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Updated: October 7th, 2013 10:50am
Mackey: Are Josh Freeman's red flags a product of toxic environment?

Mackey: Are Josh Freeman's red flags a product of toxic environment?

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by Phil Mackey

We can all imagine how awkward the vibe will be in the Minnesota Vikings' quarterbacks meetings this week.

Matt Cassel wondering why his performance in London didn't secure him a chance to prove he can be a viable starter.

Christian Ponder wondering if his ribs still hurt.

And Josh Freeman likely looking to get a crash course in Bill Musgrave's playbook so he can point his career back in the right direction.

The Vikings' decision to sign Freeman to a one-year deal late Sunday night is a bold one. It shows the team is likely finished with the notion that Ponder is the quarterback of the future. The move also shows that Cassel is a backup and only a backup. Cassel may still start on Sunday against Carolina, but the Freeman experiment will almost certainly begin sooner than later.

Vikings decision-makers would probably admit they are starving for a franchise quarterback. Yes, this is a one-year tryout for Freeman, but ultimately the Vikings are searching for something more long-term.

The only person resembling a franchise quarterback here in Minnesota since Fran Tarkenton is Daunte Culpepper. The Vikings, historically, have mostly patch-worked the position - oftentimes with great success.

How likely is it that Freeman will rise from the ashes of Tampa to become the Vikings' franchise quarterback? It all depends on whether his red flags were just products of a toxic environment.

The case against Freeman:

• Over the past two-plus seasons he has thrown 42 interceptions, which is the most of any quarterback over that stretch.

• He overslept for a team photo early last month, which doesn't sound like a huge deal, except for the fact that a supposed responsible, grown adult - who also happens to be the quarterback and supposed leader of the team - missed a mandatory team function.

• He has missed and/or has been late for team meetings, which is unacceptable for any professional football player, but especially for a quarterback who is, again, supposed to be the leader.

• He was involved in a very public feud with his previous head coach, Greg Schiano, and the Bucs organization. This wrecked relationship could have multiple guilty parties. More on that below.

• Freeman is also a Stage-One participant in the NFL's drug testing program (still multiple steps from actually being suspended), although he claims adamantly that his presence in the program is because he once took Ritalin (not prescribed) instead of Adderall (his prescription) to help treat ADHD.

"Let me be very clear. I have NEVER tested positive for any illegal drugs or related substances," Freeman said in a recent statement about the drug testing leak. "Further, I have agreed to take, and have PASSED 46 NFL-regulated drug tests over the last year-and-a-half."

All of the above are reasons to raise an eyebrow if you're the Vikings.

But those red flags might not be all Freeman's fault.

The case FOR Freeman:

• Yes, Freeman has thrown 42 picks since 2011, but in 2010 -- pre-Schiano, pre-toxic environment -- he threw only six.

• Schiano seems like a total dolt. From having his defensive line charge into opposing teams' victory formations, to videotaping players' behavior on the sidelines, to having assistant coaches monitoring the locker room, it seems as if Schiano is trying to be a tough guy while overcompensating for the obvious elephant in the room - he coached Rutgers to a .500 record, then somehow landed a job as an NFL head coach with very minimal prior NFL experience. It's entirely possible Schiano is in way over his head. 

• Before Schiano arrived to Tampa, Freeman was pretty damn good. In 2010 under Raheem Morris, Freeman threw for 3,451 yards, 25 touchdowns and only six interceptions while completing 61.4% of his passes. His 95.9 passer rating ranked sixth in the NFL. Freeman also led the NFL in 2010 with five fourth-quarter comebacks.

• Freeman's 2012 season was a lot better than it looks on paper - until the last three weeks of the season. Until a Week 14 blowout in New Orleans, Freeman had thrown 25 touchdown passes to just eight interceptions, albeit with a poor 55% completion rate. But he threw nine picks over his last three games while the wheels fell off the wagon for the Bucs.

• Freeman completes a ton of deep passes (defined as 20 yards or more in the air). His 31 deep completions ranked fifth in the NFL last year (although his 37% clip on deep throws ranked just 22nd), and his 23 deep completions in 2010 ranked ninth.

Ponder rarely throws deep, and when he does, the throws usually aren't accurate.

• Freeman has more upside than Cassel and Ponder. He just does. 

• The Vikings didn't have to give up a draft pick to land Freeman, just a few million bucks. 

Whether Freeman will be a franchise quarterback for the Vikings or another patch-work job likely depends on if his red flags are his own doing or a product of a toxic environment.

It's possible he just needs a better place to work.

We will find out. 

Phil Mackey is a columnist for He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd