In fact, since the NFL is universally considered a quarterback-driven league, the task will likely impact the Bucs more than any factor in the second year of the Greg Schiano era. Fans expect the club to better last year's 7-9 record and that cannot happen without the 25 year-old making significant progress.
With Freeman entering the final year of his initial contract, the challenge should further provide personal motivation to earn another lucrative deal. Though Tampa Bay appears committed to its fifth year quarterback, the club failed to provide him an extension, and will allow the season to unfold before making a decision on Freeman's future.
Football fans, however, rarely share such patience. With that in mind, let's take a look at the mixed signals from the development of Josh Freeman.
Freeman as Face of the Franchise
Selected with the 17th overall pick in the 2009 draft, the former first rounder has served as the face of the franchise since his arrival. Not only did the Bucs trade up to secure Freeman's services, but the Missouri native has stood under center for all of the team's games, but one, since the mid-point of his rookie season.
With 76 touchdowns, over 12,000 yards through the air, nearly 1,000 yards on the ground, and a Pro Bowl appearance in 2010, the results have not been abysmal. Freeman is on pace to become the Bucs' all-time leader in every major passing category this season. His 95.9 quarterback rating in 2010 is the highest mark in club history, even surpassing the numbers of Brad Johnson that led to Super Bowl triumph.
Furthermore, recalling that the New York Jets selected Mark Sanchez 12 picks earlier in the same draft strengthens the decision to build around Freeman. One can even argue he has exceeded that year's top selection, Matthew Stafford, who has struggled with injuries and relied heavily on the benefit of targeting the NFL's best wideout in Calvin Johnson.
Track Record of Mixed Results
While Freeman's overall performance has merit, he clearly remains distant from the buzz-worthy description of "elite." Nothing haunts a quarterback more than absence from the playoffs and the Bucs have not reached the post-season since their leader was a sophomore in college. The Kansas State product has only overseen one winning record - a 10-6 mark in 2010 - and holds an unimpressive 24-32 career mark under center.
In many ways, 2012 was symbolic of Freeman's pro career. When the 6'6" thrower comes to play, there is little he cannot accomplish on a football field. Freeman possesses a rocket of an arm, which meshed perfectly with the down-field ability of new addition, Vincent Jackson, who racked up a flashy 1,384 receiving yards last year. The Bucs' quarterback additionally offers above-average pocket presence, good movement with his feet, durability, and ideal size at 240 pounds.
Those descriptions sadly fail to present the full story. Freeman's 54.8 completion percentage in 2012 was the worst since his rookie season and he ranked just 29th among the league's 32 regular quarterbacks. Despite improving from a truly unacceptable 22 interceptions a year earlier, the Bucs' QB still tossed 17 picks, which actually proved greater than the turnover-machine that is Carson Palmer.
Indeed, what Freeman lacks most is consistency. Even the best NFL quarterbacks endure slumps during unfavorable parts of games. Unfortunately, the Bucs' signal caller has a devastating tendency to turn ice cold during large chunks of seasons.
Streaky Play Doomed 2012 Campaign
With a 6-4 record, Schiano's first-year squad possessed a legitimate shot at the playoffs after ten games. Freeman initially thrived in a new system that emphasized a running game and vertical passing attack. He utilized new weapons, such as Doug Martin, and improved his frequently questioned decision-making.
For example, during a mid-season run in which Tampa Bay went 4-1, Freeman put the team on his broad shoulders by throwing 13 touchdowns, tossing only one interception, averaging 293 passing yards per game, and exceeding a 100 quarterback rating in every contest. While Freeman did take advantage of some poor defenses, this stretch also produced a pair of road victories.
Then the bottom fell out.
During games 11 through 15 of 2012, the Bucs suffered an untimely five game losing streak that ended all playoff hope. While defense was sub-par, the club's quarterback play was one of the few elements that looked even worse.
In these five games, Freeman was sacked 12 times, fumbled four times, tossed nine interceptions, posted a combined 52 percent completion percentage, and only exceeded a 90 point quarterback rating once. The quarterback looked inept during a 41-0 drubbing by the New Orleans Saints and came up empty in bitter losses at home to the underwhelming Philadelphia Eagles and St. Louis Rams.
Which is the Real Josh Freeman?
Which version accurately represents the Bucs' quarterback?
Perhaps, both. In his Pro Bowl campaign of 2010, Freeman resembled the same quarterback who went a month without an interception last year. In his 22 interception effort of 2011, Freeman looked like the same quarterback who embarrassingly tossed four picks in consecutive games last year.
But 2013 must provide a single answer.
Though only 25 years old, it is difficult to suggest Freeman is still a young quarterback entering his fifth season as an NFL starter. And inconsistency is overlooked far less once a signal caller reaches the middle ground of his career (e.g., the aforementioned Carson Palmer).
Fans are well-aware that 23 year-old Mike Glennon was selected in the third round of the 2013 draft, when few expected the Bucs to execute a bold move on another quarterback. Allowing the face of the franchise to enter a lame-duck season without a long-term contract additionally sends a strong statement.
Such expectations are especially valid since Schiano did not draft Freeman. The second year coach inherited the quarterback and actually demonstrated substantial patience by allowing Freeman to remain his unquestioned starter. Yet, Schiano did select Glennon, so we know the demands have been raised.
Freeman's inconsistency can no longer be defined as mixed results. Anything less than steady performance, which leads to playoff contention, must be considered failure.
Would the real Josh Freeman please stand up?
More by Jeff Briscoe from Yahoo! Contributor Network:
Jeff Briscoe is a writer who covers sports for the Yahoo! Contributor Network. A loyal Tampa Bay Bucs fan, he co-hosts the Florida-based radio show, The Sports Train.
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