Josh Freeman went from being the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ starting quarterback and face of the franchise to being released and on the street in a matter of days. A first-round pick in 2009 and the quarterback who led the Buccaneers to a surprising 10-6 record in his first full season under center, Freeman was shown the door Thursday.
"We made the decision today to release Josh Freeman,” general manager Mark Dominik said in a statement minutes after the move was announced. “We appreciate his efforts over the past five seasons, but we felt this was in the best interests of both Josh and the Buccaneers."
Sources close to the situation told me Thursday that the Buccaneers front office not only called all 31 other teams looking for a trading partner this week but spoke to either the owner or general manager of all those teams. But there were no trading partners to be had. Left with no other choices, the Buccaneers ate the player’s $8.43 million base salary this season and let him go.
So, here’s Freeman — 25 years old, still physically gifted, 100 percent healthy and just one year removed from a 4,000-yard passing season — a young man without a team. It’s an incredible development, tracking how such a seemingly good thing went so bad, so soon, in Tampa Bay. Freeman started 59 of 60 games before being benched last week.
My sources also indicated the Buccaneers had no plans to replace Freeman in the lineup heading into this season. Though there were rumors of offseason Tampa Bay interest in both Kevin Kolb and Carson Palmer, neither player was acquired. Sources indicate that Tampa Bay would have been more than happy to pay Freeman “Joe Flacco money” at the end of this 2013 season because that would have meant he’d gone out and earned an extension with an exemplary effort both on the field and off.
But that didn’t happen. Freeman foundered miserably in three weeks of action and was benched. Mike Glennon gave the team a better chance to win games.
As wild as these developments have been, tracking the media sentiment — both over Twitter and on the TV airwaves — has perhaps been even more amazing.
In the past two weeks, Freeman has gone from a grossly underperforming, highly paid former first round pick to a sympathetic figure who’s been lionized by those watching the situation from the sideline. You’d think Josh Freeman was Johnny Unitas based on the way many of my cohorts are approaching this story. Knowing what we know, the media response to Freeman’s benching and eventual release has been downright stunning to follow.
Make no mistake: Josh Freeman was not having a good 2013. He was flat-out bad in three losses to start the season. Coming into the final year of his rookie contract, one would have expected Freeman to show up to camp in tip-top shape and ready to lead. Instead, he looked sluggish on the field throughout training camp and brought question marks off of it once the regular season began.
Sleeping through the team photograph is not excusable — not for a rookie and certainly not for a five-year veteran. “You’re the quarterback,” one former Pro Bowl quarterback told me this week. “Aside from the head coach, you’re the most important person in the building. You should never miss a meeting, let alone the team photograph. That’s simply not acceptable.”
Freeman’s snafus off the field could have been forgiven had he been lights out on it. But he wasn’t. To be certain, this season much-maligned Cleveland Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden has more passing yards, a higher completion percentage and a higher QB rating than Freeman did in Tampa. Freeman struggled, so he was benched. That’s the NFL. Joe Montana was once benched. So was Kurt Warner. Jake Plummer. Boomer Esiason. Phil Simms. The list goes on.
Certainly, Josh Freeman, he of zero career playoff appearances and abysmal performances this season, can be benched.
What strikes me as odd, though, is not how the team handled Freeman’s demotion. Rather, it was how the young man went about the situation. Freeman had a few options on how he wanted to react to this setback. He could have taken the news in stride and held the clipboard like so many supplanted veterans had done before him. Or, he could have gone an alternative route and arranged an unauthorized on-on-one interview behind the team’s back with ESPN, the day after his benching was announced.
What exactly was gained by opting for the latter route? The interview, which aired throughout last weekend and was hardly flattering for the player, did Freeman no favors. If anything, it had an odd woe-is-me feel to it. When news of a fine for participating in the interview was reported this week, the response was shock and awe. Why?
It was the opposite of savvy media relations. In a world where every other word involves “branding,” that interview did anything but “brand” Freeman in a positive light.
Consider last year, when Alex Smith was replaced by Colin Kaepernick after Smith suffered a concussion. The 49ers had a firm grasp of first place in the division when Smith was injured, but he never returned to the lineup. An eight-year veteran and the starter who brought the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game in 2012 didn’t say a negative word in the media in the weeks that followed. In the offseason, he was traded and is now the starter on a 4-0 team. Drew Bledsoe in New England and the aforementioned Warner, when he was in New York and replaced by Eli Manning, went through similar situations.
Whereas the majority of my cohorts seem to think the Buccaneers botched the situation and are to blame for the handling of Freeman’s recent employment woes, I’m not so sure it wasn’t the other way around. Freeman took unorthodox avenues in handling his demotion. First with the ESPN sitdown and then with the lengthy statement in response to the ESPN report on Freeman’s involvement in the NFL’s drug program.
That response, sent to a select few reporters, including FOX Sports’ Mike Garafolo, read:
“Since the confidentiality of my medical status has been publicly violated, I am choosing to address this matter so that grossly erroneous assumptions about me do not persist. Like millions of Americans, I have ADHD and I have been prescribed and permitted to take medication to treat this condition for the entirety of my NFL career. Well over a year ago, I took a different medication for the same condition (Ridilin rather than Adderall), and to assure everyone that the error was a one-time mistake, I agreed to be voluntarily tested in the "NFL Program". Since that time, I have taken and passed all 46 drug tests I’ve been given, which test for every drug and banned substance imaginable. I agreed to allow such testing to be done at my workplace (team facility) because I spend all of my time there and I have nothing whatsoever to hide or be embarrassed about.
Unfortunately, it appears that some people who may have noticed the testing at my workplace have made hurtful and incorrect assumptions and chosen to disseminate inaccurate and very disturbing information. It is a shame that when times have gotten tough, people have chosen to attack the character of others, rather than supporting each other. I remain dedicated and focused to being the best quarterback I can be and to help a team win a championship."
DeMaurice Smith and the NFLPA arrived in Tampa Bay shortly thereafter, in search of answers, but the Buccaneers brass didn’t flinch. They don’t believe they did anything wrong and welcome any and all investigations.
There’s been some mudslinging back and forth and more than a few curious leaks out of the Tampa Bay facility, but I by no means think Josh Freeman was wronged by Dominik or coach Greg Schiano. Had he played well this season, he would have never been benched. Neither coach nor general manager has said a negative thing about the player in the media. Neither coach nor general manager overslept on team photograph day.
In the end, no one really wins here. Freeman doesn’t exactly have teams knocking down his front door. Prospective free agents will see how this all unfolded and catch wind of the Lawrence Tynes’ MRSA issue and may think twice about signing deals with Tampa Bay.
But look at Weeden, another first-round pick who was supplanted by a popular backup in recent weeks. Weeden didn’t moan, run to a TV network to tell his side of the story, or cry foul play when he was replaced. He sat, he waited his turn, and he led the Browns to victory in relief on Thursday night. At least for now, he’s the hero in Cleveland just like that.
Before we pile on Schiano — it’s too late for that, I suppose — think about how Freeman went about things the past two weeks, too.
Either way, things turned ugly fast and now the Josh Freeman era in Tampa Bay is over. Regardless of who was in the right and who was in the wrong, there was simply no turning back.