NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For all the money Tennessee spent this offseason, how well the Titans fare this season easily rests on quarterback Jake Locker.
No longer a rookie or even a first-year starter, Locker goes into his third NFL season healthy with a new playbook, a rebuilt offensive line protecting him and some new teammates to catch his passes. So how the Titans bounce back from a 6-10 season and whether they reach the playoffs for the first time since 2008 will depend on how well Locker plays.
Locker, 25, welcomes the pressure.
“I think that’s an awesome place to be …,” Locker said. “I feel very confident and very comfortable in what we’re doing right now. I’m excited about that opportunity.”
The Titans certainly have done everything possible to put Locker in a position to succeed.
They bolstered the offensive line with two new guards in veteran Andy Levitre and rookie Chance Warmack. They also drafted another receiver in Justin Hunter to go with Kenny Britt, Kendall Wright and Nate Washington. Shonn Greene was signed to bring a power running back for a change of pace with Chris Johnson. Delanie Walker is a new receiving option at tight end.
Tennessee also cut veteran Matt Hasselbeck in March and signed Ryan Fitzpatrick strictly as Locker’s backup, not competition for the starting job.
“We’ve done what we think is necessary to do,” Titans coach Mike Munchak said. “Now hopefully we’re right. We have to go prove that we’re right on what we did and all those things that we did are obviously going to benefit Jake.”
Locker was named the starter during training camp a year ago, and that didn’t turn out too well. He dislocated his left, non-throwing shoulder after an interception that should have been whistled dead as an incompletion with his shoulder popping out of joint as he threw down the defender. He didn’t miss a start before reinjuring the shoulder in the fourth game, sidelining him for five straight games.
He wound up throwing for 2,176 yards and had more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (10), though he did run for 291 yards and a touchdown.
So the eighth selection overall in 2011 out of Washington goes into his third season surrounded by questions over whether or not he can be a starting quarterback in the NFL. It didn’t help that rookies like Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck not only got plenty of headlines but wins and playoff berths to boot in 2012.
Locker had surgery soon after the season ended to fix the shoulder once and for all. He healed up quickly enough that he wasn’t limited during the team’s offseason program. He’s played so well that Washington said Locker is finally showing he can be an elite quarterback in the NFL, having improved his game across the board.
“He’s throwing a nice tight spiral,” Washington said. “He’s making complete reads. He’s able to go through his progression now. With all that being said, that’s not even speaking on the ability that he has to run. I think he’s going to be a great man. We just have to make sure we’re doing what we need to do and not put it all on his shoulders.”
That’s why the Titans made sure to surround Locker with plenty of help offensively and reinforced protection up front. Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains devised an offense streamlining the decisions both Locker and his receivers can make, allowing the quarterback to make faster decisions and get the ball out quicker.
“We’re talented enough around him now he just needs to drive the bus and get the ball to the playmakers,” Loggains said.
“He doesn’t have to do anything on his own. He needs to use his legs when he has an opportunity to, and he needs to be OK checking the ball down, not forcing, not making bad decisions. We can be successful on offense the way we’re going to run the ball if we don’t start turning the ball over.”