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2012 Tennessee Titans offseason positional analysis: QB

We begin our trip around the Tennessee Titans as we head into the 2012 offseason with the men who call the plays and stand under center.

2011 was a year of change for the Titans at the quarterback position. For five years, Vince Young and Kerry Collins alternatingly provided somewhat different definitions of what it meant to be the starting quarterback for the Tennessee Titans, but for better and worse that was the situation.

For being a year of transition, though, the recently-concluded regular season saw surprising stability, as for only the second time since they became the Titans, for better or for worse, the starting quarterback was the same for all sixteen games. 2012 should provide no such overwhelming transition, as the Titans return both that starter and every quarterback who took a regular season snap, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t and shouldn’t be a year of change nonetheless.

That starter was, of course, Matt Hasselbeck. Signed as a free agent in the offseason away from the Seahawks, he became the first quarterback to start every game for the Titans since Steve McNair in 2002. While he is not now, if he ever was, among the league’s elite quarterbacks, I thought he had an excellent season and named him the Titans’ offensive MVP for 2011.

As I mentioned in naming him the offensive MVP, perhaps at least as important as his on-field contributions were his off-the-field professionalism. He’s shown up, done the right things, said the right things, and been the best player he can be. Of course, he won’t necessarily be the Titans’ starter at quarterback in 2012.

The man who will do the most to determine who the Titans’ starting quarterback in 2012 is the eighth overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, Jake Locker. The former University of Washington star wasn’t given the same opportunity to make an immediate impact fellow rookie first-round picks Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, and Christian Ponder did, officially appearing in five games and seeing more than token action in only three of those. He came in after Hasselbeck sustained an injury against the Falcons and Saints, and appeared in what was more or less garbage time of the loss to the Colts.

There’s very little doubt in my mind that Locker’s development is the single most important question concerning the fate of the Titans over the next five seasons, and the Titans clearly made the decision that with a greatly abbreviated offseason and Locker only spending two years at Washington in anything resembling a structured passing offense, 2011 would be primarily a year of learning for the bench and growing acclimated to the demands of the NFL playbook and game preparation.  When he did play, I thought Locker’s performance was a mix of good and bad. He certainly presented challenged Hasselbeck didn’t, with his mobility (better speed than I expected, and better than I thought Vince showed his last couple years with the team) and arm strength, enough that some fans clamored for him to start.

I wasn’t on board with that, but at the season-ending press conference, Mike Munchak declared that the battle for the starting quarterback job in 2012 would be an open competition. I haven’t been a fan of everything Munchak has done as a rookie head coach, but believe that is absolutely the right way to characterize how the competition should be.

Going further, I believe that the job should essentially be Locker’s to win, but it must not simply be handed to him. If he works hard on his game, improves his throwing motion and consistency, and works on learning the playbook, then Jake Locker should be the Titans’ starting quarterback in 2012 if his on-field performance is anywhere close to Matt Hasselbeck’s. I believe that there are some elements of preparation to be an NFL quarterback that must be done off the field, and some that can only be done, or at least be demonstrated and learned, on the field. If Locker does the former, then for both his sake and that of the Titans, he should be given the opportunity to do the latter.

Unlike the seemingly at times dysfunctional Kerry Collins-Vince Young relationship, I’m not at all worried about how Matt Hasselbeck will react to Locker potentially starting under a scenario anything like the one outlined. When the Titans brought him in as a free agent, I’m sure he understood when he signed a three-year deal that Locker would be the starter sooner or later, and unless the Titans simply gift Locker the starting job regardless of his level of work or play, he’ll be a professional.

I suppose the sake of completeness also requires me to mention the existence of Rusty Smith. I was quite surprised the Titans kept the second year player on the roster, as he was drafted as the pet project of the late Mike Heimerdinger, who’d been replaced as offensive coordinator by Chris Palmer, and his performance when he saw action in 2010 was, shall I say, not the kind of legendary effort that I’d think would inspire another coach to take him on as a pet project. With Hasselbeck and Locker still the present and the future in some combination, I again believe he’ll be facing an uphill battle to make the final roster.

Between Hasselbeck, Locker, and Smith, I’d be very surprised if the Titans acquire another quarterback in free agency or the draft. The only quarterback addition I’d expect to the roster is a rookie camp arm to throw to the other rookie offensive players in rookie camps, and we can only hope whomever that will be will be as memorable as Alex Mortensen.

Really, though, the quarterback position for the Titans in 2012 is all about Jake Locker. If he’s not the starter come Week 1 2012 for any reason other than injury, I’ll have to consider it a disappointment, but believe that will be all up to him.