Josh Freeman still catching criticism despite production

TAMPA, Fla. — The sky is falling. Look for new answers. Demand more.

If you listen to chatter about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offense long enough, you will hear no shortage of extremes. It is en vogue on message boards, local airwaves and elsewhere to swing a piñata stick at Josh Freeman & Co. Two weeks of preseason games are past. The criticism is in late-season form.

Chill out, already.

Look, there was little to like from the top unit during the Bucs’ 25-21 loss to the New England Patriots last Friday at Gillette Stadium. Freeman went 2 for 3 for 8 yards. He was sacked three times. He looked uncomfortable. The offense trudged through a mud of its making.

Then Tuesday, Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton delivered this verbal haymaker.

“He plays sometimes at a nice level,” Tarkenton said of Freeman in an interview with WDAE 620 AM. “I’ve watched him a lot. He just plays God-awful. … Josh Freeman has proven to me he can’t play.”

God-awful? He can’t play? Really?

Add Tarkenton’s words to the long line in the past week quick to cut Freeman, each like a thousand little knives.

Yawn. The act has become predictable, stale.

Sure, Freeman has scars. He has been inconsistent. He has thrown 39 combined interceptions the past two seasons. His laid-back demeanor bugs observers who want quarterbacks to be more fire-and-brimstone than calm and cool.

But step back from the flames. This is the same quarterback who set franchise records of 4,065 passing yards and 27 touchdowns last season. This is the same quarterback who is the Bucs’ obvious answer behind center. This is the same quarterback who, no matter what he does, will have some suggesting that his starter status is shaky because of the shiny new toy behind him. (No, rookie Mike Glennon is not ready.)

If Freeman fails to produce, there will be time for criticism. He shares the same huddle with Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams and Doug Martin. On paper, this offense has too much talent to underachieve, to disappoint.

The Bucs have little room for error in the NFC South. If Freeman and the offense struggle well into the season, then the arrows slung his way will be fair game. There will be questions to answer, explanations to be made.

Let’s flip the calendar to September first.

Late Tuesday morning, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy was a voice of reason in the Bucs locker room. He has heard the barbs toward Freeman, toward the offense, especially after the no-show in New England. He thinks they’re ridiculous. He’s right.

“People give him so much scrutiny,” McCoy said of Freeman. “I’m like, ‘Man, you’ve got to relax. Calm down man.’ I think he gets treated unfairly a lot. To me, it’s a sensitive area, because I got it for two years. I’m actually still getting it.”

This is life in the floodlights. This is life for Freeman and the Bucs’ offense now. Coach Greg Schiano said “nothing surprises me” when asked if Freeman’s critics, well, surprise him. He said he lives in a bunker, free from the static — “One Buc Bunker” he called it — and Freeman would be wise to move in for the next four months.

“That goes with being the quarterback, the head coach,” Schiano said of the criticism. “Probably the quarterback even more than the head coach is open to a lot of that. Nothing would surprise me. But the only thing he needs to know is the only people that really matter are his teammates, his coach and his owners and the management. Those are the only people that make the decisions around here. He just needs to keep going. And I think he has had a really good camp so far.”

God-awful? He can’t play? Really?

Just the latest swing.

Just the latest reason to shake your head.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.