Thrill of Victory

Did the Titans make the right choice with Jake Locker?

When the Titans spent the No. 8 overall pick in the NFL Draft on Jake Locker in 2011, the clock started winding down on Matt Hasselbeck’s time as the starter. Over the weekend, the Titans made it official: Locker will be the Titans’ quarterback to start the 2012 season. Here’s a look at the upside and downside to that decision.

Comparable players, running ability suggest he’s ready…
When the Titans picked Locker, it was a risk: the University of Washington product had completed just 54 percent of his college throws. But there are some fairly startling similarities between Locker and another guy with Nashville ties – former Vanderbilt quarterback Jay Cutler – and Cutler’s career has turned out just fine. Here’s how the two are a lot alike:

  • Both redshirted their true freshmen season and then became four-year college starters, giving them a little extra experience that a lot of NFL draftees don’t have.
  • Cutler’s career completion percentage at Vandy wasn’t a lot higher (57.2).
  • Neither had much of a supporting cast. Cutler’s Vandy teams went 11-35, while Locker’s went 16-34, including an 0-12 2008 season.
  • Cutler’s career touchdown-to-interception ratio at Vandy was 59/36 (1.64) while Locker’s was 53/35 (1.51)
  • Cutler averaged 7.0 yards per attempt to Locker’s 6.7.
  • Both ran a lot, and ran well: Cutler averaged 2.8 yards on 453 attempts, while Locker ran 454 times for 4.3 yards. (Remember: in college, sacks count against your rushing yards)
  • Both were leaders: Cutler was elected captain in his last three seasons, and Locker, his last two.
  • Both played a bit (and played reasonably well) in their rookie NFL seasons, though Cutler seized the starting job at the end of that year and threw 137 passes to Locker’s 66 as a backup. Again, Cutler was more accurate (59.1 percent vs. 51.5) but Locker was better in terms of touchdowns-to-interceptions (4/0 vs. 9/5) and yards per attempt (8.2 vs. 7.3).

If you look at it, both were almost the same quarterback at this stage; Cutler was a little better as a passer, and Locker has a decent edge as a runner. Their college numbers were held down because they didn’t play with a lot of great teammates, and if you were a coach at just about any school, you’d have traded your quarterback for either of them most days. Both showed enough in their NFL debut seasons to excite fans for the future, too. The similarities between the two are stark enough to think that the Titans have the right guy.

Second, I have always felt that a mobile quarterback gives you a little more value than what the stats show. Steve McNair was never one of the league’s passing leaders, but he won a lot of games. I’m still not sure what to make of Vince Young’s career in Nashville, but the fact is his win-loss record as a starter was excellent. Why was that?

I think it’s the value of their feet. When quarterbacks run, it’s often in passing situations, and a good runner makes two things happen, and sometimes both at the same time: he can avoid sacks, and he can scramble for first downs when nothing’s there through the air. That’s why you see third-down conversions listed in box scores: you have to keep drives alive to score points. No matter what he does with his arm, Locker is going to make some plays with his legs, and maybe a lot of them.

Finally, Hasselbeck’s days may be numbered anyway. His last season was the best he’s had in a while, but he’s 36 now and in his last four years total, he’s thrown 52 touchdowns against just 58 interceptions in that span. As Titans beat writer Jim Wyatt noted, Hasselbeck threw 11 interceptions in practice compared to three for Locker. Having a guy like Hasselbeck as a backup is luxury, but in this day and age of highly-productive passing games, you’d like more from your starter.

… but completion percentage, schedule suggest timing’s not right
Some guys practice well, but don’t have it when it comes to game-day production. A lot of folks thought Locker looked “nervous” in his first preseason start last week, and if he’s nervous in a preseason game, how’s that going to work when he’s up against the Patriots with the eyes of the nation upon him in Week 1?

And really, the schedule is another reason that perhaps coach Mike Munchak could have waited until later to make the move. The Titans schedule for Weeks 2-6: at San Diego, Detroit, at Houston, Pittsburgh, at Buffalo. Might you well kill a youngster’s confidence against that kind of schedule?

Finally, as much as Locker’s feet keep drives alive, those completion percentages are concerning, and Locker needs to be up around the 60 percent mark to be a quality starter in the league. Perhaps it’s better to develop that accuracy in practice before putting him on the big stage.