Titans’ first-round pick Jake Locker put up some very unimpressive numbers in his two games against the Nebraska Cornhuskers this year. In the first game, a home game in September, Jake completed only 4 of his 20 attempted passes, for 71 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions. The Huskies saw the Cornhuskers again in the Holiday Bowl in December, and Locker’s numbers were hardly better, 5 completions in 16 attempts for 56 yards, including a first half where he failed to complete any of his seven attempts.
I write occasionally about numbers here, and what they can mean and indicate, and I’ll say this about Locker’s numbers against Nebraska: I don’t care. Yes, they’re not very good. But I don’t really care about a player’s statistics; I care about how the player played. Statistics can be a very useful tool in evaluating how a player played, or they can be misleading. I believe Locker’s statistics against Nebraska are more of the latter type.
Running through the reasons I don’t care:
- I don’t care about: college statistics in general. Collegiate quarterback statistics can vary heavily based on the type of offense the team runs. This is most prevalent of course with players who play in a spread, of both the run-heavy and pass-heavy types. Cam Newton had great passing stats. He spent a lot of time throwing to guys open by 10 yards because teams played the run very heavily, because Auburn was a big running team. Colt McCoy put up great college numbers at Texas. He spent a lot of time to throwing to open guys less than 10 yards downfield. Skillsets are what matter.
- I don’t care because: Nebraska had a great passing defense. By our collegiate numbers at Football Outsiders, they were 4th in the country. One of the basic findings is that the same team puts up better numbers against bad defenses and worse numbers against good defenses. Against a great defense like Nebraska’s, you’d expect Locker’s numbers to be worse. If he had put up great numbers against Nebraska, I’d be ecstatic. Most quarterbacks didn’t.
- I don’t care because of Nebraska’s pass rush. Washington’s offensive line is none too good. Nebraska’s defensive line is anchored by Jared Crick. He’s not Ndamukong Suh, but he’s likely to be a first-round pick in the 2012 NFL draft. Throwing the ball away is better than taking a sack, but the incompletion shows up in the passing stats and the sack doesn’t.
- I don’t care because of Nebraska’s cornerbacks. Prince Amukamara went 19th overall in this year’s draft to the Giants. Alfonzo Dennard was the starter on the other side and is currently projected to be a first-round pick in the 2012 draft.
- I don’t care because of Washington’s receivers. Jermaine Kearse right now has a 2nd-3rd round grade on him, but he’s primarily a vertical threat and not a complete receiver. Beyond Kearse, there’s probably not a draftable receiver or tight end on the Huskies’ roster.
- I don’t care because of press coverage. Locker may not have completed any of his first seven passes in the Holiday Bowl, but I don’t think any quarterback in the world could’ve completed more than four, maybe five of those passes. Nebraska lined up their good cornerbacks against Washington’s mostly mediocre wideouts in press-man alignment and forced them to beat them. Washington’s wideouts miserably failed. Locker would’ve needed elite NFL-level accuracy to complete most of those passes. He doesn’t have that. Almost nobody in college does (Sam Bradford is the only guy in the last decade I’m confident had it).
- I don’t care because we can do a more nuanced evaluation of his play. For that, I point you to this analysis by former Washington and NFL quarterback Hugh Millen, or take a listen to the related podcast of his 4-for-20 performance in the first Nebraska game. By Millen’s grade, Locker had 10.5 pluses, 7.5 minuses, and 2 double-minuses. That’s not a great game, but nor is it the kind of disaster you’d expect from 4/20, 71, 1/2.
Does this mean I’m absolutely fine with Locker? I loved Jake Locker as a college quarterback. I watched a lot of Washington games, partly beacuse they played a lot of west coast evening games, and partly because I really liked Locker’s style and the excitement he brought to the game. But he’s not ready. He’s been in a pro-style offense for two years; he’s made great strides in those two years, but he has a ways to go. He supposedly showed good improvement in his post-college work with Ken O’Brien, and we’ll see what else he can do to improve his game.
But whatever you do, don’t cast his fate based on his stats against Nebraska last year.