By PAT YASINSKAS
By now, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers should have a mature, polished quarterback – the kind of guy who can put the team on his back, go into New Orleans and carry his team to victory against the Saints.
Sunday was another painful reminder that the Bucs don’t have that kind of quarterback. The Saints defeated the Bucs, 30-10. The Bucs fell to 2-6 and it now is almost a certainty that this will be another season without a playoff appearance.
But this isn’t meant to be an indictment on third-year pro Jameis Winston, who was limited to playing only the first half because of a shoulder injury. In his short career, Winston has shown wonderful physical talent, toughness (he’s been playing through the injured shoulder for several weeks) and a strong desire to be a leader. But Winston has a tendency to take some chances at times and that has led to too many interceptions. Still, I’m far from being ready to calling Winston anything close to a bust. I think he still could end up being the first true franchise quarterback (Doug Williams, in my opinion, doesn’t quite qualify for that title because his tenure with the Bucs wasn’t long enough). I don’t think you can truly judge Winston for a few more years. In short, the jury remains out on Winston.
But this IS an indictment on Josh Freeman. He’s the guy that came in and did irreparable harm and set the Bucs back for a decade, give or take a year. It should never have come to this. Early on, Freeman showed all the physical tools and intangibles to become a star.
That’s what Freeman should be by now – a star. But he’s far from it. At 29, Freeman is washed up, labeled as a problem and it would take nothing short of a miracle for him to get back into the NFL. Freeman is a forgotten man.
Freeman hasn’t thrown an NFL pass since 2015. He has fallen so far that he even did a stint with the Brooklyn Bolts (remember them? I sure don’t) of the Fall Experimental Football League. In fact, the last mention I could find of Freeman was that he tried out with two Canadian Football League teams this spring. He wasn’t signed by either one.
So how does a guy who was on the verge of stardom end up not even being able to catch on with a Canadian League team?
It’s a long, convoluted and sad story. We’ll run through all of it. But let’s start by saying there were two primary culprits in this epic failure – Freeman and former Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano. They were as mismatched as a quarterback and coach can be.
But it should never have come to this. Schiano wasn’t the guy who drafted Freeman. Former coach Raheem Morris and general manager Mark Dominik were the ones who chose Freeman with the No. 17 overall pick in 2009. I’ll never forget the night of that draft. After making the pick, Morris and Dominik came down to meet with the media.
Dominik, a pretty level-headed guy, was smiling like he just hit the lottery. Morris, a guy who always smiles, was doing it bigger and brighter than I ever saw him. And, really, at the time, who could blame them?
All indications were they had made a good pick. The book on Freeman was short and flattering. Good kid and good quarterback. No problems on or off the field. Plus, Morris knew Freeman quite well because he had briefly been an assistant coach at Kansas State when Freeman was there and thought the world of him. After doing his research, Dominik felt the same way.
I agreed with the pick then. And I still think it was the right pick – at the time. The Bucs went slowly at first with Freeman, but he was starting by the middle of his rookie season. In his second season, Freeman blossomed. He led the Bucs to a 10-6 record and they barely missed the playoffs. The future looked very bright and Freeman welcomed the responsibility of being a franchise quarterback. He took it upon himself to organize, pay for and run player workouts during the labor lockout.
But Freeman and the Bucs took a few steps back in 2011. The Bucs lost their final 10 games to finish 4-12 and that cost Morris his job. Morris had plenty of flaws, but he was the perfect coach for Freeman. Morris ran a loose ship and Freeman was a laid-back type of guy.
Enter Schiano and the beginning of the end for Freeman. A source close to Schiano told me that the coach was far from sold on the quarterback when he took the job. Schiano, a strict disciplinarian, believe in players toeing the line. Freeman, who was just starting to sow his oats after growing up with a domineering father, didn’t believe there should be lines.
Somehow, the coach and quarterback got along well enough in the 2012 season and Freeman had a decent year. But that was about the same time the rumors started flying about Freeman. Rumors are rumors. But, a lot of times, there is fire where there is smoke.
We won’t go into the rumors because they never were substantiated. But if you lived in Tampa at the time, chances are good you heard the rumors in one form or another. I don’t know if the rumors were true or not but things had deteriorated between Freeman and Schiano severely by the start of the 2013 season.
Freeman wasn’t elected a captain and that’s when the fireworks started on one of the most bizarre NFL seasons I have ever seen. Schiano’s camp began revealing some bad things about Freeman – he missed the team photo and had been late for meetings and practices. Freeman’s camp also began working the media and declared that Freeman had volunteered to take random drug tests and he had passed every one of them.
It’s never a good thing when you have a coach and a quarterback feuding even if it’s the people around them that are doing the dirty work. The Bucs and Freeman got off to a bad start and that gave Schiano the opportunity to do what he had been dying to do – bench Freeman. By the fourth game, rookie Mike Glennon was starting. The Bucs tried desperately to trade Freeman but couldn’t find a taker.
On Oct. 3, 2013, the Bucs simply cut Freeman. It was the end of a sad chapter for a franchise with plenty of sad stories in its history. Schiano was gone after the season and that put the Bucs back to square one.
They hired coach Lovie Smith, who brought in journeyman quarterback Josh McCown for an uneventful season. Then, Smith drafted Winston first overall in 2015. Smith didn’t have a great season, but Winston had a promising rookie year. Ownership thought offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter was the reason behind Winston’s success. Smith was fired and Koetter was promoted to head coach.
The Bucs currently are struggling. But let’s give Winston a couple more years to see if he can erase the lost decade that Freeman and Schiano caused.