We're barely a week into the 2013 NFL season, and it already appears there is trouble brewing in Tampa Bay.
After losing five of their last six games in 2012, the Buccaneers were looking to get off to a fast start in the new season. Instead, the team handed a last-second victory to rookie quarterback Geno Smith and the New York Jets.
If a shaky performance in Week 1 wasn't enough cause for concern, it seems that a rift is developing between the Buccaneers locker room, head coach Greg Schiano and fifth-year quarterback Josh Freeman.
According to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, the Buccaneers players held a players-only meeting prior to the first game of the season to discuss "concerns regarding the legitimacy of the vote that resulted in quarterback Josh Freeman losing the captain’s 'C' from his jersey."
Whether Freeman was stripped of his captaincy by his peers or by a little coach-induced voter fraud may never truly be known. However, Schiano certainly didn't do anything to quell concerns when he addressed the situation on Thursday.
Following Thursday's practice, the Buccaneers head coach admitted that Freeman was not present for the 2013 team photo, which may or may not have something to do with the quarterback's non-captain status, and has been late to other team events.
"The team photo was taken on Monday." Schiano said, via Tampa 620 WDAE. "That was dealt with by me internally."
If the rumors surrounding the Tampa locker room are to be believed, stripping Freeman of his captain status may have been part of Schiano's internal discipline.
"When you have mishaps, you have things where guys don’t do things they’re supposed to do when they’re supposed to do it, does it concern me? Sure it does," Schiano added.
Could Schiano be concerned enough to consider benching his starting quarterback?
There are certainly reasons why it could remain a possibility throughout the 2013 season.
For starters, Schiano is the type of coach who demands discipline and leadership out of his team. The Buccaneers' lack of leadership was apparent in last week's loss. If someone cannot emerge as a leader over the next few weeks (Tampa Bay is entering a tough stretch that includes games against the Saints, Patriots and new-look Eagles), the team could be off to an ugly start.
Schiano's comments seem to indicate that he doesn't see Freeman as a true leader, or at least one worthy of his coach's unwavering support.
The Buccaneers obviously aren't sold on Freeman as a long-term signal-caller, otherwise the organization would have made the former Kansas State star a contract offer prior to this season, the last of his rookie contract.
If Schiano isn't sold on Freeman as a leader (the Tampa Bay Times reported all the way back in April that he isn't), he could be positioning the team for a future quarterback change, either to rookie Mike Glennon or a player taken in next year's draft.
Schiano could also consider shaking up the quarterback position in order to provide a spark for a team that has lost six of its last seven regular-season games dating back to last season.
In today's NFL, coaches who fail to get positive results rarely last beyond two or three years. After last year's late-season collapse, a rocky start to the 2013 season could place Schiano firmly on the hot seat and leave Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer looking for a new head man.
Glennon is likely too raw to step in as a true team leader, but the North Carolina State product did perform reasonably well during the preseason (33-of-70 for 397 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions) and could be a viable alternative if Freeman cannot prove himself.
If neither Glennon nor Freeman is the answer, there will be plenty of top-quality quarterbacks—including Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, Clemson’s Tajh Boyd and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel—to chose from in next year's draft, assuming Schiano is still around to provide his input.
Lastly, there is the possibility that Schiano wants to send Freeman a clear message this season: Become the leader of this team or find a new head coach for whom to play.
Benching a player has long been used a motivational tool among head coaches at every level. Perhaps Schiano is intentionally refusing to give Freeman his support—and could conceivably bench him for a game or two—in order to force his quarterback to reach out and take hold of the opportunity to become the team's franchise signal-caller.
Then again, the entire situation could be much ado about nothing. If Freeman plays well over the next couple of weeks and the Buccaneers string together a few wins, this entire ordeal is likely to be forgotten.
After all, nothing seems to satisfy everyone—players and coaches included—like winning.