|Margaret Bowles / Associated Press|
|Second-year Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman is maturing rapidly right before everyone's eyes.|
Most coaches who look out their office window in January and see a player working on the practice fields, with no playoff game on the docket, would say that particular guy is working ahead.
But Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman never saw it that way, as he chewed up the grass behind One Buccaneer Place in the dead of last winter. No, he was playing from behind.
And as he has shown over his short NFL career, that so often is when the 22-year-old phenom does his best work.
"Last year, 3-13, that's terrible," Freeman said. "I felt like, being a rookie quarterback, I wasn't at the stage where I could go out and dictate the terms of the game, or change the game, so I had to get my feet underneath me. Mentally, I was behind the guys who do that week after week. And you don't get to be one of those guys by taking time off in the offseason."
Freeman may not be "one of those guys" quite yet, but he's rapidly moving in the direction of the league's high-rent quarterback district, and it's not because he's posting numbers like those of Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. He isn't. His 7-3 TD-INT ratio is solid, not spectacular, and his 82.8 quarterback rating and 58.8 completion percentage certainly leave room for improvement.
But as far as, to borrow his term, changing games? That part is coming. He has shown a similar aptitude for catching up in live action as he did on those practice fields in January.
Freeman will start his 16th game in Arizona this Sunday, giving him a full season's worth. He already has five fourth-quarter comeback wins, and that's not counting last year's game against Miami, when another comeback was foiled when the Dolphins answered with a game-winning field goal.
In fact, in just two of Freeman's seven wins as starter has Tampa Bay not needed to come back in the game's final 15 minutes. Turns out, this kid always seems to answer the bell.
"I think guys feel like when he's in the huddle, they have a chance to win," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "All the great ones have that. He's still early in his career, and he still has a lot to prove. We understand that, and he understands that. But he's grabbed the attention of the vets. There's a belief that when he's in there, we have a chance."
The best part for Tampa Bay may be that Freeman doesn't just get that. He embraces it.
Maybe the quarterback was going to show up in January under any circumstances. Because of the influence of his parents, that's who he is. But he also understands that others are watching what he's doing, and if his team is going to have a chance to win, the quarterback has to set the tone.
"Obviously, you look at offenses and in most cases, it starts with the quarterback," Freeman said. "If that quarterback isn't playing well, then the team probably doesn't have a great opportunity to win the game. And if he's throwing interceptions, not converting third downs, it's really hard to win.
"It is a quarterback-driven league. But at the same time, the pressure that I put on myself to be great outweighs any outside pressure I could have."
That's where the extra work came in. After the Buccaneers wrapped up their 2009 campaign on Jan. 3, Freeman went home to Kansas City for a couple weeks and returned to work on Jan. 25, the day after the conference title games. The quarterback was drilled, sometimes by Olson and quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, other times by himself, on footwork, accuracy, protection calls, route combinations, ball security, and timing.
At some points, he had teammates to work with it. At others, he had to enlist his 20-year-old brother Caleb, a student at nearby University of South Florida, to catch passes. The other Buccaneers took notice.
"Part of the reason we drafted him and put that pressure on him to be a franchise quarterback, is to set the example for everyone," Olson said, noting that head coach Raheem Morris' experience with Freeman at Kansas State gave the club tremendous insight into his work ethic. "We feel like when the rest of the team sees that, well, hopefully he drags a few more guys with him this winter."
That work spilled into the spring camps, with Freeman having built a full head of steam going into the offseason program and allowed the coaches to treat the offense as if it was being run by someone who just turned 32, rather than 22.
And as such, it's no wonder Freeman already has a resume full of come-from-behind victories. It's easier to pull those off, of course, when you know what you're doing, and while the Bucs would like to find themselves in fewer of those circumstances, they know they have the man to handle those spots.
"He just has tremendous composure as a player, and that jumps out in those fourth quarter situations," said Olson. "Guys say he has the 'it' factor. He's totally in control."
For Freeman, it's as simple as boiling the game down to the 11-on-11 chess match it really is. So long as he knows how to play his pieces -- and he does -- everything else should fade away.
"All that matters are those 11 guys on defense and offense," Freeman said. "The field is the same size, and it doesn't matter where you're playing. You just have to find a way."
So far, Freeman most certainly has.
The Texans entered 2009 ready to deal with the loss of one star linebacker. The loss of another hasn't been as easy to endure.
See, Houston had months to prepare for the season-opening, four-game suspension to reigning Rookie of the Year Brian Cushing, but mere days to adjust after heart-and-soul middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans ruptured his Achilles tendon two Sundays ago. The answer for replacing Ryans? Cushing.
"It's a big change (for Cushing)," said defensive coordinator Frank Bush. "DeMeco's a Pro Bowl player, our quarterback, the defense's Matt Schaub. So for Brian to take on that role, it's a big change. And it's not so much physical as it is in leadership. There will be all these things -- calling the defense, getting guys lined up, having that presence -- that Brian hasn't had to do before."
But so many of those intangible things account for just why the Texans are calling on Cushing to fill Ryans' shoes, rather than just elevating veteran backup Kevin Bentley.
Yes, Cushing will have to grow into the role. What Bush has observed, though, is a young player with a lot of the traits necessary to fill it.
"It's the way he works," Bush says. "He's very serious about football, and he does everything he can to get better as a player. He trains hard, he eats right. He does absolutely everything he can to make himself a big-time player, including giving all the effort he does on Sunday. He's got a chance to be a great leader for us."
There are some subtle adjustments, playing-wise, that Cushing will have to make. At the weak-side position Cushing played as a rookie, he had far more freedom to go on instinct and put himself in spots to make plays.
In the middle, he'll have to be more under control and disciplined, and know that missing an assignment could be far more costly. But this change is also about the coaches adjusting to the player's skills, and Bush plans to do that.
"We gotta do things to help Brian," Bush said. "DeMeco plays a certain style, and DeMeco's different than Brian. We have to put Brian in the best position to be successful."
I know this truth...
We're still waiting for the overall effect of the renewed emphasis on the head-hunting rules to take hold. As for the first week, there was good and bad.
Good: Watching Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather levy a big hit by driving his shoulder into Chargers receiver Patrick Crayton and sending him to the ground with a thud. Proof positive that guys can maintain their aggression while adjusting the way they attack.
Bad: Plenty of defenders looked hesitant or uncertain of how to go about changing, and that led to defensive backs and linebackers pulling up at times. The worst case scenario is that, eventually, it costs someone something serious, like a tackle in a crucial situation that could turn a game.
One case of pulling up late came in the Titans-Eagles game, when Tennessee safety Michael Griffin had a free shot at Philadelphia's Chad Hall and, once he saw the ball sail past Hall, chose to change his path and avoid him. Griffin immediately threw his hands up after the play, as if to say, "I didn't do a thing."
"I saw the ball come out, and the receiver didn't make the catch, so there was no reason to hit him or anything," Griffin said. "That'd be dumb penalty, and you gotta play smart when you're out there. They would've called it. You gotta continue to play hard, but if I had taken that shot, I don't know what would've happened."
Griffin is one player who does seem to have an understanding of the message the league is trying to get across. That's why he thinks it's important that people are trained to differentiate one hit from the next. It's something Griffin doesn't think is so hard to do.
"If they do flag it because it's helmet to helmet, that's OK," Griffin said. "But when they go out back to figure out whether or not to fine the guy and how much, they need to at least evaluate the play. Was it intentional? Where was the guy aiming for? If I'm aiming for his waist line and he ducks his head, and his head goes to where was aiming, I mean, you gotta understand the Brandon Meriweather hit, you can see it. He jumped up and hit with his helmet.
"But the Harrison hit, I mean he led with his shoulder, and the guy juggling the ball, and there was helmet-to-helmet contact. I think in the end, go back and see. You can easily tell on the film whether someone was trying to harm you."
I don't know much at all...
About how the Colts are going to handle the loss of All-Pro tight end Dallas Clark. What I do know is that a) Clark was an invaluable piece of that offense (100 catches last year tells you that) and will be tough to replace and b) it's nearly impossible to count Peyton Manning out in a situation like this one.
Remember, a little over a year ago, the Colts were acclimating to playing without Marvin Harrison, and Anthony Gonzalez was battling injuries that would cost him his entire season, and all Manning did was win a fourth MVP trophy and introduce the world to Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon. So you probably ought to get to know Jacob Tamme now.
"The thing the Colts do a great job of is identifying guys for their system," said one AFC scout. "Tamme's not going to replace Clark, because some of the intuitive things Dallas does and the fact that he's a Pro Bowl player and one of the best. But the Colts understand their system, and they get guys that fit, it's that athleticism and receiving ability, but it's also the smarts. Plus, Tamme's a heck of an athlete."
Another AFC scout put it this way: "They have a minimum criteria. You have to be able to think on your feet. Teams disguise and change looks, and you have to be able to react, both mentally and physically. You have to be smart, quick, and be able to change direction on a dime. Not many guys can do it like Dallas can. He's extra special at it."
Receiver Reggie Wayne is, too, but Clark's absence means Manning will have just one player in that category, rather than two. As such, Wayne is likely to draw even more attention from defenses than he already does. Another way the Colts should be able to mitigate the damage is by getting slot receiver Gonzalez and Collie back healthy, since Clark was so often detached from the formation and playing that position.
Where the injury figures to hurt most is that it'd be hard for anyone to expect the kind of consistency Clark provided from down-to-down, so you may see an additional bad series or two, in spots where the All-Pro might've bailed Indy out. And another area to watch might be with the quarterback, who demands a level of perfection and that his receivers see coverages the way he does, becoming a tad frustrated. But most expect Manning to work things out eventually. "By Week 11 or 12," said the first scout, "I expect them to be a well-oiled machine again."
Vikings coach Brad Childress' comments Monday came off as a snide reference to the New England Patriots' illegal video-taping case directed at Patriots coach Bill Belichick. And maybe, after all the Brett Favre double talk over the last two seasons, it's hard to believe Childress when he swears he meant nothing by his signal-stealing allegations. But you should trust him on this. Belichick and Childress may not be best friends, but the two have had an open line of communication on football topics for some time, and they did pull off the Randy Moss trade a couple weeks back. Plus, they share a powerful friend in University of Florida coach Urban Meyer, who might count those two as his closest NFL confidants.
Bottom line: The easy way of breaking this one down -- that Childress is sniping -- is an incorrect one.
1) Most of the attention in Philadelphia of late has centered, rightly, on the quarterback competition between Kevin Kolb and Mike Vick. So LeSean McCoy's emergence has slipped under the radar. But it shouldn't have. McCoy is on pace to rush for more than 1,000 yards and catch more than 80 balls, and that has the 22-year-old stick of dynamite drawing some pretty heady comparisons. In talking to Titans folks last week, to a man, nearly everyone said that readying for McCoy was just like preparing for Brian Westbrook in his prime. I mentioned that to McCoy the other day. "I got a long way to go to be considered like Brian," he said, bashfully. "That's a good compliment, a great legend like that." I remember players used to tell us in the media the last few years that it was Westbrook, not Donovan McNabb, who made the Eagles offense go. That should tell you how much McCoy could mean to Vick or Kolb.
2) If the San Francisco 49ers tear down the walls and start anew, like most expect, in a couple months, big names like Jon Gruden and Jim Harbaugh will be bandied about. What will be really interesting is how owner Jed York answers questions from coaches of that ilk. Because those questions won't have as much to do with the organization as they will with the man who runs it -- York himself. Perception around the league is that York would have to convince high-level football people he interviews that they'll be entrusted with the football operation. The repeated changes in the power structure -- giving Mike Nolan final say, then handing it to Scot McCloughan, then pushing it to Mike Singletary -- show a lack of an overall organizational philosophy. And Gruden or Harbaugh likely would want a large role in shaping that philosophy going forward. York probably would have to give them that, and assurances he wouldn't change again on the fly.
3) When this era is reflected on, one player who should be remembered as underappreciated is ageless receiver Derrick Mason. The 35-year-old Raven currently ranks 13th all-time in catches (889), 20th in receiving yards (11,446) and 65th in touchdown catches (60). Otherworldly, those numbers are not. But consider the context -- Mason has spent all 14 years of his career in run-first offenses, first with Tennessee (1997-2004) and now with Baltimore. And his toughness is hard to match. Memorable as any was his six-catch, one-touchdown effort with a separated shoulder in a crucial December 2008 game in Dallas, and Mason is showing his grit again now, pledging not to miss a game after undergoing finger surgery earlier this week. Not hard to figure why, even with all those new weapons he has, Joe Flacco continues to look for No. 85 when things get tight for the Baltimore offense.
4) It's hard to blame Mike Martz completely for all of Chicago's offensive struggles. After all, he was handed a leaky offensive line, a handful of complementary pieces at receiver and a quarterback who needed an overhaul in approach. But the truth is that Martz's current group is showing a lot of the same signs of failure as some of his past groups -- those he's run since leaving St. Louis. The problem with this offense in San Francisco and Detroit was that it could generate plenty of production between the 20s but had trouble in more confined environs, where space wasn't available to be exploited. Voila. The Bears rank 31st in the NFL in red-zone efficiency. On top of that, some of the protection issues that were evident elsewhere with Martz have arisen in Chicago, with the team dead last in sacks allowed. There's still plenty of time to clean up the mess (the Bears remain 4-3 and tied for first with Green Bay in the NFC North), but history says we shouldn't hold our breath for improvement.
5) Jacksonville has so often been the team earmarked as "First to Los Angeles." But when focus does turn to getting the nation's second biggest market its very own team, probably after a new collective bargaining agreement is reached (whenever that happens), the Jaguars won't exactly have free passage to the City of Angels. There's the pesky matter of the lease in North Florida, which was extended through the 2030 season back in 2002. That extension was for just five years, but owner Wayne Weaver said at the time that he did it to send a message: "That's my way of saying the Jacksonville Jaguars are the Jacksonville Jaguars, and they're not going to be anything else." In talking to experts in the field of stadium issues, it seems as if this lease will not be easy for the Jaguars to break. One said recently, when the prospect of the "Los Angeles Jaguars" was raised, "I don't know how they're getting out of that lease." We may soon find out.
6) Each week, the Chargers' season seems to be hanging in the balance, as a club with the league's top-ranked offense and defense invents new ways to lose. There were, in fact, a few things about the game that were remarkable in a good way for San Diego. Like the fact that they almost overcame a 4-0 deficit in takeaways, or that they doubled up the Patriots in yardage, or that they threw for 336 yards despite missing their top three wideouts and having an All-Pro tight end playing on one foot. Of course, that has been the story of San Diego's season. Is it over? Not quite. If the Chargers can split their next two, against the Titans and Texans, they enter their bye at 3-6. And the final seven weeks set up to where the Chargers could, potentially, run the table and finish with 10 wins. Likely? Well, the Chargers have done it the last three years running. "They're very, very talented, substantially more so than their record shows," said one scout this week. "They're not far off, because the problems are correctable. The biggest thing is they're (second-to-last) in turnover ratio, and their special teams are a problem. ... But I've seen enough to think this team is gonna take off."
7) An interesting question will soon confront Josh McDaniels: When is the time to pull the plug on Kyle Orton and hand the reins to Tim Tebow, if McDaniels plans to make that move at all in 2010? The Broncos are 2-5, and that leaves them just 2 1/2 games out of first place in the AFC West, so it's not like the season is over. But with each loss from here on out, the pressure to play Tebow will build. Is it a good idea? Well, at a position where confidence is vital, it's always dangerous to throw a passer who isn't ready out there to take a pounding. The flip side is the case of a player like Freeman, who was a bit raw coming out of college and was able to ride out the rough times last year and use the experience going into his second year. Tebow saw his most extensive action two weeks ago, in short-yardage situations against the Jets, but he still has yet to throw his first pass as a pro.
8) Steve Spagnuolo has an awfully young team on his hands, and those who have been around came into this season with the bad-taste of a three-year, 6-42 stretch in their mouths. A 4-3 start goes a long way to changing things. So too can a little history lesson. During training camp, Spagnuolo showed the club a tape of Isaac Bruce's retirement press conference, in which the ex-Ram receiver spoke about the pride of being part of the franchise, and the responsibility he and his teammates felt in upholding a high standard they started setting in 1999. That came up this week with the Rams set to honor Bruce. "I showed part of that (press conference) because just the depth of what he was speaking, a team player," Spagnuolo said. "It thought it was really, really special." The idea, of course, is for guys like Sam Bradford and Chris Long to grab the torch that Bruce and Marshall Faulk and Kurt Warner and Torry Holt once carried.
9) Here's what says it all about the Cowboys situation: Most of the correspondence I had with fans in the day after the Monday night mugging by the Giants centered on this thought: "Could Tony Romo's injury save Wade Phillips' job?" Most of these folks were concerned that it would. Chances are, it won't. This team was spiraling downward far before the loss to New York, and where the season was going didn't hinge on one player's health. So assuming Phillips doesn't work miracles, where does Dallas turn? Smart money's on John Fox, whose contract is up in Carolina. Fox has a standing relationship with the Jones family, has the kind of demeanor/swagger that could win over that particular locker room, brings the hard edge that Phillips has lacked, and would be flexible enough to not quibble over personnel control and adjust his schemes or looks to the personnel there.
10) I'm going to use this final item one more time to reach out to all of you, the readers, and thank you for the feedback on last week's work. I'm going to try and keep this thing evolving and changing until I feel like I've got it right, so I'm always open to suggestions. Hit me up at email@example.com or on Twitter @albertbreer and keep it candid on how you feel about this. Oh, and we still have to give it a name. Got some good ones (yes, my last name rhymes with "beer") last week. Keep 'em coming.
Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @albertbreer.