Comparing Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst is like comparing circles of hell. You're hosed either way. Seattle's QB competition is not about finding a franchise QB, because barring some sudden development of skill within the next month, the current competition is not likely to magically create a franchise QB. It's about finding a game manager. Pete Carroll knows the limitations of this QB lineup and is merely seeking someone who can steward the Seahawks through 2011 without turning the ball over, keeping games salvageable by a few lucky plays.
(Hopefully, that policy is just a temporary thing while Seattle searches for their QBOTF, and not a long-range strategy.)
I'm not a fan of either QB. To be honest, I'd dismissed Charlie Whitehurst within a week of Seattle signing him. The optimism surrounding him felt strained and unrealistic. I felt no impetus to justify a brand-new front office or the third-rounder spent on Whitehurst, so I went with the simplest explanation: Whitehurst was a third-stringer on San Diego's roster for good reason, and Seattle had overpaid. I met Jackson with similar skepticism: despite Minnesota's treatment of him, it was always quite possible and far more reasonable that Minnesota simply knew what they had - a backup - and treated him accordingly.
Whitehurst is getting a lot of support from folks after his performance against Minnesota. He's getting the Dilfer calls while Jackson is dismissed largely over his stat line. I don't make excuses for QB's, but that's a piss-poor evaluation of Jackson. It's mind-boggling to me that professional news outlets make this kind of shallow judgment. Watch the damn game. Get a clue on how to spot and judge fundamentals of play. I'm not falling over myself to defend anyone, but I saw encouraging things from Jackson Saturday night and feel they need to be enumerated.
Seattle's intentions on offense serve as a backdrop for everything. Carroll and Darrell Bevell appeared to be using the Minnesota contest almost exclusively as a test platform for the short passing game. The run wasn't there to assist. Deep routes either weren't prominently featured or were well-covered, probably both. Tight ends were used heavily to defeat the pass rush. Jackson didn't do any audibles, suggesting that he didn't have permission and, therefore, the plays were somewhat scripted and thus inflexible. That both QB's had a low YPA shouldn't be treated as a bad thing.
Nor should we be surprised by this "workshop" approach; because of the lockout, preseason games for rebuilding teams will lean away from exhibition and roster competition and more towards practice, to an even greater degree than usual.
On the same note, it's been pointed out that Seattle's offense has faced more pressure from both San Diego and Minnesota's defense than is typical for preseason. The Vikings were blitzing as if Jackson had insulted their mothers. That's probably also lockout fallout, pass rush units shaking their rust off. This doesn't excuse the offensive line - there were plenty of bad decisions and poor technique on that line to pick through. But it helps to erect perspective and explain the offensive game plan.
It's not that Jackson will face less pressure in the regular season, far from it. But that's just the thing - Jackson faced something resembling actual game conditions on Saturday. Whitehurst did not. Which makes simply comparing stat lines a futile exercise.
At the very least, Jackson's showing against the Vikings was a vast improvement over his jumpy, uncertain showing against the Chargers. At the most, he showed signs of being a settled game manager.
Either way, he played better than his stat line. Let's get one thing out of the way: when it comes to Jackson's 0 TD, 1 INT, he was responsible for neither. The team got the ball into the red zone, Jackson delivered a gorgeous 17-yard strike to Mike Williams to put the ball at the goal line, and then...Bevell tried to pound it in. Four times in a row. With Justin Forsett. And failed. Jackson never got a chance to score. After which Minnesota drove from their own 1 with little effort to score a field goal.
The interception was on Golden Tate. The pressure was on top of Jackson, and everyone else on the field was well-covered. There was a lot of zip on the throw, and a couple of people have said that it was late getting out and a little to the side. But it was catchable. 100% catchable. The coverage was zone and not stifling, so this wasn't "throwing into double coverage". Tate, a second-round pick, was open and simply failed to make the catch. The resulting bobble led to a Vikings defensive TD.
Tate also killed the first Seattle drive with a bad drop on a good pass. None of this makes Jackson look better, exactly, but I'm willing to differentiate between bad QB play and bad WR play. Matt Hasselbeck was betrayed by his receivers against Chicago. Echoes of that again on Saturday.
One of the things that jumped out at me was Jackson's improving pocket presence. For a guy with defenders constantly in his face, he stayed cool and delivered several throws right up against a sack. A couple were low, but that's not fatal. Significantly, he didn't look desperate to run. He made a couple good scrambles, but for the most part stayed home after his short drops and looked for open guys. On one play, he shook a sack, extended the play with his legs for a few seconds, but eventually threw the ball away. That's not revolutionary, but it's good game management.
Jackson also used his legs well on a couple of rollouts and was accurate hitting his tight ends. Everything was a 3-step or 5-step drop, so it was all at a very quick tempo, and Jackson delivered enough. That's a far cry from the last week's Jackson, who panicked in the pocket and ran backwards ten yards right into the arms of a pass rusher.
Towards the end of the first half, the playbook seemed to loosen up a little. Jackson got a wonderfully accurate pass into a tight window to Mike Williams, and a couple of nice little shots to Sidney Rice.
Again, this wasn't a brilliant performance. Jackson overthrew a receiver deep and almost threw and end-zone picks. A couple of low throws were frustrating. The jump pass was just weird. And we haven't yet seen him with any deeper dropbacks. He ran a very stunted offense for the most part, seemingly without the authority to audible at the line.
But I didn't see nearly as many bad decisions as some people say they did. Considering that not even Jackson's running backs or tight ends could give him any protection, it was a solid performance that sustained itself over a very long first half.
Charlie Whitehurst came in and started getting Dilfer calls right away. He had a great completion percentage and drove down the field, capping off with a nicely improvised TD to Anthony McCoy. It was a superficially good performance that has sparked the beginnings of a QB controversy.
The context: Whitehurst was facing second-stringers and future Minnesota camp cuts. Minnesota played conservative defense in the second half, bringing virtually no serious QB pressure.
That immediately tosses cold water on The Hair's accomplishments. Those easy Texas routes and wide-open flats that Whitehurst exploited will not be there against first-string defenses. Starting linebackers will jam tight ends, blanket running backs, and jump those outlet routes with a great chance of taking any resulting interceptions to the house. The second half looked entirely different than the first half, and it will look just as different come Week 1.
Whitehurst will have to look for his yardage where every other starting QB does: down the field. He'll have to make reads. He made very few against Minnesota. In many cases, he immediately went with his easy first option and didn't even wait for anyone to flash open downfield. He's still locking onto receivers, too.
Did Whitehurst look decisive and accurate? Well, sure. It's easy to look that way when you're throwing to wide-open targets. Should Whitehurst just take what he's given? Sure, but that won't suffice in the regular season. Are the coaches telling him to take the shorter stuff, keeping him reined in with the dink-and-dunk? Perhaps.
And yet...there is an indefinable air to Whitehurst that we didn't see last year, even in the preseason. He does look more confident and comfortable in the pocket, showing command of at least his limited playbook. And he did convert a ton of passes. His ball placement was great, right into the hands of his targets. He may be repairing his maddening tendency to high-point too many throws. I also like his seeming chemistry with Kris Durham; his best two throws of the night were to the former Georgia receiver. Those offseason practice sessions paid off. It's hard to imagine anyone executing Saturday's game plan better than Charlie Whitehurst.
Of course, that game plan won't exactly get this team into the playoffs, or anywhere near it. Whitehurst's track record in regular-season games features one touchdown each game. One. Yeah, that'll worry Ben Roethlisberger.
Quarterbacks in preseason are defined more by the quality of the opposition than the quality of their weapons. Whitehurst was playing against scrubs. The talent drop-off there is dramatic. The fact that he was playing with scrubs as well, doesn't counteract that much. Wide-open scrubs can generally catch passes just as easily as wide-open Sidney Rices. Tarvaris Jackson was playing against aggressive first-stringers with offensive weapons that aren't fully used to the offense yet, and made fewer bad decisions than he's being blamed for.
The level of opposition places any comparison firmly in the realm of apples-and-oranges. All that matters is what the QB's show against starters. Whitehurst's improvement is there, but scaled back by the competition it faced. It's also mitigated by the nature of the offense that Carroll and Bevell ran. It was limited, and didn't have a lot of power to validate or expose either QB. We don't get to dismiss Jackson for running a low-yardage offense, then turn around and praise Whitehurst for...running a low-yardage offense.
Perhaps that lack of an argument is the best argument for starting Charlie Whitehurst in a preseason game. It's not that he's beaten out Jackson, because he hasn't. It's that he won't even have a shot to do so until he gets first-string time. He, his team, Carroll, and the fans need to see what Whitehurst will do against first-string defenses that will take away his checkdowns, cover his downfield options, and then try to sack him.
It's frustrating that our "QB controversy"is between backups competing for a game-manager offense, but again, there weren't a lot of other options this offseason. Carroll is making do with what he has. I do hope that this upcoming QB class gets deep in a hurry.