The Josh Freeman debate took on a national tone Monday night, with barkers on both sides trying to explain away the quarterback's horrid debut with his new team.
ESPN viewers who stayed to the end of the New York Giants' ugly 23-7 victory over Freeman's chosen Minnesota Vikings were either fantasy owners or gamblers — or likely hypnotized by the metaphoric football train wreck involving two bad teams.
And Freeman, released this month by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was in the conductor's seat.
Freeman made some of his worst Bucs performances palatable. He completed 37.7 percent of his 53 passes — some dropped, many overthrown and others the result of a condensed playbook and vanilla scheme because Freeman has been in camp for about two weeks.
Freeman, as he did after so many losses in Tampa, put on a rosy face.
“A lot of those plays that were just a hair off are going to start hitting for us,” he said afterward.
Even rosier, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier: “His performance was up and down. His numbers aren't the greatest, for sure.”
Many postgame analysts thought Freeman was given the start too soon after signing a one-year deal with the Vikings on Oct. 6. Some, like ESPN's Steve Young, compared it to a preseason game, with a limited play selection while the Vikings see what Freeman can do.
Others said he was set up to fail — 53 passes in what was no blowout and with league MVP Adrian Peterson in the same backfield. Peterson got only 13 carries against a Giants defense set up to stop him and blitz relentlessly on passing plays (sound familar Bucs fans?).
“We prepared to see a lot of 28 (Peterson),” said Giants defensive lineman Justin Tuck. “... They kind of played into our hands.”
Still others said it was to be expected from Freeman after an inconsistent four-plus years with the Bucs.
“It's like each of the last dozen (games) we saw here in Tampa,” Tampa Tribune Bucs beat writer Roy Cummings tweeted afterward. “Something has gone very wrong with this kid.”
Freeman threw for only 190 yards, with a rushed interception under pressure, and helped produce no offensive points against the No. 32-ranked defense. To say he lacked accuracy would be an understatement. At times he seemed unsure and nervous, showing shaky mechanics and happy feet against blitzes, and often overthrowing or underthrowing open, stationary targets.
“... A Wild Thing in football pants,” wrote Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist Jim Souhan, “and he fit right in, in a game where the Vikings forced the Giants to accept their first victory of the season.”
Former Bucs coach Jon Gruden, providing game commentary for ESPN, was typically candid, suggesting the Vikings (1-5) needed to pull Freeman for former starter Christian Ponder in the second half while the game was still close.
Not everyone felt the Vikings were doing the right thing in pressing Freeman into action so quickly.
ESPN NFL reporter Chris Mortensen, on Twitter, said: “Christian Ponder should have started this game. ... Not fair to team. Not fair to Josh Freeman.”
On the other hand, Jim Rome, another longtime national sports observer, said during the game: “And that's why Josh Freeman was available. He's making Christian Ponder look like Fran Tarkenton.”
Tarkenton, a Vikings Hall of Famer, was himself openly critical of Freeman well before Freeman chose the purple and gold. "... If we need Freeman to be the savior, then we're all going to hell," he wrote last week.
Maybe, as many have noted, Freeman will eventually join an already long line of former Buccaneers quarterbacks who found prosperity — even Super Bowl rings — elsewhere.
But for one night in New Jersey against a previously winless Giants team, he looked much the same as the wayward, beleaguered figure Bucs fans remember far too well.
Midway through his fifth professional season and not currently under contract beyond 2013, Freeman seems a lifetime removed from his 2010 breakout effort, when he threw for 3,451 yards and 25 touchdowns with six interceptions for a 10-6 Tampa Bay club.
But the decline has been steady.
Freeman regressed noticeably in 2011 for the Bucs, who started 4-2 but fell into a 10-game losing streak that cost coach Raheem Morris his job, throwing 16 touchdowns and 22 interceptions.
Last year, new coach Greg Schiano seemed to spark a resurgence for Freeman, who led the Bucs to a 6-4 record before another losing streak, characterized by untimely turnovers and late-game breakdowns by the team's defense. The Bucs finished 7-9 and out of the playoff picture again.
Then came well-publicized clashes with team management over issues including reportedly missing a early morning team photo session and being late for the team bus for the 2013 opener against the New York Jets. On the field, Freeman's struggles continued during an 0-3 start. Although he led the Bucs to fourth-quarter leads in two of the losses, he was benched in favor of rookie Mike Glennon.
Anonymously sourced reports then came out regarding Freeman's voluntary participation in the NFL's substance abuse program over a medication used to treat Freeman's ADHD. The players union attributed the leak to someone inside the team. It was time for Freeman and the Bucs to split.
When it became obvious the Bucs could not trade him, Freeman was released and chose Minnesota over several other teams as his next NFL home.
The Vikings wasted little time putting him to work, starting Freeman against the Giants over Ponder and Matt Cassel (who was listed as inactive), obviously curious to see what he could provide their struggling offense in the short term.
“It's frustrating,” Freeman said. “It's disappointing. But at the same time I see a lot of areas that are manageable in terms of improvement. We can definitely get better as time moves on.”
The nation can follow along to see if anything improves. The Vikings host the Green Bay Packers next week. It's the Sunday prime-time game on NBC.