TAMPA — It just wasn’t worth the bother. Not for another hour, not for another minute, not for another second.
After eight distracting days of tumult, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday gave up all hope of engineering a trade and, in the name of getting back to the business of winning football games, released deposed quarterback Josh Freeman.
The decision brought an end to a saga that began Sept. 25 when coach Greg Schiano announced he was benching Freeman after an 0-3 start and quickly mushroomed into one of the ugliest in franchise history.
“We appreciate (Freeman’s) efforts over the past five seasons,’’ Bucs general manager Mark Dominik said in statement released by the team, “but we felt this was in the best interests of both Josh and the Buccaneers.”
Few could argue with that. While Dominik worked the phones in recent days to find a buyer among the league’s other 31 teams, the Freeman issue grew to proportions so large it was consuming the organization.
It became the topic asked about most in news conferences with Schiano and in interviews with players, and as details of Freeman’s off-field behavior leaked out daily it became the focal point of the franchise.
That’s why the Bucs finally decided to give Freeman, 25, the release he’s been asking for, one that at 4:01 p.m. on Thursday made him an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his five-year NFL career.
Freeman, who was in the final year of his five-year rookie contract, is still owed $6.2 million of the $8.43 million he was slated to earn this year.
The Bucs must pay him that money, unless Freeman decides not to file for termination pay. An NFL player can file for termination pay only once in his career, so Freeman must decide whether to take the money.
Neither Freeman nor his agent, Erik Burkhardt, responded to requests for comment on Thursday.
A fifth-year veteran out of Kansas State, Freeman was the Bucs’ first-round draft pick in 2009 and the face of the franchise for the better part of five seasons, but inconsistent play and off-field issues sparked his downfall.
Freeman was fined more than $35,000 by the team for multiple team infractions since the start of the season, a team source confirmed to The Tribune on Wednesday. The violations included missing a team meal and being late for the team bus on the morning of the season-opening game against the Jets, conducting an unauthorized interview and missing two meetings last week.
Freeman also acknowledged he overslept and missed the team photo on Sept. 2, six days before the season opener. Two days later, Freeman was not among the players elected as team captains, despite serving as a captain the three previous seasons.
Through the team’s 0-3 start, Freeman ranked 33rd in the 32-team NFL in completion percentage (45.7) and passer rating (59.3).
That sparked Schiano’s “performance-based” decision to bench Freeman, who was initially named the team’s backup quarterback behind rookie third-round draft pick Mike Glennon. That status seemed to change, however, after Freeman conducted his unauthorized interview with ESPN.
Freeman, who said during that interview he thought the best option for him moving forward was a trade, was deemed inactive for the game against Arizona on Sunday, which he watched from a team suite.
Schiano said after the game that the decision to have Freeman watch from the team’s “inactive suite’’ was a mutual one, but Freeman’s agent called that claim “a lie.’’
On Monday, an ESPN report said Freeman was a Stage One participant in the NFL’s substance-abuse program, prompting Freeman to issue a statement through his agent saying he has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and has a league-approved prescription for Adderall.
After mistakenly taking Ritalin for the condition, Freeman said in the statement, he agreed more than a year ago to be tested in the NFL’s program and has since passed 46 tests. Freeman said he has never tested positive for an illegal drug or related substance.
The ESPN report said Freeman was not in jeopardy of being suspended and was in good standing with the program.
The NFL Players Association is looking into how Freeman’s confidential status in the program was leaked, a violation punishable by a fine of up to $500,000.
On Tuesday, a Fox Sports report said Dominik told Freeman not to attend a team meeting that morning, possibly to make teammates think Freeman missed the meeting. Dominik later said he kept Freeman out of a 7:45 a.m. meeting so Schiano and Freeman could talk, but the conversation did not take place until after 9 a.m. because of a mandatory NFL players meeting.
Freeman often played at a high level, but his inability to maintain that level of play proved to be his undoing with the Bucs.
He leaves as the franchise leader in touchdown passes (80) and completions (1,144). He threw 25 touchdowns and only six interceptions during a breakout season in 2010 and set single-season franchise records in 2012 for passing yardage (4,065) and touchdown passes (27).
But in 2011, he threw 22 interceptions and only 16 touchdowns while posting a 74.6 passer rating. And at the end of 2012, as the team lost five of their final six games, Freeman had back-to-back games with four interceptions each.
The sluggish finish sparked a tepid response regarding Freeman’s future from Schiano, who said a day after the season ended that he couldn’t be sure whether Freeman would remain his quarterback.
Schiano spent the offseason trying to quell the impact of that statement, saying several times that he believed Freeman was capable of leading the Bucs to the Super Bowl.
The damage, though, had already been done, and Freeman never seemed to recover as he and the Bucs struggled through an 0-3 start this season.