With Josh Freeman nose-diving in the past two games (one touchdown, eight interceptions), and playing just so-so in the four games leading up to the massive collapse in the last two, the conversation about whether he is the long-term answer for the Bucs has been renewed.
We are more inclined to argue in Freeman’s favor. Quarterbacks with his potential do not come along often. That does not mean the conversation is not worth having or that the Bucs ought to rush to the negotiating table with him this offseason, though.
There was a time this season when Freeman was an MVP candidate, but those days are gone along with the Bucs’ playoff hopes following five consecutive losses. He has been a streaky quarterback this season, combining the highs of his 2010 season and the lows of his 2011 campaign into one promising but most recently unsettling performance in 2012. It is obvious that Freeman has rare ability and he has been able to put it all together for significant stretches of his career, including Weeks 6-10 this season, when he produced passer ratings of better than 100 in five consecutive games. However, he has a TD-INT ratio of 8-11 in the six games since that hot streak and he has thrown 38 interceptions in the past two seasons.
At 24 years old, Freeman is still young. It is early enough in his career to think that he can evolve into a better decision-maker, and it is certainly not time for the Bucs to give up on him or start looking for his replacement.
There were some league observers clamoring for the Bucs to lock up Freeman with a contract extension earlier this season, before his play declined sharply and the Bucs unraveled in the midst of a playoff race. He will be in his contract year in 2013, and his price tag could be much more expensive a year from now if he puts his recent troubles behind him and he gets better and more consistent.
It may be worth taking that risk to find out if he indeed is going to mature. The Bucs will have the option of using the franchise tag on Freeman after next season. They could even use the exclusive franchise tag on Freeman to keep him from negotiating with other teams. The Saints used the exclusive tag on QB Drew Brees last offseason before they worked out a new contract with him.
Maybe the Bucs will have to pay a lot more to sign Freeman in a year than they would to get something done this offseason. However, Freeman has dropped too many hints that his play will head in the other direction.
Perhaps Freeman will show no signs of significant improvement or regression in 2013 and the Bucs will decide the quarterback that has yet to lead them to the playoffs is not going to be one that they want to keep around any longer.
The Bucs need to see if a young, promising quarterback is going to take that next step or give them more of the same.