NFC South MVP: Josh Freeman

Josh Freeman threw for 3,451 yards this season, with 25 touchdown passes and six interceptions. Kim Klement/US Presswire

Let's not even bother with the setup. Let's just open the envelope and read what's inside.

The NFC South Most Valuable Player for the 2010 season is ... Josh Freeman.

Go ahead, start yelling and screaming in New Orleans and Atlanta. Throw eggs or whatever, but just be aware that I've got the alarm system on and since Jahri Evans, Carl Nicks, Harvey Dahl and Justin Blalock are worried about the possibility of a lockout, I've hired them as guards.

Yep, I picked Freeman over Drew Brees and Matt Ryan. I picked him over Michael Turner and Roddy White too.

Let's be real clear: I'm not saying Freeman is a better quarterback than Brees, who is going to the Hall of Fame someday. I'm not even saying Freeman's better than Ryan, who has had three very nice years. I'm not even saying Freeman had a better season than Brees and Ryan or even Turner and White.

Go back and read the second paragraph and circle the word valuable. That's really the crux of all this. There are lots of ways you can give out MVP awards. But if you put the emphasis solely on the value a player had to his team, Freeman wins in a landslide.

That thought hit me Sunday morning on a plane from Atlanta to Tampa. I'd given some thought to Turner and White, but was pretty much ready to flip a coin to decide between Brees and Ryan. They both had nice regular seasons and they both got bounced in their first playoff games.

In other words, Brees and Ryan did exactly what was expected of them in the regular season, and I don't mean to sell that short as an accomplishment because the bar was set sky high for both of them. But did either of them really do anything special? Anything that was beyond expectations?

When I thought about it in those terms, that's when Freeman's name hit me and this decision was made.

"I think the most important thing is, in just about every game this season, Josh at least had us in a position to win the game,'' Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik said. "With a young team, that was hugely important, and he allowed us to accelerate our process. That made him incredibly valuable to us.''

I'll take it a little further than Dominik and say Freeman meant everything to the Buccaneers. He carried that team all season. For those who weren't paying attention, like the 30,000 who weren't showing up for games at Raymond James Stadium or the millions who couldn't watch Tampa Bay's games because they were blacked out on local television, the Bucs went from being 3-13 and a national embarrassment in 2009 to a 10-6 team that barely missed the playoffs.

Nobody expected anything close to that. And nobody expected anything like that from a quarterback who didn't celebrate his 23rd birthday until after the season was over, and who created an instant army of critics when Dominik made the then-ridiculous move of trading a sixth-round pick to move up and draft Freeman in 2009.

Everything Dominik and coach Raheem Morris did in 2009 seemed ridiculous. They signed Derrick Ward, fired both coordinators by midseason and lost a lot of games. But it turned out they did one thing right.

They drafted Freeman and, in his first season as a full-time starter, he made a lot of other things look right. He threw for 3,451 yards, 25 touchdowns and six interceptions. His touchdown-to-interception ratio was one of the 10 best in history, and he also used his legs to win games.

More than anything, Freeman used his back to carry the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay had the league's lowest payroll and had the youngest roster in the league and, if you really look at that roster, it wasn't all that good. Yes, some bright spots (running back LeGarrette Blount and receiver Mike Williams) emerged, but part of the reason they emerged was because they were playing with Freeman.

The Bucs had so many injuries on the offensive line that, by the end of the season, they were starting Ted Larsen, Jeremy Zuttah and Derek Hardman at the three interior positions. If you're not a close relative and had heard of any of those three before they were starting, it might be time to develop some other hobbies.

With all the changes around him, Freeman was the one constant. Other than his six interceptions, his stats didn't compare favorably to the numbers Brees and Ryan put up.

But let's do a little exercise here. Picture the Saints without Brees for a season. Put Chase Daniel in with all those weapons and Sean Payton calling the plays and the Saints still win a fair amount of games. Picture the Falcons with Chris Redman in for Ryan. It's the same thing. The Saints and the Falcons would at least be competitive without Brees and Ryan.

Now, picture the 2010 Buccaneers without Freeman. I say they would have been 0-16. If you disagree, go out to training camp this summer and watch a few plays with backups Josh Johnson and Rudy Carpenter under center.

That's why Freeman did more for his team than any NFC South player in 2010.

"The thing is people forget that he was only 22 this season,'' Dominik said. "He took big steps this year and that helped our whole team take some big steps. He's only going to get better in the future, and that's only going to help everyone around him get better in the future.''

Remember, all I'm saying is Freeman was more valuable to his team this year than anyone else. If what Dominik said about the progression of Freeman and the Bucs comes true in the future, then I might be back here with an update. I might end up writing that Freeman is a better quarterback than Brees and Ryan.