MIAMI — Just you wait until Fran Tarkenton hears about this.
In a game in which Josh Freeman finally was supposed to find his rhythm, on a night he was supposed to remind fans he had a little playmaking ability of his own, Freeman instead provided more evidence to his critics Saturday. As Tark has been known to grumble around the home, Freeman was fairly awful once again.
And when you get down to it, isn't everyone tired of hearing that?
For the third straight preseason game, Freeman struggled. The difference is that, this time against the Dolphins he did not have a limited number of snaps to blame it on.
Freeman played well into the third quarter, and most of his plays looked as if they were going uphill. He hit only 6 of 16 passes for 59 yards, and he was sacked five times, and he fumbled once, and his quarterback rating was 48.7. It doesn't matter if you are Tarkenton or Y.A. Tittle or Len Dawson or just some guy from Tampa, it was a miserable thing to watch.
And that's the thing. When you are Freeman, you cannot afford to be bad, even if it is preseason, even if the final stats don't count. Tom Brady can go 0-for-20 in passing and everyone will shrug, and Peyton Manning can forget that it's third down and everyone will chuckle. Those guys are proven commodities, and when the games get serious, everyone knows they will, too.
Freeman is still in the proving part of his career. If it's practice, if it's playing catch in the back yard, he is always being scrutinized.
To that end, this was supposed to be Freeman's night. He had played only two series against the Ravens and only two more against the Patriots. This time he was going to have time to get things going, to take advantage of his receivers, to smooth out the rough edges. He was going to remind you that he was a 4,000-yard passer.
Instead, he made you rub your temples and moan.
For most of the night Freeman was offtarget. By the end, his stats were scattered enough for even his still-loyal fans to feel a little uncomfortable as the regular season approaches. This is the guy who is going to turn on the light for the Bucs?
At this point, there are two ways to look at this:
One, it is practice football, and as such, nothing counts for much.
Or two: Uh-oh.
So far, whatever the Bucs are thinking about with Freeman doesn't seem to be working. Is Freeman thinking about the contract the team didn't give him? Does he feel the pressure of turning this season into the big-money round? Is he out of synch because the entire offense is out of synch because of missing pieces?
Freeman isn't a perfect quarterback. Judging from last year, I still think he's in that broad middle of quarterbacks in the NFL. But he's better than this. And the closer the regular season gets, the more of a concern his performance becomes.
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On the other hand, why should Freeman be any different?
By any measurement available, this has been a horrible preseason for the Bucs, and the team's 1-2 record is about 15th on the list of concerns. If things got any uglier, there would be locusts.
Let's see: There has been staph infection in the team building, and Doug Martin got kicked in the head, and Tarkenton has trash-talked Freeman, and Darrelle Revis is still a sight unseen, and Da'Quan Bowers has played his way out of the starting lineup, and the Ravens backups went crazy, and the Patriots starters went crazy, and there still isn't a pass rush, and the gambling site Bovada predicted the Bucs will finish 3-13, and overall, the Bucs look as if they are three months away from the start of the season instead of three weeks.
Also — and this is alarming — the Bucs appear to be operating out of Leeman Bennett's old playbook.
Of course, you might have felt a little bit better about most of Saturday if Freeman had played crisply — if he had hit big passes downfield, if he had confused the Dolphins with his efficiency. It is as if Tampa Bay is holding its breath, and so far, Freeman has given it no reason to exhale.
Now, it is true that Freeman and the Bucs took a 10-3 lead in the second quarter. That's deceptive, too. Both of those Bucs scores came because the Dolphins treated punts like something of a mystery. On the scoring drives, Freeman completed one pass and had a 17-yard interference call on another.
Look, you can be average at guard, or at defensive tackle, and your team can get away with it. But you cannot survive with an average quarterback. You can talk about his blockers, and you can talk about the four balls his receivers dropped, but the simple truth is that Freeman has to be better than this for the Bucs to have a chance.
In a boom-or-bust season for Freeman, we are all still wondering. Yes, he has played very good a lot of the time, even most of the time. But he had stretches where he vexes a community.
The only thing that can stop any of it is for him to play well.
This year, we are still waiting.