Jake Locker may not be great in his first year as a starter in the NFL. Heck, he may not even be good. But the Titans still made the right call in giving him the nod over veteran incumbent Matt Hasselbeck.
Tennessee reportedly ended its QB race on Monday by deciding to go with Locker, despite a miserable performance from the second-year player in Tampa Bay over the weekend. It's a decision that might make the Titans better in 2012 ... and definitely is the smarter choice for the future.
That's not meant as a knock on Hasselbeck. It's merely a realistic look at where he is in his career. Now 36, Hasselbeck has understandably begun breaking down physically after 13 seasons in the NFL and 11 as a starter. Just in 2012 alone, he dealt with injuries to his calf, throwing arm and back.
Despite that, he helped Tennessee go 9-7 while starting all 16 games. His numbers, though, were far from inspirational: 3,571 yards passing, 18 touchdowns, 14 interceptions and an 82.4 rating. Granted, he did a lot of that while receiving minimal help from running back Chris Johnson, but Hasselbeck probably still was as good as he's going to be at this point last season. It was, in fact, the first time Hasselbeck had put together a positive TD-to-INT mark since 2007 -- over his final three years in Seattle, he tossed 34 touchdowns and 44 picks.
The Titans know exactly what they have in Hasselbeck. And it's hard to feel like they are a Super Bowl contender with him in there.
Locker likely won't put them over the top in 2012, either; his last preseason outing was alarming -- 4 of 11 through the air for 21 yards and a horribly thrown interception. Given the chance to emphatically put his claim on the starting gig, Locker flopped.
"In this league you are going to have some days and games that will not start the way they want them to," Titans coach Mike Munchak said Sunday of Locker's performance in the 30-7 Tennessee win. "You hope you have less of those than a lot of those, but you have to learn how to deal with that, too."
You don't want to wait too long, however, to work out those kinks after spending a top-10 pick on a quarterback. The Titans took Locker at No. 8 overall in 2011 with the belief that he could be their starter in the near future. Letting him sit and learn behind Hasselbeck for a year was a wise move. At some point, though, a team needs to trust its investment.
Naming Locker the starting quarterback now does a couple of things for him:
1. It takes the pressure of a competition off. Munchak would not come right out and say it, but he hinted that he believed Locker's performance against the Buccaneers suffered because of how important it was to the QB race (it's not a great sign that Locker wilted under the pressure, but maybe taking it away will work wonders).
2. It gives Locker the opportunity to prep for the Titans' third preseason game as the unquestioned starter. That's important because Week 3 of the exhibition slate is generally when teams mimic their regular season preparations as much as possible. Locker will help lead the game-planning for Arizona, and he will see two or three quarters worth of action with Tennessee's top offensive unit.
In his brief cameos during the 2011 season, Locker hit on 34 of 66 passes with four touchdowns and no interceptions. He also ran for 56 yards and a score. But those stats are pretty inconsequential in this decision.
Instead, the keys: Hasselbeck has two years left on his contract in Tennessee, and he will be 38 when that deal expires. There is very little chance that the Titans bring him back after that -- or that Hasselbeck even keeps playing beyond 2013. Sticking with him at QB for 2012, when the Titans have a chance to really pump the gas on their future, would have made very little sense.
The biggest risk in turning to Locker now is that the Titans are committing to that decision for the long haul. Pulling Locker after one bad outing or reopening the competition each week would do more harm than good, especially given how Locker performed last weekend under similar circumstances. Had Hasselbeck won the job, the Titans could have yanked him for Locker without a second thought; they won't have as much leeway with the reverse scenario. For now, that's OK. Locker might struggle badly out of the gate in 2012, and he may even prove to the Titans that they need to find another QB to build their future around. But given how rapidly Hasselbeck has broken down in recent years, it's the right call for Tennessee to turn to Locker.