He offered the sentiment matter-of-factly, in the same tone of voice he might use to answer a waiter’s question about his choice of salad dressing. “I just want to go out there and be great,” Josh Freeman said.
That sentence alone could separate Freeman from most of the quarterbacks who have preceded him in purple.
Even as a first-round draft pick who went to a team desperate to develop its own franchise quarterback, Christian Ponder never exuded raw ambition or hinted at greatness. He came across as the nice boy from down the block who felt lucky to play with the big kids.
Ponder gave way, for a game, to Matt Cassel, who had failed in Kansas City and signed on as a backup in Minnesota. Before Ponder, there was Donovan McNabb, trying to squeeze a few more NFL dollars and fast-food endorsement contracts into his retirement fund, and before McNabb, there was Joe Webb as a grand experiment, and before Webb, there was Brett Favre.
Favre is the comparison Freeman should covet, because of all the Vikings who have taken snaps in front of Adrian Peterson, only Favre has taken full advantage of what Peterson should mean for a quarterback.
If Favre saw a safety creeping toward the line of scrimmage to stop Peterson, he possessed the skill, arm strength and daring to fire a pass deep into the void.
Favre signed with the Vikings when he was 39, having been rejected by two teams after the previous two seasons. With Peterson in the backfield, and a decent set of receivers, he painted his final masterpiece, producing his most efficient season at the end of one of the most remarkable careers in NFL history.
Freeman doesn’t belong in the same sentence as Favre in terms of accomplishments, but he, like Favre, possesses a strong arm and comes to Minnesota with a history of success in the kind of offense the Vikings want to run. And Freeman is the first quarterback to play for the Vikings since Favre who could speak of greatness without blushing.
Just 25, Freeman is a former first-round pick who has taken a team to the playoffs, has put together two very good NFL seasons, and has received the kind of professional shock, in his release by Tampa Bay, that causes some athletes to rededicate themselves. For Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman, Freeman is a growth stock. For Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, Freeman could be a savior.
As hopeless as the Vikings’ season looks right now, a good quarterback can change everything, in terms of immediate success and long-term planning.
Ponder, even at his best, did not throw downfield with skill or confidence. Cassel’s successes against Pittsburgh came on quick passes, and his interceptions against Carolina came on wobbly downfield attempts. The Minnesota version of McNabb had trouble throwing the ball far enough for a safety to make a play on it.
Maybe Freeman will play so badly that everyone in the NFL utters a sentence never before heard in the English language: “Greg Schiano was right.” If he plays well, the Vikings will be able to force defenses to choose between defending Peterson and defending the deep pass, and NFL safeties will wish they were allowed to use Vespas and GPS.
“A lot of the underlying questions I’ve been getting from a lot of people are, ‘Do I have a chip on my shoulder?’ ” Freeman said. “Sure, I do, but I think it’s more deeply rooted than just the past six months, 12 months. I just want to go out there and be great.
“Deeper than that, Leslie extended his hand and gave me an opportunity to come in here. Everything I’ve felt from Rick and the entire time, it’s a very special group of guys. It’s really an honor, it’s something very special to be the starter for the Vikings.”
Freeman can’t solve the Vikings’ defensive woes, and he probably won’t be able to salvage the season, but he could send the team into 2014 with a franchise quarterback, and hope. Sometimes they’re the same thing.
Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org