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VOL. 36 | NO. 34 | Friday, August 24, 2012

Waiting, watching no longer an option for NFL's young quarterbacks

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When Titans coach Mike Munchak tabbed Locker as his starting quarterback for the 2012 season, it opened a new chapter in the franchise’s history.

For many the question was not why Locker, but why now. For Munchak, the answer is why not.

By installing the 24-year-old quarterback under center, Munchak and the Titans are taking the first step of what they hope can be a long and successful journey for the franchise.

For Munchak, it was the moxie Locker exhibited even as a rookie that told him that Locker’s time was coming perhaps sooner than many expected.

“When Jake did get a chance to play last year, he was ready to go. He played in three games; he played very well,” Munchak says. “We were surprised at how well he did for not playing, at how well he moved the team; he brought excitement and energy.

“So when the season did end, we thought that we had something special, like we did when we drafted him. … That’s kind of how we looked at it. We went into April, May, June, July, did our OTAs, and again, he just continued to get better and better at a lot of things, at handling the team; all of the things that we’ve talked about that we were looking at and analyzing and watching him and how he improved.

“When he went into camp, it was the same thing; he just got better. He had some bad days, but he came back quickly from them. When things didn’t go his way, he handled them very well, which was good to watch.”

But in taking this step, the Titans have to know that there won’t be any convenient exit ramps, no matter how potholes there might be for the first few miles.

The cliché that the NFL stands for “Not for Long,” not only can apply to the length of a player’s career, but now it also applies to the wait time in getting a chance to play – even at the quarterback position.

With Locker taking over now, there will be five starters this year at quarterback from the Class of 2011: Cam Newton, Christian Ponder, Andy Dalton and Blaine Gabbert. All started at least some as rookies a year ago.

Also, four rookies have been named as starting quarterbacks for the upcoming season, the latest being Ryan Tannehill in Miami.

The days of a quarterback getting two or three years to sit, watch and learn – Steve McNair and, or more recently, Aaron Rodgers – appear to be gone.

The Titans have chosen Locker to start because they are willing to live with the growing pains of a young quarterback – again – in hopes that there will be a big-time payoff in the end.

Jake Locker, named Tennessee’s starting quarterback earlier this week, will be one of nine starting quarterbacks on opening day of the NFL season with one year or less of professional experience.

-- Ap Photo/Brian Blanco

It worked with McNair, who in his third season as a starter led the franchise to its only Super Bowl berth. And it worked in large part because then-coach Jeff Fisher stuck with McNair, even on days when he his throws or reads were inconsistent, or the numbers didn’t look nearly as pretty as those his backup Neil O’Donnell had put up in spot duty.

It failed with Vince Young in large part because Young lacked the work ethic, and in turn the coaching staff lacked the faith in him to ever fully hand the responsibilities of the team to him.

With Locker, you see that his accuracy still needs work. You see that his timing and reads sometimes are not yet what they need to be. It was on display in the preseason last Friday against Tampa Bay.

But what the Titans are banking on is that Locker’s makeup and work ethic are the types of qualities that make him ready for the job now and make the team willing to live with whatever mistakes he might make as he learns the nuances of being an NFL quarterback.

“I’ve always felt that leading by example and doing the right thing is always going to speak louder than the words you share with somebody,” Locker says. “So I’m going to continue to work as hard as I can and go from there.”

That speaks volumes to Munchak and the coaching staff. Locker will not have the same sense of entitlement as Young.

“I think it’s a little different with Jake. He’s a mature guy when it comes to on the field,” says receiver Nate Washington, who was a teammate of both quarterbacks.

“He’s not afraid to learn. He’s not afraid to make mistakes and he moves forward with them. He’s a guy that’s not gonna make the same mistake twice. He understands the offense, he understands that he doesn’t know everything right away and that he’s continuing to learn. When you have a guy like that, you just kind of want to make sure you’re doing everything for him.”

Locker says the change in job title won’t change his approach.

“I think I would have been doing myself and my teammates a disservice if I had treated it any differently than I would have before,” he says. “It won’t change my work ethic. It won’t change how I prepare. It won’t change the person that I am.”

“I hope that’s respected by the guys in the locker room and it’s a style in which they’re happy to be able to play with a quarterback like that.”

Even Hasselbeck, who now slides into role of being a backup and a mentor to Locker, recognizes the time for the move was probably right despite his own disappointment in not being the starter.

“I think his development as a quarterback in all areas has been impressive,” Hasselbeck says. “He’s done a really good job.

“His football knowledge, his football IQ, is really high. He’s got a good sense of things, he takes criticism well, he learns from his mistakes. I think they think he’s ready to go, and I can’t disagree.”

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for TitanInsider.com and is the AFC blogger for National Football Post.

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