Martin Fennelly Columns
Fennelly: Bucs' unease rises as Freeman take steps back
NEW ORLEANS - The now four-game losing streak is one thing. The lousy defense, it will need to be addressed, but we've known that all along. The not showing up at all Sunday, well, that was a first under Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano. But now the quarterback is a mess. And that's panic in the streets. That's alarm bells. You're talking about Josh Freeman today, aren't you?All those lousy Bucs is one thing, but it's 5 – because this franchise is doomed without him. A little more than a month ago, Freeman seemed the least of the Bucs' worries. Now he's climbing up the charts. It went beyond a 41-0 shutout to the Saints, the worst defense in the league. It even went beyond 5's five turnovers, including four interceptions. Drew Brees threw four touchdowns. Ballgame. Four games ago, Josh Freeman was one of the NFL's best quarterbacks running one of the NFL's best offenses. Now he is looking as lost as he did in his horrible 2011. Sunday, he looked scary bad against a bad defense. He looks indecisive and his confidence looks shaky. He seems worse each week, back-foot throws, aiming instead of throwing, communication breakdowns with his receivers. It has to be inside his head. Another couple of weeks of this and he'll need a sports shrink. This is exactly what the Bucs and their fans didn't need down the stretch, what Freeman didn't need, either. There was a six-game streak this season – the Bucs went 5-1 – where he had 1,700 yards passing and 16 touchdowns. His quarterback ratings were out of sight, numbers like 124.7, 113.2, 104, 108 and a 137.2 against San Diego. Those ratings have plummeted during 0-4. Here are the last three weeks as the Bucs have nose-dived from contention: 72.8, 78.2 and Sunday's beauty, 37.2. "We've got to get better on offense," Freeman said. "Me, personally, I've got to get better." It's never as bad as it looks. But is 5 supposed to look anything like this heading into Year 5? He contends he is throwing the ball as well as ever. He's kidding, right? There's no way around the Incredible Shrinking Quarterback. Did it begin with those missed receivers against Atlanta and Denver? It's hard to pinpoint. But it's making people nervous. Clearly, the offensive captain doesn't have his teammates on the same page, or sometimes even the same book. Like that Freeman pick that resulted from a blown decision by either 5 or Vincent Jackson, though neither would say whose fault it was. In fact, V Jack, who caught his first ball with the Bucs already down 31-0, said nothing at all after the game. Got to love that senior leadership … Bucs who did speak backed up 5, saying he wasn't the only one to blame. They're right. Everyone was, coaches included. Nothing says desperation like a play call for a throw deep down the field to … Dallas Clark (intercepted, beyond easily). "I believe in him so much," Bucs offensive lineman Donald Penn said of 5. "If I had to pick a quarterback in the league right now, my quarterback would be Josh Freeman. You ask me tomorrow, my quarterback is going to be Josh Freeman. You ask me next season, my quarterback is going to be Josh Freeman … My quarterback is Josh Freeman. He's a grown man. He's going to go look in the mirror and we're going to get everything right." It's still the one thing the Bucs don't need going into next season. I thought 2012 was supposed to be make or break for Freeman. Now it might be 2013. No one who watched him a month ago expected this finish from him. The lack of decisiveness and confidence is startling. I still say the Bucs have bigger concerns than quarterback. Try cornerback. But should Josh Freeman be a concern at all at this point in this season, or in his career? Well, he is.