What if Steve McNair and Jake Locker had Switched Shoes?


Sep 23, 2012; Nashville, TN, USA; Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker (10) signals to fans after his team defeated the Detroit Lions during overtime at LP Field. Tennessee defeated Detroit 44-41. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

Tired of hearing about the 2013-14 NFL season as a make-or-break year for Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker? After two seasons, NFL.com writer Chris Wesseling has joined the ranks of those who believe that Locker may not get another starting opportunity if he doesn’t flourish during his third season.  Wesseling referred to it as:

"“…a make-or-break year—not only for Locker’s status as a potential franchise quarterback, but also for the Nashville futures of Britt and running back Chris Johnson.”"

Jumping the gun? How much time should a quarterback get before a team gives up on his potential? There’s no doubt that Locker must refine his fundamentals. Among these areas include accuracy, footwork and decision making. At the same time, Locker has started 11 games. His only healthy start came in his first start—a Week 1 opener against the defending AFC Champion New England Patriots.

All of these claims for a make-or-break season make me wonder what would’ve happened had this franchise used this mentality on another quarterback. A quarterback who’s often regarded as the greatest player since the franchise relocated to Tennessee during the 1997-98 season (settled in Nashville during 99-00).

Who was the greatest player in Titans history? Last month, Titan Sized polled readers on this question. Of 117 respondents, 57 (48.72 percent) chose Steve McNair. Nobody else received more than 18 votes (15.38 percent).

McNair began his NFL career when the Houston Oilers drafted him with the No. 3 pick in the 1995 NFL Draft. Through 13 seasons, McNair participated in 161 games. All but 22 of those came with the Oilers or Titans. His career passing numbers include 2,733 completions (60.1 percent) for 31,304 yards, 174 touchdowns, 119 interceptions and an 82.8 quarterback rating. Furthermore, McNair had 3,590 rushing yards with 37 touchdowns.

Few fans would argue against McNair having a spot on the Titans’ version of Mount Rushmore (top-four player in franchise history). His attitude and toughness helped symbolize the franchise. He orchestrated multiple comeback victories and a surprise 1999-00 playoff run that ended just one-yard shy of an overtime period in Super Bowl XXXIV.

For McNair, football didn’t always appear as simple as it did when he shared co-MVP honors with Peyton Manning during the 2003-04 season. McNair spent his first two seasons as a backup to Chris Chandler. McNair became the full-time starting quarterback when the franchise moved to Tennessee for the 1997-98 season. His next two seasons included a 55.7 completion percentage with 5,893 passing yards, 29 touchdowns and 23 interceptions.

McNair didn’t experience his first playoff game until his fifth season (third as a starter). Even then, McNair only completed 12 touchdowns and had a 78.6 quarterback rating. Before his seventh season (2001-02), McNair never completed more than 15 touchdowns in a season. That season was the first time that he recorded anything better than an 83.2 quarterback rating as a full-time starter (he wasn’t a full-time starter during the 96-97 season).

Patience played a significant role in McNair’s development. That helped him become comfortable with the organization. He used that time to build confidence and chemistry with his coaches and teammates. It allowed him to build a foundation where he could achieve success and reach heights that one expects from a quarterback who was drafted with the No. 3 pick.

Now imagine if McNair were welcomed to the new age, an age where more and more fans demand that players lose their starting jobs after every unsatisfactory performance. Quarterbacks are fortunate if they get three years to prove their worth, much less five. Just consider Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie. Reportedly, McKenzie finds himself on the hot seat as he enters his second season of a full-blown rebuilding project. People want immediate results.

Patience has become a thing of the past. Fans want results—now. They see Tom Brady, who won a Super Bowl in his first season as a starter, his second overall. They see Colin Kaepernick, who burst on the scene after his first significant playing time came midway into his second season. They’re not into the maturation process that offers no guarantees for greatness (e.g. Mark Sanchez).

This is where Locker comes in. Locker never started a game until his second season. He missed five games with a shoulder injury. Even when Locker played, he had multiple things going against him. Injury, untrustworthy offensive line, inconsistent ground game and instability at offensive coordinator. Few quarterbacks would’ve excelled in that scenario.

What can Locker expect in his third season? As Titan Sized contributor Nicholas Pitakos points out, some believe that this is a do-or-die season for the No. 8 pick from the 2011 NFL Draft. Unlike McNair, Locker may not get a fourth or fifth season if this coaching staff doesn’t remain intact beyond this season. A fifth consecutive playoff-less season could mean a new regime. A new regime may dedicate themselves to a new project quarterback.

How much time would McNair have gotten if he were the No. 8 pick of the 2011 NFL Draft? In 13 seasons, season three may have been his most forgettable. He completed 52 percent of his passes with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 14-to-13. His 70.4 quarterback rating was the lowest of any of his 13 seasons. How many people would’ve called for his head if he did that in 2013-14?

Locker faces a difficult situation. He’s an inexperienced quarterback who’s playing under his second offensive coordinator in three seasons. Locker probably won’t have support from an elite defense. Some games may turn into shootouts that were similar to the overtime extravaganza against the Detroit Lions.

With many new faces, can this team develop enough chemistry so they’ll get off to a good start against a brutal three-game stretch to begin the season? Many of the same deficiencies that plagued McNair also affect Locker. Eventually, McNair grew out of them and became an All Pro-caliber quarterback. Can Locker enjoy the same fate? Will he get the time or enough opportunities?

A playoff appearance would almost certainly guarantee another season of job security. Otherwise, Locker very well may need better statistical production than what a former co-MVP had during his third season.