EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman took the snap on third-and-7 against the Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium three weeks ago and within seconds found himself standing amid a fast-decaying pocket of pass protection.
Seemingly oblivious to the chaos, Freeman patiently ignored the pass rushers pouring in around him and kept his focus squarely on his downfield target — until the pocket collapsed and there was nothing left to look at but the turf he was thrown down to.
That scene, it turns out, is an allegory for Freeman’s life.
As the Bucs open the 2013 season against the Jets today at MetLife Stadium, Freeman finds himself standing in the middle of an ever-growing storm of criticism and doubt, much of which stems from Tampa Bay’s decision not to extend his five-year rookie contract, which expires after this season.
Yet, like the eye of a hurricane, Freeman remains calm and steady amid the mayhem swirling around him. Soft spoken and laid back, he has steadfastly ignored the flack directed at him and maintained focus on his attempt to turn the Bucs into a playoff team.
“It’s pretty simple for me,’’ Freeman said. “I don’t pay a lot of attention to all that’s being said and written. I really don’t. Someone will shoot me a text now and then saying, ‘Hey, did you see what so-and-so said,’ but I never worry about it. I’m just focused on being the best quarterback I can be.’’
That’s quite an accomplishment, especially for a player yet to turn 26 and particularly with recent criticism of him reaching Category 5 proportions.
Three weeks ago, Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton blew through Tampa Bay and said Freeman’s play was “God-awful’’ at times and that Freeman simply “can’t play’’ in the NFL. That critique came on the heels of a remark by former Bucs teammate Ronde Barber, who said during Fox’s broadcast of the Bucs-Patriots preseason game in August that Freeman can’t carry the team because he’s “prone to mistakes.’’
Freeman withstood the blows like a window boarded up during a wind storm.
“Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but the important thing to me has always been the people in this building,’’ Freeman said of the team facility at One Buc Place. “My coaches, my teammates — I know they have faith. They all know who I am as a player.”
Tampa Bay traded up two spots to select Freeman with the 17th overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft. He took over the starting job midway through his rookie season, delivering an inspiring come-from-behind win against the Packers in his first start.
But his career is plagued by inconsistency.
Freeman had a breakout season in 2010, throwing 25 touchdowns and only six interceptions as the Bucs narrowly missed the playoffs at 10-6.
In 2011, however, Freeman struggled miserably during a 4-12 season. His interception total nearly quadrupled, from six to 22, and his touchdown total dropped from 25 to 16. His passer rating dropped more than 21 points, to 74.6.
Enter new head coach Greg Schiano, offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan and the roller-coaster ride that was 2012. New to Sullivan’s offense, Freeman started out slow, throwing five touchdowns and four interceptions in the first four games. Then, after a bye week of adjustments, he caught fire.
Freeman put together five consecutive games in which he had a passer rating of 100 or higher, leading the Bucs to a 6-4 record through their first 10 games.
Both slipped down the stretch, though. Tampa Bay lost five of its last six, including a pair of four-interception games by Freeman.
After a season in which Freeman set franchise records for passing yards (4,065) and touchdown passes (27), the focus was on his failures.
The dismal finish sparked a tepid response regarding Freeman’s future from Schiano, who said the day after the season ended that he couldn’t be sure whether Freeman would remain his quarterback. Schiano has tried ever since to quell the impact of that statement, saying several times during the offseason he believes Freeman is capable of leading the Bucs to the Super Bowl.
The damage, though, had been done.
His original comment was like a pistol shot starting a race for critics. So, during a preseason in which Freeman was sacked nine times in 26 pass attempts, the quarterback took a far worse beating from his growing legion of critics than from opposing pass rushers.
Through it all, though, Freeman remained resolute, his confidence unshaken, according to Schiano and Sullivan.
Players who have fought the battles Freeman is fighting now say that’s a good thing.
“As the quarterback, you better have thick skin or you’re never going to last in this league,’’ said Brad Johnson, quarterback of Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl XXXVII championship team. “You absolutely have to be able to ignore all that chatter, because that’s all it is.
“Most fans don’t know the plays you’re running or the protections or what you really expect from this play or that one. And if you don’t know that, you’re just sitting up there eating popcorn and drinking Cokes. You know when you’ve played bad. You can tell the difference between cheers and boos. But if you’re getting caught up in what everybody is saying about you, you’re never going to make it.’’
Freeman attributes much of his ability to ignore the debate to his father, Ron Freeman, a former United States Football League linebacker who taught his son at an early age to block out all commentary — good or bad.
“I remember in high school my dad saying you can’t let anybody pollute your thought process, pollute your mind, tell you you’re great or you’re awful, either way,’’ Freeman said. “And I’ve always remembered that.
“It’s funny, really, because a lot of times I really don’t know that anything is going on until my family calls up and says, ‘Hey, don’t listen to them.’ So, I really have no idea what’s going on. I just try to focus on what I can control and try not to waver for anything or anybody.’’
Sullivan, a former New York Giants coach who helped quarterback Eli Manning through similarly difficult times early in his career, considers the ability to block out criticism just as important for a quarterback as the ability to read defenses and make all the throws.
“It’s vital, because if you allow that to affect your confidence, then the entire offense is going to suffer,’’ Sullivan said. “So, while I’m not thrilled that he’s having to go through this fire storm, I think it’s good training.
“My sense is that if he can push this aside and stay focused on the task at hand, then when it’s third-and-10 and the defense is moving all over the place, he’ll be locked in there, too. Those mental toughness muscles are what he’s strengthening right now, and that’s critical.’’
It can be painful, too, but Freeman hasn’t let it be.
“He’s never even brought it up to me, and his attention, his focus in meetings and at practice has been excellent,’’ Sullivan said.
“And a lot of that I think has to do with his comfort level with the offense. The command he’s showing in the huddle, at the line of scrimmage, it really is night and day from last year. Whether it’s practice or a game, I see a guy who is very focused and not distracted at all, a guy who can’t wait to get out there and play at that consistent level that he wants and we need.’’
And his critics demand.