Sep 8, 2013; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) calls an audible during the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field. Mandatory Credit: Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports
Are the Tennessee Titans trying to develop Jake Locker similar to how the San Francisco 49ers developed Alex Smith into an accurate passer and efficient game-manager?
Anyone who paid attention to the 2011 San Francisco 49ers should know what I’m referring to. Smith was a seven-year veteran who was under his seventh different offensive coordinator. That lack of continuity affected the development of the 2005 first-overall draft pick. Many 49ers fans were desperate to see new blood at quarterback. They had seen enough of Smith.
Seventh time is a charm? In his first season as 49ers head coach, Jim Harbaugh turned a 6-10 team into a 13-3 NFC West champion that came within an overtime from playing in Super Bowl XLVI. Harbaugh did this with Smith as his quarterback. Greg Roman was offensive coordinator No. 7.
Smith had an even more efficient start to the 2012 season when, for the first time in his career, he had the same offensive coordinator for consecutive seasons. He finished that season with a 70.2 completion percentage and a 104.1 quarterback rating. Despite his progression, Smith was benched for Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick offered more big-play potential with his arm and legs. This offseason, Smith was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs. Smith continued his solid-but-unspectacular approach with another efficient performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Efficiency was the name of the game. For that season-and-a-half, the 49ers won games despite babying their quarterback. Everything was simplified. Smith’s 2011 stats included a career-high 3,144 yards along with 17 touchdowns and five interceptions. Smith’s role wasn’t to win games with gaudy passing numbers. His role was to protect the football and make enough plays to win, especially in the fourth quarter. He has never had more than 18 touchdown passes in any single season.
This brings us to Locker. During his 2011 rookie campaign, Locker made a few brief appearances as a No. 2 quarterback. His second season included 11 starts, 10 of which came with a bum shoulder and an unsettled situation with Chris Palmer and Dowell Loggains. Loggains took over as offensive coordinator when Palmer was fired after Week 12. Loggains entered 2013 as the offensive coordinator.
Is 2013 the start of continuity for Locker, much like 2011 was for Smith?
Look at the players who were brought in this offseason. There’s no doubt that the Titans’ offensive identity is geared toward a ground-and-pound attack. They spent the greatest portion of their $100 million on an offensive guard, Andy Levitre. They used a top-10 pick on another guard, Chance Warmack. They replaced Fernando Velasco with Rob Turner and Brian Schwenke.
Those were just the offensive linemen. The Titans signed Shonn Greene, a running back who has plenty of familiarity as a No. 2 running back behind Thomas Jones and LaDainian Tomlinson on those back-to-back AFC Championship New York Jets teams. They signed Delanie Walker, a key role player who played with Smith from 2006-12 (seven seasons). Before Kaepernick, the 49ers were another ground-and-pound team who made their living on a run-heavy offense and hard-nosed defense.
Many similarities with what those Jets, 49ers and now the Titans are trying to accomplish. Not surprising when one considers that this coaching staff has two Hall of Fame offensive linemen with head coach Mike Munchak and offensive line coach Bruce Matthews. Munchak witnessed this team reach its highest success when, as an offensive line coach, he watched Eddie George and the Titans defense carry them to a Super Bowl XXXIV appearance.
Locker and Smith are different players with various skill-sets. That doesn’t mean there aren’t similarities. Both quarterback are mobile but have a pass-first, run-second mentality. The problems occur when they’re under pressure. Smith has improved in that area since Harbaugh and Roman got a hold of him. That was during his seventh and eighth seasons. According to Pro Football Focus, when Locker is pressured, his quarterback rating declined from 89.9 to an abysmal 38.7. Same issues plagued him at the University of Washington.
Winning games with a run-heavy offense, defense and an inexperienced quarterback. That means eliminating mistakes. Mistakes are eliminated when the team puts Locker in comfortable situations. Long-developing passing plays create the opportunity for more decisions under pressure. Locker doesn’t handle pressure well. Loggains simplifies the passing offense and hopes to gradually develop Locker into a quarterback who’s more reliable against pressure. Then, Loggains can focus his play-calling toward those gun-slinging capabilities.
Through four preseason games and a regular-season game, Locker has yet to throw an interception. He has had some close calls. He also lost a fumble against the Atlanta Falcons following his decision not to slide.
Is the Titans defense good enough to where they can play that style of football? Hard to dictate after a Week 1 game that featured a Pittsburgh Steelers offense that played as though it had a combination of the 2012 Arizona Cardinals offensive line and a 2013 New York Giants backfield. How much of that defensive dominance was the front seven and how much was a lack of offensive line and running back talent?
Locker will never become Peyton Manning, Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. Neither will Smith, Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger, Brad Johnson or Trent Dilfer. But with a little continuity, will Locker gradually become a quarterback who posts Smith-esque stat lines that include 3,000ish yards, 18ish touchdowns and fewer than 10 interceptions? How much will he improve when facing pressure?
Are those Smith-esque type of numbers good enough to win a Super Bowl or at least become an consistent playoff contender?