The Tennessee Titans already have committed to one year with Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback with Jake Locker, last year’s first-round pick, serving as apprentice under the veteran.
But will it end up being two years?
After last season, Titans head coach Mike Munchak had promised an open competition for the starting job entering 2012. An interesting wrinkle in the story developed last week during offseason team activities when Munchak told The Tennessean that the Titans’ early season schedule would play a role in selecting the starter — a factor that would seem to fall into Hasselbeck’s favor.
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The first quarter of the Titans’ schedule is their most difficult: Defending AFC champion New England visits LP Field for the season opener; the Titans visit San Diego the next week, come home to play another ’11 playoff qualifier in Detroit and visit reigning AFC South champion Houston, which will be the favorite to repeat in the coming season. With that foursome in mind, 2-2 would be an excellent start, and 1-3 might be considered somewhat respectable.
With owner Bud Adams on the record since before he hired Munchak in February of last year and through Adams’ actions in pursuing Peyton Manning this past March, it’s clear that coming off last season’s 9-7 mark the organization’s win-now mandate continues — which is not the ideal atmosphere in which to develop a young starting quarterback.
“You always look at what’s coming up,” Munchak told the Tennessean. “You do that when you’re adding players to your roster. And when you’re drafting, you’re thinking about who can help early. . . . Those are really not the main things, but you have to factor everything in.
” . . . I could sit here and put down a list of pros and cons on who should start in our first game, and there are a lot of reasons for both of them. So that would not be (the sole reason) why we would do what we do. We’ve got to go with the guy that’s going to help us to win.”
Last season Hasselbeck threw for 3,571 yards — his most since 2007 and the third-most in his 13 seasons. However, injuries plagued the 36-year-old throughout the season, especially toward the end, hurting his productivity and durability. In a game that was as responsible as any for keeping the Titans out of the playoffs, he threw for 223 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions in a 27-13 loss at Indianapolis, which was winless at the time in Week 15.
Some of the key moves the Titans made in the offseason are the kind that would benefit either quarterback. Guard Steve Hutchinson ought to improve their pass protection, which will take some of the hits off the quarterback and should improve their inexplicably bad running game last season. (In addition, having Chris Johnson for a full offseason of workouts under his belt should help.) Both would benefit the quarterback, as will first-round pick Kendall Wright, the wide receiver out of Baylor.
The question becomes if, all things being equal, Hasselbeck earns the starting job based on the early schedule, what effect does that have on Locker?
In many ways, the Titans would be bucking the trend of almost immediately starting quarterbacks who were drafted high. Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Matt Ryan, Mark Sanchez, Joe Flacco, Sam Bradford and presumably Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III rank among those who have been thrown right into the starting job since 2008 and have found a measure of success. One of the only exceptions to that group is Jacksonville’s Blaine Gabbert, about whom serious questions remain as to whether he can be an effective NFL starter.
Would similar questions then dog Locker? When given his few chances last season, he mostly acquitted himself well, posting a 99.4 rating with four touchdowns and no interceptions in five games. But it’s too small of a sample size. The 23-year-old has said all of the right things to this point, but would he start to question the organization’s commitment to him, especially coming off the chase of Manning?
Those are not simple questions to sort out, nor if ill feelings arise would they be easy to smooth over for Titans’ front-office types. Blending the organization’s short-term and long-term interests could present a tricky balance in this situation.