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Josh Freeman’s last chance depends on a 3-team football league and a hurricane

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On a miserable night in Brooklyn, Josh Freeman began his NFL comeback attempt with a start-up football league.

FXFL

Hurricane Joaquin was just far enough away that a football game could be played on under maximally miserable conditions. Brooklyn Bolts quarterback Josh Freeman had to call to backup quarterback Jake Heaps several times -- "Get me a towel. Get me a fucking towel!" -- through the interfering wind and rain before he got his fucking towel. It didn't do him much good. Freeman fumbled five times on the night, losing three, and threw one very bad interception to open the second half in front of a dwindling crowd of tens of fans. You could excuse the performance on the weather except that Freeman is running out of mulligans.

Yes he's that Josh Freeman -- a first-round pick and a once budding star who, in his second season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, threw 25 touchdowns to six interceptions. He posted a 95.9 quarterback rating at just 22 years old. To that point, only two quarterbacks had ever posted better than a 90 rating before their 23rd birthday -- Ben Roethlisberger and Dan Marino. Only three had ever thrown at least 20 touchdown passes in a season -- Marino, Peyton Manning and Drew Bledsoe, and Manning and Bledsoe combined to throw 55 interceptions.

That's greatness even among all-time great company, making Freeman a unique figure. In 2013, Grantland's Bill Barnwell found just two players who had similar drop-offs after strong starts to their careers. Brian Griese threw 19 touchdowns to four interceptions in his third NFL season in 2000 and Tony Eason threw 23 touchdowns to three interceptions in his second season in 1984. Neither approached that success again, and even they lasted in the league longer than Freeman. Griese played eight more seasons, Eason six. Freeman played three before falling out of the league in 2013.

Two years hence, Freeman was in a minor league baseball stadium on Coney Island that had been retrofitted with a football field, doing his best to play through monsoon conditions. The Bolts are a charter team of something called the Fall Experimental Football League, the FXFL, which has its own big league dreams.

Freeman is betting that the league can put him back in the league. Nearly two years since he last threw a pass in a regular season NFL game, his odds aren't good, but the FXFL is arguably his best shot. The rosters are filled with players who were let go at the 53-man deadline, making it one of the best collections of talent not playing college ball. And unlike in the Canadian Football League, he'll be playing on an NFL regulation field under NFL rules, getting tape that can translate to the NFL game.

As Freeman took ineffectual snap after ineffectual snap, darkened roller coasters loomed over MCU Park. The biggest is prophetically named the Cyclone. Freeman is on a weird path back to the NFL. To make it, he'll have to be lucky that things break his way, not to mention immaculate on the field. His fate isn't entirely his. All too literally, he must weather the storm.

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Josh Freeman behind center against the Florida Blacktips on Oct. 2, 2015.

* * *

Freeman brought up his Monday night game against the New York Giants in 2013 before I could.

"I had history in offenses with similar terminology, verbiage, but I wasn't --," Freeman cuts himself off, it seems like the word "ready" should be next. "There's a lot that goes into being ready to go out and mesh with an entire offense on a Sunday."

The appearance was his last on an NFL field. He had been cut by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Oct. 3 after forming an untenable relationship with Greg Schiano, signed by the Minnesota Vikings on Oct. 6, and thrust into starting action on Oct. 21. The fast turnaround -- a little more than two weeks from Bucs castoff to starter in a brand new system -- was too much, especially considering how the Vikings used him.

Then-offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave called pass plays like the Vikings were trying to overcome a 30-point deficit, though they were never more than two scores behind for most of the game. Freeman threw the ball 53 times, one short of a career high, despite the fact that he couldn't complete a damn thing. The game will go down as one of his worst -- 20-of-53 (37.74 percent), 190 yards (3.58 yards per attempt) and a bad third quarter interception. Freeman was swarmed after a desultory play fake and threw the ball to an anxious Antrel Rolle crossing the field at the 5-yard line. The pick should have signaled that hurling a newly-acquired quarterback into an unnecessary shootout was a bad idea.

Freeman's teammates were also miffed. One told USA Today that he was sorry for Freeman "getting thrown in so quickly." Others said that Freeman had been unimpressive in practice, had a poor grasp of the offense and had showed up late to meetings several times. The Vikings were 1-4, however, and head coach Leslie Frazier was fighting for a job.

After heaping the offense on Freeman's shoulders in a 23-7 loss, the Vikings forgot about him. He was inactive the next two weeks purportedly because of a concussion he suffered against the Giants, but then after being reactivated for a Nov. 7 bout against Washington he was deactivated again until Week 16.

Freeman still doesn't understand what happened.

"The main thing I had to get over was I kind of got dinged a little bit," Freeman says. "And they decided, 'All right, we're going to sit you out this week and see how it goes.' I really never knew exactly what their thought process was as far as getting back in the game and whatnot. Things work out the way they work out."

Freeman's two head coaches in 2013 were among the five fired on Black Monday, less than 24 hours after the regular season ended. As poorly as he played -- and Freeman certainly struggled -- his circumstance could not have been much worse.

Josh Freeman getting sacked by defensive end Justin Tuck on Oct. 21, 2013.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

* * *

Brian Woods touts his resume as an "NFL general manager pedigree." He has good qualifications to run a start-up football league, at the very least. He was a walk-on safety at Ole Miss and a graduate assistant football coach at Iowa State. He worked for a sports agency in California and briefly as a salary cap analyst for the Jets. After one year running the Medal of Honor Bowl, a college football all-star game, he started the FXFL.

"Start-up football league" brings to mind noble failures, like the USFL, UFL and XFL -- the last of which shares no relation to the FXFL, quite the opposite. Those leagues wanted a competing product to the NFL. The FXFL has already surrendered that battle. Instead, it'd like to partner with the NFL and function as a minor league based on Major League Baseball's model, or the NBA D-League.

It's pragmatic.

"We wanted to adhere very closely to what we saw in the NBA D-League or minor league baseball, where cost containment was a key component of what we were doing," Woods says. "I think our business model that we have this year, believe it or not, we're looking at being close to breaking even this year if not slightly profitable, and that's unheard of."

Pragmatism extends to every part of the enterprise. Woods sought partnerships with minor league baseball teams that already had infrastructure -- stadiums, personnel, people who already knew how to promote teams with players no one has ever heard of. The pay is modest -- Woods wouldn't say how much players earn, but in its inaugural season they got a $1,000 per game base salary. Finally -- and this can't be stressed enough -- there is no real pressure to win.

Every player on the 40-man roster gets in the game so that everyone has reps on tape. The week-by-week contract ensures that if a player gets called up to the NFL he can leave immediately. Coaches aren't encouraged to out-scheme one another. Last season, Woods mandated that some teams deploy a 3-4 defense so that players got experience playing in and against the alignment. The rules are exactly the same as in the NFL with minor tweaks so that players have more chances to show off. For example, the FXFL moved the back the line of scrimmage on extra point attempts a season before the NFL did, and is still kicking off from the 25-yard line to encourage more returns.

It's a great idea, and it has attracted prominent investors -- a hedge fund billionaire, a vice president at Google and a global head at Citi Group, according to Woods. The FXFL isn't the first football league to attempt a developmental model. The Professional Developmental League once attracted former Broncos and Saints running back Mike Bell. The Gridiron Developmental Football League recently fostered Saints cornerback Delvin Breaux along route to an incredible comeback.

Neither of those leagues have the FXFL's cache, however. They don't have a WatchESPN contract. They don't have former NFL coaches like Terry Shea. And they have never had a player as big as Freeman. Woods knows he made a coup. It was a short courtship process, beginning when Freeman's father reached out to the commissioner.

"He reached out to me fairly quickly right after Josh's release from the Miami Dolphins and told me that Josh might be interested in playing in the FXFL and wanted to know if we had filled all of our spots at quarterback," Woods says. "I assured him that with a Josh Freeman we would definitely have a space for him."

Freeman's signing was announced less than two weeks before the season opener. Freeman's father contacted Woods roughly one week prior. Normally, the FXFL only accepts players with under four years of NFL experience, but it made an exception for Freeman and acquired its biggest star to date.

Days later, Freeman was back on a practice field, and in the fall no less. This time last year, he was working out on his own in Kansas City with private quarterbacks coach Justin Hoover. Now he was participating in something that felt sort of like NFL training camp. It wasn't exactly the same thing. Shea had to yell at specialists to remove stepover agility dummies from the field because "there aren't any grad assistants here!" The Bolts' defensive line coach Eric Hicks moved his players off the sideline, saying, "Let's do this on the field like we're real football players."

It was a beautiful, blue-sky Wednesday afternoon. Freeman looked great behind center. On one completion, former South Florida wide receiver Chris Dunkley called out to Freeman "Nice throw Josh-y, Josh-yyyyyyyy!" After practice I sat with Freeman on the Cyclones dugout bench. He was happy to be playing football again.

"There's a lot of quality talent out there," Freeman said. "A number of guys, some young guys, some guys that played in the league before. But it's running an NFL system and it's fun. It's a challenge. I mean, we're doing a one week long training camp right now, so it's installs and learning new stuff. "

Freeman would make his first professional appearance in nearly two years just nine days later. A day before the season opener, Woods gave me a warning.

"You're picking the worst possible night to come out for a game, I think we're going to scare away half the crowd," he said. "Take the number of people that show up very, very lightly based on the horrific weather forecast."

MCUpan1
The crowd at MCU Park to watch the Bolts and the Blacktips play on Oct. 2, 2015.

* * *

The most expensive tickets to the game were also the worst seats. For $65, you can stand on the sideline just a few feet from the Bolts' bench behind yellow tape demarcating the "Black & Gold Club." On a good day, the view from the sideline right by the south end zone would be exhilarating. That Friday, fans paid for a privileged endurance test. Far from the awnings on top of the first- and second-base line stands, they had to choose between watching the game or going back into the tunnel where catered food and warmth awaited them as soon as they surrendered.

Woods touts the "fan friendly" atmosphere of FXFL games compared to most professional sports events, harping against the "major disconnect ... between the traditional sports fan of these days and a professional athlete" that he hopes the league can bridge with offers like the Black & Gold Club. Though the season opener was a failure as a showcase, it illustrated Woods' vision in a perverse way. The official in-park crowd of 1,200 dwindled to just a handful by the second half, but the fact that anyone stayed at all is a testament to the game. To a person, the people still left in the Black & Gold Club gave the same answer when asked why they showed: "It's football."

Doug Maloney is perhaps the closest thing to a Bolts super fan. He bought season tickets in the Black & Gold Club. He considered staying home when he saw the ominous forecast, but opportunities to see live football are limited. He arrived at MCU Park after a one-hour, 45-minute commute from Hoboken, and was one of the few people to stick out the entire game.

He bought the premium ticket package last season, too. The Bolts promised that he'd get to meet the players. The meet-and-greet didn't materialize but he did get his picture taken several times with Mike Golic, who was a regular presence on the sidelines to watch his son, Mike Golic, Jr., play.

Jonathan Wood became a Bolts fan just before the season after seeing that they signed Freeman. He moved to Brooklyn in May after graduating Georgetown Law. He's from Georgia -- a Falcons and Bulldogs fan -- but never really had a "hometown team" living four hours from Atlanta. The Bolts are a 15-minute drive from his place in Sheepshead Bay. The only reason he left the game early was because his shivering girlfriend "pulled rank." He also bought the premium ticket package, and didn't hesitate to brave Joaquin.

"But I also was just curious to see how many would turn out," Wood said. "I saw it as an 'experience' even if it was cold and rainy and I was uncomfortable in the moment, I'd look back and be glad I went. Plus, there are only three games so I'm making them count!"

Mike Golic and Doug Maloney at the Bolts' 2014 season opener at MCU Park.
Photo by Doug Maloney

* * *

There were supposed to be four teams in the FXFL. Woods introduced the Mahoning Valley Brawlers on July 14, then the league pulled the plug on the Ohio franchise a little more than two months later. Everything appeared to be set on the Brawlers' end -- tickets sold, coaches hired, player and cheerleader tryouts held -- then roughly one week before the season opener the FXFL determined it wouldn't be able to support the team.

"We lost some money last year, this year we definitely wanted to kind of rein in our costs," Woods says. "We wanted to get through the season at break-even or maybe slightly profitable, and unfortunately to do that we felt like, by having a team that was out in Ohio and travel expenses that were going to be incurred with that team, we could save a fair amount of money by cutting a market."

Woods adds that the "traditional sports fan" might bristle at an odd number of teams in a sports league, "but then they don't get what we're trying to do." As a developmental league, all that matters is that players get meaningful reps. The FXFL doesn't even have a championship game.

But the Mahoning Valley decision hurt. The team incurred significant sunk costs that it may try to recoup from the league. Ticket sales were refunded back to fans, and anyone who purchased Brawlers merchandise could swap it for gear representing Mahoning Valley's minor league baseball team, the Scrappers.

There was a human cost, too. Rick Worman, a longtime offensive assistant in the Canadian Football League was set to make his head coaching debut. Players drove up from the Deep South and paid $85 to try out for the team. The fee was reimbursed, but that hardly made up for the lost opportunity.

"To come so far and, you know, be disappointed it’s, it’s a little devastating," former West Alabama safety Fred Barnes told WKBN in Niles, Ohio. "But you know, you have to keep pushing, to continue to push forward."

The Mahoning Valley situation takes some of the sheen off Woods' boast that the league may turn a profit in Year 2. Still, his eye is to the future. He's already thinking about Year 3 expansion. He'd like to keep teams regionally centered, with the South being his next target -- potentially Austin. There are no concrete plans yet, however. The FXFL may not be able to afford another miscalculation.

* * *

Shea is blunt: "I was really thinking that this might be the first game in the history of football where there was not a completed pass."

He called out Freeman's performance as "sub-par" when he met with media after the game. The culmination was an interception to open the second half. The Bolts ran Freeman out on a naked to open up his field of vision and give him a chance to run if nothing was open. Instead, Freeman tried to force a throw to the crossing receiver -- "He just threw it right into coverage." It was a bad decision, an echo of his last professional outing.

The game should have been rescheduled, Shea says. Woods would tell the Wall Street Journal the same thing. Bolts PR staff tried to fetch Freeman after the game, but he declined to meet with media.

"He's fine physically, he was not struggling in practice," Shea said. "This was maybe just one of those nights where a perfect storm came together for him and really controlled him."

The game's most poignant moment came at the very end. The Blacktips had the ball at the Bolts' goal line with the win in hand. They could have taken a knee, but the primary objective is to produce as much usable tape as possible, so they went for the touchdown. The Bolts' defense held them out of the end zone for four straight plays to end the game.

After the game, Shea hoped his team would use the stand as a building block towards a better season, that it would give his players mental strength.

"I said, 'Don't give me that look of despair, or that discouraged look. Your eyes are the window to your attitude, and we need your best attitude.' And that seemed to make sense to them," Shea said. "And then we broke."

FreemanShea
Terry Shea and Josh Freeman talking on the sideline.

* * *

Former Wisconsin return man Kenzel Doe waves off a punt just before halftime, letting it bounce to the 4-yard line. There are just seconds left. Under normal circumstances, down 10-0, the Bolts would be wise to try to run out the clock. Instead, Freeman takes the snap and makes a deep drop, gets flushed to his right, gets blindsided and fumbles. It's the Bolts' third turnover of the game.

Freeman didn't get any closer to getting back in the NFL that day. His future is as uncertain as it was days earlier in the Cyclones dugout, and as it was in July after he was forced to leave his fourth NFL teams in under two years. At some point, the struggle has to end.

"I guess I'll assess that when it comes," Freeman said. "You never know where the league will be, or teams will be, and it's all about getting a feel and seeing where I want to go.

"But for now, just focused on competing. I'm focused on the now, focused on making the most of this situation."

Just before the Blacktips score their second touchdown -- on a pass! -- Wood forms his wet hands into a funnel over his bushy wet beard and yells "Go Bolts!" The offense may have heard as it ran off the field. If not, Bolts players certainly heard Woods. They had to run right by the Black & Gold Club to get to the locker room.

That part, Woods would have been happy to know, went without a hitch.

"Anything you can do to put the fans closer to the game, make them feel like they're a part of it, and you're going to see that in Brooklyn," Woods said. "Hopefully, god willing, the weather holds out for us for just a few more hours. We should be okay."