Tuesday, August 23, 2011
On Tarvaris Jackson, Part 4
Part 1: Low expectations for Tarvaris Jackson.
Part 2: Why he was still Seattle's optimal choice at QB.
Part 3: Some numbers that hint at Tarvaris Jackson's growth trajectory.
Coaches don't just hand their quarterbacks a playbook and set them loose. Handling of a QB by their head coach defines the QB, not entirely, but to a pertinent degree.
We Twelves are aware of this. Notorious are the stories of Mike Holmgren's temper and how it kept Matt Hasselbeck disciplined and accountable on the field. Seneca Wallace usually played with a watered-down playbook and a tight leash held by Holmgren. Read up on almost any successful team, and you'll find that the relationship between coaches and QB's is well-defined.
One of the knocks on Tarvaris Jackson is that he wasn't handled well by his old head coach in Minnesota, Brad Childress, who has a tyrant's reputation and fueled his training camps with bile and profanity. People say his development was hampered by his early pulling in 2008 and the arrival of Brett Favre. Pete Carroll and John Schneider have publicly agreed. Rather colorfully, I might add.
Fair enough. Jackson may have had a poor environment with the Vikings. Whether a better environment will magically improve Jackson's accuracy and field vision, I don't know. But it could happen.
Pete Carroll is used to deliberate QB handling. He and former OC Jeremy Bates were quite open about how they handled Matt Hasselbeck and Charlie Whitehurst. It's about degrees of decision-making freedom and generosity with the playbook.
Taming a Horse
As 2010 opened, Carroll and Bates seemed to know what they had with Hasselbeck. They had wild inconsistency and poor decision-making from a QB who was trying desperately to throw his way out of a team-wide collapse. They also had a QB whose gifts - rhythm, timing, fundamentals, short-range accuracy - didn't serve the vertical passing and mobile-QB concepts they were trying to install.
According to the in-season literature, Carroll and Bates reined Hasselbeck in tight during the first half of the season. His play-calling freedom was limited while they adapted to each other. Conservative play was the game as Hasselbeck proved his adherence to Carroll's philosophy of "no turnovers whatsoever".
Charlie Whitehurst was handled in similar fashion. Anyone watching him during the New York and St. Louis games could tell that he was operating out of a somewhat nerfed playbook. The reins were on. Whitehurst's YPA that game was a ridiculously low 5.3. That comes partially from Carroll capping his options and partially from Whitehurst's habit of compulsively checking down. People say Whitehurst earned the benefit of a doubt from fans for playing well that day, but it's more accurate to say that he merely played safe.
When you only have to outduel Sam Bradford, whose options were equally minced by his OC all through 2010, safe might cut it. When you have no ambition for your QB position other than a meek, mild-mannered game manager, safe might cut it. When you're facing Tom Brady, you might as well forfeit the game. Whitehurst's failure to outduel Eli Manning wasn't an unfair debut to be ignored - it was simply a reminder that game managers don't win in this league. It's the pros, Charlie. Kid gloves are off.
When to Play it Safe
However...it's true that Whitehurst didn't throw a lot of turnovers, either. We have Carroll's management to thank for that. And we have to acknowledge that Seattle isn't in a position to open it up on offense - it's in development mode. You want more from your QB than "just don't throw turnovers", but Seattle has its QB stable and it needs development. That's where we are right now.
So if Tarvaris Jackson and Whitehurst are true projects and the 2011 season is simply a throwaway testing grounds for both sides of the ball, is a conservative game plan really that bad?
I don't think it is. Ball security is a great thing to emphasize when your team is in development mode. Turnovers put a game beyond recovery. They give the opponent good field position, put your defense on an impossible uphill slope, and force your offense to play catchup with shrinking options. Stalled drives, frustrating as they are, are infinitely better for a young team than drives ended by turnovers. Points aren't scored, but the game is kept in hand and a lucky play or bounce can shift momentum back to you.
I believe that all of Seattle's first four wins in 2010 followed this formula. The game was listless for a while, but eventually, when the opportunity came, Seattle was able to take over the game because Hasselbeck hadn't already buried it in turnovers. That's probably what Carroll is hoping for from whoever wins the QB competition.
By publicly handing the starting job, without camp competition, to a QB signed for 2 years and $8 million, Seattle has broadcasted a seemingly contradictory message about Tarvaris Jackson. It kinda makes sense. It's something like, "We aren't that optimistic that Jackson will become a franchise QB, but he was the best option and he has the tools he needs. We're going to develop him, support him, and give him our best shot."
A watered-down offense for Jackson will probably be part of that project. It's not about the system, which Jackson already knows, but about his decision-making and trustworthiness on the field. Like Hasselbeck, Jackson won't be cut loose until he's shown he can avoid costly mistakes. That's a fair expectation, considering Jackson's hot-and-cold proclivities in Minnesota. A lengthy stretch without turnovers will benefit Jackson mentally and preserve the team's ability to take over games when the right moment comes along.
Again, the context of this is QB development. A dialed-down offense will probably look pretty ugly on the field. Seattle had a long stretch of stagnant offense early last season, from Denver until Hasselbeck's return from concussion against New Orleans. It was the cost of learning to protect the football, and Carroll was fine with it because he believes in the power of finishing strong. This team may have to get worse before its QB looks better.
Protecting Your Investment
But there's good news elsewhere. Seattle has taken another step to protect its evolving QB: surrounding him liberally with nice offensive toys.
In fact, the team has done almost everything conceivable to put Jackson in a position to succeed. Sidney Rice, the first Seattle receiver in a decade who can make any bad pass look good. Zach Miller and a tantalizing TE corps behind him - good tight ends are a QB's best friend, even more so than receivers. Two first-round bookend offensive tackles and a solid veteran guard, all with belligerent attitude if not sound technique. A bigger role for Leon Washington. Strong emphasis on the run game to (hopefully) ease pressure on Jackson, perhaps enable play action.
Yes, Seattle has spared no expense in this particular QB development project. They weren't able to do that with Hasselbeck. They couldn't afford to build an offense in the image of a 36-year-old QB entering the last year of his contract. They did their best to equip him with a few playmakers (Washington, Marshawn Lynch, Mike Williams, Golden Tate), but a rebuild can only change so much. Jackson was the beneficiary of the team's full rebuilding momentum, and even a couple of watersheds; Zach Miller becoming a free agent was unexpected to the team.
And should these guys be covered, the offense still offers Mike Williams, Justin Forsett, an underrated blocker in Michael Robinson, and an intriguing trio of developmental WR's in Ben Obomanu, Kris Durham, and Doug Baldwin. Plus an offensive coordinator who knows Jackson already. You wouldn't be wrong to say that the former Minnesota QB has everything going for him in Seattle.
It's unclear what Tarvaris Jackson's ceiling is, but Seattle has gone to great lengths to ensure it's reachable in the next two years. By showing that he can and will closely manage a QB to limit turnovers, and by surrounding him with a high-powered offense, Carroll has removed many limits to Jackson's growth.
It could be said that the pre-lockout NFL hasn't been very friendly for QB development. Teams have been under a lot of pressure to justify the cost of first-round QB's and had a tendency to shove them into the lineup quickly. The mandate to win would leave teams scrambling for immediate solutions instead of showing patience towards later-round signal-callers. With the new CBA reducing rookie salaries, the financial pressure is less and the number of busts may be reduced. The pressure to win, however, is still around.
Carroll doesn't seem fazed by it, though. He and GM John Schneider have shown some remarkable patience in their short time here. Tarvaris Jackson is now getting the environment and weapons he needs if he's ever to overcome his inaccuracy and bad decisions to become a franchise QB. He's got more experience now than he did when Minnesota's high-powered offense failed to lift him.
The flipside of this is that if Jackson still founders, he'll have few excuses. Even if Charlie Whitehurst isn't breathing down Jackson's neck, next year's draft is. He has to convince Seattle that there's no need to look for a first-round QB solution next year. The chances of Jackson growing into a playoff-caliber QB have never appeared anything but slim, and Jackson's contract won't make Seattle regret cutting him. It won't take us long to know exactly what we have in the guy.
In other words, it's now or never.