One Big Mess
(Note: This piece was written before the Bucs released Freeman on Thursday afternoon.)
As those familiar with my writing know, the NFL offseason—the longest of all major professional sports leagues—is "Me Time,” the time when teams and players are often in conflict over individual needs vs. the greater good. Every NFL team deals with various levels of player discontent; for a team to profess it has a completely harmonious locker room is folly.
Come training camp and the start of the season, however, “Me Time” usually turns to “We Time.” Or so we would like to think.
The reality is that player-team discord does not magically disappear according to a calendar; it can linger and fester through training camp and into the season. Such is the case in the toxic relationship between the Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano and quarterback Josh Freeman. It is a relationship that appears beyond repair, a schism between coach and player rooted in mistrust and feelings of betrayal.
Freeman was a treasured first-round pick in the 2009 draft—the penultimate draft class prior to the CBA “correction” of top rookie contracts—cashing in with a five-year, $26 million contract with $10.245 million guaranteed. Having started the vast majority of games since his rookie season, he was the presumed leader of a franchise that appeared on the uptick for 2013.
Or not. Somewhere along the way, Freeman lost the confidence of his coaches, his teammates or both. The anointed starting quarterback a month ago spent last week as a healthy scratch, buried on the inactive list for the Cardinals loss. Now in their bye week, the Bucs have Freeman as the elephant in the room at the team’s most important position. Let’s try to analyze why.
Perhaps I overestimate the impact of the business of sports, but the contract situation here—or more precisely, the lack of a contract—is undeniably a factor. Freeman is in the last year of a five-year deal and, making a healthy $8.43 million salary.
Every player wants the same thing contractually: a long-term commitment with a substantial guarantee. More than the financial commitment, which is always tenuous in the NFL, players desire to feel like the team wants them around for the long term. This is why franchise tag players, despite making a substantial salary, are frequently disillusioned due to lack of security in spite of high short-term earnings. As I often noted in my negotiations with players, one can never underestimate the power of ego and insecurity among professional athletes.
Despite a reasonably successful book of performance over the past four seasons leading into this one, the Bucs did not secure Freeman for the long term prior to the start of this contract year. The silence from the Bucs front office must have been deafening to Freeman, especially amidst the landscape around him.
Freeman saw extensions this offseason for quarterbacks Joe Flacco, Aaron Rodgers, Tony Romo, Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford. While certainly not as accomplished as these players, Freeman could have likely been secured for a significantly lower amount. And whereas Freeman is in the final year of his contract, Rodgers and Stafford were extended with two years left on their deals.
Freeman was certainly not the only quarterback with an expiring contract not extended. Jay Cutler is also in that category, although Bears’ general manager Phil Emery did not single out Cutler, stating that there would be no extensions for any Bears players this season. Freeman’s case is a bit different.
Freeman has seen the Bucs not only spend liberally on imported acquisitions over the past two years—Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks, Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson—but saw them secure home-grown receiver Mike Williams to a $40 million extension, with almost $9 million due this year. With all of this spending, the Bucs were content to allow their quarterback to play out his contract. Speaking of which ...
Schiano Men … or Not
Although Freeman led an offense ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in total yards and passing yards last season, Schiano apparently was unimpressed. He not only drafted quarterback Mike Glennon in the third round of this year’s draft but inserted him into the starting lineup ahead of Freeman, saying Glennon, who had never taken an NFL snap, gave “the team the best chance to win.” Translation: “We’re moving on from Josh.”
In speaking with agents of several Bucs players recently, I have sensed a common theme: There is an atmosphere of fear and distrust under the current regime in Tampa. Players have told their agents about coaches roaming through the locker room (typically the players’ sanctuary away from coaches) and staff videotaping players on the sidelines during losses to single out players laughing or horsing around. The players also speak to the influx of multiple Rutgers players from Schiano’s past and the use of the phrase “Schiano Men,” a term that clearly does not apply to Freeman.
Freeman may be the next player shipped out by Schiano, joining a list that includes Aqib Talib, Dezmon Briscoe, LeGarrette Blount and Kellen Winslow, Jr., as well as this week’s casualties Ahmad Black and Kevin Ogletree. There appears to be a pattern of players, despite their talents, ending up on the wrong side of the coaching staff, with directives from Schiano to general manager Mark Dominik to remove them from the roster.
To be fair, Freeman has not been blameless here. Missing the team photo—for whatever reason—is inexcusable and fanned the flames of a dysfunctional relationship between him and his head coach. Which leads me to ...
The Schiano-Freeman saga seems to reach new lows every day, with the latest salvos including a report by FOX Sports that Freeman was told to stay away from a team meeting, this following a report from ESPN that Freeman is in Stage One of the NFL’s drug-testing program due to a mixup with his league-approved prescription for Adderall. One can only wonder what invectives today or tomorrow will bring.
Dominik is in a tough spot. He must try to preserve some relationship with Freeman, although his loyalty—for the time being at least—is with Schiano. Now told by Schiano that Freeman is persona non grata, Dominik has to try to trade Freeman with trade leverage stacked against him.
The Bucs would need a perfect storm to have a willing trade partner for Freeman. That team would have to have a strong interest in Freeman, a present and future need at quarterback, $6.2 million (Freeman’s remaining 2013 salary) of unallocated cap room to take on the contract, a willingness to insert another team’s problem into their locker room, and a willingness to extend Freeman’s contract rather than “renting” him for 10-12 games.
As to questions concerning the Bucs paying part of Freeman’s contract in order to facilitate a trade, the NFL—unlike the NBA or Major League Baseball—does not allow cash compensation to be part of a trade. However, the Bucs could (legally) circumvent that rule by restructuring Freeman’s contract to pay him a bonus, reduce his salary, and then trade that contract. For example, the Bucs could give Freeman, say, a $2 million bonus and reduce his remaining salary to $4 million in order to attract a trading partner. I still think it highly unlikely.
I can imagine Mark on the phone with other general managers, in conversations that sound something like this:
“Hey, it’s Mark. Wondering if any interest in Josh?”
“You’re going to cut him, right?
“Uh, well, maybe not.”
“Ok. But why does your coach hate him so much?”
“Well, it’s complicated, but ...”
“We’re good. Take care Mark.”
Absent a trade, there remain two options for an uncontested divorce:
1. A reluctant co-existence through the season (staying together for the kids’ sake?). In this case, Freeman would keep quiet and collect his $500,000 per week, probably on the inactive list barring injury to Glennon, until his tires screech driving out of town the moment the team's last game ends, or
2. A termination of Freeman’s contract. In this case, with Freeman being a vested veteran, the Bucs would be on the hook for remaining salary—through termination pay—and Freeman would be able to “double-dip,” collecting salary from the Bucs and a new team if he were to sign on elsewhere.
Neither option is a good one for the Bucs; the latter option is preferable to Freeman (which probably means it is not preferred by the Bucs).
For reasons that may never be entirely clear, the relationship between the Bucs’ starting quarterback the past four seasons and the team’s head coach seems irreparably damaged. For the good of both sides, it is time to move on. However, as with many divorces, there are no perfect options. Meanwhile, the polluted relationship between the deposed quarterback and empowered coach continues, with the welcome bye week momentarily slowing the downward spiral of a season barely a quarter way through.