It seems like just about every week we talk about how much Josh Freeman grew up on Sunday. Well, I think we saw another step in the process of becoming a true franchise quarterback and it happened on a Wednesday.
In light of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and coach Raheem Morris suddenly taking a lot of heat after linebacker Geno Hayes became the latest player to get into off-field trouble, Freeman stepped up twice -- once very publicly and once very privately -- and did exactly what a franchise quarterback should do.
Freeman took the heat off Morris and pointed the blame firmly where it belongs. That part happened in a public venue, as Freeman met with the media.
“I don’t think it says anything about the type of coach Raheem is,’’ Freeman said. “I think some people could look at it that way. But honestly, the circumstances where the stuff occurred, it is all on the player. I mean, his job is to coach us and put us in position to win football games. He’s done just that. When we get done with football, you can’t expect Raheem to go to everybody’s house at a certain hour. It is the NFL. We have to take a higher level of responsibility on ourselves from college. As team captains and team leaders, we’ve been stressing that a lot lately.’’
The last part of that quote, about captains and team leaders, leads us to the private area. There was a players-only meeting Wednesday, according to a team source, and Freeman and veteran cornerback Ronde Barber were the ones running the show. Freeman’s election as a team captain at the start of the season was a sign that the second-year player already had the respect of his teammates. But the fact that he was the one telling 52 other guys to be responsible on Wednesday shows that Freeman’s role as a captain isn’t just some meaningless title.
Quarterbacks are the faces of franchises and Freeman’s actions reminded me of a couple of things I’ve seen through the years in the NFC South, even in times before there was the existing NFC South.
Let’s start with Steve Beuerlein and the Carolina Panthers in 1999. In one of the worst off-field incidents in NFL history, wide receiver Rae Carruth eventually was charged and convicted with arranging the murder of his pregnant girlfriend. Carruth obviously disappeared immediately, but the spotlight stayed on the Panthers.
Camera crews from national news networks showed up on a regular basis and, understandably, a lot of players hid because Carruth’s problem wasn’t really their territory. Even coach George Seifert kept a very low profile.
That left Beuerlein to stand and face the music day after day. Beuerlein might not have been the greatest quarterback ever, but he understood his role. He was the leader of the team. No matter how tired he might have been about answering questions about a teammate he barely knew, Beuerlein handled every day with grace. He said all the right things about how the Panthers were just praying for everyone involved and it took the heat off his coaches and teammates. Beuerlein and the Panthers actually had a pretty decent season on the field and there was no doubt about who was running the team.
Now, let’s move on to a current NFC South quarterback, who might be the best example of what Freeman seems to be headed for. That’s New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees. If you have ever been around the Saints, you almost instantly realize they operate out of Brees’ locker room.
Nobody crosses Brees and that’s not just because he’s one of the best on-field quarterbacks in the league. Brees totally gets what it takes to be a champion (he’s got the Lombardi Trophy to prove it) and he constantly spreads that message to his teammates. Publicly, he says all the right things. Privately, he does it even more firmly.
If a guy isn’t working as hard as he should be or is heading down a bad road off the field, Brees often gets in that guy’s ear before the coaches and front office have to. You want an example of how sternly Brees runs the locker room?
Take the case of Jeremy Shockey. In his days with the New York Giants, Shockey pushed around quarterback Eli Manning and usually not in a good way. That led to dysfunction and eventually got Shockey traded.
In New Orleans, Shockey hasn’t been nearly as flamboyant and it has been that way right from the start. That’s because Shockey knew coming in that you do things Brees’ way. He has, and it’s part of the reason the Saints won the Super Bowl last season.
It’s early in the process, but Freeman is showing a lot of the same traits as Brees. He’s playing well and leading his team to victories on the field. During the offseason, you heard stories about how no player was spending more time around One Buccaneer Place than Freeman. He’s also showing a growing knack for saying all the right things.
Lots of guys come into the league looking the part of a franchise quarterback, but never really act the part. Freeman is doing both. Contrary to popular belief, the Bucs aren't some team running amok. Yes, they have some issues. But they have the one guy in the locker room who, with a few words, can straighten out a lot of things by standing up and taking control.