NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It's a simple story, really. Nothing but a common courtesy extended by a normal man who happens to play the most prized position in the NFL. Nothing most anyone with manners wouldn't otherwise do.
Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker ran into heavy traffic on his way to an autograph session with fans at a suburban grocery store. So he called the store -- "Hey, this is Jake Locker" -- to tell them exactly how he planned to detour around the build-up by using a bypass instead.
"I'll be about 10 minutes late," Locker said. "I'm very sorry."
That brief story itself isn't what really matters here. The significance lies in understanding why anyone around the Titans' training facility would even share it in the first place.
As outside pressure mounts on the third-year quarterback (and former No. 8 overall draft pick), the support on the inside could not be more obvious.
"Everyone -- everyone -- wants to see him succeed," third-string quarterback Rusty Smith said Wednesday. "Jake legitimately cares about whatever person he's talking to, and we all see it. He genuinely cares about their well-being. Not just players. Anybody.
"If he's talking to you, he cares about you. And as a result, everyone cares about him."
Yes, Locker is the everyman. He is considerate and sincere. He is the father of a 1-year-old girl. He is the owner of a sweet and subtle country drawl. But one question looms, a question nobody can avoid, regardless of the good manners that will win him nothing more than the benefit of the doubt: Is he also the long-term answer at quarterback for an organization still seeking the late Steve McNair's replacement?
There are reasons why people want to see Locker succeed, but those shouldn't be mistaken for the reasons people believe he actually will. It's one thing to be a nice guy. It's another to be a franchise quarterback.
"This offseason, I've seen it more than (at) any other point in the last three years," offensive tackle Michael Roos said. "It's his team now. He might be a very easy-going guy, a very happy guy, but when it comes to football, he definitely has that fire. We're all seeing it."
Jake Locker through the yearsTake a look at the best photos of the Tennessee Titans starting quarterback.
While the rest of the league hasn't quite seen it yet -- at least not in the form of success we've seen from other young QBs like Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson -- the timeline of his career hasn't merited such a rapid rise.
In his first year, Locker mostly served as a backup to Matt Hasselbeck, who became a mentor and close friend. Last year, shortly after Locker took over the starting job, a shoulder injury sidelined him for five games and hindered him for the rest of the season.
"Jake hasn't played a full season yet," offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. "He hasn't even been the guy through training camp and OTAs. This is the first time, as a starter, that he's gotten starter reps."
But the departure of Matt Hasselbeck -- and a surgically repaired shoulder that is now fully healed -- leaves no more room for excuses. And while Locker says he doesn't feel the pressure from the outside, the quarterback acknowledges an internal source of strain.
"Nobody outside of me puts more pressure to have success than I do on myself," Locker said. "I want to have success as bad as anybody and for this football team, for the guys that you play with in that locker room. And I'm going to do everything I can to help this football team win games."
Fire on the field
This offseason, the Titans had a new rule during practices: If you messed up, you took a lap around the practice field, and you had to finish the lap before the rest of the team ran two more plays. They called it "Penalty Path," and it was implemented any time a player fumbled a ball, false started, whatever. For Locker, his lap came on a fumbled exchange.
"So the first time it happens in practice, Jake is pissed," Loggains said. "I mean, he's heated. He runs the lap, finishes the drill and then barely speaks to me. He's steaming."
Loggains assumed it was simply a result of Locker's annoyance with the punishment. However, after practice was long over, Loggains looked back onto the field to see Locker running gassers. Nobody told him to do it. Nobody expected him to do it.
"I think he was just mad the fumbled snap happened," Loggains said. "He missed two reps of practice, and he felt like he let the team down. I really believe that's how he's motivated. He's so sincere -- but he's so competitive."
So competitive, in fact, that Loggains said he has to be careful about the way he coaches Locker. You can't come down too hard on him because "he's so hard on himself already." Loggains said he often receives text messages from Locker hours after practices end, asking questions about the mistakes he made.
"Jake's success will be the result of the way he works and the amount he cares," Loggains said. "He's an internally motivated guy, but the thing that kills him is, he feels like when he makes a mistake that he let everyone down. And it's sincere. That's what drives him."
Taste of success
While Locker's moments of kindness engender admiration from peers, it is the moments of competitive fire that make people truly believe in him. And when these two qualities come together, his full potential is revealed.
That's what happened two years ago, when the rookie entered a game for his first significant NFL action. It was Week 11, the Titans were trailing the Atlanta Falcons 23-3 and Hasselbeck had just been knocked out of the game with an elbow injury.
"He literally looked me in my face, right in my eyes, and told me, 'Don't give up on me yet,' " wide receiver Nate Washington said.
Three plays later, Locker rolled right and hit Washington for a 40-yard touchdown. Two series later, another touchdown pass to Washington.
"Right then and there, I knew he'd always give everything he had," Washington said. "You don't get guys that step into that situation like that. You get guys who get to the line and their minds are swirling, their eyes are cross-eyed and their hearts are pounding. But he stepped up with total confidence, knowing that no matter what happened, he was going to give it his all."
Since that moment, Washington doesn't just see the nice, quiet guy that the outside world has come to know. He sees a player who possesses the type of skill set, athleticism and competitiveness that's rare at the quarterback position.
"You need to check him out on Sundays, man," Washington said. "He's definitely a different Jake. He plays with the attitude of a middle linebacker. You don't get many guys at that position who play with that kind of fire."
While Hasselbeck's departure this offseason has been met with some disappointment in the locker room -- Locker will miss the veteran's strong companionship -- it also feels like a proper time for the transition.
After all, this is Locker's team now. And it's time, as everyone knows, for him to take ownership of it.
"When you don't have a guy like Matt in the room anymore, it changes the dynamic for Jake," Roos said. "For example, (former Pro Bowl guard) Steve Hutchinson was in our offensive line room last year. He's a proven guy, a natural leader. I'm not going to step on his toes. But now that he's retired, it's up to me to be that guy in the room.
"And I think it's the same thing with Jake. Once Matt left, it became Jake's team. And he knows it."
Now Locker will take what he learned from Hasselbeck and forge forward.
"Matt was great at relating to a lot of people, finding ways to relate to guys and help them understand how he saw things," Locker said. "I was able to take that from him and try to institute it myself.
"I'm just hoping that it can lead to a long and successful career (like) he's had."
It seems very clear within the Titans organization that Locker will have every opportunity to realize this hope. The team -- and the community -- wants to see him succeed. And many believe, with the proper opportunities, he will.
But as Locker knows, this game isn't just about being the most popular player in the locker room. It's also about much more. It's about being a leader. It's about being a solid player. And it's about being accountable as a quarterback -- and as a person.
"There's a lot of ups and downs," Locker said of his first two seasons. "But I think that, so many times, we dwell on our mistakes when you can learn so much from them. And if you're able to admit them, accept them and grow from them, I think that's what the greatest players in this league have done."
Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington.