In the NFL, like in life, one man's trash could be another man's treasure.
And there's no doubt that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are treating Josh Freeman like trash.
Should the Bucs be forced to do what now seems inevitable, does it make sense for the Vikings to take a chance on what looks to be a troubled young quarterback?
It seems clear at this point that the Vikings don't have a solid answer at quarterback, but neither has Freeman proven to be the solution to any problems. This year, he's thrown for less than 50% at an abysmal 45.7 passing completion rate, 5.2 net yards per passing attempt sand 4.25 adjusted net yards per passing attempt. That would have ranked him just above Blaine Gabbert and below current Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder in 2012.
At best, it would seem to be a lateral move.
But there's significant reason to believe that's not the final chapter on Josh Freeman. Over the last two years, Freeman generated 6.5 net yards per passing attempt and 6 adjusted net yards per passing attempt-good for 11th and 16th in the league, respectively.
He hasn't been the most accurate passer, but he generally makes up for it with deep throws, having hit 13.3 yards per completion was the second-best in the league, just after Cam Newton. In fact, his average depth of target-passes completed and missed-was an astonishing 10.7, tied for first in the league alongside Colin Kaepernick and Andrew Luck (second was Joe Flacco at 10.6).
It would be a far cry from the offense that Minnesota has run so far, and it may even turn out that Josh Freeman isn't a fit in the Bill Musgrave offense.
But the designs of an offensive coordinator who may not even be around next year shouldn't hold back signing a talented young quarterback who could take full advantage of Cordarrelle Patterson, Jerome Simpson and Greg Jennings.
It may be the case that Freeman is system-dependent, and it's certainly so that he isn't thriving in offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan's offense, but the overall design of the offense has been terrible to begin with.
Joe Bussell, former operations director at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and currently the owner of the @NFLosophy twitter account, had this to say about the Sullivan offense:
"When watching the Buccaneers, I see an offense that appears to be ages behind the current NFL. It is evident that the Bucs' offensive staff is confident that their two main wide receivers [Jackson and Williams] will win when the ball is in the air. They try to get one-on-one matchups and run the receivers deep and outside the numbers. Separation isn't stressed in this offense. Instead, the reliance is on its outside receivers to win in jump-ball situations. These are often referred to as '50/50 balls,' because of the odds of the wide receiver coming down with them. - and one of the reasons Freeman's completion percentage has hovered around 50 to 56 percent under Mike Sullivan.
"This is in stark contrast to the current trend in the NFL, which is to get the ball to your playmakers in space with quick throws - screens, smoke routes, and throws behind the line of scrimmage. These are high-percentage throws that allow for extra yards after the catch. In the Tampa offense, every throw is a tough throw, every catch is contested, and not much space is created - which means the receiver is tackled immediately after making the catch. This is a major reason the Bucs currently rank 30th in yards after the catch in the NFL."
This bears out—in Pro Football Focus' game tracking, Josh Freeman was asked to throw outside the numbers on deep passes nearly twice as often as an average NFL quarterback.
And he does better than the average quarterback on those passes, too. Generally speaking, quarterbacks in the NFL will connect on deep, outside the numbers passes 32.8 percent of the time and average 10.8 yards an attempt.
Josh Freeman has a lower completion rate on those passes (30.8 percent) but better yards per attempt (11.8) along with better touchdown and interception rates.
But being asked to pass those difficult throws without much outlet relief or other options makes him too easy to defend and creates a wholly inconsistent offense. It cannot be overstated how important it is to have intermediate and shorter routes available (especially over the middle of the field) if there are a number of routes that go deep. It is one thing to have a poor deep ball passing completion accuracy, but it is another thing entirely to be forced to throw passes, even when covered, because there are no other options available because of the scheme.
Being stuck behind the passing revolution of the NFL has left Josh Freeman out to dry.
Not only do the statistics provide context for Freeman's passing game, so does the tape study.
His first passing play in the first drive against New England amply demonstrates the point, as the outlet pass is so late-developing that there is no way that Freeman would be able to check down, particularly with safety help naturally over his tight end.
He makes the wrong half-field read and stares down his receiver, but the play is ultimately successful as he completes a sideline throw to Mike Williams in stride.
In the same drive, Freeman only has two receivers available to him and both run out-breaking routes while eight players stay in pass protection. This play was an incomplete pass, although this was more a result of Freeman's ball placement on an open receiver than a difficult throw or a dropped pass.
The final play to look at might look familiar to Vikings fans.
It's a third down play.
Freeman completes a pass to the receiver furthest downfield. He doesn't convert the third down. Perhaps a route that went past the down marker or at least led the receiver forward would be useful. It's a Cover-2 shell, so the generic play call is fine as a Cover-2 beater, but it doesn't even attempt to do anything but improve the chances of a successful field goal attempt.
The Vikings offense has been restricted by turnover problems, and Freeman doesn't seem to be much of a solution to those problems, given his 3.4 interception rate (bottom third in the league in any given year). But he more than makes up for it with his relatively high interception rate (4.1 percent in his career) and league average yards per attempt.
More interestingly, his performance as a starter under Greg Olson's offense is even better, posting a nearly identical touchdown rate, but a much lower interception rate.
Even his interceptions this year have been tough. More often than not, the credit can be split multiple ways, and Freeman isn't necessarily quick to throw the ball away. His release collapses a bit under pressure, and that's been a contributor as well, especially in the Jets game.
But a big issue involves miscommunication from his receivers (including the interception to Landry against the Jets) and poor scheming to create opportunities for his receivers. Having two receivers who are good at jump balls in Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams has encouraged Mike Sullivan to call plays that almost purely create jump ball opportunities.
It isn't necessarily all on the current Bucs regime, however. His plummet started a season before first-time offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan (former QB coach at the Giants from 2010-2011 and WR coach there from 04-09) or the 2012 quarterbacks coach from the Arizona Cardinals (what a hire!) showed up in Tampa.
There was reason to believe that Freeman had an unsustainable amount of success as a sophomore. Aside from 5 (!) come-from-behind wins-a fairly significant caution sign for regression in its own right-he generated production using less consistent means of performance. As Greg Cosell pointed out:
"In his first full year as a starter ... there was a sense that this kid was on his way to being elite. When I looked at that year carefully after the season, I thought many of his plays came off improvisation, came off movement.
"I am not suggesting that is a negative. [But] it is very hard to be consistent playing that way because there is such a random and arbitrary element to that. We never talk about the plays that don't work when quarterbacks move, we only talk about the plays that do work. I thought even in that first year he needed a lot of work as a consistent, precision pocket passer. And I think he has been very erratic in his development in that area."
And there are a significant degree of mechanical problems that Freeman has to work on.
Freeman isn't insulated from blame. Even knowing he doesn't have good options, he tries to do more than what's available to him and forces the ball where it can't go. He rarely throws the ball away when it's appropriate, and this will result in some dangerous, dangerous throws.
What's interesting is that Freeman also doesn't respond to pressure appropriately, either. Despite being a mobile quarterback (and throwing relatively well on the run), he doesn't move around in the pocket when appropriate, even if only to step up in response to pressure.
For the most part, his mechanical issues aren't the type of problem that are necessarily ingrained habits that are difficult to work around (his throwing motion issues, for example, start at the feet instead of the shoulder).
Like Matt Cassel, Freeman had an excellent 2010. He ranked 6th in adjusted net yards per attempt, and 12th overall in yards per attempt. He guided the team to a 10-6 record and threw 25 touchdowns to only 6 interceptions.
This was before Vincent Jackson arrived.
He seems to work better out of the west coast principles embedded in the Greg Olson coaching philosophy, so long as he is given latitude to air it out whenever he sees the opportunity. Olson wasn't ever a strict WCO-adherent, but stuck to the principles while opening up the playbook for deeper shots, making sure that outlet passes and safety valves were well available.
Josh Freeman is only 25 and shows remarkable poise (with a great comeback record), along with natural talent and a willingness to work on the field. His adeptness for tackling defenders or putting his body on the line without suffering injury is admirable, and he had a reputation for an excellent work ethic before this year.
As the drama played out in Tampa Bay, Josh Freeman's "work ethic" came under attack, but it became clearer and clearer that the issues were with Greg Schiano, not Josh Freeman. If the worst of his intangible leadership qualities were that he missed a team photo, then he's hardly a poor leader.
His entry into Stage One of the NFL Drug Program is a nonfactor, as he voluntarily entered it as a result of a prescription for a medication he needs. As the situation escalated, his "rogue" interview with ESPN seemed e necessary response to the bizarre PR attack on his character from an organization that jerked him around about his presence at games, and lies about what they do.
Freeman has shown he has the capability to be a top-ten quarterback, although the likelihood is poor. When run through quarterback projections after his first 25 games, he improved relative to league average more than every other young quarterback except for Alex Smith. Like Smith, part of this is due to a poor rookie year, but it is notable that he outperformed Eli Manning, John Elway, Peyton Manning and many other Hall of Famers.
It's not so much that Freeman will be a lock for anything—even as a "good" quarterback—but the ranked list of improvement has produced more Super Bowl winning quarterbacks in the top fifteen of risers than it has anywhere, else, implying that at the very least, hope isn't lost for Josh Freeman.
The Vikings shouldn't sign Freeman as an answer for 2013—he wouldn't have learned the playbook sufficiently until late into the season or even the offseason—but they should sign him as a strategy to move on from Christian Ponder to try and create the best quarterback situation possible in the coming years.
Should the Vikings decide to release one of their eight linebackers (say, Larry Dean who hasn't even been a good special teamer this season) to sign Josh Freeman, they could draft a quarterback in the first round and hold an open competition for the quarterback position in 2014.
If Matt Cassel continues to start—and play well—for the Vikings, they could keep him and McLeod Bethel-Thompson on board, release Christian Ponder and hold three spots open for four promising quarterbacks in next year's roster. If Matt Cassel performs like most expect him to, it's an even easier problem to solve.
For the curious, there are excellent tape breakdowns on Josh Freeman this year. Sports Illustrated has done two, first here and the second here. I consider these the best. Pete Prisco also made an argument in defense of Freeman here and despite Prisco's general smugness is a good piece. Stephen White is a former Buc and an excellent analyst, who opined on his blog here.
Be sure to follow NFLosophy on twitter, as there is probably no better source specifically on Josh Freeman.