The All-22: Did the Vikings finally get their man in Josh Freeman?
In 2009, the Minnesota Vikings were looking for solutions at quarterback after going 10-6 and losing in the wild-card round of the playoffs the year before. They took a good, hard look at Kansas State quarterback Josh Freeman, talking to him at the scouting combine and hosting a visit at Vikings HQ with general manager Rick Spielman and then-head coach Brad Childress. But the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took Freeman with the 17th overall pick that year, and Minnesota selected Florida receiver Percy Harvin instead. They “settled” for Brett Favre, and got one great season and one year of decline from that.
In 2013, the Minnesota Vikings were looking for solutions at quarterback after going 10-6 and losing in the wild-card round of the playoffs the year before. They selected Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick in the 2011 draft, perhaps over-selecting Ponder based on what might have been with Freeman, who had thrown for 25 touchdowns and just six interceptions in 2010. Over two full seasons, Ponder showed the same physical limitations he had in college — an inconsistent deep arm and a balkiness under pressure — and the Vikings started to wonder again what might have been. They signed backup Matt Cassel to a two-year, $7.4 million contract in March, said all the right things about Ponder as he struggled once again, and started to look around when Ponder suffered a rib injury against the Cleveland Browns in Week 3. Cassel availed himself decently enough against the Steelers in Week 4, but the franchise was coming to a tipping point with its quarterbacks. How long could it go with severe debits at the game’s most important position?
The answer was definitive. Spielman finally got his guy on Oct. 6, when the Vikings signed the recently-released Freeman to a one-year, $3 million contract — more than the 2013 base salaries of Ponder and Cassel combined. It was clear that the Vikings were all in on Freeman — at least for the short term — and Freeman’s performance against Minnesota last season was another chip for the fifth-year veteran in the Vikings’ compulsion to pick him up. In an Oct. 25 win over the Vikings, Freeman completed 19 of 36 for 262 yards, three touchdowns, and no picks. It was part of perhaps the most impressive string of games in his NFL career.
From Oct. 14, when the Bucs beat the Kansas City Chiefs, to Nov. 11, when the Bucs beat the San Diego Chargers, 34-24, Freeman put up a stat line that would stand with any quarterback — 90 completions in 154 attempts for 1,467 yards, 13 touchdowns, and one interception. Tampa Bay won four of its five games during that stretch. The rest of the season? 151 completions in 285 attempts for 1,808 yards, nine touchdowns, and 12 picks. Yes, he faced stingier defenses in the last seven games of the season, but the difference between his three-score game against the Saints on Oct. 21 and the four-pick debacle on Dec. 16 against a Saints defense that was still getting killed by just about every other offense? Well, that’s the Vikings’ problem now.
That said, Freeman was also the Vikings’ problem for three hours last season, and it’s worth looking at how he did it and extrapolating how Minnesota might use him. From a pure physical talent perspective, Freeman’s the most impressive quarterback the Vikings have had since Favre, and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave is now tasked with getting the most out of him.
With Ponder at quarterback, the Vikings have suffered from a reductive passing attack. In 2012, Ponder attempted just 36 throws of 20 yards or more (Andrew Luck led the league with 102), and completed just eight of those passes for 269 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. Freeman, on the other hand, attempted the NFL’s third-most deep passes (89, behind Luck and Joe Flacco), completing 31 passes for 1,178 yards, five touchdowns, and three picks in an offense designed for these types of throws. You might say that Tampa Bay’s offense is over-designed for the vertical at the expense of other things, but we’ll address that soon. Freeman surely excited the Vikings’ brass with his capacity for making stick throws downfield — and doing it with the required indifference to pressure.
This play came with 7:20 in the first quarter. The Buccaneers had third-and-10 at their own 48-yard line, and a four-receiver set with Jackson inside a double slot right formation. At the snap, Williams took left cornerback Josh Robinson outside the numbers, while slot corner Antoine Winfield was occupied with inside position on Tiquan Underwood. This left linebacker Chad Greenway to trail Jackson on the deep post from slot until safety help got there, and the safety help — from rookie Harrison Smith — came late. Smith played the ball behind Jackson, and Greenway had no chance when Jackson went vertical to grab the pass. The most impressive aspect of this play was that Freeman stood in the pocket and waited for the deep route to develop even as Vikings defensive lineman Everson Griffen beat left guard Carl Nicks with a sweet spin move and was bearing down on the quarterback. Freeman made a stick throw where only his receiver could catch it, despite the fact that he was going to get tattooed. 26 yards later, the Bucs had extended their drive with authority.
Under offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan in 2012 and 2013, the Buccaneers have seen an over-reliance on isolation routes that forced their receivers to beat coverage with physical attributes far more than schematic advantages. In Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, they have receivers who can do just that, but it’s a bit like asking Adam Dunn to help get people on base — going for home runs all the time and accepting massive strikeout totals as the inevitable result doesn’t really work in today’s NFL. This was discussed exhaustively in our recent piece on how the Bucs could help Freeman become a better quarterback, but since that’s out of the question now, let’s take a look at one example of Sullivan thinking outside his vertical box.
With 13:18 left in the first half, the Bucs had first-and-15 at the Minnesota 25-yard line (false start, Doug Martin), and they lined up with Arrelious Benn motioning from twins left to inline. At the snap, Benn faked an end-around, while fullback Erik Lorig ran a deep route outside the left-side numbers, taking linebacker Erin Henderson with him.
Freeman ran out of the pocket to elude pressure as Martin ran directly into the butt of Nicks — this was not his best series. Freeman would have had Benn open on the sideline route, but Winfield made a brilliant adjustment. He was originally playing a run fit at the line, but he reversed field to Benn and covered the play perfectly. This is one of those times where you have to separate process from outcome and give Sullivan a hand for trying to get his skill-position players in favorable matchups. The Vikings love to run all sorts of end-arounds and sweeps, so Freeman can expect to see more of these.
In 2012, only Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson had a higher percentage of play-action passes than Ponder, who used it on 32.4 percent of his passing snaps. Makes sense when you have Adrian Peterson in your backfield, and Ponder benefited from it as much as you’d expect. He completed 94 passes in 156 attempts for 983 yards, nine touchdowns, and four interceptions out of play action. Without it, he was 206-for-327 for 1,952 yards, nine touchdowns, and right picks.
Freeman was even more impressive in play-action, through the Bucs didn’t use it as much — just 23.4 percent of the time — which is kind of inexcusable when you consider that Martin was one of the league’s most productive and efficient backs. In play-action, Freeman completed 76 of 132 passes for 1,018 yards, 10 touchdowns and three interceptions. Without it? 230 of 426 for 3,047 yards, 17 touchdowns and 14 picks. Makes sense, really. Constricted by the limitations of his own offense and hamstrung at times by his own inefficiency, Freeman gained an obvious advantage from an offensive concept that forced the defense to pause. One would assume that the Vikings will increase Freeman’s play-action totals, and it’s equally easy to infer that he’ll benefit greatly.
None of this is meant to insinuate that Freeman will have the same impact on Minnesota’s offense that Favre did in 2009. But after three full seasons of making do at the quarterback position, the Vikings have the rest of the season to discover whether he’s the franchise quarterback they’ve coveted since 2009. Based on the tape, he’s better than anyone they’ve had in the meantime.