As we did in the offseason journey, we will begin the preseason trip around the Titans position by position with the man under center.
Matt Hasselbeck or Jake Locker? Jake Locker or Matt Hasselbeck? It’s been the biggest question about the Titans the entire offseason, and NFL.com’s Around the League blog named it the second-biggest training camp battle in the entire league. I hope those of you who care about the level of volume about the Titans emanating from the NFL’s chatterati are happy. I don’t care, because they’re not the ones making the decision.
That decision will instead by made by the Titans braintrust, in some combination of head coach Mike Munchak, offensive coordinator Chris Palmer, and/or general manager Ruston Webster, with ever-present possibility owner Bud Adams may decide to make his considerable influence felt (unlikely, in my guess, but you never know). Their call will be based on a number of factors, including play in preseason, ability to exclude various elements of the offense, and likely as well softer factors like chemistry and the ability to inspire and lead teammates.
As I’ve tried to chronicle this offseason, both quarterbacks have their strengths and weaknesses.
For Matt Hasselbeck, who started every game last season and played at times quite well, at other times not quite so well, he has the veteran ability to read defenses, decipher information quickly, adjusted protection schemes, and get the ball out quickly. When he was playing and the offense around him was functional, the Titans for the first time since at least 2003 saw a passing game in a good, consistent rhythm. Hasselbeck’s traits were also well-suited to converting red zone possessions into touchdowns; on a team with playoff aspirations, that sort of performance could mean a much-needed extra win.
On the same token, as Hasselbeck himself noted, it was an odd move to take a veteran west coast offense quarterback without a particularly strong arm and put him in an offense that likes to attack down the field. While Hasselbeck is very good throwing to some areas of the field, he simply can’t threaten the entire area of the field. If the offense around him is non-functional, and the areas of the field he can attack are closed down, the Titans’ passing offense will struggle to move the ball. We saw that first-hand late last season.
Jake Locker is the future of the franchise. He may not start Week 1 against the Patriots, or Week 13 after the bye, or at all this season, but sooner or later he will be the starter. He has the arm to threaten defenses in a way Hasselbeck physically cannot. He’s more mobile than Hasselbeck, and faster; he’s not Michael Vick, or even Cam Newton, but he seems likely to be at least as good a runner as VY as a rookie, only without having shown the ball security problems that plagued the old #10.
At the same time, Locker is far from flawless. He lacks Hasselbeck’s precise and consistent accuracy, and early reports from training camp indicate he didn’t magically discover it this offseason. He does not have Hasselbeck’s veteran ability to recognize defenses; he didn’t play much, but was fortunate to avoid a turnover against the Saints when he failed to identify and adjust to a corner blitz. He displayed few high-level quarterbacking skills as a rookie. And, well, we’ve seen him play before as part of a non-functional passing offense, and he was no more able to succeed than Hasselbeck was.
That last point gets to something I want to stress: whether Hasselbeck or Locker is the starting quarterback will not dramatically change how good the Titans will be in 2012. Both quarterbacks require a functional offense around the to display their skills to the best effort; they cannot carry a team on their own. That includes things like a bounceback season from Chris Johnson, a better performance by the wide receivers, whether that group includes Kenny Britt for almost all, some, or none of the season, and few breakdowns by a rebuilt interior of the offensive line.
While Hasselbeck and Locker get most of the ink, they are not the only quarterbacks in camp. Rusty Smith is around again and hopes to stick around for his third season. He will or will not make the team. As I just noted, Andrew and I preliminarily disagree on his chance of sticking around. Unless you find preseason statistics important, and I do not, he hasn’t seen action since the 2010 disaster against the Texans. The most obvious reason for Smith’s continued stay would be health concerns with the top two. Neither Hasselbeck nor Locker missed a game last year, though, and the Titans could easily opt to roll the dice that stays true again. In either event, barring injury to both of them Smith is unlikely to see the field for the Titans in 2012 even if he does make the team.
The fourth quarterback in camp is Nick Stephens, a familiar, but not necessarily beloved, name to Tennessee fans. Until shown otherwise, I have little choice but to assume he’s a camp arm. The Titans haven’t really kept one of those around since Billy Volek beat out Kevin Daft a dozen years ago. If the Titans opt to part ways with Rusty, they could look to keep Stephens on the practice squad. Most likely, Nick’s Nashville NFL dream will be dead by Labor Day 2012.
Munchak recently indicated once again he would like to name a starter by the third preseason game. That won’t necessarily happen, but I would expect each of Hasselbeck and Locker to start one of the first two preseason games and we shall see how things develop from there.
Whichever man is named the Titans’ starting quarterback this year, performance around the league-average mark is a reasonable expectation. Too far below that, and the other man may well see time earlier than the Titans could otherwise have planned. Production clearly above that would be fantastic, but I’m not counting on it.