Dissecting Josh Freeman's Disappointing Start: Signs Of Hope

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 09: Josh Freeman #5 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers reacts during their loss to the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park on October 9, 2011 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Josh Freeman has struggled so far in 2011, but how come? And are these struggles something we should worry about?

It's no secret among Buccaneers fans that Josh Freeman has had a difficult start to the season. After his stunning 2010 season, in which he posted a 61% completion rate and only threw six interceptions all year, local expectations for Freedman shot through the roof. He was the savior of the franchise -- the shining star that would lead the Bucs back to the Super Bowl. 

So far this season, that narrative has fallen dead. Freeman has struggled out of the gate, throwing six interceptions in only five games and ranking 20th in DVOA among all the quarterbacks in the NFL. He has been average - no more, no less - and Bucs fans expected so much more.

But when you dig into Freeman's stats, there may not be as much cause for concern as people are assuming. The interceptions and "making bad decisions" has been a theme of the analysis surrounding Freeman, and while that's certainly true, Freeman's interception rate isn't his biggest problem. Going into this season, we knew that there was small chance that Freeman's 1.4% interception rate from 2010 would carry over; that number was bound to regress upward. The question was, how much?

Freeman's interception rate has bounced back up to 3.4% -- higher than last season, but still considerably better than his 6.2% rate from 2009. It ranks him 9th from last in the league, but if this is Freeman at his worst....well, we have it pretty good. Heck, Freeman is only one clean game away from ranking in the middle of the pack in interception rate.

Another encouraging sign is that despite throwing the ball considerably more often than in recent years -- Freeman's on pace for 570 pass attempts, 100 higher than last season -- Freeman has posted a 64% completion rate. That's an improvement over his 61% rate from last season, and it ranks him 10th among all qualified quarterbacks. While this may not seem like much, a quarterback's completion percentage is an important evaluative tool; it shows that despite his struggles, Freeman is still being an efficient passer.

So what has been Freeman's big problem? As Sander from Bucs Nation pointed out recently, Freeman simply hasn't found the end zone this season. He has only three touchdowns through five games, tied with Sam Bradford for worst in the NFL among quarterbacks with more than 150 passing attempts. That's simply an unsustainable rate, and one that Freeman is bound to improve upon going forward. He's on pace for 10 touchdowns this season, while even in his rookie season he managed to average a touchdown per game. Simply put, he's better than this.

But this inability to reach the end zone speaks to another issue: Freeman is seemingly being too conservative with his passes. He's averaging only 6.5 yards per pass attempt, down from his 7.3 Y/A last season last season and nearly identical to his passing rate in 2009. And when you only look at pass completions -- Freeman completed a low percentage of passes in 2009, skewing the numbers -- the drop is significant: 11.7 yards per completion in 2009, 11.9 in 2010....and 10.1 in 2011.

Is this drop because Freeman is having trouble completing longer throws, so he's instead focusing on short passes? Could this be boosting his completion percentage higher than it would be otherwise? It certainly seems plausible. But since these numbers are such an abberation from what he produced in all his other seasons -- and the fact that there aren't any large warning signs in his other numbers -- I don't think we have to worry about this being a long-term problem. Freeman's simply going through some growing pains.

It's worth remembering that Josh Freeman is still only 23-years-old, and he has plenty of time to continue to improve. This is a reloading year for the Buccaneers, as they take stock of their team and let their young players develop. Freeman may not be quite a polished quarterback yet, but there's no reason to give up hope yet; he's still an improved player from when he first made his debut, and young players are expected to struggle on occasion. We just need to be patient...however difficult that may be.

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