Early in the 2011 season, Eli Manning was asked if he believed he was among the game's elite quarterbacks. Despite his aw shucks delivery, Eli pulled no punches, "Yes, I believe I am."
It brought more than a few chuckles among those inside and covering the league. Then Eli threw for nearly 5,000 yards and 29 touchdowns. He followed up a solid regular season by leading his team past Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons, Aaron Rodgers and the defending Super Bowl Champion 15-1 Green Bay Packers in Lambeau, San Francisco at Candlestick and finally over the great Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
There is absolutely no doubt now whether Eli deserves to be mentioned among the league's best.
He credits his maturation to his quarterbacks coach, Mike Sullivan, who now becomes the Buccaneers' offensive coordinator.
Freeman and Manning share some interesting career parallels. Both have great size, with Freeman being a couple inches taller and a little heavier. Both show escapability in the pocket, although Freeman is a bigger threat to run with the ball.
Both have big arms and vision. In his first 41 games in the NFL, Eli Manning threw for 8,049 yards, 54 touchdowns and 44 interceptions. Manning also completed 690 of 1276, 54% completion percentage and a 73.1 quarterback rating.
Through his first 41, Freeman has thrown for 8,898 yards, 51 touchdowns and 46 interceptions. He's completed 795 of his 1315 pass attempts, a 60.5% completion pct and a 79.1 QB Rating.
Early on in his NFL career, Freeman has shown the ability Eli Manning has demonstrated over and over - he can bring his team back from behind.
Freeman's also put up a season with a 95.9 QB rating. Manning didn't post his first 90-plus QB rating until his sixth season in the NFL.
Manning has seen a dramatic improvement in his game under Sullivan. In his past two seasons (32 games) with Sullivan at the helm, Manning has had career seasons in yardage, completion percentage and touchdowns. In 2010, he threw a career high 25 interceptions but in 2011, he cut down the picks to 16.
"I don’t know if he’s gotten any credit but he’s certainly been a catalyst in the good year Eli’s had," Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride told the New York Daily News.
Sullivan is expected to employ a NY Giants styled offense. Head Coach Greg Schiano said he wanted to pound the ball and take shots deep. It's what the Giants have employed for years and definitely seems to play to Freeman's strength - his big arm.
The question is accuracy. Can Freeman hit the deep ball consistently? It's a question that begs to asked. Freeman only threw 32 passes over 21 yards this past season, completing 11 of those for a completion percentage of 34%. By comparison, in 2011 Eli Manning attempted 98 passes of 21 or more yards, completing 37, a 38% completing percentage. Tom Brady attempted 45, completing 15 (33% com pct) while Matthew Stafford completed 23 out of 64 (36% comp pct).
Drew Brees was one of the best, completing 31 of 61 passes over 21 yards (51% comp pct).
Strangely enough, the Bucs were much more aggressive in 2010. Freeman attempted 66 passes over 21 yards, completing 22 for 33% completion percentage. 7 of Freeman's 25 touchdown passes that season came from passes over 21 yards. Only 3 of his 16 touchdowns came the way of the bomb in 2011.
So early in his career, Freeman's numbers with the deep ball are in line with some of the best in the business. The Bucs, at least in 2011, didn't do it enough to really get their quarterback out there with the upper echelon of deep ball throwers.
That could, in part, have contributed to Freeman's massive drop off in the intermediate routes (11 to 20 yard passes). After going 48 of 107 (44.9% comp pct) with 9 touchdowns and 1 interception for a 94.6 QB Rating in passes thrown between 11 to 20 yards, Freeman had a significant drop off. He completed 54 of 128 (42.2% comp pct), just 5 touchdowns and a whopping 11 interceptions for an abysmal QB rating of 44.4.
Eli Manning was 77 of 143 (53.8% comp pct) for 8 touchdowns and 5 interceptions in the intermediate routes. Drew Brees completed 63% of his intermediate routes with 5 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. Tom Brady was deadly, completing 57% of his passes for 15 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. Matthew Stafford also did damage in the 11-to-20 range, completing 52.1% of his passes while throwing for 16 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.
So for Sullivan, Senior Offensive Assistant Jimmy Raye II and whomever the Bucs choose as their QB coach (if Sully doesn't assume the role himself) the job won't be to fix Freeman's short game accuracy or deep ball. Their focus will need to be getting their quarterback back to being formidable in the intermediate routes.
There's no reason why Sullivan can't revitalize Freeman's career like he did with Eli Manning and who knows, maybe it will result in a Super Bowl win or two in Tampa Bay.