The Tennessee Titans are fostering a very intriguing quarterback battle between 36-year-old veteran Matt Hasselbeck, entering his 14th NFL season, and 24-year-old Jake Locker, the eighth overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. Last season, Hasselbeck started all 16 games while leading the Titans to a 9-7 finish. Locker played in five games, throwing a total of 66 passes. The sample size of Locker’s pro production is limited, but it’s enough fodder for a meaningful evaluation of his abilities.
Hasselbeck is a proven commodity. He’s the kind of quarterback who must be watched, play after play, game after game, for one to truly appreciate his skill set. He certainly does not possess a big arm; even when he was in his prime, winning division titles and playoff games with the Seattle Seahawks, he was not driving the ball through the teeth of the coverage. Hasselbeck has always, first and foremost, based his game on recognition and awareness, on fully understanding both his own offense and the complexities of the defenses he plays against. He is a director, a manipulator, very discerning before the snap.
Quarterbacks with limited arm strength must compensate in two essential ways: with precise timing and exact ball location. Throughout his career, Hasselbeck has thrown with outstanding anticipation, releasing the ball before his receivers make their breaks. That’s one reason he has been so effective when throwing in the middle of the field at the intermediate levels, especially on seam throws. For years, Hasselbeck has also reliably and efficiently made one of the most difficult throws in football: a sideline throw to the outside void against defenses running Cover-2, behind the corner and before the deep safety can get there. Many strong-armed passers hesitate to try that throw. Successfully making it demands anticipation, touch and accuracy. Those have always been Hasselbeck’s best attributes.
Hasselbeck has also excelled in the red zone. He had the highest quarterback rating in the red zone of any 16-game starter last season, throwing 13 touchdown passes without a single interception there. To be efficient in that constricted area of the field, a quarterback must rely on pre-snap recognition and post-snap validation. He must also have the poise to manipulate and move defenders and the ability to speed up his tempo without sacrificing precise execution. This can’t be understated: Hasselbeck will score points in the red zone.
During the season, the only way to evaluate players is on a week-to-week basis; evaluating plays consecutively provides a completely different perspective. I took the opportunity this offseason to re-watch every one of Locker’s plays from 2011. I immediately noticed that Locker has a stronger arm than Hasselbeck. When his feet were set and his lower-body mechanics were balanced, he threw the ball with velocity. Locker’s delivery was compact, and he was able to snap throws off with arm speed and high RPMs. However, he also tended to rush his footwork in the pocket. That impacted his balance and led to accuracy issues, a flaw that has carried over from his days at the University of Washington.
Locker was occasionally impatient and indecisive in the pocket. His feet must be calmer; there was too much unnecessary movement. He was also quick to leave the pocket, playing slightly fast and frenetically. All this was to be expected from a quarterback who was not a natural pocket-passer. Locker has always been more comfortable and efficient outside of the pocket, and that proved to be true in all five games he played as a rookie. On a positive note, he threw the ball extremely well on the move, with velocity and more consistent accuracy than he showed from inside the pocket.
Locker can make throws outside the pocket, whether off boot action or improvisation; Hasselbeck cannot. Designed movement off play-action would fit well with the outside-zone running ability of Titans running back Chris Johnson. The goal of the perimeter zone run game is to stretch the defense on the front side and cut or seal the pursuit on the back side. A quarterback capable of getting on the edge by design can force back-side defenders to hold their positions for an extra beat. That leaves fewer players in pursuit, giving Johnson more space to cut back, one of his strengths as a runner. There’s no question Locker would allow that tactic to be more effective.
On the other hand, Hasselbeck is a much better pocket passer than Locker is currently. Hasselbeck would provide more stability and greater consistency. Most offensive coaches just want their game plans executed as intended. Hasselbeck, who is better at recognizing, adjusting and manipulating than Locker, would offer the Titans more continuity and greater certainty. Based on tape of him in college and from last season, Locker can be a bit undisciplined. Like many quarterbacks with excellent athletic ability and a history of making plays with their legs on Saturday afternoons, Locker has walked a fine line between following his playmaking instincts and leaving the pocket too early. The bottom line, though, is that in the NFL, quarterback is a pocket position. The traits that produce quality play from the pocket must be honed and sharpened if true consistency is to follow.
One other thing that stood out about Locker last season: He threw the ball much better to his right than to his left. He tended to open his front foot too much when he threw to his left, like a batter in baseball stepping into the bucket. That widened his base, diminishing his balance and lowering his arm slot. As would be expected, wildness resulted.
Locker has now gone through a full offseason program. He has the better arm. The question is how quickly he can grasp all the subtle nuances of consistent quarterback play. He can certainly be spectacular at times; we saw that last season. But the Titans, whose defense is a work in progress, need a quarterback who can sustain drives and convert on third down. Locker can make the highlight reels, but he must be able to make the small plays. How he progresses this offseason will be fascinating to watch.
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