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 [a longer deal],” 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.
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