COMMENTARY | The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hit the road to begin the 2013 season with a contest against the New York Jets. While home fans are likely to be focused on rookie quarterback Geno Smith, Bucs' supporters long to see Darrelle Revis take the field for the first time. The Pro Bowl cornerback fittingly makes his Bucs' debut against his former team and it is hoped his addition can transform a much-maligned secondary.
Yet, the game's under-the-radar storyline is Josh Freeman tenuously beginning his fifth -- and possibly final -- season as Tampa Bay's starting quarterback. Entering the last year of his rookie contract, expectations for the 25 year-old signal-caller are the lowest of his short NFL career and even teammates failed to choose the quarterback as captain for the first time in three years.
While the team declined to offer him a contract extension, the Bucs made a statement by selecting Mike Glennon with a third-round pick in the spring's draft. To improve the negative implications from these decisions, Freeman must begin 2013 on a high note, and the Jets might be a team that permits such success.
Here are three things Josh Freeman must do to play capably in the Bucs' opening match-up.
Improve Last Year's 54.8% Completion Percentage
The preseason did nothing to improve Freeman's battered image with cynical Bucs' fans. Playing in the summer's first three exhibition games, he completed a combined 12 of 26 passes for just 101 yards and no touchdowns. Even in limited opportunities, Freeman's continually failed to move the offense. Indeed, a case can be made that the fifth-year player was only re-appointed starting quarterback because nobody yet exists to take his place.
Against an underwhelming Jets' club, which was 6-10 last year, Freeman possesses a quick opportunity to alleviate some concerns. After all, it is easy to overlook that the quarterback became the first thrower in team history to pass for 4,000 yards in 2012. Despite sufficient yardage, and finding the end-zone for 27 touchdowns, the conclusion of a 7-9 season strengthened doubts if he will ever mature into an elite passer.
During a late-season five game losing streak, Freeman reverted to his 2011 tendency for bad decisions. Critical turnovers, including a pair of contests marred by 4 interceptions, doomed the campaign. However, no statistic was more telling than the quarterback's sub-par 54.8% completion percentage. The lowest number since his rookie year, Freeman ranked 29th of 32 NFL passers and even lagged behind Blaine Gabbert and Jake Locker in accuracy.
With weapons like Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams, and Doug Martin, there is no place for such a low number in Tampa Bay's scheme. If the Bucs hope to utilize a strong rushing game, Freeman must make his passes count. When the quarterback attempted 35 or more passes in 2012, the team lost 5 of 8 games. When Freeman tried 40 or more passes, the club dropped 3 of 4 contests. Improved accuracy and more efficient passing are paramount to success in 2013.
Avoid Sacks and Accrue Positive Yardage on Scrambles
Watching performances since his arrival in 2009, one might expect Josh Freeman to rank among the league leaders in taking sacks. Fans are accustomed to bad results when the pocket collapses and his unnecessary mistakes have cost winnable games. Yet, Freeman is not among the NFL's worst in this statistic. Dragged down 26 times in 2012, the signal-caller ranked 25th in sacks, a number which impressively tied with Drew Brees and was only 5 worse than Peyton Manning.
Though looking good on paper, this is a misleading impression of Freeman's game. At 6'6" and 250 pounds, many expected him to mature into a dynamic thrower, equally capable of escaping the pocket and racking up yards on the ground. Sadly, such ability is missing. Though not sacked frequently, Freeman only gained 139 rushing yards on 39 attempts in 2012. His longest scramble went for a mere 13 yards and he failed to scramble for a single touchdown.
Those numbers are sometimes produced in a single game by Robert Griffin III or Colin Kaepernick. Though unfair to expect Freeman to prove as nimble, his build suggests he should produce more. In 2010, the second-year player scrambled for 364 yards and fans hoped this tendency would grow. Instead, Freeman prefers to remain in the pocket and often prolongs plays only to force unwarranted throws.
During limited time in the preseason, Freeman was sacked nine times. That number is sure to tantalize a blitz-happy Jets' defense. With rules encouraging quarterbacks to run, Freeman must use his tools to avoid pressure and turn it into positive gains. Rather than throwing on the run, Freeman should accept beneficial five to ten yard runs against New York, and limit last year's mistakes. Avoiding sacks is worthy, but avoiding critical mistakes remains a greater good.
Support Running Game and Deep Backfield
In the pass happy NFL, many coaches ask quarterbacks to win games near single-handedly. With four seasons under his belt, evidence suggests the Bucs cannot hold such expectations for Freeman. Though possessing a strong arm and some mobility, Schiano would be wise to ask his leader to act as game manager, rather than toiling as game changer.
To support these managed expectations, Tampa Bay assembled a robust and deep backfield. Spending a first round pick on Doug Martin in 2012, the Boise State product repaid the team's confidence with a sensational rookie campaign. Martin rushed for 1,454 yards, while gaining 11 touchdowns and adding nearly 500 receiving yards. The Bucs expect their primary rusher to continue this success in 2013 and a healthier offensive line supports that hope.
When Martin received 20 or more carries last year, the Bucs sported an impressive 5-3 record. Unlike the elite among his peers, Freeman's primary job must be to get Martin the ball. That seems simple, but many offenses fail at such a task. When the second-year rusher leaves the field, Freeman still must not press. Instead, the Bucs' should turn to a deep backfield, capable of supporting the embattled quarterback.
Free agent signee Brian Leonard is familiar with Schiano from college days at Rutgers. Leonard impressed throughout the preseason and the 29 year-old could provide a subtle weapon to the passing game. New addition Peyton Hillis is a power rusher, who posted 1,177 yards just three years ago, and can emerge as a short yardage asset. Finally, Mike James is a rookie who will likely play on special teams, but can spell Martin with a similar running style.
After several seasons as a top defense under Rex Ryan, the Jets have struggled to contain the run in recent times. Yielding 2,138 yards on the ground in 2012, New York was seventh-worst against the rush, and also allowed a porous 17 running touchdowns. Above all else, the Bucs must take advantage of this weakness. If Freeman is to overcome critics, both inside and outside of the team, expectations must be managed carefully in 2013. Expect that to require a lot handoffs.
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 follower, he co-hosts the Florida-based radio show, The Sports Train.
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