|Peter Morgan/Associated Press|
|After a disastrous 2013 season, 26-year-old QB Josh Freeman looks to prove himself worthy of starting once more.|
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It was difficult not to notice the dynamics at work when the New York Giants met the media for the opening of their offseason workouts this week. Eli Manning and his walking-boot-encased left ankle were put on a podium for his few minutes of questions and answers, requiring a large step down, for which Manning grabbed hold of a backdrop to steady himself as he walked away. For the few steps before he was safely inside again, Manning was greeted by a phalanx of cameras intent on capturing his slowed gait, giving the whole scene the bizarre feel of a perp walk for the athletic trainer set.
That is what happens when there are concerns about the franchise quarterback, of course, a situation that Josh Freeman used to be familiar with. A few minutes after Manning disappeared behind the glass doors, Freeman appeared. He stood off to the side, on the back porch of the Giants' training facility, essentially trying to explain how, in less than one calendar year, he had traveled the very long distance from being the guy who needed a podium to accommodate the attention he attracted to the player the Giants hope nobody even thinks about talking to once training camp starts and Manning and his liberated ankle return to the field.
"Last year, I would never have imagined this happening," Freeman said in a short interview. "I can't put my finger on exactly what happened. It was a frustrating time. You've got to learn to let things go. At this point, just thinking about it is only going to take time away from preparation in the present. I've laid it to rest. As frustrating as it was, it's over."
Freeman remains bewildered by his stunning descent, although it's worth noting that he was pondering his fate in the shadow of MetLife Stadium, which sits across the parking lot from the Giants' facility and which hosted the rapid rise and even swifter fall of Mark Sanchez with the New York Jets. Like Sanchez, Freeman was viewed as one of the bright young quarterbacks of the NFL not all that long ago.
At one point in the 2012 season, Freeman had helped lift the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a 6-4 record -- after four straight wins -- by throwing 21 touchdown passes against just seven interceptions. Speculation arose about a contract extension that would keep Freeman from having to play out the final year of his rookie deal in 2013.
Then, the tailspin that neither the Bucs nor Freeman have recovered from began, starting slowly at first before picking up speed. The Bucs lost five of their last six games that season. In one brutal two-game stretch in December, they scored a total of 13 points in blowout defeats to the Saints and Rams, with Freeman throwing one touchdown pass and eight interceptions.
If then-coach Greg Schiano had possessed any confidence in Freeman before that point -- he'd inherited the quarterback from the previous coaching regime in Tampa Bay -- it was surely gone. When the Bucs drafted Mike Glennon last year and gave him considerable playing time in the preseason, it was apparent to everyone that Schiano was already looking for a way to move on from Freeman. Still, when I spoke with Freeman last summer, he seemed startled by the suggestion that he might be on trial for his job.
"I wouldn't consider it any different," he said at the time. "I think everything in this league is earned; it's something, no matter how it goes at the end, I'll be great. I obviously love being a Buccaneer, I love playing for Coach Schiano, I love my teammates. But I try to make the most of this year. You've got to seize every moment. I've got to soak it all in and be the best Josh I can be."
Instead, Freeman's play was terrible in 2013, and the outcome was worse. Through the first three weeks of the season, he compiled the worst completion percentage among NFL starters -- and lost his job before the month of September was even over. Then came the anonymous leaks: that Freeman had missed the team photo, that Schiano might have tried to rig the election for team captain, that Freeman was a participant in the league's substance-abuse program. He was released by the Bucs, signed by the Vikings, played in one disastrous game (against the Giants, coincidentally) soon after he signed and never saw the field again. He was also once more the subject of anonymous quotes, this time with Vikings players saying Freeman was late to team meetings and didn't know the offense. Freeman sat on the open market for more than a month as a free agent before the Giants finally scooped him up with a one-year deal that contains just $55,000 in guaranteed money.
Schiano, who also lost his job with the Bucs, has said almost nothing about Freeman's collapse; neither have the Vikings. For his part, Freeman is unwilling even to say that a personality clash with Schiano, who was long rumored to be seeking a quarterback more in line with his own fire-in-the-belly personality, might have contributed to his demise. Still, the signal-caller is just 26 years old, and the NFL is a QB-desperate league. When he said this week he still sees himself as a starting-caliber quarterback, it came across not as arrogant but as realistic.
If Freeman is trying to forget what happened, the question is, what can he do to make the rest of the league follow suit? He will get plenty of opportunities with the Giants during organized team activities and minicamps while Manning is out. But this is the first time since he was a rookie that Freeman will not go into a season as a starter. After going through last year -- one that he said was like none he'd ever experienced -- that might not be such a bad thing.
While Schiano's reputation was tarnished by Tampa Bay's meltdown and by the lingering suspicion that he might have been behind some of the most damaging leaks about Freeman, Freeman, too, has a reputation to overcome. Yes, some in the league feel Freeman was thrown to the wolves in Minnesota, but comments about his work ethic and commitment will undoubtedly linger in memories until he proves otherwise. Freeman admitted that, while he must prove it to his teammates and to the Giants, he must first prove to himself that he is good enough to start again. His initial step will be competing with Curtis Painter and Ryan Nassib to be Manning's backup.
"Obviously, any time you're going to sign with the team, you play out every scenario in your head," Freeman said. "What really sold me on the Giants was being part of a quality organization with a great head coach. Taking a year to step back and really learn and get better. It's been frustrating. It's definitely had its dark points. It's adversity. It gives me an opportunity to challenge myself in a situation I couldn't see myself being in prior to being in it. I think I'll be a better player for it. What can you do next time to make sure, beyond the shadow of a doubt, it won't happen again?"
Last year at this time, the Bucs said they wanted to see better ball security from Freeman. Whoever fumbled that chance, Freeman can't afford to lose this one, too.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.