Tennessee Titans  

 

Jake Locker surpassing Matt Hasselbeck in Titans QB battle

Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak knows exactly what he wants to see out of Jake Locker this Friday night in Tampa Bay.

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Two solid drives.

Chains that are moving.

Points. No, make that more specific: 10 points.

Not much pressure, huh?

"You don't want to put too much on his plate," receiver Nate Washington said with a laugh Wednesday, two days after Munchak said Locker would make his first-ever NFL start, one day after Locker's competition, Matt Hasselbeck, freely discussed his own football mortality, and a few minutes after the Titans coach said his team is running out of time to decide who'll be under center.

This has been the NFL's most congenial quarterback competition. No leaks have sprung proclaiming the locker room prefers one player. There are no "Team Jake" or "Team Matt" T-shirts. There's no bitterness between the two competitors, no snide commentary, and when Munchak says Hasselbeck has been "a big brother" to Locker, it's wholly believable. Wasn't that the two quarterbacks laughing together on the practice field?

That, of course, doesn't change the meaning of Friday. There might not be a bad guy, but there will be a No. 1 guy. And Locker could lock up that spot at Raymond James Stadium.

"We need to move on. To me, you want to get your quarterback named and you want to get going," Munchak said. "It's important for the football team. It's important to move forward. It's important for the coordinators, for the offense."

Entering the preseason, conventional wisdom said Hasselbeck would begin the 2012 campaign in the No. 1 spot. The Titans have a buzz saw of a first month (Patriots, at Chargers, Lions, at Texans), and back in June, Munchak frankly said there was nothing Locker, 24, could do to make up for the 36-year old Hasselbeck's experience. An older quarterback always can be pulled for a younger one (see: Kurt Warner and Eli Manning, circa 2004), but it would be nigh on impossible to pull a younger one for an older one. Who wants the killing of a quarterback's psyche -- and a fan base's faith -- on his conscience?

Warner said in February -- and most every observer would agree -- he was the better quarterback on the New York Giants' roster at the end of the 2004 season. Manning was struggling in ways imaginable and not (the now two-time Super Bowl MVP went 1-6 and had a game with a 0.0 passer rating that year), but the Giants needed to move forward -- just like Munchak's Titans. But there's a difference here, in 2012, in Nashville. Locker's not just the future -- he's become the present.

He has the offense down. He increases the offense's opportunities because of the ways his legs extend plays. He is secure in the huddle. He's making smart decisions. And he looked good in his action last week in Seattle, leading a field goal drive and staying cool as the drops added up.

"He's going to make mistakes, he's going to do some things that might not work out best, but those things happen. I just want to see him bounce back if it's the wrong call, if it's the wrong play," Washington said. And then added: "I feel it will be good for us."

Washington doesn't necessarily want there to be a winner, if only because then there's a loser. He said both players give the team good opportunities and can envision Tennessee winning behind either. But he also acknowledged, "We're getting to the point where you hope they just pick a guy and we roll along with it."

And so, Locker will get 20-25 snaps Friday night. So will Hasselbeck. Who starts Friday does not necessarily translate into who starts in the Titans' third preseason game, and that doesn't necessarily dictate who starts Week 1 against the New England Patriots. Munchak said he never started a preseason game before opening his rookie season as the Houston Oilers' starting left guard (and going on to make nine Pro Bowls in a stellar 12-year career). At the same time, Munchak long ago said he'd like to have a starter named by the third preseason game. He skirted out of the finality of that deadline this week, but this competition is close to closing.

And maybe the greatest sign of that is in how blasé Locker has been this week. He said he wasn't surprised the Titans staff decided it should be his turn to start a game in this quarterback do-si-do. He said he'll prepare the same for his first-ever NFL start as he does when he's not starting. And he said no, his family is not coming down to Tampa Bay on Friday night.

Perhaps because he knows this start isn't a one-time thing.

Follow Aditi Kinkhabwala on Twitter @AKinkhabwala

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