Imagine if the 2009 draft had gone differently. Minnesota Vikings personnel czar Rick Spielman and coach Brad Childress met with quarterback Josh Freeman before the draft at the Scouting Combine, and then hosted him at team headquarters. They saw him at Kansas State, too, on a campus visit. They loved him. We’ll never know what would have happened if the Bucs hadn’t taken Freeman with the 17th pick of the first round and he’d been sitting there for the Vikings at No. 22.
The quarterback they liked gone, Minnesota took wideout/returner Percy Harvin instead.
Four months later, without the quarterback of the present or future on the roster, the Vikings coaxed Brett Favre out of retirement. Favre led the Vikes to the NFC title game, and the infamous Bounty Bowl in New Orleans, and Freeman found a home in Tampa Bay. Until Monday evening, when Freeman walked inside the Vikings facility and Spielman shook his hand.
“Congratulations,” Spielman said. “Happy to have you as a Viking.”
If Freeman was the pick four years ago, Favre wouldn’t have found his way onto the Minnesota roster. Who knows if Freeman would have had the success in Minnesota he had early on in Tampa Bay. All we know now is Freeman’s time in Tampa ended in ugliness last Thursday, when the Bucs, who tried to deal him to 31 teams but couldn’t find a partner, finally released him. When he could talk with other teams, Freeman picked the Vikings late Sunday night over Oakland and Buffalo (and maybe another mystery team or two), and signed a contract for the final 11 weeks of the season for $2 million. That’s it. Three months, and then Freeman’s likely to be free agent again—unless the two sides fall in love over the next three months and the Vikings make him a long-term offer to be their starter that he can't refuse. “I think every team would have preferred ,” Spielman said from the club’s facility in Eden Prairie, Minn., Monday night. “But this was the parameters we were working with.” Meaning, a contract for the rest of the season only—then the freedom to go anywhere in 2014.
For now, Freeman will sit and learn the Vikings offense this week. (He was beginning to cram with offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave Monday night after passing his physical.) And he'll try to prove the tarnished reputation from the end of his time in Tampa—missing a team photo, being late for a team meal and bus on opening day, and other infractions—can be cleaned up.
“I don’t know what happened down there,” Spielman said of Freeman in Tampa Bay, “and I’m not concerned about it. We’ve done our due diligence, and we came away with no issues. On the field, I don’t know what the play calls were, or the reads he had. I know he had some drops ... and there were throws he missed, but we spoke, and I’ll keep those conversations between us.”
There was a line of demarcation, seemingly, for Freeman, somewhere after midseason of 2012. Before, he was a promising young starter. But in the past 10 games, his game’s gone south fast. The Bucs went 1-9 in that span, with Freeman completing just 50.8 percent of his throws.
“I did look at that,” Spielman said. “I actually looked at about 40 of his games over the weekend while we were in the middle of this process. And I came away satisfied about him.”
Actually, $2 million for the rest of the season—with no obligation for the future—is the best way to enter into a deal with Freeman, the strong-armed quarterback who couldn’t win enough and get along with coach Greg Schiano. If Minnesota finds out some of the issues that plagued Freeman in Tampa are still there, Spielman and coach Leslie Frazier won’t be married to him. He’ll be there three months, and then the Vikings will be able to draft a quarterback of the future next May.
Freeman, 25, will be motivated to be on his best behavior, with his best work ethic. Because if he has issues in Minnesota, there’s no way a team will spend big money on him, and guarantee him a starting job, next off-season. So it’s probably a good deal for both sides … as long as the expectations are not too high on either side.
“In this scenario,” said Spielman, “you’ve just got to take your shot. You have the opportunity to keep a player around for a few months and to learn a lot about him, whether he plays very much or not. When does the opportunity present itself that you don’t have to spend a high draft choice or a big contract to acquire a young quarterback with lots of starting experience. We have the luxury that Josh doesn’t have to be thrown into the fire.”
Spielman said he and Frazier told incumbent starter Christian Ponder they haven’t lost faith in him, but let’s be real: You don’t spend $2 million for three months of a rent-a-player if you don’t intend to use him.
The way I see it, the Vikings have two games to get Freeman ready—he won’t play Sunday against Carolina, and then Minnesota has extra prep time with a Monday-nighter at the Giants the next week. But the next six games underline why Minnesota wanted an upgrade at quarterback: Green Bay at home, at Dallas, Washington at home, at Seattle, at Green Bay, Chicago at home. That’s a rough slate. Expect to see Freeman soon, and often, to see if the Vikings will enter 2014 with their quarterback of the future in-house—or needing to get one in the draft.
Now, let’s head over to page 2 for your email:
The Tuesday Mailbag
QUARTERBACK U.? By chance the other day I was thinking about the starting quarterbacks in the NFL and noticed that only two of them (Christian Ponder and EJ Manuel) went to the same college (Florida State). I find it remarkable that there isn't one big name university that churns out top quarterbacks. Has it always been like this or is this something new? And why do you think this is?
—Joe, Utica, N.Y.
Well, Russell Wilson and Phillip Rivers and Mike Glennon all went to N.C. State, and all are current NFL starters. But, I don’t view Raleigh as the cradle of quarterbacks or anything like that. I just think it’s coincidental. There are, what? Something like 120 major colleges playing football? I don’t think it’s unusual to have 32 starters coming from, say, 28 or 30 different schools. And I think that will continue next year with the 2014 draft. You might see quarterbacks from schools that aren’t known for developing NFL talent at that position—Louisville, Texas A&M, LSU—as high draft choices.
ON SCOUTING AND DRAFTING. The fact the Saints and Patriots have so many undrafted players on their rosters could just as easily be interpreted to mean they have poor scouting and talent evaluating personnel. If they were so great at evaluating talent, then they would have rosters full of their own draft picks that would be starting. Seems to me they whiffed quite a bit on the draft, requiring them to bring in other players.
That might be true. The Patriots, in particular, are awful at scouting and drafting cornerbacks as that continues to be an area of weakness. However, if the Patriots have 14 rookies on the 53-man roster, as they do, does that necessarily mean that the players that they drafted in the past are bad? Or does it mean that guys like Joe Vellano—the defensive tackle getting his opportunity because Vince Wilfork went down—are taking advantage of opportunities because the Patriots have developed their players well?
I believe a lot of teams in New England’s position—watching a player the caliber of Wilfork go down—would go to the waiver wire and get whatever big-bodied defensive tackle they could find on the street. The Patriots and Saints are two teams that don’t do that. They aren’t afraid of playing a very green player already on their roster and giving that guy a chance to prove himself.
THIS GUY WANTS ROMO OUT. I hope the Cowboys take a good look at the rookie QB crop in May and start grooming Tony Romo's replacement. He is good enough to get you to the brink of an important win—and then lose it in the clutch.
The question is simple: do you want to start over with a quarterback who might not have that flaw and work for a year or two to see if he’s good enough to be your long-term quarterback? Or do you want to live with Romo? I am not defending the glitch in Romo’s game; he's made many mistakes at inopportune times. I simply am making the point that a guy who puts up 48 points and 506 yards on a 5-0 team, a team acknowledged by any rational football observer to be the best team in football, is probably worth keeping.
ADVICE FOR YOUNG WRITERS. Thank you for reading my daughter's interview in the New York Times and mentioning it on MMQB. Do you have any advice you would give to a young, aspiring journalist?
You must be so proud of your daughter. I am inspired by her. My only advice would be that she should read everyday—and I don’t mean Internet gossipy stuff, but rather good writers and good sportswriters that she might want to emulate—and she should write as often as she can. Writing is as much a craft as it is a profession. It takes plenty of practice over the years to be good. Your daughter is well on her way. Congratulations and good luck.
DEFENDING MANNING. Why do teams, like Dallas this weekend, insist on defending Denver straight up, like they are any other team? Bill Belichick and Eric Mangini both showed that when Brady and Manning are at their best, the way to defend them is the amoeba defense —have everyone moving pre-snap, play one or two linemen, with more LBs and DBs, and deny their pre-snap reads. That defense has been shown to confuse Manning. I’m not saying it will shut him out, but if you just play your standard 3-4/cover 2, you have NO shot. Why do teams make it so easy for Manning instead of trying to confuse him, at least a little bit?
One of the toughest things to do with Manning is to confuse him pre-snap. In the first game of this season, with several Ravens who knew Manning very well from previous matchups, Manning changed stuff at the line of scrimmage that no opponent could know. I’ve been told that he actually used the same words in some of his communication at the line that he had used in the past, but some of the words and formations that looked similar to what he once used in Indianapolis were actually diametrically opposed to what he really did in that game.
But I agree with you. There are two keys to defending Manning. One is to give him absolutely as much confusion pre-snap as possible. Two is to physically compete with his receivers so that they are thrown off their regular route patterns. It also helps if your offense can run the ball very well to let the clock run so that Manning has fewer possessions.
POLITICAL PROBLEM. As much as I love you for your football analysis, I hate you taking sides in political battles. Most of us, dare I say all of us, come to SI for your football punditry precisely as an escape from all the BS in Washington. Do us all a favor and give us this refuge, politics free?
—Jeffrey Martin, Tucson, Ariz.
I guess you’re referring to Jon Stewart as one of my Quotes of the Week? A quote that referred to the New York Giants? I thought it was hilarious. I’m probably going to continue to use quotes from people I think are funny. But I understand and I get it. You don’t want to hear political commentary from me. Other than the occasional gun issue, which I think we would all be un-American to ignore, I will do my best to stay free from politics in the column. And believe me, I really appreciate you reading.