Titans quarterback Jake Locker itched to play for weeks and now, one week after returning to the starting lineup, he has been forced to sit again.
It’s not injury that’s keeping him out this time, it’s the Titans’ bye week, the latest in the NFL this season.
That has been the story of Locker’s first season as the team’s starter – expect the unexpected.
“Jake was ready to suit up and play again this week,” Titans quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains told FOXSportsTennessee.com this week. “The bye didn’t come at a great time for him.”
So instead of taking all of the reps with the first team, something he did last week for the first time since the last week of September, Locker is doing something that he did for much of his five-week absence that resulted from injuring his non-throwing shoulder: reviewing tape.
Before the collective bargaining agreement-mandated five days off for the players began, the Titans video staff gave Locker, in essence, some homework that he can perform on an iPad. Loggains said Locker has a number of things to work on, including a self-scouting assignment.
If he can use the bye week to his advantage the way he seemed to use his time off for injury and be as efficient in Week 12 against Jacksonville as he was in his return, Locker could give the Titans something to be positive about in the season’s final six games.
Despite that long absence, Locker posted his second-highest passer rating of the season (93.8) in Sunday’s 37-3 win at Miami – which came off the Titans’ 51-20 humiliation at home at the hands of the Chicago Bears.
“It wasn’t perfect, but we talked about it before the game,” Locker said on Sunday in a video posted on the team’s website. “Our goal coming out wasn’t to play perfect football; it was to play winning football.”
Locker’s completion percentage lagged below 50 percent on the day (he completed 9 of 21 passes), but Loggains graded him out fairly well. That’s because Locker threw the ball away four times and was victimized by two drops by his receivers. (In particular, Kenny Britt was targeted six times but caught only two passes.)
So Loggains graded Locker out at 11-for-17, which works out to a completion rate of 64.7 percent. The Titans’ 2011 first-round pick ran four times for 36 yards, including a 20-yarder, and threw two touchdown passes.
Significantly, he did not throw an interception and turnovers are something that have hurt him this season, as they might almost any first-year starter. Loggains said a key reason why Locker did not commit a turnover was the throwaways. Prior to Sunday’s game, the quarterback averaged a turnover per game, as he had thrown two interceptions and lost two fumbles.
Another positive that Loggains cited was Locker’s play on five important downs that helped the Titans to get a positive result.
“He extended the play and either made a throw or a run in a critical situation on a couple third-and-ones, I think fourth-and-two,” Loggains said. “I think three out of the five plays led to scores, which helped us win the game and those are the plays that Jake Locker — that’s why Jake Locker’s a Titan. Those are the plays we saw him make in college, the ability to extend plays and make plays with his arm or run for a first down or run for touchdowns.”
Locker benefited from his defense’s top performance of the season – the unit entered the game with the NFL’s worst scoring defense – and a strong running game, a phase that also proved erratic this season.
As much as the Titans were glad to have the luxury of quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, last year’s starter, as a replacement for Locker, Loggains said it was “tough on the whole team” not to have their starting quarterback for a long stretch. Hasselbeck won two straight games, but the Titans struggled in his last two starts, both losses. Overall, Hasselbeck went 2-3.
During that time off, Locker mostly worked on fundamentals and his footwork in pre-practice, as doctors prevented him from throwing until he was cleared by an MRI.
In meetings, he asked Loggains for special projects, such as trying to find tendencies in opposing defenses in terms of tipping off a coverage or “tells” in opposing players that might indicate how a defender might play the run. That information then was relayed to Hasselbeck.
Loggains said the symbiotic relationship between the two quarterbacks established from the start last season has continued, no matter their roles. In the first four games before Locker got hurt, Hasselbeck was protective of Locker with the coaching staff, Loggains, said, in terms of not over-complicating plays for him. Once Hasselbeck stepped back into the lineup, the roles reversed.
“It’s funny to watch those dynamics in play,” Loggains said.
The Titans are a team that has been impossible to predict this season. When they seemed to have turned a corner, they lost at home in overtime to Indianapolis, a late call going against them that they could not overcome. At 4-6, they’re not out of the AFC wild-card picture – especially having a game left against the division rival Colts (6-3), who currently own one of those two spots. Nonetheless, it seems like a tall task for Locker to get the Titans into the postseason.
Loggains said he wants to see the quarterback be more efficient in his play.
“Continue to make plays, take deeper shots, be smart with the football, continue to lead the team,” he said. “Obviously, (head coach Mike) Munchak did a great job after the loss (to Chicago) of keeping the team together. But the other thing, having Jake back in the huddle was such a huge, huge jump-start for us.
“Not that this team doesn’t believe in Matt Hasselbeck, just when you have your starter in there, a guy who brings great passion, great energy to the game it’s exciting. It became contagious.”
The final six games will determine just how contagious.