Tampa, We Have a Problem

Special Featured Column By Bucs Gab Contributor Chris C.

I’ve read most of the comments on the other main Buc blogs, and the opinions seem to be evenly split between blaming Freeman and blaming Olson.  Frankly, I don’t know enough to give a confident opinion, but I can say what I see.  And what I see is very alarming.

It helps for perspective to go back to both the 3-13 season and the 10-6 season.  I haven’t seen anyone note this, but in Freeman’s first year his biggest problem by far was throwing interceptions down the middle.  The difference in his second year (just go on youtube and watch the highlight reel) was that he rolled out of the pocket and threw to the sides, usually with his body in motion or with a quick plant-and-chuck.

Given the foregoing, what we are seeing this season is bizarre: it seems as though Olson is trying to turn Freeman into a Brad Johnson-type QB, a well-protected pocket passer who plays it safe and minimizes mistakes.  In other words, a very conservative approach.  And most importantly, an approach that has already been shown to be inadequate during the 3-13 season.  There was a time when Freeman minimized mistakes, and it was precisely NOT when he was playing like Brad Johnson.

This decision to go back to the “first Freeman” is completely mystifying.  Maybe someone with more football knowledge can explain what in the world Olson is thinking.  In any case, I am willing to forward a prediction: as long as Olson continues to beat Freeman into the standard pocket passer mold, Freeman will continue to perform poor-to-average.  I realize that Freeman and his confreres on offense do not want to give off the whiff of mutiny, but they should take the opportunity of the bye-week to gently suggest that they work on incorporating dynamic plays into their offense (not pseudo-dynamic plays like that atrocious pitch play to Benn which they run every game).  Maybe that’s just not done in pro-football.  I have no idea.  But somehow the point has get through someone’s skull who has the authority to do something about it.

My take then is this.  Our coaches are treating this team as if it already has an identity.  The first part of that identity is “Youngry.”  That is a loser, and it amounts to a pre-emptive excuse for poor performances.  They’re not babies.  They’re a pro football team, and they need to be “Grown-upry” and “excellent.”  They need to excel and have the steely determination to accept nothing less.  Every Sunday.  And they need to conceive of themselves, collectively, in those terms.  Excellence does not rely on miracles; it forces the other team to do so.  Thus the Saints in their generally ugly loss to us last week still managed to force us to win with a miracle.  ‘Till the end, despite not trailing since the first quarter, it never ceased to feel like we were the ones who were reeling.  That is the effect excellent teams have – even when beating them, opponents never stop feeling fear.

Another effect excellent teams have is they do not just win games.  They dominate.  When is the last time this team dominated?  I can think of one example in the past two and a half seasons: the Seahawks game in 2010.  This “domination factor” is an important variable in determining a team’s progress.  San Francisco knew they had cleared the hump when they blew us out.  The Saints do it all the time, for example their early season blow-out of the same Bears who beat us this week, and their absolute shredding of the Colts a few hours after our loss.

Some may say it is unfair to expect excellence from this team, which is an attitude that flows directly from the “Youngry” mentality.  Look at it like this – we were a vastly superior team to the 49ers last season, and we came close to dominating them.  Although we lost to the Lions late last season, we were a better team than them as well.  Young or not, that was our starting-point.  A team, to be considered on an upward trajectory, must by definition be moving in an upward direction from their starting-point.  The 49ers have demanded excellence, and they’ve got it.  The Lions too, at least to a far greater degree than us.  They are flat-out better teams than us this season.  So being young is no excuse; it’s not even an explanation.  We had these teams beneath our cleats a year ago; today they make us look like pikers.

Thus, I consider it a psychological and strategic mistake of the first order to attempt to define this team by a slogan that, if we ever show excellence, has nothing to do with it, and if we don’t, is simply an excuse for sucking.  “Youngry” must go.

Second, and just as troubling, is the pretend identity of our offense: pound the run, then rely on orthodox pocket passes to a reliable set of hands, preferably Winslow.  This presumes (wrongly, in my view) that we already have evidence that Freeman and Winslow have a Brady-Welker kind of connection.  It presumes, that is, that this identity has already been established.  It has not.  When Freeman shines – and when Winslow shines, for that matter – it is in motion, in a dynamic mode, predicated on exploiting breakdowns in coverage as plays are extended.  We can rage against this fact – namely, that our offense is intrinsically unorthodox – by trying to shoehorn it into something more prototypical, but mark my words: It will not work.  Stated with maximum simplicity: you can’t fight nature, and it is not our nature to be an ordinary machinic sort of offense.  That is what Atlanta is, and that is because Matt Ryan is that kind of quarterback, and Gonzales and White function best in that kind of structure.

Josh Freeman is not Matt Ryan.  Kellen Winslow is not Tony Gonzales.  Mike Williams is not Roddy White.  LaGarrette Blount is not Michael Turner.  Obvious, right?  Well, take a good, close look at the style of our offense this season.  Look at Freeman in the pocket.  Look at the routes we try to get Williams and Winslow to execute for Freeman.  Look at the way we use Blount.  Seem familiar?  Olson is taking an offense with abilities and instincts vastly different from those of the bread-and-butter, boringly efficient Falcons, and trying to turn it into… a bread-and-butter, boringly efficient imitation.

Simply put: Olson is attempting to turn a supposed identity into a science, a formula, before that identity has been elucidated.  It’s like defining the laws of physics before you know what gravity is.  Olson is defining a physics for our offense before he’s understood how its gravity works.  How could anyone who bothered to look at the tapes from last year decide that this is the direction in which to take this offense?  I am certainly no football genius, but it seems borderline insane to me, almost out-of-touch with reality.

Consider in this light another oddity.  We are always being assured that Freeman is the future, that everything comes back to Number Five, that it’s all about “Free.”  At the same time, everything in the offensive scheme seems purposely designed to take as much off of his shoulders as possible.  It’s schizophrenic: “Freeman is the General, but please, General, lead within the pocket-size box we put you in.”  I’m starting to think that this is frustrating Freeman, though being the good soldier that he is, I’m also sure he faults himself above all when he screws up.   When I see Freeman play consistently like garbage when he’s playing his style, I’ll be ready to say it’s mostly his fault.  Now, however, he is playing like garbage while not playing in a style suited to his strengths.  So while Freeman proximately makes the mistakes, the ultimate cause of the mistakes is the person who places him in a position where he is most prone to making them.  You don’t use a wide receiver like a guard.  And you don’t use Freeman like he’s Brad Johnson or Matt Ryan – like he has no legs.  To do that is, almost literally, to cripple him before he snaps the ball.

What Olson is doing, thus, is forcing the offense to play in a way that is not, as it were, in its nature.  In the effort to carve the offense’s identity into stone, Olson is ironically throwing it into even deeper obscurity.  We can’t find our identity because we’re having one forced upon us that is ultimately alien.  Yes, we do not know precisely what our identity is; but also, just as surely, this is not it.  A course correction is in order, and sooner rather than later.

This is, I guess, what appears to me as the core issue.  Identities are what people are, not what they are forced to be.  Again, I stress this is just what I see – I admit I could be way off.  No one ever accused me of being anything less than a Cassandra.  Nonetheless, I try to correct for that bias and my reading of what’s going on with Freeman remains pretty much the opposite of what most people seem to be saying.  Freeman is confined.  He’s frustrated.  He wants to move, but Olson has beat it into his head that it is important to be conventional – and to an extent, I agree with Olson there.  Take a look, however, at what Carolina is doing with Cam Newton.  They are allowing the identity of their offense to flow from his style of play, not trying to cram his style into that of Jake Delhomme.  Think about that.  They’re doing the same with Stafford in Detroit.  And Smith in San Francisco.  Franchise players have their offenses stamped with their identities.

Now, ask this question: What is Freeman’s identity as a QB?

Not so easy to answer, is it?  We’ve seen the Freeman of the 3-13 season.  We’ve seen the Freeman of the 10-6 season.  And we’ve seen the Freeman of this (so far) 4-3 season.  Which is the real Freeman?

Before answering that, ask another question: Can we pinpoint a certain style of play which, when Freeman employs it, seems to be not only successful, but natural for him?

Basically, the question is: What comes most naturally to Freeman as a QB?

The core of my evaluation of what is going on right now is that the “natural” Freeman is the one we saw last year.  He was fluid, he was engaged, he was active and dynamic, and he was, above all, inspired.  That Freeman moved, a lot.  That Freeman avoided staring down receivers by taking a moment to roll out of the pocket, then quick-scanning in a pinch.  He threw deep because his shuffling gave his receivers time to get open.  You can’t run them on essentially the same routes as last year while nailing Freeman’s feet to the turf.  Of course they won’t get open.  And of course Freeman will try to force things.  It can’t be fun as a QB to have to execute 5 second plays in 2.5 seconds.  All the opposing defenses have to do gameplan-wise is recognize that Freeman does not have the vision in the pocket to throw the sideline long-ball (he never has had it – see the 3-13 season), and then run variants on a Cover 2 with the safeties and linebackers crunching up on the usual holes in the middle that open up in that package.  Result: forced throws over the middle, lots of picks.  Until Freeman is permitted to move, that will not change.  And until Olson understands that he must be vastly more creative in designing routes to slice through zones quickly with many options, instead of maintaining the vain hope that Freeman will suddenly become a visionary on three-step plant-and-throws, Freeman will not improve if we insist on turning him into Matt Ryan.

Bottom line: if Olson wants his current routes to work, he must allow Freeman to move; if he won’t allow him to move, then he must design new plays that are top-heavy on options in the black holes of zones.  Right now we have the worst of both worlds – we won’t allow Freeman to move, and we won’t change our playbook.

It all comes back to this.  I see it asked all the time: “Why can’t our receivers get open?”  The answer is that their identities, as they began to emerge last year – letting their dynamic QB shuffle as they maneuvered on big routes – has suddenly been stifled in favor of a style of play they do not feel comfortable with.

Ask another question, the answer to which I consider highly revealing: Does our offense look comfortable out there?

From what I’ve seen, the answer is obviously “No.”

And not only do they not look comfortable, they look positively uncomfortable, as if they are trying to follow some sort of formula instead of using judgment and intuition when these are called for (as they often are).  They don’t just look bad, they look rigid.  They show rigor to the point of mortis.  Every week we hear “Williams is ready to BREAK OUT,” and “Benn is ready to EXPLODE,” and so forth.  I submit that, yes, they are ready, but not just in the sense that they are ready to have big games.  They are, as well, ready to break out of the chains that have been foisted upon them.

Having said all of that, it is safe to conclude that I believe the chief problem is indeed Olson.  I’m not saying he’s a bad OC.  He may be a great one for all I know.  What I am saying is that he is not the right OC for this offense, if what we have seen this season is the direction in which he wants to take us.

The problems are not primarily mechanical.  They are mental, and our offense is clearly inhibited by their narrowed conception of what a good offense is supposed to look like.  Olson may be right in what the typical good offense looks like.  But, again, if our offense is to flourish, it will not look like that.  How odd that our coaches and GM go out of their way to constantly stress how unconventional this team is, yet when it comes to what matters – the gameplay – the thrust is utterly conventional.

I worry that we are, on offense, becoming Pavlovian.  Keep that in mind when talking about “development.”  Young people learn quickly, which is an advantage if they are being taught properly.  If they’re not, then what happens is… they quickly learn bad habits.

So much of this game is intangible.  Players must click with their program, and coaches must find a program that clicks with their players.  We can debate the ins and outs of specific mistakes and miscues to our hearts content (or discontent), but we shouldn’t miss the forest for the trees.  This offense is not clicking with their program, even when they win.  And the OC has not found a program that clicks with his players.  It’s as simple, and as terribly complicated, as that.

On defense, the problems are of an entirely different order.  There’s no nice way to say this, but at least half of our defense is mediocre, and there is no prospect of them “developing” into anything but developed mediocrities.  So let’s not beat around the bush.

Black will never be better than he is now.  Is that good enough?

Biggers may get a bit better, but he will never be a very good cornerback.  Is that good enough?

Hayes is decent, but for this defense to be what Raheem wants it to be, we will need a better weakside linebacker.  Maybe he’s up to getting better.  I’m on the fence with Hayes, leaning toward “replace.”

Jones is mediocre.  Talib seems to have reverted to form, when he was getting burned on a regular basis during the 3-13 season.  Lynch is mediocre (though his grit is highly admirable).

Now, with respect to our d-backs and secondary, a good question to ask is: Why do the 36 year-old Barber and the recently exhumed Jackson look like colossi compared to the others?  Barber plays with his brain, and Jackson plays with his gut.  These are players who have figured out how to integrate their intuition and football intelligence into Raheem’s system.  From what I’ve seen of Dekoda Watson, he very much has that potential, and it is criminal to not have him out on the field in some capacity, early and often.  Anyhow, Black, Jones, Lynch, Asante, Talib, and perhaps also Hayes do not have that “football intelligence” that allows them to bend the system to the flow of play.  Instead, they are carried along by the system, and often swept away by tidal waves.  I really like most of these guys, so it gives me no pleasure to say this.

On the bright side, our line has shown tremendous promise.  Clayborn has been particularly impressive, as has McCoy.  Bennett, Price, Okam, and Bowers also do not worry me.  But if they are ever going to reach their potential, they will need rock solid d-backs – a rock solid run tackler on the strong side and an efficient rusher on the weak side – and they will never have that so long as Black and Hayes are the mainstays, and so long as Watson is not allowed to develop out of deference to Black.

I realize Raheem is in a delicate position with Black, but he can’t be the only person who fails to notice the obvious: Watson is the better player.  Someone needs to man up and make the call.

For the rest, we’ll just have to wait.  I would prefer it if we actually invested in a veteran or two in the secondary, because sticking with Biggers and Talib at CB is just begging for disaster.  Jackson needs support.  He can’t carry that load by himself.

One final note.  If I’m wrong I’ll merrily stuff my face with crow.  I want to stress, though, that I’m not looking at this on a game-by-game basis.  I’m pulling back and looking at trends.  It is legitimate to see good trends; it’s also legitimate to see bad trends.  But that Janus-like quality is precisely the issue.  Truly good play is obviously good play, and “we know it when we see it.”  We are seeing patches of it very inconsistently.  This is not in any way different from what we have seen for the past three seasons, and that observation, I think, should give us pause.  I’m not saying any of this because we lost today.  Even if Freeman had somehow pulled off the comeback, the same analysis would apply.  Even the Saints game was patchy at best.  It was a victory, no doubt – but note well: truly good teams do not consistently win in that fashion.

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