Matt Hasselbeck is not afraid of a little criticism. Or a little hard work.
Often, in fact, the two go hand in hand.
“We all have moments along the way that motivate you,” he said. “I remember in high school, they said, ‘Oh, he can’t throw on the run’ or some silly thing. That motivated me. Like the whole summer I spent trying to throw on the run.”
Suddenly he has a problem.
After one season as the Tennessee Titans’ starting quarterback, and 14 NFL seasons in all, there is a new knock against Matt Hasselbeck: He’s not Peyton Manning.
That’s not the sort of thing that can be remedied with a little extra effort. Manning is, after all, the only four-time most valuable player in league history and one of the best pure passers ever to play.
If it were possible for others to think and act and perform like him, the former University of Tennessee star would not have been one of the most coveted free agents in NFL history. The Titans, at the behest of owner K.S. “Bud” Adams, made a serious attempt to secure his services.
Tennessee’s was arguably the best and most stable quarterback situation of any of the teams that pursued Manning, who one week ago decided to sign with the Denver Broncos. Yet it was clear the team viewed Manning as an upgrade from Hasselbeck, their prized free agent acquisition of a year earlier.
As was the case at the start of the offseason, franchise officials are comfortable with the combination of Hasselbeck and 2011 first-round draft pick Jake Locker, both in the short-term and well into the future. Coach Mike Munchak expects the two to battle throughout the offseason for the starting job.
Now, though, the two also must compete with the specter of Manning, whose 54,828 career passing yards rank third all-time in the NFL and whose status as one of Tennessee’s most beloved sports personalities remains unchallenged.
“I don’t need anything more than trying to just get this team to be the best it can be, for me to be the best I can be, help the other quarterbacks get better and just get more ready to play and all of that,” Hasselbeck told The City Paper during the final week of the 2011 regular season. “I’ve always felt, and the advice I’ve always given guys I’ve been teammates with is, ‘Hey, just do the best you can. Try to be the best you that you can be.’ ”
In some ways, Hasselbeck is more like Manning than virtually any other quarterback in league history. After all, he has a younger brother who has played quarterback in the NFL and a father who had a professional career of his own.
Of course, Tim Hasselbeck completed 95 passes and threw for five touchdowns in his career, which included five starts in four seasons. Eli Manning surpassed those numbers in his four playoff appearances last season when he led the New York Giants, one of Tim Hasselbeck’s teams, to a championship for the second time.
Don Hasselbeck was a tight end from 1977 through 1985 who spent time with four different clubs. Archie Manning played quarterback for three teams from 1971 through 1984. The franchise they had in common was Minnesota.
Matt Hasselbeck and Peyton Manning each entered the league at the same time. Manning was the No. 1 overall pick in 1998 who played — and started — every game in each of his first 13 seasons before he sat out all of 2011 due to health issues. Hasselbeck was the 187th overall selection who spent his first year on the practice squad and finally became a starter when he went to Seattle in 2001.
While Manning was lauded for his ability to stay on the field — prior to last fall, at least — questions about Hasselbeck’s durability followed him from Seattle to Tennessee. In 10 seasons with the Seahawks he started all 16 games just twice, and in 2010 he missed one each with a concussion and a hip injury.
Just as when he was a prep school star, he heard the criticism. In this case, he figured there was little he could do about it.
“When I got the concussion against the Raiders, like Richard Seymour or one of those guys picked me up, slammed me to the ground and my head hits the ground,” he said. “Unless Riddell comes up with a new helmet, there’s nothing I can do about that.
“Injuries are going to happen. I have felt like when I got hurt early in my career, it was, ‘Ah, it’s football.’ When I get hurt late in my career, it’s ‘Ah, he’s getting old.’ ”
Still, he started all 16 games for Tennessee in 2011, despite injuries that knocked him out of two. He threw for 3,571 yards, the third-highest total of his career, and completed more than 61 percent of his throws for just the fourth time. Manning, on the other hand, has never thrown for fewer than 3,700 yards, and he completed more than 62 percent of his throws in 12 straight seasons.
For Hasselbeck to improve his numbers to that degree at this point in his career seems unlikely, especially when there’s no guarantee he’ll even be the starter this fall.
“My goal was to and always is to just do the best I can and let the coaches decide how they want to go,” Hasselbeck said. “I know the quarterback position can get tricky because it’s not like a position where you can just rotate guys through. I just think, critiquing myself, I could have been better [last season]. …
“The bottom line is I just want to play well.”
The truth is he probably isn’t going to play like Peyton Manning.