It wasn’t enough for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to be the NFL’s most problematic, dysfunctional and chaotic franchise. No, they had to add a snitch element to the folly, which also would make them dishonest and unethical, if not scandalous and sleazy. Rarely in professional sports has one team generated such a non-stop stream of negative news, reducing what once was a well-regarded organization to a circus of buffoons who somehow are perpetrating an all-time football debacle.
I will suggest two real football men who might be lured to fix the mess — Bill Polian, who is working at ESPN; and Lovie Smith, who is working nowhere — but first, let’s talk snitches. Whoever is doing the leaking in the house, the Bucs have become more obsessed with assassinating the character of demoted quarterback Josh Freeman than beating their game competition on Sundays, which might explain why they’re 0-4. They are trying awfully hard to convince their disgusted and rapidly dwindling fan base that Freeman is the root of all their troubles when, in fact, he no longer is even dressing for games. You see this in American business all the time: An initiative breaks down and one person is targeted for the entire catastrophe, a defense mechanism for those who actually are to blame but refuse to accept accountability. But in leaking news that Freeman has been participating in the league’s drug program — and whispering it in a way that left the tidbit open to wild speculation about the drugs he was taking — the Bucs have done Freeman a major disservice and sabotaged their own efforts to trade their failed project.
I mean, how stupid can an organization be? First you give the erratic Freeman four years of rope to determine whether he can play or not, this in an immediate-gratification league where Jim Harbaugh benched a very effective Alex Smith on impulse in San Francisco because he thought Colin Kaepernick could lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl, which he did. Then, when you finally conclude Freeman can’t play, you look around and realize you didn’t make plans to have a legitimate Plan B in place, force-feeding rookie Mike Glennon into a starting role in Week 4 when he isn’t remotely ready for the assignment. Then, as grumbling in Tampa Bay and laughter throughout the league grow louder, someone leaks to ESPN that Freeman is in Stage 1 of the league’s substance-abuse program. This prompts Freeman to release a statement that he has been in the program more than 18 months only because he inadvertently took Ritalin — “a one-time mistake,” he wrote — instead of his prescribed Adderall, which he claims he uses to treat ADHD. After the positive Ritalin test, Freeman said he volunteered to enter the drug program and submit to repeated tests. He has passed every test, he said.
“Let me be very clear. I have NEVER tested positive for any illegal drugs or related substances,” Freeman wrote in his statement. “Further, I have agreed to take, and have PASSED 46 NFL-regulated drug tests over the last year-and-a-half.
“It is a shame that when times have gotten tough, people have chosen to attack the character of others, rather than supporting each other.”
Freeman said he “never tested positive for any illegal drugs or related substances.” That may be true, but a red flag goes up when an athlete is connected with Adderall, a stimulant that has come into play in recent years as a performance-enhancing and/or recreational drug. Just because a player receives a theraputic-use exemption for Adderall doesn’t mean he’s using it to treat ADHD, or that he even has ADHD.
Problem is, news about a player’s participation in the drug program is supposed to be protected confidentially. So who leaked it? And did the snitcher realize the information would backfire on the franchise, in that it now will be almost impossible to trade Freeman and get even a low-round draft pick for him? At this point, it appears the Bucs either will have to keep the sulking Freeman — he was the last player on the field for a light practice Tuesday — or grant him his outright release, meaning he would receive $6.2 million in remaining salary and immediate free agency. If the situation calls for a full-blown probe and explanation from ownership — that would be you, Malcolm and Bryan and Assorted Other Glazers — it also hastened questions from DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, who demanded answers Tuesday when he arrived at One Buc Place for an annual meeting with players scheduled long before this mess. It surprised no one when Smith said the union is “sufficiently concerned” and has launched its own investigation.
“We have a collective bargaining agreement that mandates and protects confidentiality and privacy,” Smith told reporters. “If we believe that any member of the team management or anyone from the league has deliberately taken steps to thwart that privacy and to breach that confidentiality, this union will take every step and file every grievance and pursue any law to rectify that. We believe that it’s important to maintain the confidentiality.”
Smith defended Freeman, applauding him for his handling of the case. “I appreciate the manner in which Josh has handled this personally because he is a good young man,” he said. “But this issue is a bigger issue about what’s right with respect to the relationship between players and management. When those issues come to bare, this is a union that will stand up for its players.”
If the Bucs were running their operation in good faith, they’d have simply acknowledged their Freeman quarterbacking mistake and moved on. Obviously, someone in the house wants Freeman to take all the heat for an abysmal situation on and off the field. Freeman didn’t blow a late lead in the Arizona loss; he was in a Raymond James Stadium suite. For that matter, while he played poorly in the first three games, he didn’t lose the opener in the Meadowlands; linebacker Lavonte David was penalized for the late shove on quarterback Geno Smith, setting up the Jets for the winning field goal. The organization was to blame for putting so much stock in Freeman all along, when smart NFL people knew he had shown too much inconsistency to be trusted as a starter, much less anointed as an elite quarterback.
So, who would snitch? The head coach and resident two-hands-on-all-things control freak is Greg Schiano, who hasn’t liked Freeman since the quarterback’s slip-side in the second half of last season. Asked Tuesday if he leaked the information, he said, “Absolutely not,” adding, “I know what I’ve done. I’m 100 percent comfortable with my behavior, 100 percent.” But then, Schiano is the one suspected by some players of rigging a vote that cost Freeman his continued role as a team captain, this after he slept in and missed a team photo. He refused comment on other aspects of the Freeman case.
If the snitch ever is identified, the person would be subject to a fine of up to $500,000, according to the collective bargaining agreement. If Schiano didn’t leak the news to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, someone did — and it wouldn’t be anyone in Freeman’s camp.
The Bucs, of course, have been a disaster area since August, when a MRSA outbreak interrupted their training camp at what became known as One Hazmat Place. Kicker Lawrence Tynes is threatening to sue the team after contracting a MRSA staph infection; when Schiano announced one day that Tynes was doing well and healing, Tynes’ wife responded angrily on Twitter with her view that Tynes is not doing well. It took weeks before high-priced guard Carl Nicks, who also suffered a staph infection after missing time with injuries last year, returned to the field. The NFLPA has filed a grievance for Tynes, with Smith saying he has “significant concerns about the manner in which that player and perhaps other players’ safety was handled by the team.” The Glazers had better lawyer-up. Between Freeman and Tynes, major legal action possibly awaits.
In fact, the Glazers had better get their act together, period. When so many issues of dysfunction strike a football franchise in a short period, there obviously is a deep lapse in leadership. Schiano is the coach and Mark Dominik is the general manager, but the Glazers are the ones who made those hires, listening closely to Bill Belichick when he made the strong case for his friend Schiano. If the coach and quarterback are the two most important hires an NFL team can make, then the Glazers got Raheem Morris and Schiano wrong, and the Glazers got Freeman wrong. They made a run at Chip Kelly in 2011, but, with no intent to be cruel or insensitive, I’m not sure a quarterback with an attention-deficit issue could run his blur offense at warp speed anyway.
Assuming Schiano is fired at season’s end, the Bucs must locate a serious all-encompassing football man to right the sinking pirate ship. I’m not sure if Polian would leave a breezier life as an TV studio analyst, but someone of that stature, someone who has had major success and won a Super Bowl as boss of a football operation, is the right idea. Lovie Smith is familiar to Tampa Bay fans as Tony Dungy’s close friend and could step in as coach right now, with a skill of pulling together a locker room if not knowing how to groom a quarterback. USC pulled the plug on Lane Kiffin last weekend. If the Bucs are certain Schiano is a bust, don’t prolong the misery. Fire him now.
Hell, maybe Dungy will run the front office. He lives in town. At least ask if he’d consult.
Just do something, fast, before you somehow turn Josh Freeman into a sympathetic figure and begin the death march to 0-16. Think about it: If the Bucs and equally inept Jacksonville Jaguars both went winless, they could have a one-game playoff midway between the cities, maybe at Disney World, except they’d scare the kids away and the mascots, too.