TAMPA, Fla. -- When it comes right down to it, not all that much has changed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this offseason.
Sure, they made the blockbuster trade for cornerback Darrelle Revis, signed free-agent safety Dashon Goldson to a big contract and drafted a promising cornerback in Johnthan Banks. That’s all nice, and it should go a long way toward fixing a pass defense that was the worst in the league last year. It’s a piece of the puzzle, but an improved pass defense alone isn’t going to put the Bucs in the playoffs.
Above everything else, one thing has to happen for the Bucs to become winners and maybe even compete for a Super Bowl.
Now, more than ever, it’s up to quarterback Josh Freeman.
You can look at Tampa Bay’s roster and see the secondary, a promising young defensive line, two good linebackers in Lavonte David and Mason Foster, an offensive line that’s loaded, a big-time receiver in Vincent Jackson and stud running back Doug Martin and say the Bucs easily could be a playoff team. The talent is there in just about every area.
But all that talent isn’t going to mean a thing if Freeman doesn’t take the next step and become perhaps the first true franchise quarterback in Tampa Bay history (I’m not sure Doug Williams counts because his tenure was brief).
If Freeman starts off 2013 the way he finished 2012, the Bucs are going to remain mired in mediocrity. If Freeman produces more back-to-back four-interception games, the unemployment rate is going to spike in the Tampa Bay area. The jobs of Freeman and general manager Mark Dominik and maybe even coach Greg Schiano depend almost entirely on how the quarterback plays in the upcoming season.
It’s no big secret that Freeman is heading into a season that’s going to determine his future and the future of the Bucs.
Freeman is headed into the final year of his contract and, unlike Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, an extension isn’t coming this offseason. Come up with a big 2013 season, and Freeman will get paid huge money to stay in Tampa Bay. Have another stretch like he did last season when the Bucs went from a 6-4 start to a 7-9 finish, and Freeman will be looking for a new home.
Contrary to popular belief, the latter scenario isn’t what the Bucs want. There have been rumblings that Freeman isn’t Schiano’s kind of guy.
"The entire offseason, I've been in constant communication with Coach," Freeman said at the start of the team’s offseason program. "I had a lot of time and sat down and talked with him about a number of things football-related, life-related. Me and Coach, we've got a great relationship. Every now and then, somebody will call you and say, 'Hey man, what's up with you and your coach?' But we know how it is. It's something I'm not really concerned about. I'm kind of living it and I know how it is."
The questions about Freeman and Schiano grew even louder last week when the Bucs drafted quarterback Mike Glennon in the third round.
Schiano didn’t give Freeman a ringing endorsement immediately after last season. Several times since then, the coach has tried to clarify his comments by saying he thought too much was made of his original statement. But, even then, Schiano has come up short of unequivocally saying that Freeman is the long-term answer at quarterback.
I think that’s more semantics than anything else, but how could Schiano be totally sold on Freeman at this point? Schiano’s first season was filled with peaks and valleys by Freeman. There also have been rumblings that Freeman isn’t as intense or as much of a rah-rah leader as Schiano would like.
But the irony is that outside of Freeman, his agent and Dominik, there’s not a person on the planet who would like to see the quarterback succeed more than Schiano. You don’t keep a coaching job for long in the modern NFL unless you’re winning, and Tampa Bay hasn’t been to the playoffs since the 2007 season.
When Freeman is on his game, he’s the prototype quarterback for a Schiano offense -- one who controls the ball with the running game and takes some shots downfield with the passing game. Freeman has a big arm, and we saw glimpses of it last year. We also saw glimpses of intensity and intangibles back in 2010 when Freeman led the Bucs to a 10-6 record and threw 25 touchdown passes with six interceptions.
The thing that people tend to forget is that Freeman just turned 25 in January. He’s not a finished product by any means. But the clock is ticking on his Tampa Bay tenure.
I’ll go on record and say I think Freeman can be very successful. I just think he needs to relax a bit and not try to win games on his own. It might not be easy to relax when you play for a coach like Schiano, but Freeman looks to me like a guy who just needs to go out and have fun and good things will follow.
If he can do that, the mistakes will disappear, the contract situation will take care of itself and the Bucs will be in the playoffs.
The rest of the team is stocked with talent and potential. The rest is up to Freeman. If Freeman can play up to his potential, everything will be fine.
Only then will Schiano firmly embrace his quarterback.