At first glance, the 2013 season is off to a better start than even the most optimistic of Titans fans could have hoped for. Tennessee is off to a surprising 3-1 start, has posted convincing wins over the Steelers and Jets, is a play away from being atop the AFC South. They appear primed to push for a wild card berth in an AFC that to this point is wide open.
When the finally emerging Jake Locker went down with what appeared to be a devastating hip injury in the third quarter, that bright outlook got much, much darker, however. Why is Locker's injury so crushing for a team that so clearly looks to run first? Will the team be able to compensate for the loss of their young quarterback, or is all hope lost for the 2013 Titans?
Based solely on their play selection, it'd be easy to peg Tennessee as a team well prepared for a long stretch with a back-up quarterback. They rank 28th in the league in pass attempts with 119, and they've been running the ball 54% of the time. Their yards per attempted pass is 7.0, a below average number in this era of the game. The game plan has been pretty obvious: make running the ball and the short passing game the emphasis on offense, and let a good defense put you in the position to win at the end of the game. That should be an ideal situation for a back-up quarterback to step into, right?
In most cases that might be the case, but for the Titans losing Locker for long is practically the worst case scenario, both for the short and long term. In spite of the numbers that suggest otherwise, in recent weeks the deep passing game has become a big part of their offense. To counter what has been a run heavy offense, most opposing defenses have opted to play with a single high safety. That's served to open up receivers deep down the field.
That's par for the course thus far in Locker's career. Opposing defenses have rarely respected Locker's ability to stretch the field, and during his first 13 starts he hadn't really be able to make defenses pay for that lack of respect. That all has changed for Locker in 2013. In the past two weeks Locker has shown a greatly improved ability to place the football down the field where only his target can catch it. In week three this was on display most notably on the game winning pass to Justin Hunter, and also on the same drive with a deep pass to Delanie Walker that was dropped.
Week four saw another well placed pass to Hunter in the end zone.
Locker has grown in more than just one area, though. Sunday's start was just his 15th, meaning he's finally got a year of starts (almost) under his belt. 2013 has seen Locker's pocket prescence drastically improve. In situations where Locker would often look uncomfortable in the pocket last season, he's instead moved confidently and moved around in the pocket while still looking for options down field. And now, more often than not, he's completing those passes like this one, which found Nate Washington for a first down.
Perhaps the most important step in Locker's maturation process is the dramatic steps he's taken in cutting down on turnovers. Locker threw 11 interceptions and fumbled six times in ten games last season, but this year he's yet to turn the ball over. For the Titans' chosen style of play, ball security is crucial, and to this point he's provided that.
It's clear that Locker has been a crucial part of the Titans' success. For the next four to eight weeks, the responsibility of keeping that momentum moving forward will now fall on the shoulders of Ryan Fitzpatrick. Unfortunately for Tennessee, it's not likely that he's going to be able to replicate that success.
Fitzpatrick is likely to struggle in two areas Locker was excelling in. First of all, Fitzpatrick has no where near the same sort of arm Locker does. That was no more clear than on a play that actually ended up being a big positive for Tennessee. Late in the game receiver Nate Washington was wide open down the field, but Fitzpatrick floated up a pass that was well underthrown. Fortunately for the Titans the back judge somehow got in the way of the defender and the poor pass turned into a 77 yard touch down – certainly not a result the Titans should be counting on again.
More concerning for Tennessee will be the fact that Fitzpatrick has been a turnover machine in his most recent starts. He's thrown 39 interceptions in his last 32 starts, and only Josh Freeman has thrown more interceptions since 2011. Combine that with the fact that the Titans face strong defensive teams in Kansas City, Seattle, and San Francisco over the next three weeks, and it's easy to imagine quite a few turnovers on the horizon for an offense that has yet to turn it over this year.
The short term concerns for Tennessee are serious – the long term worries may be even more so. Tennessee has had numerous “What if” scenarios since they arrived in Nashville. Whether it was Vince Young, Adam Jones, or countless other situations that ended poorly, the franchise has seemingly missed out on potential elite talents more often than not.
It's too early to put Locker in that same category, but Titans' fans can't help but shake the feeling that they've been in these sorts of situations before. Locker was off to a decent start in 2012 before injuring his shoulder and playing poorly when he was able to suit up for the rest of the season. It took Locker most of the summer to shake off the rust and get to the level he was playing at in week four.
A slow recovery from this injury is going to put the Titans in a difficult situation. 2013 was supposed to be a make or break year for their quarterback. If he's able to make it back on the field this year and plays poorly, does he get yet another season to prove he's future? Or will Locker become yet another chapter in the Titans' book of “What Ifs”?