Josh is a Free Man: What’s Next in Minnesota?

The Vikings have signed Josh Freeman. Was it a smart move?

Everyone can breathe now. Josh Freeman has a team. Josh Freeman is a Minnesota Viking.

Sure, Matt Cassel beat up a Steeler secondary overseas, but let’s not forget about his 1-7 record with the Chiefs just a year ago, where he threw six touchdowns to 12 interceptions. Cassel was the solution a few days ago in Minnesota because there wasn't another option. Now, with Josh Freeman, there is one.

Josh Freeman’s History

Let me first note that I defended Josh Freeman this offseason, showing that his middling career, through the 2012 season, was not his fault. His poor numbers always coincided with the 32nd-ranked running game and one of the worst defenses in the NFL, and to be fair, his efficiency metrics entering 2013 were arguably better than his draft classmate, Matthew Stafford.

With the Buccaneers added personnel, I mentioned that this was the year to fairly judge Josh Freeman. Little did I know that a major roadblock to Freeman’s development would be his own maniac head coach, Greg Schiano.

So far in 2013, Freeman’s passing net expected points (passing NEP) total is a dreadful -21.04. That number may mean nothing to you at face value, but it shows us how many points a quarterback has gained or lost above or below expectation for his squad. Freeman, in short, has been replaceable. To put it into perspective, 21 of the 34 50-plus attempt passers entering Week 4 had accumulated a positive passing NEP total. Freeman’s score placed him only ahead of Geno Smith and Blaine Gabbert.

And on a per pass basis, Freeman’s efficiency is listed at -.21, which is actually only higher than Blaine Gabbert’s -.57. Only a little over 34 percent of Freeman's passes have been deemed “successful” this season too, meaning the majority of his throws have contributed negatively towards his team’s scoring output. Again, the only players worse: Jaguar quarterbacks.

Freeman’s been terrible – Jacksonville Jaguar terrible – no matter how good or bad the team around him has been.

This isn’t normal for him, though. As seen in the table below – one taken from my article back in July – Freeman’s efficiency hasn’t been this bad throughout his brief career.

YearPass NEP/PRank
2009-.1325th of 27
2010.158th of 30
2011-.0724th of 29
2012.0813th of 30

Numbers based on quarterbacks with 300-plus pass attempts

Two seasons full of poor play, and two seasons filled with efficient passing. Neither season, however, as bad as this one. And to be honest, that could just be Josh Freeman: A box of chocolates. The Vikings know it, too. But the reason they're willing to take a shot is because their current quarterback situation is arguably the worst in the NFL. At least they know Freeman's shown quality quarterbacking in the past. You can't say the same about someone like Christian Ponder.

Ponder Problems

Remember that, while passing net expected points isn’t the end all, it’s a nice way of showing – statistically – what really happens on a football field. It looks past standard yardage and touchdown performances, and looks deeper into how a quarterback is moving his offense and how he can convert in particular game situations.

Christian Ponder’s Passing NEP, Passing NEP/Pass and Rank within these metrics over the course of his career are below.

YearPass NEPRankPass NEP/PRank
2011-33.4924th of 29-.1025th of 29
201210.6521st of 30.0220th of 30
2013-.3319th of 28.0019th of 28

By no surprise, Ponder’s been a below average quarterback so far in the NFL. But I will say, although it’s not significant, his overall play is trending upwards. He’s increased his overall rank and score within the passing metrics each season, and based on historical metrics, hasn’t really impacted the Vikings at all this season, as seen by his 0.00 passing NEP/pass.

The main problem with Ponder, however, is that he should be able to be more efficient with the running game in Minnesota. The Vikings ranked third in adjusted rushing net expected points per play (Adj. RNEP/P) last year, only behind Washington and San Francisco. This metric looks at how many points a team adds or loses compared to expectation each time they run the ball. Clearly the Vikings were gaining points with each tote. Two seasons ago, Ponder’s rookie year, the story was the same: the Vikings were, again, ranked third within this category.

It’s not very common for us to see such high-end rushing numbers compiled with such moderate quarterback play. In fact, if we look at the top-three running teams under the same metric over the last five seasons, we see that Ponder’s effectiveness given his team’s running ability could be considered beyond atrocious.

YearTeamQuarterback Passing NEP
2008New York Giants55.56
2008New England Patriots80.71
2008Carolina Panthers46.45
2009Baltimore Ravens56.40
2009Green Bay Packers122.70
2009Tennessee Titans40.11
2010Philadelphia Eagles56.81
2010New England Patriots152.66
2010Houston Texans87.15
2011Carolina Panthers57.48
2011Philadelphia Eagles50.88
2011Minnesota Vikings-33.49
2012Washington Redskins73.63
2012San Francisco 49ers40.50
2012Minnesota Vikings10.65

Since 2008, no quarterback has had lower than a 40.00 passing net expected point total when his team ranked top three in rushing effectiveness. And it’s not as though we’re dealing with stud quarterbacks here, folks. On the list includes Michael Vick, Joe Flacco, Vince Young, Eli Manning, Matt Cassel and Jake Delhomme.

The fact that Ponder can’t even get close to this type of passing efficiency is a huge warning sign given recent history. And that history is full of young and inexperienced signal-callers, too.

Matt Cassel’s Not the Answer

Alright, so Ponder’s bad, but what about the Week 4-saving Matt Cassel? Isn’t he at least good enough? I thought he was the future in Minnesota? (cue laugh track)

Look, Cassel’s had his moments. When he took over for Tom Brady in 2008, the man scored a passing net expected point total of 80.71 for New England, ninth-best in the entire league. And in 2010, his second year with the Chiefs, Cassel ranked 10th under the same metric, adding about 61 points above expectation for that Kansas City offense.

It’s hard to ignore Cassel’s bumps in the road though. 2011 saw him post a -17.66 Passing NEP on his 291 dropbacks, which placed him in the bottom 10 among quarterbacks. And you could argue that last season was his absolute worst, scoring over 26 points below expectation, good for fifth-worst in the entire NFL.

Cassel’s now 31 years old. He grew up playing with Koosh balls, while Josh Freeman and Christian Ponder have no idea what those are. The Vikings aren’t looking to just slide by, maybe winning a game or two under an incredibly middle-of-the-road passer. They’re looking at the future, and perhaps, a spark for a team that was dead in the water after Week 3.

Matt Cassel isn’t the answer, and he’s never been the answer.

Why Freeman Can Succeed in Minnesota

The biggest reason to feel optimistic about Josh Freeman in Minnesota is that he’ll be back to playing on a team that can run the ball effectively. Entering Week 4, the Vikings ranked fifth in the entire NFL in rushing efficiency, something Tampa Bay, ranked 20th, has struggled with this season.

Why is this important? Well, with the Bucs, Freeman hasn’t been in an offense that’s ranked better than 11th in rushing effectiveness. And when his rushing offense ranks better than dead last in the league – something it’s done twice under Freeman (2010 and 2012) – the quarterback compiles a positive passing net expected points total. In other words, Josh Freeman is a much, much better quarterback when his offense has any semblance of a running game.

Christian Ponder, even with just two seasons of playing in the NFL, is clearly not the solution. Matt Cassel was clearly just a Band-Aid. But Josh Freeman, ladies and gentleman, clearly has a chance to rectify his career and be the future in Minnesota. It was a smart sign for a team that may be better than their record says, especially given their current quarterback situation.