NASHVILLE — The Tennessee Titans players elected their captains for this season and when head coach Mike Munchak announced the vote tally on Friday, one of the two on offense ended up being quarterback Jake Locker, who will make his first NFL start on Sunday at LP Field against New England.
Munchak, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman himself, did not minimize the significance for the five players selected, calling it “a great honor.”
“You don’t just go through a process of saying, ‘OK, let’s pick them,'” he said. “I talked to the team about that, that it shouldn’t matter how much money you make or how many years you’ve been in the league or what you’ve accomplished. It’s more about what you mean to that team. If we’re having struggles and we need someone to turn to, who do you trust the most on the roster? Who do you want to be there for you?”
Considering the importance of quarterback in the NFL, the Titans evidently decided that Locker, the eighth overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, is the answer to the above questions regardless of his professional resume. Whether the players collectively voted Locker to boost his confidence or whether they did so truly believing in his as-yet-to-be-demonstrated leadership skills is immaterial. Irrespective of both, the reality is that Locker has to deliver.
Quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains said the fact that the Titans named Locker the starter after the team’s second preseason game, as he beat out last year’s starter and long-time proven veteran Matt Hasselbeck, has eased any issues he might have had about the enormity of being the starter.
“I think that if we would’ve named him the starter this week, it would’ve been different,” Loggains said, “but now he’s had time for it to sink in. He’s the guy. His teammates know he’s the guy and I think he can relax and play….
“All the off-the-field, the stuff outside the white lines doesn’t matter now. It’s about playing football.”
In terms of playing football in the preseason, Locker turned in mixed results. In the second game against Tampa Bay, he went 4-for-11 for 21 yards with an interception for a 7.0 rating, but in the third game against Arizona he played his best, completing 11-of-20 passes for 134 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 109.2 rating. In the preseason, he also ran the ball six times for 57 yards, an impressive 9.5 yards-per-carry average, though he lost one fumble.
On Wednesday in his weekly meeting with the media, Locker talked about the need against New England to be disciplined with his reads, not only before the snap but also after it to see where opposing defenders end up. With three months to prepare, Loggains said Locker is ready and that there’s no need to overload him with additional film study.
That’s schematics. Then there’s also handling the emotional part of the game.
“You want to get excited, you want to get up for the game, definitely, but keep yourself controlled so your emotions don’t take over because you don’t want to go out and try to do too much early,” Locker said in video posted on the team Web site.
In Locker’s case, he has a style that can be particularly exuberant when he enters the game — a trait he will have to do his best to tamp down.
“He gets amped up early in games,” Loggains said. “I just think that’s his personality. He knows one speed and that’s all-out. Once he settles into the game a bit, he’s better. I like when he runs early because I think it makes him relax — not that he’s ever nervous — he just gets into the game faster, gets into the flow of the game. I think that’s going to be important in this one.”
Munchak said he would keep whatever his final advice would be to Locker, whether in Saturday’s walkthrough or before Sunday’s kickoff, simple.
“Just be yourself, man, go out and play,” Munchak said of his advice. “This is what he’s been waiting for. Whenever you think about playing pro football, the opportunity is here and now, so just go out and enjoy it. It’s easier said than done, obviously, because especially a quarterback has a lot on his mind, but I think he’ll be fine.
“His demeanor’s always been that way since we’ve been around him. He handles those things real well. So keep it simple. Don’t overload him. As the week’s gone on, we’ve probably said less and less to him as far as his first experience. He’s heard enough of that. He’s ready to go play that first game and get it behind him.”
If Locker’s teammates on offense are going to be more mindful that they’re playing in front of someone making his first start, they aren’t saying.
“No,” said seven-time Pro-Bowler Steve Hutchinson. “We have a job to do and he’s got a job to do. He’s got to play what the offense calls, as do the other 10 of us.”
Right guard Leroy Harris echoed that sentiment. Then he recalled his own first start. His second came in a playoff game.
“You’ve got to calm yourself down,” Harris said. “Because usually when you’re like that you can exert a lot of energy and all of the sudden you can become really tired really fast. The key is being focused, being calm. Me, I just try to think about what I have to do, the guy I’m going against.”
Locker seems as if he’s taking such ideas to heart. As daunting as facing the Patriots might be in his first career start and as much as he was asked about the idea of going against Tom Brady — whom Locker said he looked up to as a kid — he seemed to focus on the right things.
“The great part about the game of football might be, although you are playing at highest level, that the rules are still the same…” he said. “It’s a game. It’s meant to be fun. You put in all the hard work. Going through how you want to do ‘this,’ how you want to do ‘this’ during the week and then when you get the opportunity to go out and play on Sunday you just have to have fun and enjoy it.”