For a solid six weeks in the middle of the season, Josh Freeman had full Circle of Trust privileges. The fourth-year quarterback rolled up 16 touchdown passes against just three picks over that stretch, and the surging Buccaneers looked like a team no one wanted to face in the playoffs.
Alas, the Pirate Ship has taken on water in the last month. Maybe it's worse than that. If you needed the Tampa Bay offense at New Orleans in Week 15 — a tasty matchup on paper — you're probably at the bottom of the ocean now, trying to figure out what the hell just happened. No one expected the Bucs to come up with a Big Easy Bagel.
Wanting some answers, I rewatched the Tampa Bay-New Orleans tape Monday morning. Was this a case of the Saints defense turning a corner, the Bucs offense collapsing, or some combination of both? Where is the Tampa offense right now? What is likely to happen going forward?
The short answer: I'm flagging the Bucs on this one. Red ink all over the charts. Freeman's clearly lost his way of late, throwing this team out of playoff contention. Let's load up the bullets and go through some observations.
• One of the biggest problems Freeman faces is very simple: his accuracy comes and goes. His 54.8 completion percentage in 2012 is partly due to the Bucs getting more vertical in the passing game, but Freeman has been flushing too many big plays of late — plays that required basic, accurate throws. Mike Williams toasted the Saints on a gorgeous double move early in Sunday's second quarter, a play that should have been an easy touchdown down the right sideline. Freeman misfired on the toss, then compounded things with a messy pick on the next snap.
• Freeman's also having problems with his velocity — he floated a few Week 15 throws that needed zip, and he went to the fastball on a few occasions where touch was required. This is probably a lesser problem than the ball-location issue, but it's what you see from a quarterback in a funk.
• The Bucs struggled with the Saints blitz on Sunday, pretty much from the first step off the bus. Sometimes the Saints won the down through quickness, other times on confusion. And even when Tampa Bay blocked the extra rushers and gave Freeman time to do something downfield, there wasn't anything dangerous to turn to.
Tampa desperately needs a change-of-direction slot machine who can make opponents pay with slants and hot routes. As much as I like Vincent Jackson and Williams, they're outside receivers, long-striders. Perhaps Tiquan Underwood will mature in the No. 3 role and become a bigger factor (he had a 3-46 line on six targets Sunday), or maybe the team will find a modern, hybrid tight end in after the season. Throwing a four-yard curl to Dallas Clark isn't going to penalize anyone for blitzing.
• Freeman's pocket awareness was a mess at New Orleans, perhaps drawn from his offensive line's poor day. At times he showed happy feet, and a couple of sacks came from Freeman being unable to sense the rush. A slow release also tripped up a few plays.
• Tampa's play calling could have been more creative and proactive in the first half, using the speed and aggressiveness of the Saints rush against them. This wasn't as much of an option in the second half when the score got out of hand; New Orleans could trade yardage for time if it wanted, dealing the Bucs a slow death (this did allow Freeman to accumulate some yardage in garbage time).
• One sneaky baseline element that's holding Fantasy Freeman back in 2012 is his rushing production. He's only averaging 8.6 yards per game on the ground, almost half of his career average, and he doesn't have any rushing scores after getting four last year. A quarterback can live without this sort of thing, sure, but you like to have it as a fallback (especially when we're talking about a less-than-elite talent in other areas). Freeman seems more reluctant to tuck it and run; perhaps it's maturity speaking, but fantasy owners wouldn't mind a scramble now and then.
• While Doug Martin was a indecisive on a couple of runs, his lost day was mostly a case of game flow removing the running threat from the game. I'm not worried about him for Week 16 against St. Louis.
• Jackson and Williams are who we thought they were — not elite receivers, perhaps, but very good players who will beat defenders intermediate and deep at some point every week. Both players narrowly missed touchdowns on 1-on-1 balls at the goal, and Williams should have had an easy score on the second-quarter throw described above.
• Clark's game is all about smarts and hands at this stage of the game. There's no explosion left. The Bucs need to upgrade this position for 2012.
• Bottom line, our numbers racket is all about looking forward at the end of the day, so with that in mind, here are off-the-cuff preliminary rankings for the Tampa skill guys in Week 16. Obviously we'll have our full staff rankings by the middle of the week. I think it's a mistake to write anything down in pen until the weekend — let alone six days in advance of the next game — but here is a rough sense of how I feel about the Bucs for Championship Week. All ranks are relative to the positions in question.
Week 16, St. Louis at Tampa Bay: Freeman 15, Martin 5, Jackson 14, Williams 27, Clark 17. Season to taste. And if you're looking ahead to 2013, here's my rough guess for draft value: Martin late first round (perhaps mid-first round), Jackson late third or fourth round, Williams seventh round, Freeman among the earlier QB2s.
• A heavy volume day carried Matt Forte to 133 yards against the Packers: 20-69 rushing and 5-64 receiving. It's a shame Forte couldn't convert on either of his goal-line carries, but it was another case of a team's design putting their back in a no-win situation. Chicago went with a power-based tight formation and tried to run Forte up the middle; predictably, no rushing lane cleared and Forte basically got punished by the Green Bay defense for his trouble. Chicago eventually got into the end zone when it shifted into a spread formation and threw the ball
• I made this general point Sunday evening but it's worth repeating and expanding upon: I'm impressed with how smartly the Seahawks have handled rookie quarterback Russell Wilson. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell basically played a little bit of "hide the quarterback" in the opening weeks, only exposing Wilson to heavy responsibility when the game situation forced the issue. That limited plan was junked several weeks ago, and Wilson certainly didn't look like a rookie against Miami, Chicago or Buffalo. And it's not like Wilson is making do with elite receivers: Seattle is just average in that department. Here's hoping the Seahawks can keep Bevell for a while; he's sure to be a hot coaching commodity.
• I understand how badly everyone wants to win at fantasy sports, and I know how frustrating a non-championship season can feel to some. With that in mind, I found this piece on Fantasy Football Zen to be an excellent and timely read. This theme won't resonate with everyone, but I really liked a lot of the ideas here. (Hat tips to Go Pro Fantasy Sports, it's their piece, and to Chris Wesseling, who tweeted about it.)
I also think it's worth examining and re-evaluating why we play these games in the first place. I try to appreciate football on a weekly basis no matter how the results relate to my teams, rosters, picks and projections. And the community of fantasy football, on a macro and micro level, is a beautiful thing. We make friends in this game, we build relationships, we leave footprints. I hope I never get too far removed from that fact and perspective, and I wish the same to you.