Tarvaris Jackson Raises Expectations

Defensive backs take part of their traditional pregame huddle before taking the field for warmups.
Charlie Whitehurst has spent the last two weeks nailing himself into a quarterback coffin. He went from Clipboard Jesus to Clipboard Lucifer in record time. The Seahawks fortunes have followed a similar trajectory, which is no coincidence. Lost in the mayhem has been a stretch of strong play from Tarvaris Jackson that should have fans reassessing a player who will likely be the starter in Seattle through 2012.

Jackson came in as the least-heralded addition to the roster since, well, Whitehurst. You would have to search high and low to find a Seahawks fan that was excited about signing Jackson. Fans were even more incredulous when he was handed the starting job before taking a practice snap. He did little to change perceptions in a pre-season that saw the offense barely function behind a nearly invisible offensive line. His first three regular season games were not much better as the team averaged 10 points/game and Jackson sported a 73.6 passer rating. He was averaging an abysmal 5.43 yards per attempt (YPA). Matt Moore, by comparison, is averaging 6.14 YPA. His touchdown percentage was 2%, meaning that only 2% of his pass attempts were resulting in a touchdown. Even a guy like Curtis Painter has a higher touchdown percentage than that (~3%).

Things changed dramatically in the Atlanta game. Nearly all of Jackson’s measurables have jumped. His overall passer rating in the last three games is 83.2, which would rank around 15th in the NFL if he sustained it for a season. One of the biggest differences has been his ability to throw down-field. His YPA has jumped from 5.43 in the first three games to 8.08 in the last three. Only seven quarterbacks in the NFL have a higher YPA than 8.08 this season. Players like Phillip Rivers and Drew Brees fall below that line. Jackson’s touchdown percentage has doubled to a more respectable 4%. That’s still way off an elite QB like Aaron Rodgers who stands at around 8%, but is higher than a guy like Ben Roethlisberger who is at 3.9%. His completion percentage has stayed steady at 61%, which ranks in the middle of the NFL pack.

Jackson came off the bench last week with an injury to throw for 323 yards in 10 series. If he had maintained that 32.3 yards/series average during the three series Whitehurst played, he would have thrown for over 400 yards. The popular sentiment this week has been, “Yeah, but who cares about yards when you can’t score points?” The Seahawks scored 28 points against Atlanta, 36 against New York (19 with Jackson playing), and 9 in 2.5 quarters last week. Jackson did not cause Marshawn Lynch to fumble at the 10-yard line in NY, or Michael Robinson at the 1-yard line. He did not cause Lynch to come up short at the end of the first half against Cincinnati, or for Carroll to burn a timeout.

One of the last things a quarterback masters is how to play in the red zone. Decisions must be quick. Throws must be accurate. Mistakes cannot be made. Jackson has missed reads and points this year inside the 20. There is no doubt he needs to get better there, but to imply he is not leading the team to points is ignoring the evidence.

Jackson is not great in the red zone, but has shown the ability the throw an elite deep ball. His high YPA is not a fluke. Whitehurst provided a perfect juxtaposition as he had numerous chances to throw deep to open receivers the past two weeks, and was short or inaccurate in every case. Jackson has a highlight reel of deep throws. His toss to Ben Obomanu for 55-yards last week was exquisite. Obomanu was even with the defensive back when Jackson threw the ball, but was able to run under the ball and away from the defender because Jackson led him perfectly. He throws deep with loft, depth and above average accuracy. This is the most outstanding aspect of his passing game.

His toughness deserves to be mentioned as the most notable part of his overall game. He’s been sacked more than any other quarterback in the NFL, and is playing through a painful injury on his throwing side. Players respect him, as evidenced by being named team captain despite only being with the organization a few weeks.

None of this is to say that Jackson is the next great Seahawks quarterback, or even that anything has changed from the plan to have him start this year and next before yielding to a touted draft choice. He has, however, raised his ceiling. This is a 28-year-old player who is getting his first extended chance to start in the NFL since he was just a pup. The progress he has made in six games deserves recognition and appreciation, and maybe even a little excitement. Most people had Jackson as the worst starting quarterback in the NFL when the season began. He is statistically playing like a Top 15 QB the last three games. That’s a fact. The next test is to see if he can maintain that pace or even increase it. That is worth watching.