"I think I'm a better quarterback than I was last year," Freeman said.
OK, are you done laughing yet?
I’ll gladly give you some more time -- and a few statistics. Through nine games, Freeman has thrown 13 interceptions (the second-highest total in the league) and just nine touchdown passes. That comes after Freeman threw 25 touchdown passes and just six interceptions all of last season.
And he’s now a better quarterback than he was last season?
This is where the laughing should stop. There’s been nothing funny about Tampa Bay’s 4-5 start because this was a team that went a surprising 10-6 last season and was supposed to be very much on the rise. Freeman’s claim may sound delusional, but it’s not.
I’ll take the Freeman of this season over the Freeman of last season. Seriously.
He’s a year older and a year wiser than he was in his first full season as a starter last year. The statistics don’t show improvement, and I’m not going to suggest that Freeman has taken a big step forward. But I will say I don’t think he’s regressed. The rest of the Bucs have, though, and that’s the problem. Some of Freeman’s teammates, and maybe even the coaching staff and front office, have done the quarterback an injustice and that’s why the statistics and the team’s record aren’t very pretty.
Go ahead and put some blame on Freeman. And it is fair to wonder about that thumb injury that had the New Orleans Saints so excited a few weeks ago. Freeman might not look like the same quarterback he was a year ago, but I think that has a lot more to do with the team around him more than anything else.
The Bucs found out they had a franchise quarterback last season. But the mistake they made -- and this goes to the coaching staff and the front office -- were that they also thought they found a big-time No. 1 wide receiver and a true feature running back.
That’s Mike Williams and LeGarrette Blount, and I have no problem saying each of them has taken multiple steps back from last season. They were two players who fell in the 2010 draft, Williams to the fourth round and Blount all the way out of the draft.
There were reasons for that and they’re playing out now. The coaches and front office people might have let the performances of Williams and Blount last year go to their heads. Williams and Blount might have done the same thing.
When the rest of the offensive skill-position players were working out together in Tampa during the lockout, Williams frequently was hanging out at his home in Buffalo. Now he’s playing more like a No. 3 or 4 receiver and no one else has stepped up. His route running hasn’t been precise and he’s tied for third in the NFL in dropped passes. The Bucs lead the league in drops.
But that’s not the only problem. Blount may be the player most responsible for throwing Freeman and the offense off kilter. Blount came in and rushed for 1,000 yards in half a season as the starter last year. He did that with Cadillac Williams helping out as the third-down back.
The Bucs let Williams leave in the offseason, largely because they thought Blount was ready to become an every-down back. That hasn’t happened. Blount has crippled the offense because he hasn’t shown he can be an effective pass-protector. If you're one of the biggest and strongest running backs in the league and you can't figure out how to pass block by the second half of your second season, it probably never is going to happen. The Bucs used Earnest Graham in passing situations until he suffered a season-ending injury and now they’re going with Kregg Lumpkin.
That’s made Tampa Bay’s offense incredibly predictable. Defenses basically know that the Bucs will run the ball when Blount’s on the field and throw it when Lumpkin’s in the game. That takes away the play-action game and it has made Freeman look bad.
But the fact is Freeman’s pretty close to the same player he was last year. It’s just not showing because the guys around him are nothing close to what they were last year or what the Bucs thought they could be this year.