So it has come to this. Late last season, I wrote a post on a Titans offense that was fundamentally nonfunctional. Three hundred seventy-six days later, the offense is once again fundamentally nonfunctional, for similar but not exactly the same reasons. For this post, though, I'll concentrate on one of the differences. In that post a year ago, I declared Matt Hasselbeck was neither the problem nor the solution. I'm having a very hard time saying the same thing right now of Jake Locker.
Three weeks ago, the great Greg Cosell of NFL Films discussed Locker on his weekly podcast with Adam Caplan. I've mentioned Cosell's thoughts on here before, and I think it's worth excerpting his comments in detail. First excerpt:
[Locker] is going to be a major, major conversation in their offices because I can see, there's enough of him positive to say well, this guy's got a chance, but he's still a major work in progress. You know, he shows just enough with a couple quality throws here and there to make you think he has a chance,
During the Monday night affair against the Jets, I was chatting with random NFL fans about the game and Locker's play. Sadly, I had to bring up the absolute nadir of Titans quarterbacking since I started really breaking down Titans games in the 2006 season. No, not the Rusty Smith Game, which was a near-inevitable result of playing a rookie sixth-round third-stringer and not worth rewatching, but Vince Young's performance against the Jaguars in 2006. Not in the game in Jacksonville where Young completed only 7 of 21 first half passes, either, as I remember thinking at the time that at least half of those incompletions could and probably should have been caught. I am instead referring to the game in Nashville, where VY had no particularly good plays and a much-too-high percentage of bad ones. In the last couple games, and indeed probably every one he's started save the Houston game where he was knocked out early, Locker has had some very good throws amidst all the dross.
Second Cosell excerpt:
[But Locker]'s still very much in the embryonic stage when it comes to footwork, to mechanics, to reading progression. He predetermines a lot of throws.
I write very little here about individual player technique, because it's one of the things I'm not very good at analyzing, but it's clear from his inaccuracy Locker is inconsistent there. Things like weight transfer and throwing off balance are points I will notice once I've been alerted to the possibility of them, and Locker is still not where I would want him to be.
Talking about reading progression gets tricky; most plays have a particular receiver or read that is designed to win against particular coverages, and reads for young quarterbacks in particular tend to be half-field. It takes time and experience to develop the seeming full-field awareness of a player like Peyton Manning. Further, to the extent Chris Palmer's pass offense consistent of packaged halves of the field, and option routes that theoretically presented a chance for a single receiver to win against any type of coverage, looking at a single receiver and waiting for him to win isn't completely unreasonable. Whether he wins is something that'll happen regardless of the coverage against him, though. To the extent that the defense is paying attention to where the quarterback is looking, generally probably more true in zone coverage than in man, if a quarterback is looking at a receiver, it makes it harder for him to win. Really top-level quarterbacks, the elite players you hope an eighth overall pick will develop into, will very, very regularly look at more than one receiver before making the throw, even if their actual target is the man they're throwing the ball too. Locker only does that very, very rarely.
One thing Cosell did not mention in this podcast in regard to Locker but is a very very important trait for good NFL quarterbacks is to learn the art of anticipation and throwing players open. This is a difficult skill, but one that's possible for rookies to have. Andrew Luck does it. Cosell has noted Ryan Tannehill displays it at times. Locker virtually never does. Instead, he's what Cosell characterizes as a "see it, throw it" passer, a player who waits for receivers to win, then throws the ball.
The most generous explanation for lack of anticipation is that Locker is reluctant to make mistakes. If you anticipate what a receiver is going to do, sometimes he'll continue running straight when you throw the out, and that may result in an interception. Palmer's complicated system of option routes seemed to exacerbate this problem in Locker's eyes and that no Palmer might mean fewer option routes as an idea was not lost on Locker in his discussion with the media. As Loggains noted in his weekly media session the next day, though (multiple times), every offense has option routes, and as a young quarterback, Locker needs to execute plays that Loggains calls and do his job. Perhaps I'm just overreading things, but that seems like a little bit of an implied rebuke.
Third Cosell excerpt:
But, and this might seem like an odd thing to say, because I think everybody views him as athletic, but there's a difference between athleticism and refined quarterback play. He's not athletic in terms of the mechanics of refined quarterback play; he's athletic when he's running around, and there's a difference. I hope people listening understand that, but there's a clear difference. And he needs to get a little quicker with his footwork, a little more balanced with his footwork, these are refined quarterback mechanics. We're not talking about running in a straight line, that's not that relevant for playing quarterback.
By a bit of a fluke of fate, I ended up attending both Titans-Colts games this year. Watch Jake Locker. Watch Andrew Luck. Both players can scramble and get positive plays that way. Only one of those players is good at buying time within the pocket and extending plays to make throws downfield, and it's not the guy who went to high school in Washington. I don't have a lot to add here of my own.
I don't mean to make it sound like Jake Locker is the source of all or even most of the Titans' offensive woes. The offensive line injuries make it hard for the offense as a whole to perform. Chris Johnson, even though he's not doing the same terrible things he did last year, is still a running back whose productivity is largely a function of the blocking he gets. It seems clear at this point that the front office badly misevaluated the weapons in the passing game. Bob McGinn in the piece I linked to in Enemy Intelligence last week described Loggains' playcalling as "haphazard", while I prefer to think of it as "throwing stuff against the wall and seeing if anything works." I go back to what I said at the start of this piece, though, that last year Matt Hasselbeck was neither the problem nor the solution. Right now, Jake Locker is part of the problem, and since he plays the most important position on the field, that means the Titans have a big problem.
The $64,000 question is, of course, what the hell do the Titans do now? As Cosell noted in a subsequent podcast, Locker was rightly seen as a major project coming out of Washington, and though his second season in the NFL is nearly at a close, he's only started ten games and has 365 official regular season attempts. That's not that many. The four year contract he signed as a rookie is fully guaranteed and fairly modest, so there's no financial edge to parting with him. If the Titans wanted to win games next year, they'd start Hasselbeck and (try to) play Fisherball. Then again, they could have done that this year, and it would have been just as pointless (though I feel obliged to point out Locker started the year and the last five weeks ended up a meaningless trainwreck).
Even with his lack of development, the thing to do is to start Locker in 2013. I thought when the Titans signed Hasselbeck it was going to be a two year affair, with Matt starting the first season and sitting the second, then getting cut. Right now, though, Locker needs a stable situation for further growth, and the Titans need a veteran backup. The depth chart at quarterback in 2013 should look the same as it does right now: Jake Locker, starter, and Matt Hasselbeck, backup, and hope this offseason Locker makes the big strides he needs to to become a better NFL quarterback. Otherwise, I'll be writing a version of this post again late next season, and my recommendation will be the Titans find another starting quarterback.