The quarterback or the coordinator?
Between them, Jake Locker and Dowell Loggains have exactly one season of experience in their current roles. Locker started 11 games last fall around a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery. Loggains, a veritable wunderkind at 32 years old, assumed the play-calling duties with five games remaining last season and then held on to the role through an offseason of upheaval on the coaching staff.
So which one’s relative inexperience presents a greater challenge for the Tennessee Titans in 2013?
Certainly both need to do their part if the offense is to improve upon last season when the Titans finished 23rd in points per game and 26th in yards per game. Loggains has created and implemented a scheme that he believes plays to Locker’s strengths and allows him to take better advantage of the team’s other skill position players, but neither one is operating from a base of proven success. Locker vows to alter his approach, but not his competitiveness in an effort to stay healthy and remain an integral part of the attack from the start of the season to the finish.
Their individual and shared quest picks up steam with the start of training camp, now less than two weeks away.
“We’ve been improving and getting better,” Locker said during offseason workouts. “I think we’ve progressed really well as an offense [and] as a team. I’m excited … about getting ready to go.”
Increasingly, young quarterbacks thrive in the NFL, which puts the onus on Locker, the 10th overall pick and second quarterback taken in 2011, to keep pace. Coaches named him the starter over incumbent Matt Hasselbeck last season based on the promise of his strong arm and elite mobility but his production did not measure up to other young players, many of whom offered comparable versatility.
Also in 2012 three rookies, Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck, Washington’s Robert Griffin III and Seattle’s Russell Wilson, started for their teams in Week 1 and took those franchises to the playoffs. Colin Kaepernick, a second-round pick in 2011, became a starter in Week 11 and guided the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl.
It’s a compelling body of work, to be sure but not an all-encompassing one.
Among the 29 NFL quarterbacks who attempted more than 300 throws last season only four threw more interceptions than touchdown passes and two of them were rookies, Miami’s Ryan Tannehill (12 touchdowns, 13 interceptions) and Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden (14 and 17). The others were the New York Jets veteran Mark Sanchez (13, 18) … and Locker (10, 11), who also was one of three of those 29 with a passer rating of less than 75.
A significant part of Loggains’ approach this fall will be for his quarterback to rely on shorter, high-percentage throws to keep the offense out of obvious passing situations, improve the run game and enhance time of possession.
“I feel like the team has really embraced and responded to the changes our organization’s made as far as the offense and the players we’ve brought in,” Loggains said. “… We’ll study what we did well and who did what well [during the offseason]. Then as we go into training camp we’ll be making it more specific for what we’re going to be and who we’re going to be.
“… It’s going to be built around the run game, but the thing is in today’s NFL not throwing the ball a lot is throwing the ball 30 times a game. We are going to be a run, play-action team first but we’re still going to throw the football.”
That keeps the emphasis on Locker to actually execute, regardless of the call.
Then again, even experienced quarterbacks can be subject to the philosophy and performance of their coordinators.
Steve McNair had three during his time with the Titans. When he switched from Les Steckel to Mike Heimerdinger in 2000, the offense scored 46 fewer points (roughly a field goal per game). When he switched from Heimerdinger to Norm Chow in 2005, the point total dropped 45. Heimerdinger was a first-time coordinator in 2000, and Chow was a first-time NFL play-caller in 2005 after a lengthy and distinguished career in college.
Loggains lists Heimerdinger and Chow along with New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton as the primary influences in his approach. He just needs to start faster than the other two did with the Titans.
Similarly, a common threat among most of last year’s breakout stars was that they had an experienced hand to guide them.
Luck’s offensive coordinator was Bruce Arians, who had been in that same role with two other NFL teams. Griffin had head coach Mike Shanahan, long-regarded as one of the league’s best play-callers, and his son Kyle. Wilson had Darrell Bevell, a coordinator for five seasons in Minnesota before he joined the Seahawks in 2011.
The exception was San Francisco’s Greg Roman. He became an NFL coordinator for the first time in 2012 after having performed the same duties for two seasons at Stanford. His first season, the 49ers were 26th in the NFL with an average of 310.9 yards per game — with veteran quarterback Alex Smith.
It was when he and Kaepernick finally teamed up — in his second full season — that the offense took off. San Francisco finished 11th in the NFL last season at 361.8 yards per game and then actually improved in the postseason to a whopping 473.3 yards per game.
The fact that a quarterback-coordinator combo can be so combustible ought to provide hope for the Titans and their fans.
More likely, though, the relationship between the two will be a process, one that includes growing pains for each.
“I had a decent feel for [Locker] going in to the offseason but [the] 10 days of [OTAs and minicamp] were critical,” Loggains said. “In training camp we’ll continue to grow and he and I will grow together within the system. And as he learns the system a little bit more he’ll understand exactly what I’m looking for.”
Chances are that can’t happen soon enough.