I AM NOT A NUMBER, I AM A FREEMAN
What do these quarterbacks have in common? Matt Leinart, David Carr, Byron Leftwich, Vince Young, JaMarcus Russell, Tyler Thigpen, Charlie Batch, Dennis Dixon, Tim Tebow, BJ Coleman, Graham Harrell, Caleb Hanie, Pat White, Trent Edwards? They've all played in the NFL, most of them have started, some have been the no.2 behind very good starters, and all of them are unemployed on the football field.
There is much that is puzzling about Josh Freeman's departure from Tampa and his signing with Minnesota. Obviously, coach Greg Schiano had lost Freeman, who came into the NFL in a great situation, to a coach who'd had him in college and lobbied for him. The way the Bucs began a smear campaign against Freeman suggests there are issues beyond performance and a personality clash, but it also backed the team into a corner where they could neither address and perhaps remedy the situation nor get any value for Freeman from anyone else. As this is the last year of his contract, you can understand the team wanting to cut bait now, and perhaps all they were doing when they became the Daily Mail and turned Freeman into Ralph Miliband was setting the stage for voiding his deal, but it's hard not to think that they weren't really ready for plan B, Mike Glennon, at this stage of the game. I remember watching Freeman practice as a rookie, when he made his debut at Wembley, and talking to him after the game, and being mightily impressed with his poise as well as his talent. Remember too, if Lavonte David doesn't go all WWE in the last seconds of the opening game, Tampa start the year with a road W and Freeman's 'a winner'.
My sympathies were with Freeman then, but his signing with the Vikings made me wonder if perhaps they weren't misplaced. On the free agent market this winter, Freeman could be a hot property—a QB with some NFL success and still a lot of potential—remember he's still only 25. Teams will be looking past those horrible stats you've seen for his last 10 starts, past them back to his excellent season with the 2010 Bucs. You might think he'd look around for a situation in which he'd be likely to get a chance to play, Cleveland perhaps, or Oakland, or Arizona, where the starters might falter or get hurt. Buffalo need a starter now—though it might be a lot to expect Freeman to walk right in and learn the playbook in a week. On the one hand, it's not a complicated playbook: 1. hand off to AP, 2. fake hand off to AP, look for one receiver running a short hitch/dig/drag or the like 3. heave it downfield on third and long. Jacksonville desperately need a starter, but didn't seem interested; half a season of quality play from him would make their draft day a dilemma next season, when Freeman will need big money. The point is, there were situations where Freeman might be able to prove himself.
Instead, he went to the Vikes, where Leslie Frazier surprisingly confirmed Christian Ponder as this week's starter immediately after Matt Cassel had led the team to their first win of the season at Wembley. That's two guys he needs to have falter before he even gets a chance, but it would look like the Vikes are expecting just that. What I take away from it is the sense Freeman was looking for a place where he wouldn't be set up to fail, where he good be a good soldier, show up on time for meetings, practice well, and rebuild his reputation. He will still be a valuable commodity in free agency next year. But his career might be at a crossroads—and one path leads to the kind of career a Tavaris Jackson or David Carr might have, being a respectable back up but rarely a starter. There are worse ways to make a living; ask Matt Flynn, who's out there as a short-term stop-gap for someone, but it might seem a betrayal of Freeman's immense promise. Then again, look at the list of relatively experienced quarterbacks above, and think about the fact the 49ers just cut John Skleton and claimed McLeod Bethel-Thompson, after the Vikings cut him to make room for Freeman.
THURSDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL: New Jersey Giants (0-5) at Chicago (3-2): The Eagles and their non-existent pass defense tried to hand the Giants a win last week, but they steadfastly refused the offer. They're similar to Atlanta, with a few high-priced stars and a considerable lack of depth, but usually you expect Perry Fewell's defense to do just enough for Eli and his big receivers to put points on the board. David Wilson fumbles then gets hurt then fumbles and Tom Coughlin's head is less likely to explode with Brandon Jacobs which tells you maybe all you need to know. They will have watched tape of the past two weeks, and seen how pressure on the young right side and mediocre left side of the Bears' line can work, but they've had problems generating rush, more problems in coverage, and their own line is nothing to write home about. The Bears' D is not the force it was before Henry Melton was hurt, and now his replacement, Nate Collins is out too. Are any of you old enough to remember Allie Sherman's 1966 1-12-1 Giants? Sherman coached them for two more seasons, too. But I actually think the Bears are more vulnerable than people imagine. What the Giants can do well, rush the passer, is still a weakness for the Bears. But, pick: Bears
FRIDAY MORNING WAKE UP: The Giants did some things right—no fumbles, only 1 sack of Eli, but the Bears did them better. Cutler wasn't sacked, Eli threw three picks, one returned for a TD, which was the difference in the game. Brandon Jacobs (22/106 2 TDs) surprised me, and Rueben Randle (3/75 1 TD) adds a dimension to the Giants' pass game. Jon Beason had 11 solo tackles; if he can stay healthy he might help. But realistically the Gmen are playing for pride right now, and as long as Eli plays like Rex Grossman, well, as Libby Titus almost sang, 'Pride Has No Love'.
SUNDAY, THE DAY PRO FOOTBALL WAS MEANT TO BE PLAYED:
Cincinnati (3-2) at Buffalo (2-3): The Bengals played a tremendous defensive game against New England, doing considerable blitzing, which they could do because their corners played great man to man; Terence Newman looked like he was supposed to look all those years in Dallas. Meanwhile, with EJ Manuel out, and Jeff Tuel found wanting, the Bills failed to sign Josh Freeman and activated Thad Lewis, who started a game for Cleveland last year, and for whom they traded with Detroit back in August. Remember the Bills let Tarvaris Jackson go in the off-season. Doug Marrone brought in White and Dixon from the above list for a look before deciding to stick with Lewis (they say they view Tuel as a developmental guy, and didn't want to expose him further). Among Lewis, White and Dixon, you'd think the Bills were looking primarily for a guy who can run for his life. Pick: Bengals
Detroit (3-2) at Cleveland (3-2): A fascinating matchup, especially now that the Browns are back to Weeden. Brandon played well in relief of Brian Hoyer last week, but over the years we've seen the difference between coming in as a relief pitcher with low expectations, and having the starting job and the pressure (Gus Frerotte being the prime example). Green Bay sacked Matt Stafford five times, but of course without Megatron or Nate Burleson, Stafford has to wait an extra second in the pocket just to guess who it is he is throwing to. Megatron was at practice in a knee brace Thursday, which doesn't sound promising. But at least no one on the Browns plays the tuba. Pick: Browns
Oakland (2-3) at Kansas City (5-0): Philip Rivers threw for 411 yards 2 TDs and 3 picks, yet no one's calling him a choker. Oh wait, they have been for the past five years? Sorry. More interesting was the game Terrelle Pryor had, absolutely Geno Smith in its control (18/23 221 2TD 0pix) but the key play in Oakland's win was really Charles Woodson's fumble recovery TD. Pryor is the kind of guy who can help negate the Chiefs' rush, much as Ryan Fitapatrick did last week, but look where it got him. Pick: Chiefs
Carolina (1-3) at Minnesota (1-3): The Vikings are rested and ready and about two quarters away from a Keystone Kops-style Kwarterback Kontroversy. No such problem in Carolina, where Ron Rivera seems to roll the dice wrong at all the right times, or is it right at all the wrong times, and Cam Newton has no business being sacked seven times, as he was against Arizona. Pick: Vikes
Philadelphia (2-3) at Tampa Bay (0-4): Mike Glennon has had two weeks to watch tape of the Eagles' defense, which means he ought not to be as nervous as he would be if here were facing an NFL pass defense. Chip Kelly is talking about Mike Vick (hamstring) maybe starting, but I think that's probably just to keep Greg Schiano thinking about the Vick-style, as opposed to Foles-style offense. Schiano let Greg Ogletree go last week, which went unnoticed, but it means than Tiquan Underwood may be his starting slot receiver. Pick: Eagles
LIVE ON SKY SPORTS 2: Green Bay (2-2) at Baltimore (3-2): The Packers are playing like the Packers of old, slipshod run game with Aaron Rodgers hitting big-time receivers, big play D vulnerable at times to productive offenses. The Ravens are playing like the Ravens of old, sloppy pass game and inconsistent running, big play defense helping create points and Ray Rice or Joe Flacco making one or two big plays a game. The Ravens do this better at home than on the road, while the Packers do their thing ditto. They are in Baltimore, hence, pick: Ravens
St. Louis (2-3) at Houston (2-3): Matt Schaub's rapid decline is one of the week's big stories, but maybe more attention ought to be paid to Andre Johnson, who's combination of injury and having to carry the passing game himself (OK, with Owen Daniels) for years may have caught up to him. The Rams' D has not been as tough as advertised, and teams have run on their front seven, which is what I'd expect Houston to do at home, what was more disappointing against the Niners was that their own front seven was so ineffective. Pick: Texans
Pittsburgh (0-4) at Newark Airport Jest (3-2): That crashing sound you hear from New Jersey is New Yorkers jumping on the Jest's bandwagon, like Rex Ryan jumping on walls in Pamplona. But the Jets have beaten Tampa (see above), Buffalo, and the Falcons, which is nothing to write a Pamplona postcard home about. The Steelers have had two weeks to rest and prepare, though how you prepare Levi Brown to play left tackle against the Jets I don't know. Where the Steelers' chances lie is in their D finally getting to a quarterback and forcing some turnovers; for Geno Smith this ought to be a confusing learning curve. But so far this season, the turnover bounces haven't gone the Steelers' way, and they seem to be guessing and guessing wrong defensively too much of the time. The pick here depends on how much you think the Steelers are really like the Falcons, falling apart because there just isn't enough depth, or whether you think their D can put them back on top on the road in a battle of mediocrity. Pick (ugh): Jets
YOUR Jacksonville Jaguars (0-5) at Denver (5-0): The Broncos didn't get much pass rush against Dallas, nor could they cover tight ends. No problemo. The Jags traded LT Eugene Monroe for a draft pick, saying rookie Luke Joeckel was ready to the play the left side (though not who would play the right). Cue Joeckel to break his ankle and be lost for the season. Blaine Gabbert minus blockers equals Broncos by 28 points. They ought to cover.
Tennessee (3-2) at Seattle (4-1): Can we get this straight once and for all. Texas A&M started this 12th man thing, but then again, The Wave started either in Washington (or Madison Wisconsin) and the Brits still call it the 'Mexican Wave'. Go figure. When the Titans were totally stalled against the Chiefs, Ryan Fitzpatrick came alive, scrambling them back into the game. Russell Wilson did the same thing for the Seahawks, except Marshawn Lynch also ran for 100 yards, while CJ2.0YPA didn't. And won't this week. Pick: Seahawks
LIVE ON SKY SPORTS 2: New Orleans (5-0) at New England (4-1): As well as the Bengals' D played, the Pats made it easy for them. Tom Brady is missing open receivers, not always on the same page with his young ones, and his receivers dropped any number of key throws too. Expect Rob Ryan to unleash some creative blitzes to both Brady, who looks more botherable than ever. The Pats' D isn't getting much credit, but they did a good job too in Cincy; the Saints have a few more options however. What I'm looking at with New England is Tom Brady with a bad case of the Schaubs, and the fact that the Pats haven't actually beaten anyone good (the Jets?) now that we've seen said Jest beat the Falcons. Pick: Saints
Arizona (3-2) at San Francisco (3-2): 'Pass? We don' need no steenking pass!' This is an intriguing match-up because the Cards' D just turned in a fine game against Carolina, with Darryl Washington's return (2 sacks among their 7 of Cam Newton) helping out. But their offense sputters with Carson Palmer—4 TDs and 9 picks so far—while the Niners' D seems to be getting its rhythm after losing Aldon Smith and Ian Williams. Remember Patrick Willis wasn't playing Sunday either. Pick: Niners
SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL LIVE ON CHANNEL FOUR: Washington (1-3) at Dallas (2-3): Here are the two sides of the Tony Romo debate. He threw for 500 yards, five touchdowns, and led his team to 48 points, and they lost. NFL teams are 370-4 when they score 48 points. It isn't his fault. Or: he only made one (OK maybe two) mistakes the whole game, but he threw his only pick when the chips were finally down. When the Dolphins lost to the Jets 51-45 in that game where Mark Webster and I broadcast on Channel Five, from a broom closet at ITN, and still went off air before the finish, no one was calling Dan Marino a choker. Interestingly, in the highest scoring game in NFL history, Washington beat the Giants 72-41 back in 1966. Sonny Jurgensen threw 'only' three TD passes that day, but the Skins intercepted the Giants five times, mostly off backup Tom Kennedy after starter Gary Wood was ineffective. Nobody called Gary Wood a choker, because no one (except maybe the Giants' staff) expected anything from him. I'd seen him play for Cornell against Yale and knew he could be stopped.
The main thing stopping RG3 so far has been his knee, and coming off the bye week he ought to be more mobile than he's been all season, and probably better set to plant and throw. The Cowboys' cover-2 defense hasn't been much more effective for Monte Kiffin than it was at USC, and that's still the root of the problem. But last week was Denver, and the Skins are not the Broncos. Pick: Cowboys
MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL LIVE ON EUROSPORT: Indianapolis (4-1) at San Diego (2-3): The Chargers are possibly the biggest tease in the NFL since the Cowboys introduced hotpants on their cheerleaders. Even at home they have a weird ability to under-achieve, though certainly they don't have the imposing roster they used to. What they may have now, something they've needed with Malcolm Floyd and Danario Alexander both out, is a deep threat. But Vincent Brown isn't a big go up for the ball guy like AJ Smith craved. He's a deep threat, but not the deep threat TY Hilton is. I'd suspect the Colts will try to take Antonio Gates away, while the Chargers might try to cover deep and open up things underneath for Coby Fleener, Luck's favourite target back at Stanford. Relatively unnoticed in the Colts' over-spending on journeymen free agents was their acquisition of Aubrayo Franklin, late of the Chargers, and formerly the Niners. He and ex-Niner Ricky Jean-Francois have shored up Chuck Pagano's front three, Erik Walden from Green Bay is one OLB and Robert Mathis seems to have adjusted to the other, and Darius Butler is finally making plays. The Colts' O line isn't great, but Luck covers some of their faults, and even Goddamit Donald Brown is running well. Meanwhile, the loss of ex-Colt Dwight Freeny may take away what little pass rush the Chargers had. Pick: Colts
Miami (3-2): Ryan Tannehill, meet David Carr. Tannehill got sacked six more times against the Ravens, and Miami still lost only by a field goal, but the question is how much longer can he continue to take a beating without it starting to affect his play (cf: Carr, David). The Dolphins' D again put them in position to win last week, but when they needed a drive to get into figgie range, they had no answer for the Ravens' pressure.
BYE BYE WEEK:
Atlanta (1-4): Just when they thought the bye week might get Steven Jackson and Roddy White healthy, Julio Jones broke the screw in his foot and could miss the rest of the season. They made the Jones trade to try to get over the hump and make a Super Bowl run, which they did last year when everyone stayed healthy; now their lack of depth has been exposed and it could be a long season to come. They've lost four games by close margins; they could soon stop being so close. With all the talk about Tony Romo's performance, according to Pro Football Reference, Matt Ryan last week became only the 15th QB since 1960 to complete 80 per cent of his passes, gain over 300 yards, and throw no picks. He did become the first one to do that and lose. Pick: Bye Week
LAST WEEK: 10-4 SEASON: 54-23