There is no magic number of preseason throws that will guarantee success for Jake Locker in the regular season.
The only number that matters is the Tennessee Titans third-year quarterback is one of the ones. Every day. Every game.
Ones is short for first-teamers — the starters — and unlike the previous two training camps Locker’s place among them is unquestioned. His 11 starts in 2012 and the decision during the offseason to release veteran Matt Hasselbeck removed any doubt that might have existed within the locker room or elsewhere.
Every snap Locker takes in workouts and the four preseason games, beginning with Thursday’s against the Washington Redskins (7 p.m., LP Field), will be with the starting unit. Every throw will be directed toward a wide receiver, tight end or running back at or near the top of the depth chart. With few exceptions, he will look over and around the same group of blockers.
“I think it will be nice,” Locker said. “It’s a difference and I think being able to work out some of those kinks early on, and have the opportunity … find ways to continue to improve throughout the preseason it will be nice knowing where you stand each week and being able to play with that confidence.”
It has been a long time since the Titans have had such clarity at the most important position on the field.
Hasselbeck basically was unchallenged two years ago and started all four preseason games in 2011. The fact that a lockout wiped out all offseason workouts and delayed the start of training camp, though, changed the way teams worked and the manner in which they approached preseason games. Plus, Hasselbeck had spent the previous 10 years with Seattle and all the Titans crammed to learn a new offense under then-coordinator Chris Palmer.
Tennessee managed to go 9-7 that year, the only time in its current four-year playoff drought that it finished better than .500.
“Usually the quarterback is going be your leader and [Locker] is ours,” Munchak said. “I think for him, everything is the opportunity. … It’s a total different feel for him knowing that he is the guy that the offense is tailored around. I think he’s excited about knowing exactly what he needs to do. He feels he has good control over what we’re doing, a good understanding of it.
“… [We’re] kind of excited about that for him, as far as how he’s practicing and how he’s responding. He’ll make mistakes but now I think it’s more of he knows exactly why he made the mistake. It’s not, ‘well, I need to go talk to that guy because he must’ve read it differently.’ It’s either right or it’s not. It’s either a bad throw or it’s not.”
From 2006 through 2010 the franchise was a study in uncertainty at the position. Then-coach Jeff Fisher and his staff regularly wrestled with the undeniable potential but unpredictability and uneven work habits of Vince Young and the consistency but fading glory of Kerry Collins.
Of the 80 regular-season games during that stretch Young started 47 times, 15 more than Collins (Rusty Smith also had one), but the preseasons were much more consistent. Young led the team in preseason attempts four straight times, beginning in 2006 when he was a rookie. He threw anywhere from 52 to 69 times in those years while Collins never got more than 47 attempts.
Young’s 69 throws — the most by any Titans quarterback over the last 10 preseasons — were in 2009. They apparently served him well when he became the starter after six games and led the team to eight victories in the final 10 games after a 0-6 start.
Locker has led the Titans in preseason attempts each of the last two years but did not start one until last summer’s second game. He threw 49 times (seven more than Hasselbeck) in 2011 and 60 times (10 more than Hasselbeck and Smith combined) last summer, the fourth time in the last decade a Tennessee quarterback had attempted at least 60 preseason passes.
The difference this time is what preceded the preseason. It was not until after last year’s second exhibition contest that he was named the starter and finally practiced full-time with the other first-teamers as he has all throughout this spring and summer thus far.
“I feel very comfortable and very confident in what we’re doing,” Locker said. “I understand it. I know it. And I believe it. I think when you have those things you’re able to go out and play to the best of your ability.”
Thus the number of throws pales in importance when compared to who is the target of those throws and who else is on the field when he makes them. He knows who those players will be even before he takes his first snap.
The more efficient and effective he and the rest of those starters perform, the earlier they can expect to get to the sidelines and let the others have their chance to try and earn spots as backups.
“How much [he] plays, I think will all depend on what we think is needed,” Munchak said. “I think we’ll try to play probably as much as we can, but be smart. I mean, not just for [Locker], but the offensive line needs to play, which is good because then we have the offensive line who needs to play with the quarterback, and that’s how you want it; Jake getting used to the receivers, and so on. So, I think that we’ll try to play him as much as we think necessary.”
That’s not to say he ought to expect a light load.
In 2004, after the Titans had been to the playoffs four times in five years, Steve McNair had a mere 44 preseason pass attempts. The only other time in the last decade the team leader had fewer was 2010, when Collins had 39. Then, the roster still closely resembled the one that reached the postseason in 2007 and 2008.
Tennessee looked nothing like a playoff team a year ago, and the current four-year postseason drought is the longest since the franchise relocated from Houston.
“The flow of the game will determine it, but, we know we need work,” Munchak said. “I think you’re going to see him start probably, I mean, all four games, I think yes. I think he still can get a lot of things accomplished in preseason games.
“It’s not anything like — obviously — a regular season game, but we need the live work that way.”