What’s The Buccaneers’ Problem?

The season is lost, and that is regrettable.

The head coach is under fire, and that is also a shame.

But as painful as those circumstances might seem, there are bigger worries at One Buc Place this morning. Worries beyond a single season or a coach that may be in peril.

Consider this:

What if the Buccaneers were wrong about Josh Freeman?

For, if that were the case, it would completely change the landscape in Tampa Bay.

After all, a frustrating season is easily forgotten once it is done. And while replacing a head coach would be a drastic step, it is not a death knell for a team’s hopes.

On the other hand, the idea that Freeman might not be the franchise quarterback the Bucs once envisioned is almost too disturbing to consider.

And, just to be clear, I believe the Bucs were correct about Freeman. He is too sharp, too gifted and showed too many enviable qualities in 2010 to sour on him so quickly in 2011.

But based on recent performances, wouldn’t you say it is at least worth pondering?

I’m not exactly going out on a limb to say Freeman has not been sharp in 2011. His decision-making has been poor. His passing has not seemed as sharp. His ability to seize a game’s momentum has been practically non-existent.

So does that mean his future is in doubt?

“I have no doubts about Josh. None,” offensive coordinator Greg Olson said Sunday in Jacksonville. “Yes, he can play better. And he will play better. Moving forward as a franchise he will play better. And we’ll do a better job of surrounding him with players.”

If you are basing his future strictly by his numbers, Freeman would not inspire much confidence today. As the season winds down, he is 27th in the NFL’s passer ratings.

That is a stunning drop from last season when he was sixth in the league with a passer rating that was ahead of Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan.

Now, a year later, he is behind rookies Cam Newton, Andy Dalton and Christian Ponder. He is behind a fading Matt Hasselbeck and a never-was Tarvaris Jackson.

Freeman’s interceptions have already tripled, and his average gain per pass has dropped. His fourth-quarter magic has vanished, and his winning percentage has suffered.

“Obviously, looking at the statistics it wouldn’t show (growth). Point blank: I need to play better,” Freeman said Sunday. “It doesn’t come down to how you feel, it comes down to how you play.”

This is a market that understands the frustration of chasing a franchise quarterback. For more than 15 seasons, after Doug Williams left in a salary dispute before the 1983 season, the Bucs craved stability at quarterback.

Twice, they traded first-round draft picks for quarterbacks (Jack Thompson and Chris Chandler). Twice, they used high first-round picks to draft quarterbacks (Vinny Testaverde and Trent Dilfer). They used a supplemental first-rounder on a quarterback (Steve Young). They traded for Steve DeBerg and drafted Craig Erickson.

And for all of the time, money and resources spent on those QBs, the Bucs had one playoff appearance to show for it between 1983-98.

So, yes, the continued evolution of Freeman is critical. It is the centerpiece of the plan installed by coach Raheem Morris and GM Mark Dominik in 2009.

And, to be fair, Freeman’s career is still in its infancy. Though he has been a starter for more than two years, he is still one of the youngest QBs in the league at 23. He is younger than Dalton, for instance. He’s younger than Tim Tebow.

At this age, Aaron Rodgers was still a year away from starting his first game. Brees had a passer rating of 76.9 at 23, and slipped to 67.5 at 24.

“A lot of great quarterbacks struggled early in their career and really found their way and hit their stride,” Morris said. “He hasn’t hit it yet.”

So what has the problem been in 2011?

A lot of it is circumstances. The Bucs have played a much tougher schedule, and that means the offense has faced a lot more resistance.

Tampa Bay has attempted fewer running plays and with less success, which is a problem for a play-action passer such as Freeman. That has been evident in the lack of downfield completions. Freeman had 10 passes of 40 or more yards last season. He has had four this season. Even completions of 20 or more yards have dropped from 48 to 28.

“Are we getting the separation that we got a year ago? I don’t think we are. We have to get more separation,” Olson said. “We have to establish the run and set up some play-action type of bombs, and we’re just not getting the separation we had a year ago.”

Yes, the losing has been frustrating. But half the teams in the league go through this every season. And, yes, Morris’ future is in doubt. But, you have to admit, he was a gamble when the Bucs hired him three years ago.

Freeman is another story. He is the one guy that Tampa Bay can not afford to be wrong about. He is not just the franchise quarterback. He is the franchise’s future.

St. Petersburg Times