Unsolved Mysteries: Josh Freeman Edition

(/Robert Stack voice) Join me. Perhaps you may be able to help solve a mystery...

I ended Tuesday's piece on quarterback pressure stats with an unsolved mystery about Josh Freeman's true identity. See, according to our charting (with help from ESPN), Freeman had one of the best DVOAs in the league last year on plays where he's pressured by the pass rush. To boot, this wasn't a one-year phenomenon: Freeman has ranked in the top 10 each of the past three seasons.

The mystery arises when you consider that some of the sharpest football minds around have recently said that dealing with pressure is one of Freeman's biggest weaknesses:

  • Exhibit A: In detailing Freeman's split personality Mike Tanier wrote: "He holds the ball too long, then throws deep off his back foot with the rush in his face. This is an interception formula, and it yielded predictable results last season."
  • Exhibit B: Bill Barnwell wrote that towards the end of last season Freeman was, "a quarterback who loses his accuracy under pressure, makes shortsighted decisions, and often fails to account for defenders on the field after he becomes aware of the rush Freeman stinks under pressure."
  • Exhibit C: Barnwell also relayed a late-season Freeman stat Ron Jaworski mentioned during his quarterback countdown on ESPN (my emphasis added): "Following [the Panthers] game, Freeman regressed. He was erratic with his accuracy. He had many communication issues with his receivers. He struggled against the blitz. Only Mark Sanchez had a lower quarterback rating versus pressure. And Freeman was unpredictable reading coverage and with his decision making."
  • Exhibit D: During a Tampa radio appearance in early July (h/t valued FO reader Sander), Greg Cosell foreshadowed Jaws: "I think the more telling point is that only Mark Sanchez had a lower quarterback rating versus blitz. Freeman's going to have to become better versus blitz."

This isn't an argument being made by Barry Zuckerkorn, so I felt the statistical mystery of Josh Freeman was worthy of a deeper look. Thankfully, I think I've solved it.

Here's what I did: Based on the clues provided by the above witnesses, I pulled Freeman's charting splits for every combination of the following: (1) pressure or no pressure; (2) blitz (i.e., five or more rushers) or no blitz; and (3) Weeks 1-11 or Weeks 12-17. The results are displayed in the table below. As an example of how to read it, the first row tells us that, over his last six games, Freeman faced more blitzes that got pressure (11 percent of plays vs. 7 percent of plays) and performed worse on those plays (-28.0% DVOA vs. -68.9%), although his ranking remained among the top third of 39 qualifying quarterbacks (sixth vs. 12th).

Weeks 1-11 Weeks 12-17
Pressure, Blitz # Plays (Pct) 25 (7%) 28 (11%)
DVOA (Rk) -28.0% (6) -68.9% (12)
No Pressure, Blitz # Plays (Pct) 83 (24%) 59 (23%)
DVOA (Rk) 30.5% (26) -18.5% (31)
Pressure, No Blitz # Plays (Pct) 45 (13%) 41 (16%)
DVOA (Rk) -94.2% (18) -28.6% (5)
No Pressure, No Blitz # Plays (Pct) 194 (56%) 130 (50%)
DVOA (Rk) 51.4% (10) 28.6% (26)
All Plays # Plays (Pct) 350 (100%) 255 (100%)
DVOA (Rk) 21.2% (12) -7.5% (26)

First things first, the bottom row confirms what nobody disputes. On all plays, Freeman was much worse during the Buccaneers 1-5 finish than during their 6-4 start. The fact that a team's performance tracked alongside its quarterback's performance is about as boilerplate as NFL analytics can get, and anyone who followed Tampa Bay's season could have told you that without crunching a single number.

Where numbers do crack the case, though, is when we look at the rows related to blitzes (i.e., the first two). Obviously, in both time frames, Freeman was worse when the blitz got pressure than when it didn't; that happens to all quarterbacks. However, regardless of whether or not the blitz got pressure, Freeman's DVOAs and rankings against blitzes dipped over the last six weeks of the season. In both of the first two rows, his DVOA fell upwards of 40 percentage points and his rankings fell about five spots. And if we just ignore pressure, simply splitting things out according to whether the defense blitzed or not, Freeman had a 15th-ranked 18.1% DVOA on 410 plays without a blitz, but a 27th-ranked -6.3% DVOA on 195 plays with a blitz.

I think those findings bring Tanier, Barnwell, Jaworski, Cosell, and FO side by side on our keyboards, if you will. We're saying Freeman was (and has been) great against pressure; they said he wasn't. Fine. What all of them said -- or at least alluded to -- was that his mechanics and decision-making broke down in the face of a pass-rushing threat. He "throws deep off his back foot." He "makes short-sighted decisions." He "was unpredictable reading coverages." In short, the table shows that blitzing got to him more often in Weeks 12-17 -- both literally and figuratively. So, I think we can all agree on one thing: If any of us were a defensive coordinator facing Freeman in 2013, we would blitz the living hell out of him. (One shudders to think what Gregg Williams would do if he was still in New Orleans.)

With that said, I have two things to add to the discussion based on what's in the table. First, the top three rows, which include the blitz trend I just described, are based on small sample sizes; as Chase Stuart says, "splits happen." I think that Freeman facing 195 blitzes last season (pressure or not) and being pressured 139 times (blitz or not) means we can trust the overall blitz-means-more-than-pressure story. However, once we start splitting things out by weeks, there's a danger of getting into small-sample size territory. In that sense, the larger question addressed by Tanier remains: Who is the real Josh Freeman? The quarterback we saw over the first 10 games or the one that we saw over the last six?

Piggybacking off that idea, I think the real snake in the grass here is Freeman's decline in a clean pocket (i.e., the table's "No Pressure, No Blitz" row). There, the sample sizes are decent enough to have even deeper thoughts about his last six games. Did he turn into a latter-day David Carr, having his entire skill set break down because of shell shock? Is he now seeing Gene Parmesan underneath every unfamiliar uniform?

I'll leave that and any other observations to the comments section.


8 comments, Last at 25 Jan 2014, 8:26am

2 Re: Unsolved Mysteries: Josh Freeman Edition

But what about his success with No Pressure and No Blitz? It goes from 10th ranked to 26th ranked. A 16 spot drop! How does that fit in? That was the situation he faced most before and after the bye.

Maybe defenses "showed" blitz more after the bye. Is there a stat for showing blitz but not actually blitzing? It seems like there is still a missing piece to the puzzle.

3 Re: Unsolved Mysteries: Josh Freeman Edition

Yes, I agree. The suggestion at the end in relation to Gene Parmesan is that Freeman started seeing pressure even when there was none, but what observers said is that he was bad under actual pressure. So it's all still very strange to me, although it was an interesting analysis.

The man with no sig

4 Re: Unsolved Mysteries: Josh Freeman Edition

I think Josh's regression was from his lack of confidence in his replacement offensive lineman after his 2 pro bowl caliber teammates went down from injuries.

As a bucs fan this is what I gathered from last season games 1-3- astonished Josh doesn't know how to handle being around so much talent so he plays fairly conservatively

4-10 wow this is fun, I can hand-off to Martin or wing it out to VJax

10-17- No more superstar line? Praying to Jesus to let the season end or asking to hand it off to Martin more

7 Re: Unsolved Mysteries: Josh Freeman Edition

I'd like to see an added line in that chart. I saw Freeman get hit on a lot of throws under pressure last year that fluttered out and people questioned his accuracy... Really? He got hit, of course the ball didn't go where he wanted. If we took the QB Hits out of the pressures, what were the numbers then? No QB throws well while being hit.