What a difference a game makes, huh?
If only the 2008 Tampa Bay Bucs had won one game in the month of December, they would have finished 10-6, made the NFL playoffs again, and likely would not have cleaned house this offseason. But, that four-loss December collapse spelled doom for many people connected to it most notably former head coach Jon Gruden who gave way to little known defensive assistant Raheem Morris this offseason. At only 33 years of age, Morris will have his hands full as he attempts to improve a team that has exactly zero playoff wins since their Super Bowl XXXVII victory and has jettisoned some veterans heading into his rookie season at the helm.
At the top of Morris’ to-do list is finding a starting quarterback and the battle has received a ton of hype all throughout the offseason. Veterans Byron Leftwich and Luke McCown have battled it out all during OTAs and summer camp. When first-round draft pick Josh Freeman and long-term project Josh Johnson are added to the mix, some might see the Bucs’ QB situation as an embarrassment of riches. Unfortunately, when you have four quarterbacks that can play that often means you have no one you can count on. Let’s take a closer look…
Byron Leftwich – Leftwich is the guy with far and away the most experience and the most proven ability. He stepped into the NFL six years ago and played almost immediately with his size, overall athletic ability, and toughness being his strong suits. Unfortunately, the devastating knee injury he suffered in 2005allowed backup David Garrard to move past him the following season as the starting QB in Jacksonville. Since then, he has been trying to find his place but filled in ably as Ben Roethlisberger’s backup in Pittsburgh last season. The question is whether or not a team which is in at least a form of rebuilding mode should be tied to a QB with a major injury history and a career 58.6% completion rate (and less than 50% this preseason).
Luke McCown – One thing so many of us as fans love about the NFL is how hard some players have to work to earn their keep. When you’re a player in that scenario, then there is no rest for the weary and the strong-armed Luke McCown is one of those players. Having spent parts of various seasons with Tampa, New Orleans, and Cleveland he has seen action in only 12 games over six NFL campaigns. McCown now has some experience to work with, even if it is not Sunday experience, and his performance in last Saturday’s preseason matchup against the Jaguars with his job on the line was excellent. Anytime a QB can step in with pressure on him to play well and go 6-9 with two TD passes, it is the best of signs.
Josh Freeman – The Buccaneers’ so-called quarterback of the future is Josh Freeman. He was picked 17th overall in this year’s draft, which was considered a reach by some, but no one denies his athleticism is something that is at a premium in today’s NFL.
The 6’6” Freeman is raw on his recognition skills, and that could make for a bumpy road with any rookie QB plus now he may have the added pressure of absurd comparisons to Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco from 2008. There is a ton of varying speculation on Freeman but, make no mistake; he has some chance to start for a considerable portion of this season.
Josh Johnson – The second year project out of San Diego was deemed a long-term project with major upside when he was drafted in the fifth round in 2008. But, after the Bucs faltered and a new coaching regime came into place, Freeman was touted as the next franchise guy and it left Johnson in an unenviable position. While Johnson may still have that untapped potential, it is unlikely he will see the field before Freeman; injuries and abysmal play are the only two things that can get him there.
Adding to all of the speculation about who will start opening day for Tampa Bay is the rumor mill that suggests at least one of the aforementioned quarterbacks will be traded.
Head Coach Raheem Morris stated this week: “Everybody in this league, all 32 teams around this time, are calling other front offices,” Morris said. “I can’t control who calls us. We can control who we call. Everybody is interested in everybody’s roster. Everybody is looking to nitpick off everybody’s roster. Everybody has talent, and you’re trying to accumulate the best talent for your football team.”
So we have several questions to ask in order to approach this battle which will be decided quickly after this Thursday’s preseason game versus Miami:
1. Does the coaching staff think that Josh Freeman will be ready to play this season, even if it’s not on opening day?
As mentioned previously, Freeman has received a good amount of work and here’s a little verbal evidence of Morris’ infatuation with Freeman: “Absolute specimen to look at. Physical. Tall, big. Big arm. Deceptively quick, even though the 40 time says 4.8, he’s got that Ben Roethlisberger effect where he’s hard to tackle once you get back there, so you’d better send somebody blitzing big enough to get him on the ground.” Very high praise and the reason why he took him so early in the draft; Morris is motivated to play this kid in year one.
2. If the trade rumors are correct, who will garner the most value that the Bucs can afford to part with for this season?
Leftwich, without a doubt. He has proven himself to be able to lead a winning team at the NFL level and can add some real value to a struggling team or a team with no discernible backup. They will not take any kind of real salary cap hit on his new contract so his trade value regarding the Bucs is maximized right now – the chance that he will start for another team is a sunk cost when they show a vote of confidence for the actual starter in McCown or Freeman.
3. If the Bucs are in rebuilding mode anyway, why not just put Freeman in and let him learn on the job?
Historically, this can be argued both ways. Troy Aikman and Peyton Manning came into very poor teams, struggled mightily, yet built themselves into champions. Most others like David Carr and Joey Harrington (not to mention Tim Couch, Ryan Leaf, Akili Smith, etc.) could never really get going with their less talented rosters – certainly the front offices should share the praise/blame in most situations.
The issue here is that the Bucs may not be a cellar dweller just yet and if Freeman has some typical rookie struggles from Week 1, then they will be out of the playoff race before they started.
My call would be to move Leftwich as he has the most value and would put them in a situation where they have McCown (playing the best of the four) starting the season and Freeman (future franchise) as a backup. The Bucs can talk up Josh Johnson in trade rumors all they want, but no one will offer much to get him. So he can stick around as third-string and they can move him next offseason.
But, I think the Bucs are going to stick with Leftwich, whom they just signed to a decent sized-contract and try to move McCown for a later round draft pick. At the first sign of real distress for whoever starts this season, Freeman will be warming up on the sidelines instead of holding a clipboard. With the way I expect their season to go, this will happen before their bye week (Week 8) at the latest.
Depth Perceptions is a weekly look at depth chart and positional battles all over the NFL.