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Opinion

Careers of Bucs', Jets' QBs follow similar highs, woes

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 06:21 PM

They were coveted talents entering the 2009 NFL draft, quarterbacks Mark Sanchez and Josh Freeman.

Sanchez had just led Southern California to a Rose Bowl victory and clearly had the pedigree, guiding Pete Carroll's powerhouse the same as Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart before him.

Freeman was considered a bit less polished coming out of Kansas State but had all the measurables - the mobility, the size, the strong arm - to warrant first-round attention.

And they were certainly in the sights of the New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, respectively, that April.

Rex Ryan had just taken over as the Jets' head coach and, eager to get past the rental feel of Brett Favre's one-year stay in New York, orchestrated a trade to move up and grab Sanchez with the fifth overall pick.

The Bucs jumped a couple of spots themselves on draft day to grab Freeman at No. 17. Raheem Morris, beginning his tenure as head coach, was familiar with Freeman since he'd spent a year at K-State as defensive coordinator, and the Bucs didn't hesitate to make a bold move for an organization not exactly renowned for top-shelf quarterback play.

Sanchez seemed to fit perfectly into Ryan's vision for the Jets. New York reached the AFC title game in both 2009 and 2010, and while Sanchez wasn't necessarily reminding anyone of Peyton Manning, he was flourishing as a game manager type of quarterback for a team whose defense alone could dominate games.

Freeman, meanwhile, was getting acclimated to the NFL in a more traditional way for young quarterbacks - losing and learning. He sat behind Byron Leftwich and even Josh Johnson early in his rookie year before getting several starts on a woeful Bucs team. But he (and Morris, for that matter) seemed to make real strides in 2010, leading the team to the verge of a playoff berth with the help of a forgiving schedule and the surprise emergence of undrafted rookie RB LeGarrette Blount.

Then, as often happens, the league humbled what seemed to be two of its rising stars.

The Jets closed last season with a three-game losing streak, limping to an 8-8 finish and out of the postseason. Sanchez threw 26 touchdowns but also 18 interceptions, leading to speculation as to whether he was simply overachieving in twice leading New York just short of the Super Bowl. Ryan and the Jets obviously had their own doubts, trading with Denver for polarizing yet immensely popular QB Tim Tebow as, ostensibly, the backup to Sanchez.

In Tampa, Freeman and the Bucs started the 2011 season at 4-2 before hitting the skids on a historical level, dropping their remaining 10 games in an often embarrassing barrage of ineptitude that cost Morris his job. Predictably, the starting quarterback (Freeman) was a major element of the misery, throwing 22 interceptions for an offense sorely lacking in game-breaking talent.

The arrival of Tebow and the regime change that brought new coach Greg Schiano to the Bucs promised to be major factors in the development of Sanchez and Freeman, and the 2012 season has proven as much. The Jets haven't been above .500 since Week 1, and the Bucs in general (and Freeman as well) have shown the sort of inconsistency typical of a young team dealing with a profound change in leadership philosophy - as well as numerous major injuries.

New York sits at 6-8, eliminated from the playoff picture and fresh off a horrendous showing on "Monday Night Football," losing to a similarly mediocre Tennessee team thanks in large part to Sanchez. The pearl of Ryan's overhaul of the Jets threw four interceptions and, for the coup de grace, fumbled a snap in the final minute.

Sanchez, of course, wasn't the only NFL quarterback to produce five turnovers in Week 15. There was also Freeman, who heaved four interceptions against the New Orleans Saints and lost a fumble as well as the Bucs - also 6-8, and losers of four in a row - was knocked from the playoff chase with a lifeless 41-0 beatdown in the Superdome.

The current parallels - not just the identical records - between the Jets and Bucs are uncanny. Neither is devoid of NFL-level talent by any stretch, yet fatal flaws have been exposed and many observers are pointing to the now-veterans under center as prime examples.

The Jets and Bucs are both in a precarious position: with their offensive leaders entering the final year of their respective rookie contracts in 2013, what's the best road to take regarding the future?

Has the presence of Tebow proven Sanchez lacks the mental toughness to prosper - or even survive - in New York? Is Freeman's recent regression the product of an injury-ravaged offensive line that seems forced to audition marginal talent by the week, or is he simply overmatched in the job?

Do the Jets and Bucs pass on extending the contracts of both this offseason, leading to further speculation and possible self-doubt from each?

And will Ryan and general manager Mike Tannenbaum even be around to make that call for New York?

For the Bucs, all that remains of the 2012 season are dates with the St. Louis Rams and Atlanta Falcons. But Schiano, as is his nature, will stress the importance of those games on team and individual levels and he and general manager Mark Dominik will undoubtedly be watching Freeman's approach (and performance) to help them decide whether he truly fits as a central part of their long-term plan.

But regardless of what happens, for two once wide-eyed organizations that 2009 draft suddenly seems like a long, long time ago.

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