I have a female friend, 19 years old and a petite 110 pounds, whom I've seen throw a regulation football 30 yards' distance several times in a row and hit the same general area with good consistency.
According to some people's definition of a "deep ball", that makes my friend a pro quarterback prospect. Never mind that her delivery looks more like a pitcher's combined with the heel grab of a figure skater, and never mind the fact that her throws hang in the air long enough for most turtles to get under it from several feet away. For some, the distance a QB can throw is the only measure of arm strength - and the only point. If he can throw long, the thinking goes, then he can succeed in the NFL.
The major hole in this theory is that most defenses are thinking the same thing. And they've invented the safety position to compensate.
Those thrilling deep passes that you see on highlight reels to a receiver who's beaten coverage? They're the exception to the rule. The overwhelming majority of most NFL passes are thrown to a receiver who still has a defender somewhere beyond him. That happens because defenses, knowing they're pointless if receivers can just run right past them, are built around the agenda of ensuring receivers don't beat them deep. Safeties stay high and cornerbacks jam at the LOS to slow down the receivers' releases. It's among the very basic objectives of a defense. Otherwise, any 19-year-old girl with a modicum of accuracy and a good offensive line could be an NFL quarterback.
Yes, this is a disgusting oversimplification. But I hope it still gives an accurate framework for this discussion.
So now you've got a multi-layered defense that keeps a safety over the top to jump or otherwise defend long throws. Too long and you throw it over your receiver and right to that safety; too short and you don't reach your receiver. Or, more likely, you hit a linebacker squatting in your passing lane. It's no longer just about side-to-side accuracy now - it's about vertical accuracy.
But it gets worse - those defenders aren't static. Have you ever played ultimate frisbee and tried to cover a guy, but stayed several feet away and glanced casually elsewhere so it didn't look like you were trying to cover him? You're trying to lure the thrower into not noticing you and passing to your man, hoping you can get a good enough jump on the frisbee to intercept it. (Welcome to zone coverage, by the way.)
But in order to get that interception, you have to close on your man during a narrow window between the release of the frisbee and its arrival at the target. If the frisbee beats you to your man, you lose. As a defender, you're literally racing the frisbee. So if the thrower is worth his salt, he's going to try and make a nice, fast, zippy throw so that you can't get there in time.
Therein lies the full definition and purpose of "arm strength" on a quarterback. It's got nothing to do with distance. It's about the velocity of the ball to its target, whether that target be fifty yards away or ten. Anybody with a few weeks of workout and protein diet can throw a football fifty yards, but most people have to loft it over a power line to do it. Not everybody can throw a football fifty yards, get it there in no more than two seconds flat, air it no more than twelve feet off the ground, and fit it through a tire swing. That takes a tremendous arm, and a tremendous talent.
That's why we have such phrases as "throwing into tight windows" and "threading the needle". That's the game. QB's get criticized for throwing into double coverage if the result is anything but a completion, but if a completion happens, everyone just nods and hustles on to the next play. Coverages are designed to force receivers into tight spaces, and simple geometry gives them the edge; even the best route-runner will eventually have to "make catches in traffic". An offense that relies on beating coverages deep is basically hinging their offense on the other team screwing up; that's not a winning strategy. Those opportunities don't happen often enough to sustain an offense. The job of the quarterback is to defeat even tight defenses by zipping the ball into small spaces before defenders can reach it - fitting passes in between roving linebackers and safeties. And in order to do that, your passes had better be lightning quick.
Virtually every time you see a receiver beat coverage, the QB isn't expecting it. It's a gift from the defense breaking down, and he takes it - sometimes after two or three other reads. Mike Williams' long touchdown against New Orleans was originally supposed to be an underneath pass to Justin Forsett, but he was covered and Hasselbeck improvised (that is, he muttered "screw it" and threw up a prayer to Williams).
That pass, by the way, was perfect for a rainbow - magnificently placed to maximize Williams' access and minimize that of the defenders. If Hass were still making such pinpoint passes on a regular basis, I might not be writing this series. But he isn't. Which requires us to judge Hasselbeck's arm based on the merit of the height and speed it produces, not its distance.
And that's where I feel that Matt Hasselbeck, deprived of the system that made him great, becomes a distinct liability to any other NFL offense.
More to come.