Ten months ago, Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik had a disaster on his hands.
The Bucs lost their final 10 games of the 2011 season and fired coach Raheem Morris. The team ranked 27th in scoring, and quarterback Josh Freeman had regressed considerably in his third season.
In 2011, Freeman led the NFC in interceptions and had seemingly lost his way. He averaged a meek 10.4 yards per completion, placing him 33rd in the league and just barely ahead of the weak-armed Colt McCoy (10.3).
If Freeman’s career had continued on that trajectory, Dominik probably would have become collateral damage. So in the off-season, Dominik rebuilt the team with a clear vision: He wanted an offense built around a strong running game and complemented by a deep passing attack.
Dominik’s first move to was hire Greg Schiano, then the coach at Rutgers. The decision seemed odd at the time, especially in light of Tampa Bay’s flirtation with Oregon coach Chip Kelly. Kelly is considered an offensive mastermind, and Schiano is a defensive coach by trade. That meant the man Schiano would hire to coach his offense would be the most critical hire in Freeman’s — and potentially Dominik’s — career.
Schiano didn’t have to venture far from Piscataway, N.J., to find his coordinator, Mike Sullivan, who was working as the New York Giants’ quarterbacks coach. The decision was considered risky because Sullivan had never called plays for the Giants, but he had a reputation for wanting to stretch the field with long passes in connection with a strong running game. In 2011, among the 25 quarterbacks that started at least 10 games and threw at least 300 passes, Eli Manning led the league in yards per completion.
In March, Tampa Bay signed wide receiver Vincent Jackson, who had starred for the San Diego Chargers. From 2008 to 2011, Jackson averaged 18.0 yards per catch, the highest average in the league over that span among players with at least 200 catches. During Jackson’s best season, in 2009, San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers led the league in yards per completion.
Tampa Bay also signed All-Pro guard Carl Nicks from a division rival, New Orleans, although he is now out for the year with a left foot injury. Then, in the 2012 draft, the Buccaneers selected running back Doug Martin with the 31st pick in the first round. Martin has 1,000 rushing yards in 10 games and is leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage.
By adding one of the game’s best deep threats, an excellent offensive lineman and a talented, all-purpose running back, along with finding the right offensive coordinator and coach, Dominik put the pieces in place around his franchise quarterback. This year, Freeman is having a breakout season. Playing in Sullivan’s offense, alongside Jackson and Martin, has transformed Freeman into one of the game’s most valuable players. Consider that through 10 games in 2011, Manning’s Giants were 6-4 and he was averaging 8.2 adjusted yards per attempt; through 10 games in 2012, Freeman’s team is 6-4 and he is averaging 8.2 AY/A.
After ranking 26th in adjusted net yards per attempt last season, Freeman ranks second in ANY/A and net yards per attempt, trailing Peyton Manning in both categories. After ranking second to last in yards per completion last year, Freeman ranks second in that metric this season, just barely behind Cam Newton.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Tampa Bay leads the league in expected points added (50.8) on passes that travel at least 20 yards downfield, a sign of how successful Tampa Bay’s deep passing game has been in 2012. Freeman ranks third with 22 completions on throws of 20-plus yards, behind only Andrew Luck (26) and Peyton Manning (23), and both players have attempted significantly more passes overall than Freeman.
Jackson is leading the league with a robust average of 20.5 yards per reception, and his value was never more clear than late in the fourth quarter against the Panthers on Sunday. Tampa Bay trailed Carolina, 21-13, with 32 seconds remaining and faced a third-and-4 on the Carolina 41-yard line with no timeouts.
According to Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats, that left Tampa Bay with a 5 percent chance of winning the game. Freeman dropped back and hit Jackson for a 17-yard gain to give the Bucs a first down. After spiking the ball, Tampa Bay was at the Panthers’ 24-yard line with 20 seconds left.
Freeman then threw a perfect pass into the middle of the end zone to Jackson. With the Bucs still needing a 2-point conversion to send the game into overtime, Freeman went back to Jackson, this time on a well-designed pass off a play-action fake. In overtime, Freeman drove Tampa Bay down the field and connected with Dallas Clark — another offseason acquisition by Dominik — for the winning touchdown.