TAMPA — There’s no stopping the sound and fury surrounding Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman. Entering the final season of his five-year contract — with plans for an extension apparently not imminent — the debate over Freeman still rages.
Can he become an elite player? Will the Bucs start over with someone else?
Since their 1976 expansion season, no other franchise has made more premium attempts to secure a long-term quarterback. The Bucs have four times utilized a first-round draft selection for the next savior. Twice more, they shipped away a No. 1 pick to secure a veteran.
In all that time — even with free agent Brad Johnson, who led the Bucs to a championship in Super Bowl XXXVII — no quarterback ever made it to a second contract with Tampa Bay.
Bucs quarterbacks have made four Pro Bowl appearances in 37 seasons. Only five other NFL franchises had fewer during that time span (and two were expansion teams). Making matters worse, there’s a history of quarterbacks flourishing once they leave the Bucs.
“For a lot of those years with the Bucs’ organization, you were dealing with a personnel department that had no idea what personnel was all about,’’ said former Bucs quarterback Doug Williams, who left Tampa Bay in 1983 after failing to get a new contract, even after leading three playoff teams in four seasons. “It was about saving money. I don’t think they ever knew what they really had until it was gone.’’
Williams (Redskins) and Steve Young (49ers) became Most Valuable Players at the Super Bowl. One season after the Bucs chose to not renew his contract, Trent Dilfer helped the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl title … at Raymond James Stadium.
Vinny Testaverde, whose Bucs tenure included the modern NFL record with 35 interceptions in one season, paced the New York Jets to an AFC championship game, completing 61.5 percent of his passes with 29 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. Chris Chandler, who lost all six of his starts with Tampa Bay, led the Atlanta Falcons to a 14-2 mark and an NFC title.
“All of that is … interesting,’’ said former Bucs coach Tony Dungy, who won a Super Bowl title with the Indianapolis Colts and is now an analyst with NBC Sports. “I don’t know that the Bucs have ever had a quarterback who wasn’t the subject of debate. It’s not like the Colts, where you get Peyton Manning and plug him in for 15 years.
“I don’t think Tampa is unique. It’s like any other NFL city. Unless you’ve got an elite guy, the quarterback is constantly picked apart. It’s life in the NFL and Josh Freeman is just part of that now. Now I guess we’ll find out how much the Bucs believe in Josh and how much patience they’re going to show.’’
Ah yes, patience. It never was a strong point in the vortex of the Bucs, their fans and the franchise’s expectations.
“This town is obsessed with quarterbacks!’’ former Bucs coach John McKay once exclaimed.
McKay was caught in the middle when owner Hugh Culverhouse and Williams couldn’t reach a contract agreement, sending the Bucs’ heart and soul to the USFL, while causing bitter teammates to turn over tables and pound walls in the Tampa Bay locker room.
The Bucs tried to respond by trading a first-round pick for Jack Thompson (The Throwin’ Samoan), but he already was being booed during introductions for the second exhibition game. McKay chose to start journeyman Jerry Golsteyn, but pulled the plug after just three games and turned back to Thompson.
“Jerry’s a nice kid, but so is my wife,’’ McKay said. “And she’s no quarterback.’’
Meanwhile, Williams was telling Sports Illustrated, “I hope the Bucs go 0-and-16.’’
During 14 consecutive post-Williams losing seasons, the Bucs were caught in a never-ending cycle of searching for the next quarterback.
“If you put a quarterback in bad situations early in their career, it seems like they can never live them down,’’ Hall of Fame defensive back Mike Haynes said.
Young was the USFL’s $40 million man. But when he came to Tampa Bay, his two seasons resulted in 4-28. He was so battered, so disillusioned, he actually considered quitting the NFL to begin a legal career.
“I knew I could play, but there were times in Tampa that I really doubted it,’’ said Young, now an ESPN analyst. “Jimmy Raye (offensive coordinator) actually sat me down at one point to say, ‘You can play in this league.’ I was grateful for that.
“It was institutionalized losing. All the things organizations needed to be successful, they were fighting. Nobody tried harder than me, but I was caught in the crossfire of it all.’’
In the offseason, with Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde coming aboard as the No. 1 overall draft pick, Young was traded to the 49ers for two draft picks and cash.
Young was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005, entering with an NFL-record career quarterback rating (96.8), six passing titles, two regular-season MVP awards and a Super Bowl ring.
“Sometimes, it’s all about the situation you’re in,’’ Young said.
That became true for Testaverde. After fulfilling his six-year Tampa Bay contract — 77 touchdown passes, 112 interceptions and just 24 victories — he opted for free agency. All told, Testaverde played 21 NFL seasons and finished in the league’s all-time top 10 for passes attempted, completed, passing yards and touchdowns, lists that are almost exclusively populated by Hall of Famers.
“Vinny was truly in a no-win situation in Tampa, just completely being dealt cards from the bottom of the deck,’’ said former Bucs general manager Rich McKay, son of the coach, now president of the Falcons. “Steve Young, same deal. They just weren’t surrounded by enough players. They were unrealistically painted as saviors.
“Sometimes, when guys get their shot early and it doesn’t work, they never find it again. Those guys got to the top of their game. Sometimes, the change of scenery is needed because there are so many scars from the original situation.’’
Freeman already has endured his share of scars — and he’s only 25.
“The Bucs have to accept Josh for who he is and that’s not the fiery out-front leader,’’ former Bucs quarterback Shaun King said. “From a physical and talent standpoint, he’s going to continue to develop and become a leader. He’s not elite, but he’s in the next group. That’s why I think you stick with him.
“It’s hard. Put yourself in his shoes. Every time you turn on the radio or TV, you’re the reason the team hasn’t been successful, you’re the reason why the team isn’t ready to make a jump. I think his stats say otherwise, personally. He just has to endure this. It’s hard to listen to this criticism and keep a positive demeanor.’’
Freeman says he doesn’t listen, even when the likes of ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski describes him as an “enigma’’ and says he should be further along after 56 NFL starts.
Bucs coach Greg Schiano wants Freeman to have perspective, saying, “The most popular guy in any NFL town is the backup quarterback when things aren’t going well,’’ and comparing the scrutiny and second-guessing to his decisions as head coach.
“For the most part, I have my friends, my family and that’s really the focal point,’’ Freeman said. “I focus on me. I focus on the things that I can control and really don’t pay much mind to anything else.’’
Even when the flying opinions reach critical mass, such as two weeks ago, when Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton told 620 AM radio that Freeman’s performances were “God-awful’’ and “he can’t play.’’
“When you turn on the TV or read the newspapers, you probably won’t see a lot of positives about yourself if you’re an NFL quarterback,’’ said former Bucs coach Jon Gruden, now an ESPN analyst. “You’re going to hit a bump in the road and come to a screeching halt. You either quit the race or fix your car and get going again.’’
“I know I was guilty of listening to too much and probably saying too much at times,’’ Dilfer said. “That does you no good. I think you can build a team around Josh Freeman. He’s going to experience adversity, like we all did. The bottom line is how you handle it and how you bounce back.’’
Johnson, the Super Bowl-winning quarterback for Tampa Bay, said victories are the only statistics that really matter.
“It’s a cut-throat business,’’ Johnson said. “Personally, you don’t trust anyone. You take care of yourself. You give it up for the team. And you’re always ready to make a play.
“There’s always going to be evolution and change. You can’t be afraid to take your show on the road. You can’t be afraid to go to a different situation. Only in rare occasions does it last for a quarterback on the same team for a long time.’’
With the Bucs, it never has happened.
“I think Josh is on the verge of elite status,’’ Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter said. “Are the Bucs going to have patience to see that through?’’
Freeman is at the crossroads. Opinions are everywhere. Bucs general manager Mark Dominik seems content to let the season play out, then decide on Freeman’s direction. Everyone will watch — for not only how Freeman will play, but also for how his organization will respond.