QB Freeman knows fourth quarter is 'superhero' time

Jason Cole
Yahoo! SportsSeptember 22, 2011

Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman(notes) has spent more than half his career playing in desperation.

Based on the results, maybe the Buccaneers should put more stress on their franchise passer, particularly with an NFC South showdown against the Atlanta Falcons set for Sunday in Tampa.

Freeman has had 27 career starts since Week 9 of 2009, his rookie season. Of those starts, 15 have been decided in the fourth quarter. Freeman has guided the Bucs to eight wins in those situations, including a rally from a 17-0 halftime deficit in Minnesota last Sunday.

"It's like my man Ron Prince said, 'Do your best to play within the system for 3 ½ quarters, but if you're behind at that point, it's time to play the superhero role and do what you have to do,'" Freeman said, referring to his coach at Kansas State.

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At the same time, Freeman contends his play isn't any more or less focused during those times.

"I'm not playing any differently," Freeman said Monday afternoon as he headed home after a workout and review session. "I'm just as focused early in games, so it's not that. In the NFL, there's such a fine line between success and failure and we're just this much off right now."

Perhaps, but the statistics show otherwise. As the eight comeback wins and Tampa Bay's surprising 10-6 record last season show, Freeman is doing extraordinarily well late in games. In the fourth quarter of those 15 close contests, Freeman has a quarterback rating of 99.1. In the rest of his games, he has a rating of 78.1.

Other teams have noticed the difference.

"You watch him when the pressure is on and it's a whole different energy level, you can see the focus," a scout from an AFC team said. "I love his ability, I love everything I see. I've watched him and [Atlanta quarterback] Matt Ryan(notes) and I'd rather have Freeman. I wouldn't think twice about it and Ryan ain't too shabby.

"[New Orleans quarterback Drew] Brees is obviously better [than Freeman]. Way better, even as an athlete. But that's today. We'll see in three or four years where everybody is at.

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"I wouldn't put any limitations on Freeman in any way, not as a quarterback and not as a leader. You can see how guys respond to him. He has total control of the huddle. The only thing I'd change is to somehow get him in that fourth quarter mindset earlier … really, I think [the Bucs' coaches] should put more on him."

How about starting this week? Last year, both games against Atlanta came down to the fourth quarter with the Falcons winning each time, including a goal-line stand in Atlanta after the Bucs drove the length of the field with an eight-minute drive.

On the final play of that march, the Falcons handed the ball to running back LeGarrette Blount(notes) instead of letting Freeman have a shot. That play came as a huge relief to the Falcons' coaching staff.

"I remember thinking as they came to the line that they were going to play-action and get Freeman out on the edge, let him either run or pass depending on what we did," a Falcons coach said this summer. "To me, he's so big and strong that he's almost impossible to stop in that situation once he gets moving. When they handed it to Blount, it was like, 'Cool, we got a chance.' "

Most opponents seem to have a fighting chance whenever Freeman isn't forcing the action. In the fourth quarter of those 15 games, he has completed 108 of 165 passes (65.5 percent) for 1,315 yards, 10 touchdowns and four interceptions (all against the Falcons). In all other situations, he has completed 392 of 674 passes (58.1 percent) for 4,495 yards, 27 touchdowns and 22 interceptions.

Of course, 18 of the interceptions came as a rookie (he had 10 touchdown passes that year), so his TD-to-interception ratio has improved drastically in the lower-pressure situations. Still, Freeman is a guy who seems to live for the big moment, even if he doesn't think that's the case.

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"Our problem the first two games this season has been first and second down," Freeman said of the 1-1 Bucs. "It's not really anything else. When we get ourselves in makeable third downs, we're fine. We just haven't been in a lot of good situations, especially early. Things are just a little off."

Perhaps, but there are also times when Freeman himself doesn't look as sharp, as his completion percentage shows.

"I call it energy, but focus is the same thing. It's that intensity you see come out in him when he knows it's on him," the AFC scout said. "Great ones have that focus, but the thing you see them do is have it more of the time. To me, it's not that hard to create the urgency, but you have to trust the player. By now, you should be able to trust this kid, so put more on him. Come out in the first quarter and play no-huddle, let him call the plays, whatever.

"Make him the man. He can handle it."

Especially in the fourth quarter.

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