Most critics of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been willing to cite quarterback Josh Freeman as the major reason for that team's 0-2 start. Those same people also are missing the larger picture, one that should become clearer as this season plays out. Freeman isn't the biggest problem with the Bucs these days. That dubious honor belongs to head coach Greg Schiano.
It's definitely impossible to defend Freeman's early season struggles -- particularly his 45.3 completion percentage -- until you start realizing the Bucs should be 2-0. They blew a late-game lead to the New York Jets in Week 1 after a bonehead personal foul by linebacker Lavonte David gave the Jets an opportunity to kick the winning field goal. The Bucs led the Saints last week until New Orleans marched downfield in the final seconds for its own game-winning kick. On top of all that, Schiano has mishandled his relationship with Freeman for most of the last eight months.
First, Schiano waffled on Freeman as his starter after the Bucs finished last season with a 7-9 record. Then Schiano suggested in May that rookie quarterback Mike Glennon, the team's third-round pick in this year's draft, could compete for the job. Every now and then Schiano would find a way to say enough positive things to intimate that Freeman was still his guy, but anybody could read between the lines. Schiano has never really convinced the masses that Freeman is his long-term answer at quarterback.
It's perfectly acceptable for Schiano to feel that way. The problem is that he's sent too many mixed messages to a young quarterback still in need of a supportive environment. One league source said Freeman's people were so miffed by Schiano's ambivalence earlier this offseason that they even floated the idea of a trade to Kansas City, Freeman's hometown, before the Chiefs dealt for Alex Smith. The Bucs shot down that possibility -- claiming that Freeman wasn't going to be traded -- but that was only the start of what already has been a long year.
Freeman and Schiano have the kind of problems that even Dr. Phil couldn't fix. CBSSports.com reported that Freeman is likely to ask for a trade before this year's Oct. 29 trade deadline. Freeman also was stripped of his captaincy in a vote by teammates that some have suggested Schiano rigged. Freeman also didn't help matters by going all passive-aggressive and missing the team photo recently. At the very least, especially with Freeman in the final year of his contract, it's hard to see these two men co-existing in 2014.
It's not that Schiano doesn't have a right to be frustrated with Freeman on the field. The numbers alone -- Freeman has thrown four touchdown passes and 11 interceptions in his last five starts -- reveal a quarterback who has struggled to find his mojo ever since this team imploded under former head coach Raheem Morris in 2011. What Schiano has to realize, however, is that Freeman still has plenty to offer an NFL franchise. He's still the same quarterback who looked like a future star in 2010, when he threw 25 touchdown passes and six interceptions in his second season.
A good head coach would figure out how Freeman blossomed that year and find ways to replicate that success. A stubborn coach would do what Schiano has been doing for most of his first two years in Tampa. Play mind games. Push the notion that competition brings out the best in players at all positions. Act as if he can use the same disciplinary tactics that worked on college kids at Rutgers and achieve similar success with grown men.
If Schiano took a good look around the NFL, he would find a changing landscape in regard to young quarterbacks. The teams having the most success are finding ways to play to their quarterbacks' strengths. They build up their confidence by creating a user-friendly environment. They find success with young players because a little thing like trust goes a long way.
The teams that struggle with their young quarterbacks are just as easy to spot. The New York Jets failed to put decent weapons around Mark Sanchez (and then added Tim Tebow to the mix for a circus atmosphere). The Jacksonville Jaguars have done the same with Blaine Gabbert, while giving him three head coaches in three years. The San Francisco 49ers had Smith all screwed up for five years until Jim Harbaugh became his head coach in 2011. Now Smith is leading a revitalized Kansas City Chiefs team that is thankful for his leadership and efficiency.
The point here is that all young quarterbacks go through growing pains and having a wishy-washy coach with a grating personality doesn't help. In fact, Freeman's situation in Tampa feels very much like what happened with Smith in San Francisco pre-Harbaugh. The wrong coaches couldn't figure out how to make the most of Smith's talents, and he became an easy scapegoat for everything that was wrong with the 49ers. Freeman clearly is taking the blame for much of what ails the Bucs, and it says here that it's not fair.
Whatever people think about Freeman, Schiano's connection with the team is very much in question. They make too many mistakes at the worst possible times -- which speaks to coaching -- and it's hard to see his rigid style playing long-term in that locker room. There's no doubt that Morris was too nice of a guy to handle the Bucs when they hired him as head coach at the tender age of 32. But it's now debatable whether Schiano is too much of a shift in the opposite direction.
We'll surely know more about that question as this season plays out. We're also likely to see even more problems between Freeman and Schiano emerge in the coming weeks. The sad part in this is that some will be too quick to see Freeman as the issue. They shouldn't forget that other people in the Bucs organization are failing in ways that are far more disturbing.