Thursday, April 7, 2011
Hawks and Hasselbeck: Half Seconds
Despite what some say about Darrell Bevell's predilection for the West Coast offense, Seattle's new OC comes from the Reid-Childress branch of the WCO that employs Desean Jackson and Sidney Rice. There's no reason to limit our expectations to a mostly short passing game of the kind Holmgren ran. There will be deep passes in Seattle in 2011, and Hasselbeck will indeed have value to the Seahawks if it can be proven that Bates' West Coast Recovery program has turned him into a deep-ball maestro.
Problem is, no successful quarterback in this league actually has the deep pass for his bread and butter. It is the velocity of the football on all manner of throws - short, intermediate, and long - that keeps the chains moving and the ball slicing past defenders. The Packers' game in particular is based on intermediate zip. Arm strength is not shown by distance; it's shown by velocity.
And by that definition, I'm not sure Hasselbeck has ever thrown a deep pass in his life.
This is not a deep pass.
This is not a deep pass either.
Nor is this, this, or this. Nor are two deep-down-the-middle throws to Deion Branch you might remember from 2007, though they're closer. They are, to a predominant degree, screwups by defenders that Hasselbeck unremarkably takes advantage of (or gets lucky on). Credit him for making the throws, but don't mistake him for a deep gunslinger who's maintaining his arm strength.
This is a freakin' deep pass.
Some of these throws are so much deadlier than Hasselbeck's that those who don't see a difference probably haven't watched a non-Seahawks game in a while. There are many who honestly haven't.
For an illustration of the difference with the more subtle ones, get a stopwatch out and compare that last Kurt Warner throw to Steve Breaston with this Hasselbeck floater to T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Both passes travel approximately the same distance, and Warner even puts some air under his to drop it over the corner.
Now time Hass's TD pass to Deon Butler in Chicago against Aaron Rodgers' opening touchdown to Jordy Nelson in Super Bowl XLV. Almost identical distances, similar outside throws beating good coverage, great accuracy on Hass's toss as well as Rodgers'.
In each case, Hass's throws are arriving a good half second later than his peers'.
In a game often decided by fingertips, half a second is a long time. The average defensive back in that span can easily cover two yards - a big difference when it comes to coverage windows. Half a second is the difference between a touchdown and an interception on a weekly basis in the NFL. It's approximately the margin of error Hass had on his interception by 49ers safety Reggie Smith.
That play is the perfect example of the danger of insufficient arm strength. The Smith pick was a gutsy, well-designed play by Bates that required arm strength and was defeated by Hasselbeck's lack of it. The accuracy and distance needed to reach Deon Butler were there. But, it hung in the air so long that it beckoned to Smith to break on it, even at the risk of a touchdown. If it has even Peyton Manning's zip behind it, just another half second shorter, the pass beats Smith to its target and leaves him scrambling to drop deeper and go for the tackle, not dive for the first interception of the season by a 49ers safety.
A deep pass is not a rainbow; it's a bloody bullet. It makes defenders want to duck. It transforms an offense by defeating even good coverage with its speed and forcing defenders to ride the receivers' back pocket. It reduces coverage from a surefire interception to a manageable risk. And most pertinent to this discussion, it's a trademark tool of the QB profile we wish Hasselbeck could become - the elder-statesman gunslinger, the late-career revivalist, the Brett Favre or Kurt Warner or Jeff Garcia. Quarterbacks with arm strength can outlast their prime because the ability to fit passes into tight windows is a fundamental piece of every QB's game.
Now you could look at the "true" deep balls that I presented earlier and point out how each receiver has technically gotten past coverage just as Hasselbeck's did. But that's exactly the kind of thinking I'm trying to address here. The quality of coverage isn't decided just by the spacing between the receiver and the defender; it's also decided by the speed of the pass. Faster passes require tighter blanketing. If I'm the one throwing the ball with my atrophied arm, a cornerback spaced ten yards away from the receiver is putting down some danged stifling coverage. If Aaron Rodgers is doing the throwing, however, you'd better be right in the receiver's back pocket the whole way.
So many terrible passes from post-2007 Hasselbeck go unrecognized by folks, simply because a) they don't happen to result in an interception or b) many believe that the occasional deep pass can make up for lousy offensive production . Hasselbeck used to a lot more zip, at least on his short- to intermediate passes. He was called "a poor man's Tom Brady" during the 2005 run thanks to the accuracy produced by the urgency of his throws . But call it age or injury, it's gone now. The accuracy still flashes here and there, but not the strength, and accuracy without strength gets intercepted. And with Bates installing a system that demanded strong passes, Hass's 2010 season had the unmistakable aura of a square peg being forcibly rammed into a round hole.
Bill Walsh was famous for his forty-yard-long practice fields, claiming that his West Coast offense didn't require his quarterback to throw any further. That was thirty years ago, and the NFL has completely changed. The West Coast's usage of short passes is no longer a discrete offensive style; it's a philosophy that has become ingrained in every playbook. There is no team that does not incorporate some aspect of the West Coast. Short pass as offensive engine is everywhere, and QB's everywhere use it to their advantage.
As a result, defenses are ready for it. They've converted their defensive ends and linebackers into roving pass defenders. They have their guys jamming receivers viciously at the line, trying to throw off the timing of those short passes. The pure West Coast offense left the NFL when Mike Holmgren left Qwest Field in a flurry of snow and grateful 12th Man. It's gone and it's not coming back. And that's the system that made Matt Hasselbeck who he is.
Hasselbeck didn't really reinvent himself in 2010; he just retasked his targets with predictable results. His newfound deep game got by on the occasional busted coverage, which doesn't happen often enough to sustain an NFL offense. The result when Bates and Hasselbeck leaned on it was a jerky, stop-start offense that produced the occasional inspiring thrill between long, consecutive quarters of listlessness and turnovers. And whenever Seattle reached the red zone, where deep passes are not an option and the QB has to use his arm to defeat a swarming defense in a smaller area, time and again Matt's arm strength issues would rear their ugly head and call for Olindo Mare.
Consistently settling for field goals instead of touchdowns is the sort of compromise that emboldens opponents and makes leads tenuous. It's not Hass's fault that his arm has weakened; it happens with age. I'm not engaging in a pile-on here. But the matter does seal the need for either a stronger arm under center or a scheme that doesn't need one.
Which begs the question...can Hasselbeck be put back in a situation ideal for him, one more suited to his skill set?
The answer is...yes, he can. But much as Arthur Dent found out, that's not actually the real question. The real question involves economics, management, time, and the inexorably advancing countdown clock that is Hasselbeck's age. We'll need a bigger computer to crunch that.
Until next time.