In the end, finding a quarterback of the future was the Buccaneers’ biggest need for the franchise in general manager Mark Dominik and head coach Raheem Morris’ long-term plan.
Bigger than drafting a defensive end to rush the quarterback opposite Gaines Adams.
Bigger than drafting a cornerback to cover receivers opposite Aqib Talib.
Bigger than drafting a defensive tackle to eventually replace 30-year old defensive tackle Chris Hovan.
This was Dominik and Morris’ plan. The Glazers signed off on it. They had no choice really. They just fired the Buccaneers’ all-time winningest coach, Jon Gruden, because he did not have a long-term plan at the quarterback position other than finding the next Jeff Garcia or Brian Griese for the 2009 season.
How could ownership refuse drafting a quarterback in the first round, which hadn’t been done in Tampa Bay since Sam Wyche and Rich McKay selected Trent Dilfer with the sixth overall pick in the 1994 draft?
So Dominik and Morris did just that – selecting Kansas State quarterback Josh Freeman with the 17th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. Apparently a lot has changed over the last 16 years. The Dilfer pick was widely applauded by fans back in 1994, just like the first-round selection of Vinny Testaverde was back in 1987. Both were hailed as saviors for a wayward Buccaneers franchise mired in over a decade of futility.
As for the Freeman pick? It gets trashed on talk radio, booed in sports bars and criticized on Internet message boards – all before the guy throws his first pass at the team’s rookie mini-camp. Despite legions of widely respected draft commentators, including NFL Network’s Mike Mayock, NFL.com’s Gil Brandt and ESPN’s Mel Kiper, liking Freeman as a prospect, Bucs fans – many of whom have never seen Freeman play in anything other than highlights because Kansas State was rarely on national television – find fault with the selection.
Their reasoning is that Freeman’s accuracy (career 59 percent completion percentage), his 14-18 record as a starter for the Wildcats and the fact that he played in the Big 12, which is a conference that is void of great defensive play, mean that he will fail in the NFL, especially in Tampa Bay where the team may be a ways off from the playoffs and historically can’t develop quarterbacks.
Freeman took the time to answer some of those charges when meeting the Tampa Bay area media at his initial press conference on Monday at One Buccaneer Place.
“I’ve heard a lot of different things – I’m not very accurate, I have bad feet and I don’t know how to read coverages – things that people couldn’t possibly know,” Freeman said. “(The critics in the media) obviously have to say something because they have to have a take on everybody. I would probably say that the main (criticism) that didn’t make any sense to me was leadership. I’m more of a laid back-type of leader to the extent that I am not going to be jumping up and down and getting in everybody’s face. At the same time I feel like I exude confidence and my teammates can really feed off of that. So even though I am not jumping up and down and acting crazy I can still lead.”
Freeman was voted as a two-time captain at K-State as a sophomore and a junior after starting the final eight games of his freshman year, including a 45-42 home victory over No. 4-ranked Texas.
“My freshman year, I came in as a true freshman and they expected me to play a little bit,” Freeman said. “Right off the bat, coming in as a highly recruited guy with some already proven starters on the team there is only one way my dad said – one way alone – to earn everybody’s respect and that was through hard work. I definitely think that carried over and allowed me to be the good leader that I was. My freshman year I came in and I just grinded. I didn’t say anything. My sophomore year maybe I got a little more vocal. My junior year, it was kind of a balance between being vocal and a little quiet – maybe leading by example. When it comes to leadership, what I’ve found works the best is knowing your teammates. Some guys react to you getting in their face. Some guys react to you taking them aside and just talking to them. I think that definitely from my freshman year to my junior year my leadership improved.”
One of the most appealing things about Freeman to Dominik and Morris was his work ethic. For a 21-year old, Freeman has a great deal of maturity and knows that a quarterback can’t be successful without putting in the time in the film room. In talking with other NFL quarterbacks prior to the draft, Freeman identified one common trait that was linked to all of the successful signal callers.
“I think it’s hard work,” Freeman said. “I was just talking to Coach (Jeff) Jagodzinski last night about Matt Ryan and it’s really about how hard you are willing to work and the time you are willing to put in. Coming into the situation, I really like the coaches and I’m going to spend a lot of time in this building. I just think it comes down to how much effort you are willing to put in.”
But despite working hard, all that effort in the film room and on the field didn’t translate into wins for Freeman, who presided over a pair of disappointing 5-7 seasons over the past two years.
“It was really frustrating, honestly. It was a case where it was my first two times ever that I was on a losing team,” Freeman said. “I go out every week and every year expecting to win. It wasn’t like it was a lack of trying. We had a lot of guys that worked really hard and it just wasn’t coming together on Saturdays. I don’t know what to attribute that to. I did everything that I could to win and it just didn’t work out.”
Understandably, that 14-18 record that Freeman had as the Wildcats starter is a concern for Tampa Bay fans who must be thinking, “Aren’t great quarterbacks supposed to elevate the play of everyone around them?” But the talent level around him at Kansas State – save for receivers Yamon Figurs in 2006 and Jordy Nelson in 2007 – was so poor that without Freeman the Wildcats might have won only five games combined over the last two seasons rather than five games each season.
It should be noted that when given the chance to place blame for hurried throws and dropped passes on his former K-State offensive line and receivers Freeman did not. His offensive line in Manhattan, Kan. was porous and sub-par, while his receiving corps generally featured players that would have trouble earning scholarships at most Big 12 schools outside of Iowa State and Baylor.
With Freeman in the pros and Kansas State in the rear view mirror, some rookies might be tempted to place the blame elsewhere, but Tampa Bay’s top rookie did not, which was admirable.
“It’s hard to place the blame on one specific thing,” Freeman said. “It’s kind of interesting because my development as a player – my freshman year, I think I had 14 interceptions and six touchdowns and 52 percent completion percentage or whatever. I played horrible and yet we won seven games in the regular season. It could have easily been eight or nine. Then each year my numbers and my play steadily improved, but we weren’t winning any games. It’s hard to put it on one thing, but as an individual player, I just have to focus in on what I can do to help the team and my growth as a quarterback.”
The Bucs’ initial plan is to let Luke McCown and Byron Leftwich duke it out for the starting quarterback job in 2009 while also giving Freeman a chance to throw his hat into the ring. If Freeman clearly beats out the veterans, expect Morris to start him the way Ryan and Joe Flacco got the early nod in 2008 in Atlanta and Baltimore, respectively. If it’s close, Morris will likely go with a veteran and have Freeman learn and improve from watching on the sidelines.
One of the biggest issues Freeman has to work on is his consistency. At Kansas State he had four games with a completion percentage over 70 percent in 2008, but also had four below 51 percent.
“It’s definitely going to come down to consistency,” Freeman said. “I feel that the ability to improve myself and just hit the check down instead of just trying to go for the deep play and not feeling like you have to make the play – just make a play – to keep the chains moving. I think that working with Coach Jagodzinski and Coach Olson that they are going to help me get integrated into this system so that I can be successful.”
Freeman said his accuracy, which fell from 63.3 percent in 2007 to 58.6 percent in 2008, suffered because he was trying to do too much during his junior year.
“Yeah, without pointing any fingers, I just think it came down to me trying to do too much, and knowing that I had to do something – maybe be like Superman – and do some amazing effort if we were going to be able to win,” Freeman said. “I think that had me playing out of character and that definitely hurt me.”
Even against Big 12 defenses, which have been at such a disadvantage against some of the nation’s most prolific offenses, Freeman and the Wildcats struggled. Once viewed as K-State’s savior, some Wildcats fans were disappointed that he was not Superman, especially against K-State’s division rivals.
Freeman’s record against in-state rival Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska was 0-9 in three seasons. But over the past two years, K-State’s defense has been one of the nation’s worst. In fact, the 2008 defense was the worst in school history and ranked 117th out of 119 schools in Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A).
“It’s definitely an offensive-driven league,” Freeman said. “These offenses are putting up huge numbers. It’s tough to really tell which is which. I mean you look at SEC games and you see games that are 3-2 and stuff like that. When we played Oklahoma the score was 55-35 at halftime. You get these huge numbers and quarterbacks putting up huge numbers. … Some defenses are good and some aren’t. I think it’s like that in every conference.”
Freeman has already felt the heat from some Wildcats fans for his 10-14 record over the past two seasons, so the early criticism by the Tampa Bay fan base doesn’t bother the smart and savvy signal caller.
“I anticipated it,” Freeman said. “You know, being from Kansas State and not having the national exposure. When Ben Roethlisberger was drafted, it was ‘Ben Roethlis-who?' I’m from a smaller school and we didn’t have the national spotlight on us all the time and maybe we didn’t win as many games as the other guys, so I expected a little bit of this. But I hear there are great fans here and that they respond to winning. So, I think if I go out and play well, they’ll have no complaints then.
“All I know is that I'm going to do everything in my power to make the Buccaneers a better football team. Whether that’s through playing this year, not playing this year, or playing a couple of years down the road. Whatever it takes. Whatever helps this team win, I’m ready to do.”
At his first press conference as an NFL player, Freeman said all the right things and tried his best to answer the criticism about his game and career at K-State. For Bucs fans who have been clamoring for the team to draft a quarterback in the first round and lamenting over the fact that the team did not have a long-term answer at the quarterback position, they got their wish and apparently aren’t happy about it.
Perhaps their objections about Freeman will be proven correct whenever he steps on the field as a starter, but at the same time, fans should realize that the insight Morris had into Freeman from having been Kansas State’s defensive coordinator in 2006 would be unparalleled compared to any other quarterback the team would draft in the present or the future. But despite all the intel that Morris and Co. provided to Dominik and the efforts of the organization to assuage fans’ concerns over the selection, the scrutiny over Freeman likely won’t subside until he becomes a winner in Tampa Bay.
“The quarterback is the most scrutinized position,” Freeman said. “When you are winning they love you and when you are losing they hate you. I’ve been talking to a number of quarterbacks who are in the league and they tell you the same thing. The thing they tell you is not about what people are saying, it’s about the attitude you carry into the office every day and your willingness to work. A great example is Donovan McNabb last year. They were ready to bench him and he comes back and they won six games in a row and he leads them to the NFC Championship Game. It’s all about your attitude and listening to the right people. I have a great support system in my family and the guys I work for.
“I’m fired up. I want to go out and win games. I want to win for the city of Tampa, for Rah, for myself, for the Buccaneers. I want to go out and help this team be successful. That’s my ultimate goal.”
After decades of toiling with the likes of Steve Spurrier, Jack Thompson, Testaverde, Dilfer and Bruce Gradkowski, a sizeable amount of the Bucs fan base – based on their reactions on sports talk radio and Internet message boards – believe Freeman will be the next quarterback bust in Tampa Bay. Obviously the confident Freeman, who believes that he was the best quarterback in the draft, thinks otherwise.
“People get tags placed on them,” Freeman said. “They said, ‘Freeman is either a boom or a bust kind of guy.’ But when you look at all the first-round quarterbacks, you’re either boom or bust, right?
“When I’m done, I want to be regarded as one of the best to ever play the game."
If he does that, the skeptical Bucs fan base will owe Freeman a big apology for doubting him on draft day before he played a down for Tampa Bay.