The last couple of weeks, I have written about Matt Ryan, Michael Vick, Matthew Stafford and Cam Newton. This week, I will continue to spotlight the quarterback position, focusing on two young players who detoured in 2011 after strong seasons in 2010. Sam Bradford set an NFL record for most completions by a rookie quarterback (the previous mark was held by Peyton Manning). Josh Freeman threw 25 touchdown passes and only six interceptions in his first full season as a starter. Both Bradford and Freeman had the look of soon-to-be-elite NFL quarterbacks. It did not work out that way last season.
Bradford came out of Oklahoma as the league’s No. 1 overall pick. He was a polished passer in many areas: ball position on his drop, both from under center and in the shotgun; balance, with his feet quick yet unhurried; a strong plant with his back foot; excellent weight transfer as he delivered the ball; compact throwing motion, tight with powerful arm speed; and then most important of all attributes, precise and consistent in his ball location. What I really liked about Bradford was his ability to sit in the pocket on his back foot, then drive through his throws and deliver with velocity and accuracy. There was no question he was a top arm talent.
As a rookie in 2010, Bradford exhibited many of these traits, plus a few others that were compelling indicators of NFL success. He was decisive in reading the blitz and getting the ball out quickly to the right receiver. He was firm in the pocket, willing to look down the gun barrel and make strong throws in the face of pressure. He had a refined sense of timing and anticipation, showing the ability to pull the trigger before his receivers came out of their breaks. All positives, and all quantifiable measures of top-level quarterback play in the NFL.
Bradford threw a red-zone touchdown pass to Brandon Gibson against the Seahawks in just his fourth NFL start that was as impressive as you’ll see, for any quarterback. Visualize this: The Seahawks dropped eight defenders into coverage, significantly compressing the passing lanes. Consequently, sight lines were squeezed, but Bradford did two things that were special. First, he manipulated and moved the underneath coverage with his head and eyes, which opened a lane to deliver the ball. Secondly, he threw the ball well before Gibson broke inside, near the back of the end zone. Unbelievable anticipation and accuracy on a tight-window throw in the red zone. It was beautiful.
But Bradford certainly wasn’t perfect in his rookie season. There were two particular areas where significant work was needed. There were times he was not comfortable in the pocket with bodies around him. That’s a different trait than looking down the gun barrel. When the pocket closes down and functional space is reduced to throw cleanly and comfortably, you must still stay on balance and deliver the ball in the eye of the storm. A game against the Kansas City Chiefs, in particular, brought this to the forefront. In addition, there were instances in which Bradford had opportunities to be more aggressive throwing down the field that he didn’t take advantage of. My feeling was he’d pull the trigger on those throws with more experience, but of course, you never know.
So what happened in 2011? The problems began the opening Sunday. Bradford was tentative in the pocket, not mentally sharp, and at times he did not let it loose when he had a throw. An inconsistent profile had been established. What really stood out as the year progressed was Bradford’s reaction to pressure — the issue that first surfaced in his rookie season against Kansas City. It is easy to place the blame on the Rams’ poor pass protection, but that circumvents the more essential point. You must be able to function effectively in a muddied and noisy pocket to play quarterback well in the NFL, and Bradford began to perceive pressure that was not there. He was anticipating the rush, and you cannot perform that way, no matter what kind of talent you have throwing the football.
The November 20 game against the Seahawks crystallized much of Bradford’s 2011 season. His velocity had decreased; he was not driving the ball down the field. Even his 30-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Lloyd hung in the air a little too long. His precise ball location, a feature of his game as a rookie, had waned. He missed some throws that were there. He had very little sense of timing with his receivers. He threw some balls too early, and some too late; the passing game was clearly out of synch. I strongly believe the injuries, the revolving door and the overall lack of quality at the wide receiver position was a more legitimate reason for Bradford’s struggles than the offensive line. The inability of Rams wideouts to get open on one-on-one isolation routes — a must in the NFL — had an extremely negative impact on Bradford. His game is timing and rhythm, but his uncertainty as to when to deliver the ball is clear on last season’s tape. He was hoping, rather than playing, and that’s a formula for failure.
Freeman is another quarterback with very good talent. There’s a lot to like about his skill set, including a naturally strong arm. But here’s the issue, and it still exists after two full seasons as a starter: There are too many plays in which Freeman’s footwork and balance are uneven as he drops and sets in the pocket. He just does not look the same drop after drop. That negatively affects his weight transfer, which impacts his ability to drive through his throws and ultimately reduces his arm strength. The result is that a quarterback with a strong arm doesn’t always throw that way.
When I studied Freeman in 2010, his outstanding sophomore season, I saw elements of Ben Roethlisberger. He was similar in size, about 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds. And like Roethlisberger, Freeman was much more of a playmaker than a precision quarterback. He has a strong body, with the movement skills to escape and the strength to shed pass rushers. And most critically, he has the ability to keep his focus downfield and make throws at the intermediate and deeper levels.
Freeman’s size and mobility, however, camouflaged some concerns that were evident on tape in 2010. And as we know, the eye in the sky never lies. I already mentioned his technique issues, but they were exacerbated by a nagging tendency to drift in the pocket, rather than drop straight back on what we call the midline. His accuracy was at times scattershot; he missed on too many throws that you need to make. Most people don’t make the connection between proper technique repeated over and over, but it may be the most decisive factor in producing precise ball location.
I remember the Redskins game in early December of 2010. There’s no question a Jim Haslett defense gives a quarterback a lot of looks, both before and after the snap, but Freeman really struggled reading coverage. I sensed he predetermined a lot of his throws in the pre-snap phase, failing to properly assess the coverage after taking the snap. One thing that did stand out in 2010 was Freeman’s willingness to make tough throws; he was not tentative pulling the trigger. He made a lot of tight window throws. That’s a positive.
The overall point is that Freeman’s 2010 season, while the numbers looked good on paper, was not quite as strong as the perception. There were some concerns that needed to be addressed if he was going to reach the “elite” status many had already bestowed upon him. Those issues remained in 2011, and consequently Freeman’s third season spiraled downhill fairly quickly. I remember finishing the San Francisco tape on the season’s fifth Sunday — a game Tampa Bay lost 48-3 — and being very surprised at what a poor job Freeman did recognizing and reading coverage. He missed basic reads. He left the pocket too early, with no pressure forcing him to do so, because he was not getting a clear picture of the defense. Two weeks later against the Bears, he continued to struggle with his reads, his decision making and his accuracy. Make no mistake, the erratic accuracy is a serious matter.
Later in the 2011 season, Freeman showed some improvement. The Green Bay game in November was a strong effort. He was better in all areas, particularly progression reading and overall accuracy. But the bottom line is this: As Freeman enters the 2012 season, he remains a work in progress, a talented signal caller who has yet to refine the subtle disciplines of NFL quarterback play. He’s more sporadic playmaker than precise passer. There’s no question he has the tools to take that next step, and with a new coaching staff, I would not be surprised if we see significant improvement.
Despite the disappointment of 2011, both Freeman and Bradford have the throwing ability to reach high-level status in the NFL quarterback hierarchy. I can’t wait to watch them come September.