EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Josh Freeman said he followed his heart. Rick Spielman ignored his.
After a tumultuous end with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Josh Freeman chose to sign with the Minnesota Vikings, eschewing offers from several other teams because he said he felt comfortable about the situation and opportunity with Minnesota.
Spielman jumped on the chance to add Freeman, bringing in the most direct competition for quarterback Christian Ponder, who Spielman drafted with the No. 12 overall pick in the 2011 draft and stuck by for 29 mostly-unimpressive starts.
In the end, Freeman is getting his chance at a second life in the NFL and the Vikings will give him every opportunity to be the quarterback they hoped they were drafting in Ponder.
“It was down to earth,” Freeman said of his experience in talking with Minnesota. “It was genuine. It was real and I could really appreciate that.”
Freeman appreciates his chance with the Vikings because of how his time with Tampa Bay ended. Once believed to the Buccaneers franchise quarterback, Freeman fell out of favor with intense Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano. Freeman reportedly missed team meetings and the team picture. He was benched in favor of rookie Mike Glennon, was deactivated for his final game with the Buccaneers and then a leak from somewhere said Freeman was in the league’s substance-abuse program.
Freeman met the substance-abuse rumors head on, saying he has an exemption for Adderall to treat ADHD and entered the program on his own after he said he made a mistake in taking Ritalin instead of Adderall. He said he’s passed 46 NFL drug tests in the year and half since entering the program. Tampa Bay tried to trade Freeman before releasing him on Thursday.
“Obviously (Schiano) didn’t feel that I was the guy he wanted leading his team, the caliber of quarterback he wanted behind center,” Freeman said after signing with Minnesota. “Four and a half cherished years, but times change, things progress and I’m just fired up to be here in Minnesota. I’m moving forward and this organization. Everyone I’ve talked to raves about the quality. That’s something that I’m fired up about.”
Through it all, Freeman said he didn’t feel there was a “tipping point” in his time with Tampa Bay until the moment he was released and he was surprised by being cut.
“I think things came to a head and they decided to make their decision,” Freeman said, later adding: “Is it humbling? I mean, sure. I think anytime something like this happens to anybody in any position, you got to step back regardless of what you’re feeling at the time, you have to look inward. You can’t blame all the exteriors. You have to look at it from what you can control, what you could control. Moving forward, I think that’s the only way you can go about things with a clear conscience and the right attitude to succeed.”
Freeman said the Vikings haven’t promised anything to him, but his chance to succeed in Minnesota will be as a starter.
He won’t be rushed into the lineup and the Vikings will start either Ponder or Matt Cassel this week against Carolina, but eventually Freeman will have get a shot to start.
“Yeah, I mean, that’s part of the equation,” coach Leslie Frazier said earlier Monday. “When we talked with him, that’s definitely on the table, so we’ll see how well he progresses and how well he picks up our offense.”
Easing in was something Freeman appreciated about the opportunity with Minnesota. He said he isn’t sure how long it would take him to acclimate to his first new team and third offensive coordinator in his five NFL seasons.
When he was released, Freeman’s first thoughts were about jumping in right away somewhere he’d have the chance to be the starter. The opportunity with the Vikings changed his approach, somewhat.
“Right at the beginning, right when I heard I got cut, It was kind of a ‘I want to get back in there right away,'” Freeman said. “In all honestly, from the standpoint of a career move, it’s something that I really liked about the Vikings is they’ve got a guy. They’ve got a situation that I can come in and learn the system. Whether they call for me and they need me to play, that’s one thing, but just an opportunity to kind of pump the brakes. It’s been a crazy past few weeks and just really get back to the reason we’re all here and that’s playing football.”
He will start eventually and he is eager to re-establish his once-budding career. Freeman had a 95.9 quarterback rating, 61.4 completion percentage and threw for 3,451 yards with 25 touchdowns and six interceptions as an NFL sophomore.
A tough 2011 season in which he threw for 16 touchdowns and 22 interceptions was followed last year with a career-high 4,065 yards, 27 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. But he threw two touchdowns and nine interceptions over the final three weeks. He started the first three games this season, with a career-low 45.7 completion percentage, 59.3 quarterback rating and two touchdowns to three interceptions.
Once he was released, Minnesota went to researching what led to the drop off on the field and the fallout off the field with Schiano.
“We pride ourselves on trying to do the best from a due-diligence standpoint as possible,” Spielman said. “We’re very familiar with Josh when he did come out of Kansas State (as a first-round draft pick in 2009), very familiar with him as a person and felt very comfortable and confident that we’re bringing in quality, not only of player, but quality of person into our organization that we strive to go get.”
Frazier added: “We did some digging, and that was important. You hear so many things; you have to find out what’s true and what’s not. Between Rick and our personnel department, along with some calls that I made as well, we felt comfortable in making this decision and we’ll see how it works out.”
Spielman said signing Freeman was only about adding “another good football player” to the team and was part of continually finding ways to add depth and competition to the roster. But Minnesota wasn’t adding a backup linebacker. It was adding to the quarterback room and inviting an open competition at the most pivotal position.
Ponder was the Vikings’ guy since being drafted. He’d been dealt with carefully and the team always made sure it was known Ponder was the team’s unquestionable starter. Even when Matt Cassel, an experienced NFL starter, was signed in the offseason, stress was put on the fact Cassel was coming to Minnesota as a backup.
Now, even though Spielman said nothing has changed in the organization’s belief in Ponder, a new possible starter is on the roster. Spielman said the team has 12 more weeks of the regular season to evaluate the position, Ponder and Freeman.
“This has no determination of where Christian Ponder is and we think Christian Ponder has a bright future,” Spielman said. “Matt Cassel came in and did a great job for us when he filled in at London. So right now, my main focus and part of my job is to make sure I’m trying to get the best 53 players on this roster and at the end of the season, we’ll make an evaluation like we always do and determine that going forward.
“By no means is this a reflection on we’re disappointed in Christian Ponder or disappointed in Matt Cassel, disappointed in (McLeod Bethel-Thompson). It was just an opportunity to go out and add another football player that we have high regard for.”
Spielman’s head, not his heart, saw an opportunity to help his football team.