No one – not Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, or even Brett Favre – has shown a greater propensity for finishing off games at the start of his career than Josh Freeman.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' quarterback racked up an NFL-record eight fourth-quarter or overtime comebacks during his first 30 starts. Freeman's knack for the comeback has suddenly eluded him, though, and is one of the reasons Tampa Bay has struggled to regain their winning ways, coach Raheem Morris said.
Tampa Bay (4-7) has lost five straight and six of its past seven games.
"That's been the deal,'' Morris said Monday, a day after Freeman failed twice to bring the Bucs back during the fourth quarter of a 23-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans. "We've had about three games with the ball in our hands with a chance to take the lead (in the fourth quarter) and win this year.
"You've got the Detroit game at the start of the season, the Chicago Bears game, and (Sunday's game against Tennessee). Last year, we won those games. We finished the game and Free was the fourth-quarter comeback kid. We haven't been able to that this year.''
It's not just Freeman who isn't finishing games well this year. The Bucs defense has slipped in the fourth quarter, as well. Last season, the Bucs allowed just 63 fourth-quarter points. This season, they've allowed 74 through 11 games, including 13 to the Titans on Sunday.
The Titans' rally included a 2-yard touchdown pass on fourth down by Matt Hasselbeck to Damian Williams in which rookie middle linebacker Mason Foster and veteran safety Sean Jones were out of position. Equally disturbing, though, was what happened after that.
Given three minutes and two chances to rally, the Bucs squandered the first chance when Freeman's throw down the middle for tight end Kellen Winslow was intercepted. They let the other slip away when Freeman fumbled the snap and failed to convert fourth-and-1 at the Titans 25-yard line with 46 seconds remaining.
"Looking back, we had our timeouts and we had plenty of time,'' Freeman said of the possession that ended with the interception. "It would have been fairly routine for us to drive down, but the turnover made things difficult. That's something that at that point just can't happen.''
All too often this season, though, it has happened. Freeman, who threw six interceptions, including just three in the fourth quarter, during the 2010 season, has six fourth-quarter interceptions this season, including one that derailed the comeback attempt against Chicago.
Freeman's fourth-quarter play has been otherwise solid. After finishing 2010 ranked eighth in the NFL in fourth-quarter passer rating with a 97.4 mark, Freeman is currently 13th with an 84.3 rating. He also has a better completion percentage – 64 versus 62.6 – and the same number of touchdowns with eight.
The Bucs have struggled to turn what Freeman has done well in the fourth quarter into victories, though
Asked during training camp what the Bucs had to do better to improve on their 10-6 record and make the playoffs, Morris did not hesitate when he said, "Finish better.''
On Monday, he reiterated the point.
"We just have to play better," Morris said of the fourth quarter. "We have to execute better. We have to do a better job. Free has to do a better job and we have to do a better job of executing at the end of games.''