How long can a first-round quarterback really sit?
Jake Locker came to Tennessee from the University of Washington, the eighth pick in last spring's NFL draft. Matt Hasselbeck came to Tennessee from Seattle, Washington, a then-35-year-old three-time Pro Bowler who'd played in the Super Bowl. Hasselbeck won over the fans with his gutsy play and his teammates with his steady statesmanship. And now, an offseason later, Locker and Hasselbeck are set at the same starting line in the race to the top of the depth chart.
The basics are simple: Locker has officially thrown the ball 66 times in an NFL game. Hasselbeck has thrown three times as many balls that were completed for touchdowns. In 13 seasons, he's amassed 33,150 yards. He's started and won in every sort of environment. But Titans coach Mike Munchak says Locker is the quarterback he's regularly asked about at the deli around the corner.
"Everyone's always excited about the new guy. That's how it is, especially in the quarterback world," the second-year head coach said. "I think they've really taken to Matt, especially the way he carried this team last year. ... But everyone wants to see Jake. As soon as Jake started playing, it was, 'Let's see the young guy.' "
Locker and his feet definitely offer a brand of dynamism Hasselbeck can't. Locker extends plays, he can make something happen when a play's broken down and he's always live. Hasselbeck has the seasoned handle on when to keep his team living -- in other words, when to throw the ball away and live to see another down. Veteran receiver Nate Washington said yes, he loves Locker's fight and yes, it sometimes freaks him out, too.
"There can be times when you get a little nervous out there," Washington said with a good-natured laugh. "You think the play's over and there he is, still running around."
Then there's Hasselbeck, his years of experience and the matter-of-fact way Washington said, "Matt's the smarter guy of the two -- no offense to Jake." Locker himself said there's no way he can neutralize Hasselbeck's experience, or make up for that line on the ledger comparing the two. All he can do, he said, "is use what I know, use the abilities that I have and do the most that I can with them."
Which is exactly why the Titans drafted him. With the eighth overall pick. In a spot where teams expect contributions quickly, right?
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The Titans' last truly successful franchise quarterback (skipping over Vince Young), Steve McNair, did sit for the better part of two years. The not-yet one-year-old collective bargaining agreement did change the equation some last year; gone are the Sam Bradford-esque $50 million contracts and so too are the financial pressures to keep that money active and off the bench. And there's also the conventional wisdom of quarterback psyches, that which says a veteran can be yanked for a younger guy, but the younger guy, in his first action, can't really be yanked for the veteran.
But until a starter is named, something Munchak said will come during training camp, this is a race that will be constantly and conspicuously handicapped. Locker already showed fatigue with the round of questions, saying, "This is my fourth time answering them." Meanwhile, Hasselbeck, perhaps more tactfully, said the only tiresome part of the competition is the chatter: "That's the only thing that's a drain."
So far, neither will cop to feeling the competition is stacked against him, either because of Hasselbeck's experience or Locker's draft status. In fact, the pair couldn't be less akin to combatants. Offensive coordinator Chris Palmer said he's never been in such a congenial meeting room. And one by one, the Titans insisted their two quarterbacks are tight as can be, with Washington going so far as to dub them "two peas in a pod."
Much of that is a credit to Hasselbeck, who sets the tone, has been crucial in Locker's growth and who wryly quipped in the middle of minicamp, "I was a jerk once, I'm sure."
Turning somewhat more serious, Hasselbeck said it's age, maturity and experience that have given him the wherewithal to be competitive without the fisticuffs. He ran through a list of veteran quarterbacks he played alongside who weren't jerks to him, and a few minutes later, Locker said, "Matt's a better person than he is a player. That's not just lip service."
In the end, it's just a matter of time. Hasselbeck said so himself: "You can't play forever." Star running back Chris Johnson, his gold teeth flashing, sagely summed it up: "Pretty much, Matt's going to have to pass the torch over. I'm just not sure if it's this year or next year."