|Jake Locker has a steeper learning curve with the Titans' complex offense. (Getty Images)|
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It came as no great surprise that Titans coach Mike Munchak named young Jake Locker his starting quarterback -- that trend is sweeping the league -- though the timing caught some off guard.
Locker was pronounced the winner after coming off a rough outing in the second preseason contest, when veteran Matt Hasselbeck remained a very viable alternative.
Of course, as many a coach has pointed out to me over the years, it's much easier to turn the team back to Hasselbeck should the Titans stumble early, and still convey to the fans and locker room that hope for 2012 is not lost, while going from a veteran passer to a novice in midseason generally sends a very different message about rebuilding, rather than immediate results. And coming off a season in which they didn't miss the postseason by all that much, the Titans believe the playoffs are within reach.
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That outcome may swing on the nexus of Locker and offensive coordinator Chris Palmer, and the quarterback's ability to grasp and execute some very complicated elements of the run and shoot offense that Palmer espouses. Finding common ground, not asking Locker to do too much, or more to the point -- think too much -- will be a key to this Titans season because even Hasselbeck, a 14-year veteran as savvy and cerebral as any quarterback in the league, faced a learning curve trying to adapt to Palmer's system last year.
At its core, Palmer is asking his quarterbacks to essentially see the game through a receiver's eyes -- a backward concept from most offenses -- accounting for how they will break off routes and adjust on the fly. Doing so from spread formations can lead to serious protection issues, especially against more complicated zone-blitz schemes -- though the Titans have a strong offensive line -- and lots of interceptions. The Run and shoot forces the defense to adjust and react, and has resulted in some gaudy yardage numbers for quarterbacks and receivers alike, but it also adds complications to the already considerable adjustments Locker, the eighth overall pick of the 2011 draft, will face as a first-time starter.
"Saying you have to see the game through the receiver's eyes, that's a good way to phrase it," Hasselbeck said. "It's certainly a change for sure. Most systems are based around what is most comfortable for the quarterback, so this is an adjustment. You don't have to necessarily read the coverage yourself; you have to say, 'How is this guy reading the coverage? How is he interpreting?' So it does a great job of helping them get open, but if you're not on the same page with how they're seeing it, then it's not going to work."
Talking to scouts who watched this team closely in 2011, they're asking precisely that question. How will Locker -- barely a 50 percent passer in college who is still learning to read and see things as a quarterback -- be able to adapt? With a full offseason this year -- one without a lockout -- the expectation in these parts is that the run and shoot will expand. But can it?
"Running in the run and shoot, with a quarterback that young, who struggles with accuracy, I don't see how that's going to work," said one scout. "Palmer wants his quarterbacks to see the game like a wide receiver, anticipate what the receiver is going to do, and adjust that for everyone in the route. Locker is still just trying to read the game like a quarterback.
"That was hard even for Hasselbeck, and Locker couldn't put the ball where he needed to enough at [University of] Washington. The best they looked last year was in the two-minute, and that was running through Hasselbeck, not Palmer. That's the quarterback making adjustments, calling plays. And now you lose that, with him on the sidelines. Locker isn't going to able to see everything that Hasselbeck did, and adjust the protections and all of that. That's asking a lot."
The Titans were a middling offense a year ago, though that was with running back Chris Johnson in his post-holdout hangover, whereas now the feeling is he will be much closer to his 2,000-yard form. That would obviously take a huge burden off Locker. However, as the scout noted, they did shine in certain Hasselbeck-specific areas. Only four teams scored more red-zone points than Tennessee, and the Titans tied for first in fewest red-zone giveaways and were fifth in red-zone touchdown efficiency. Hasselbeck had a 95 quarterback rating in the two-minute drill, and a 102 rating in the fourth quarter with the score within seven points or less -- crunch time, when neophytes generally struggle.
"When we did our offseason review, that was our best stuff," Hasselbeck said of the two-minute offense. "That's partly me being more comfortable with formations being spread out, being three wide, being in an empty backfield set, and at same time we were able to put all our best playmakers on the field ... It was good stuff. I think we all wish we could do it more."
So, again, this begs the question: How will Locker, who with 55 career attempts across five games is in essence a rookie, be able to maintain what was the greatest strength of this passing game last year?
|Locker has the help of a supportive veteran mentor, Matt Hasselbeck. (US Presswire)|
"Since we do it enough, last year and this year, I think in some areas it's gotten real good, better," coach Mike Munchak said of the Run and shoot. "And I think you have to have a combination of both, so it's not all one thing. So you have some things that are a little easier to make decisions on, where there's are not adjustments, and other routes that are [adjustment-based], it's stuff he's comfortable with.
"So it just comes down to now, us on Sundays, doing what we're ready to do and as we progress then the amount of adjustments progresses. So we have to be smart with it, not just because we have a new quarterback, but we have new receivers and a tight end. So you want to go at a pace that these guys are ready for as well." Hasselbeck believes that through film study last season and watching him execute in the two-minute and red zone, Locker is prepared to handle the rigors. And his quick feet and scampering ability will provide an element that Hasselbeck no longer could at this stage of his career. Locker says his comfort in the Run and shoot is always growing.
"At times there is a lot to know," Locker said, "but I just try to make it as simple as I can in my own head and allow myself to play fast. I know what to expect now when I get to the line of scrimmage, in the huddle, with certain plays what we’re we trying to accomplish, those things."
Getting the opportunity to play in calculated situations in 2011, and have time to process the offense through the season, was vital for Locker. He also got to become acclimated with the many and varied ancillary responsibilities for a quarterback -- all the community and charity and marketing and outreach things that come up, and figure out a routine.
"There's a lot more to it than people realize, and last year was a good year for him to do all of that," Hasselbeck said. "From visiting schools and hospitals and talking to kids, to videos and PSAs and signing autographs for every single person in the building -- literally every person in the building -- without the normal pressures of football and being beat up and all that.
"He earned the respect of everyone in the building and he learned the system inside and out, and all the other stuff died down a little because he's kind of already done it; he's not the new guy anymore. So I think it's a great advantage that he has coming into Year 2, when it's sort of like Year 1, but he's already had this really solid redshirt year under his belt and he's had to chance to play and he did great."
The conditions are much different, now, however, with defenses preparing to face Locker and not Hasselbeck. Having to face the same defense for four quarters, and all the adjustments that come with it. Having to play through all situations and not just those he came into in mop-up situations or to try to give the team a late lift.
"It's just going to be a situation where he's going to have to understand taking that first snap and maybe getting down and having trouble through the game," receiver Nate Washington said, "and still having to press through those things. I think it was kind of easier for him when he was coming in during a game and trying to take over for someone else and therefore you have nothing to lose at that point.
"I'm anxious to see those situations, but I think he's done a pretty good job with two-minute, and the offense, and he gives us an opportunity to make some plays. And when things break down, it still gives us an opportunity to move the ball."
Unfortunately for Locker, the Titans still do not know when they will have by far their most dynamic pass catcher, Kenny Britt, back. His health is one concern, coming off an ACL surgery, but there also is a matter of him possibly being suspended a few games for his repeated off-field troubles. The Titans figure a small suspension could be coming and expect to hear from the league office shortly.
On the bright side, Locker could not possibly have a better mentor and role model, on and off the field, than Hasselbeck. The two became acquainted when Hasselbeck was in Seattle and Locker was at Washington, and Hasselbeck knew his role coming in, as a bridge quarterback until the coaches deemed Locker ready. He is as supportive and helpful as can be, and, in this system, a much-needed sounding board and extra set of eyes.
Hasselbeck realizes this a young man's league by and large, and playing young quarterbacks quickly has become all the rage. At least five rookies are slated to make opening day starts this season, and Locker wasn't taken with a top 10 pick to hold a clipboard for very long.
As with all of these young quarterbacks, the true test will be not how many of them are starting Week 1, but how many retain the job through all 17 weeks.
"There are definitely a lot of young guys getting an opportunity to play and play well," Locker said. "It's exciting and encouraging and fun to watch the guys that you got ready for draft process with and prepare with have success and lead their team to wins. It's been fun to follow and fun to watch and now it's fun to be a part of."