Over the past 15 years it has not been that difficult for National Football League teams to identify one top quarterback prospect. The challenge has been to find the second.
Never was that more evident than in 1998, when Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf were drafted first and second overall, respectively. The former has become one of the greatest players in league history and the game’s only four-time MVP, while the latter has become an enduring symbol of just how unpredictable the selection process can be, particularly when it involves the most important position.
The difference in that case was extreme, but based on what has happened in ensuing years, not uncommon.
So it is that the Tennessee Titans are prepared to stare down the specter of some others’ failures now that they have settled on Jake Locker, the second quarterback drafted in 2011, to be their starter for the 2012 season and beyond.
“The bottom line is we think this is the best thing for the team going forward for the full season. …” coach Mike Munchak said. “What is the best thing to do going forward? Who is the best guy right now to help us through the season and do what we need to do? … We feel the best thing for this team to do now is start Jake Locker.”
Now comes the really important question. Is Locker the next Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees? Or is he Joey Harrington, Brady Quinn or Giovanni Carmazzi? All of them were the second signal caller taken in their respective years.
Much more often than not, the first quarterback drafted, beginning with Manning, has been a good one. It is a group that includes Mike Vick, Eli Manning, more recently Matthew Stafford and Matt Ryan and last year’s breakout star Cam Newton. The bulk of them were the first overall pick in the draft.
Vince Young, taken third overall by the Titans in 2006, did not pan out in the long run, but he was the Offensive Rookie of the Year in his first professional season and led the team to the playoffs once. The biggest bust of the group was Oakland’s Jamarcus Russell.
On the other hand, the second choice, which has ranged from second overall to 65th, where Carmazzi infamously went 134 sports earlier than Tom Brady, has been a mixed bag. It includes pedestrian performers such as Brady Quinn and Byron Leftwich; some, such as Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow, for whom the jury remains out; and Super Bowl winners such as Brees and Rodgers.
Although Locker played only sparingly as a rookie, the Titans’ experience with him has done nothing to diminish the franchise’s opinion that he was well worth the eighth overall selection, a spot many experts deemed too soon.
“You’re able to see his football knowledge,” last year’s starter Matt Hasselbeck said. “His football IQ is really high. He has a good sense of things. He takes criticism well — all the things you’re looking for as intangibles, and the thing he really doesn’t have is experience right now.”
Two-thirds of the first choices from Peyton Manning in 1998 through Stafford in 2009 led their original teams to the playoffs at least once. Two of those who did not, Tim Couch and David Carr, had little chance because they broke in with expansion teams.
Only half of the second quarterbacks over the same span have done the same and just four of them won a playoff game for that team.
“I’ll tell you one thing: [Locker] is one of the most competitive dudes I’ve ever met,” wide receiver Marc Mariani said. “I know he takes a lot of pride in what he does, and I know that he has lofty goals. …
“I know he’s going to work hard. I know he’s going to do great."
As he enters his 14th NFL season, the role of backup quarterback is a bit different for Matt Hasselbeck. Of his 186 career appearances, 147 have been starts, including all 16 last season, his first with the Tennessee Titans.
The use of a veteran behind a young starter at that position, however, is nothing new for the Titans, who made Steve McNair a starter in his third season (the team was the Tennessee Oilers at the time) and who turned to Vince Young for the first time after just three games of his rookie season.
“I think he’ll be very good,” offensive coordinator Chris Palmer said of Hasselbeck. “Matt will be a sounding board for Jake [Locker].”
The last time Hasselbeck came off the bench was Oct. 27, 2002, when he went 12 for 19 for 131 yards and led the Seattle Seahawks to a 17-14 victory over the Dallas Cowboys. He drove Seattle to a game-winning field goal with 28 seconds to play in that one.
“Whatever they ask me to do, I’ll do. …” he said. “I feel like I can help with Jake, just as a veteran presence in the room.”
A look at the other veterans who have played similar roles for Tennessee:
• Neil O’Donnell (1999-2003): He was a critical part of the Titans’ 1999 Super Bowl run when he won four of five starts early in the season after Steve McNair had back surgery. He capped his career when injuries to McNair and Billy Volek forced the Titans to sign him with one game to go in the regular season. He started that game, and Tennessee topped Tampa Bay 33-13.
• Kerry Collins (2006-10): He and Vince Young traded the starting job over five seasons. His best relief performance came in 2008, when he replaced an injured Young late in the opener, held the job
the rest of the year and led the Titans to a league-best 13-3 record.
• Dave Krieg (1997-98): He was 38 in 1997 when he signed with the Oilers, who wanted an experienced backup so they could give McNair as much practice time as possible. In two years, he attempted just 23 passes and never started a game.