By Dan Pompei
Rescue dogs often are more appreciated in new homes.
Quarterback busts, not so much.
Remember Ryan Leaf with the Cowboys? Matt Leinart didn't exactly find what he was looking for with the Texans. New Orleans wasn't much better than Washington for Heath Shuler.
But Josh Freeman in a different uniform, that could be a different story. It is possible the wayward quarterback could resuscitate his career with a new team -- if it is the right team.
The gray area with Freeman is the unpredictability of human behavior. Whether or not he is salvageable now that he is being released by the Bucs has nothing to do with his skills. The 25-year old remains every bit as intriguing physically as he was when the Bucs traded up to take him with the 17th pick of the 2009 draft. "He has all the tools," said one high-ranking front office man who was studying tape of Freeman before our conversation. "He is big, strong and athletic. He is not elite in terms of accuracy. But physically, he has pretty much everything you want."
When Freeman was coming out of Kansas State, two respected general managers told me they thought he was a better prospect than Matthew Stafford. And in 2010, it appeared they would be right. That year, Freeman became only one of two quarterbacks in league history under the age of 23 to throw 200 or more passes with six or fewer interceptions. The other was Dan Marino. He also led the Bucs to a 10-6 record, had a 97.4 fourth quarter passer rating and was named a Pro Bowl alternate.
Three years ago might as well have been 50 years ago for Freeman. This season, his completion percentage of 45.7 ranks 24th in the NFL. His average per completion of 6.07 ranks 31st. "I don't know if there is a worse quarterback in the league," one general manager said. "He is all over the place in terms of accuracy, staying in the pocket. He's gotten skittish. He misses big on throws. You wouldn't acquire him based on his on-field performance lately."
What Freeman did in 2010 is the reason he can't just be left for curbside pickup with the too olds, too slows and never good enoughs. The issue is whether or not a new team can turn 2013 into 2010 for Freeman.
"I'm wondering if maybe he wasn't a victim of too much too soon," said former NFL general manager Bill Polian, who now is an ESPN analyst. "He came out too early and probably should have stayed in school and acquired more maturity and football savvy. When someone like him or Cam Newton comes in and puts up reasonable numbers, they are anointed."
For some, early prosperity is a motivator. For others, a trap.
The word on Freeman in the scouting community before the 2009 draft was he didn't work quite as hard as you like your quarterback to work. But in his early days in the pros, Freeman stepped it up, committing himself. Then Freeman seemingly figured out the NFL at the age of 22, and he might have gone the other way.
Those who were around him think he didn't watch enough tape. He didn't pay enough attention to detail. And he got to know the Tampa nightlife district better than he knew the defenses of the Saints, Falcons and Panthers. Hey, it's tough getting to meetings on time after being out until sunrise.
"The real question is, what kind of leader is this guy?" the general manager said.
Even if Freeman comes discounted, he still will not be a worthwhile investment for many teams. This isn't helped by the fact that he is in the league's drug program, although he says it is because of prescription drugs for ADHD.
Freeman needs the right set of circumstances, starting with a coaching staff he can connect with. It's clear his initial coaching staff, with Raheem Morris as the head coach and Greg Olson as the offensive coordinator, reached him in a way that Greg Schiano and Mike Sullivan did not.
A team without strong locker room leaders who can be powerful influences might want to let Freeman join another wolf pack. Freeman needs to share his space with someone he respects who can show him the way.
"Any time you have a guy who is damaged goods, you need to have the right people around him -- coaches, staff members and veteran players," one personnel director said. "If you don't have that, don't touch him."
A new team will have to make Freeman feel valued and wanted. He clearly felt unappreciated in Tampa after his contract was not extended and the team used a third round pick on Mike Glennon last April.
Freeman's next team also needs to have a plan on how to use him. "Scheme is part of it," a second general manager said. "He played in a West Coast system in college, and then he was in a West Coast system his first few years in the league when he was at his best. It was a more quarterback-friendly system than the Giants-Patriots scheme they are running now in Tampa. He would be better in a West Coast scheme again."
See, Freeman does not have to be forever classified with Leaf and that ilk. It would be a pity for him to wither and go away like one of summer's marigolds. Promise like his may fade in three years, but it should not die.
Freeman just needs a little help, a little nurturing. And he needs to realize it.
Dan Pompei has covered more than 500 NFL games, including 26 Super Bowls. He is one of 44 members on Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors board and one of nine members on the seniors committee. He was given the 2013 Dick McCann Award by the Pro Football Writers of America for long and distinguished reporting in the field of pro football. Follow him on Twitter @danpompei.