Freeman as an apprentice finding his way around the huddle. And in some ways, that is true. But when you see his poise in the pocket, when you see the way his teammates look to him in important moments, when you see him make a big play, it becomes more and more obvious that Freeman has arrived.
No, he is not Peyton Manning, and no, he is not Tom Brady. He is not Drew Brees or Philip Rivers or Roethlisberger. He lacks their experience, and he lacks their accomplishments. He's still chasing Eli Manning and Aaron Rodgers and Ryan.
And … who else?
Bottom line: I have him ninth, a half-step ahead of Palmer, who has bigger things to worry about — what with his receivers making up pass routes as they go. That means Freeman is ahead of 23 starting quarterbacks. Also, he is in the passing lane.
At this point, there is only one knock against Freeman: His age. It is just so soon to accept him as being among the top third of NFL quarterbacks.
But watch him throw. Watch him run. Watch his poise. Watch what he does on third down (where his completion percentage rises almost 6 points). Watch what he does in the fourth quarter (where he has led his team to victory six times in his eight wins). Watch him get better. (Last year, he threw 18 interceptions in nine games; this year, he has five in eight.) Listen as coach Raheem Morris talks about the "it" factor when he describes Freeman.
Remember why the Bucs moved up to pick Freeman in the 2009 draft? Because general manager Mark Dominik likened him to the five-tool rankings you hear about with baseball players who are able to do everything.
"He's a five-tool quarterback," Dominik said.
As such, he also might be the most desirable young quarterback in the NFL. Ask yourself: If you were going to start a franchise with a young quarterback — let's say 26 and younger — whom would you prefer?
Given Ryan's start, he's in the argument. Flacco, too. And Sanchez and Sam Bradford and, if he can ever stay healthy, Matt Stafford. Ah, but can any of those run the way Freeman can? Think about this: Nine times this year, Freeman has run on third down and made the first down. That includes one on third and 16, two on third and 11, one on third and 9 and four on third and 4.
More questions about the other young quarterbacks: Could any of them have pulled off eight victories with this team? With this running game? With this defense?
So, yeah, if I'm building a team, I start with Freeman.
Ah, but what if the discussion isn't about building a team but defining a franchise?
Let's be honest. The Bucs haven't exactly studied a lot of greatness when it came to their quarterbacks. A lot of guys have come, and a lot of guys have left.
I still can't rank Freeman ahead of Doug Williams … yet. True, Williams completed only 47 percent of his passes as a Buc, and his rating was only 66. But he was much of the reason for the early success of the Bucs, and he made the playoffs three times. If you doubt Williams' impact, ask one of the old Bucs what happened to the franchise once he left.
If Freeman continues to improve, and if the Bucs continue to improve around him, the designation is just a matter of time. You know it, I know it, and wherever he is, Jack "The Throwin' Samoan" Thompson knows it.
Granted, Freeman still has some growing to do. He can be more accurate. He can make opponents pay more dearly for blitzing him. But it has been a long time since anyone questioned whether he belonged.
The best part? He's 22. The improvement shouldn't be done yet.
For a great quarterback, after all, being considered among the top 10 shouldn't be enough. Having the best future isn't the point. And being the best Bucs quarterback of them all is kind of being the toughest guy at the Star Trek convention.
It shouldn't be enough. Not for Freeman, and not for the Bucs.
After 18 games, however, you have to admit it looks like a pretty good start.