Matt Flynn’s Path To Starting

50 yard line on an american football field
Ron Jaworski, of ESPN, has been ranking the Top 30 NFL quarterbacks the past few weeks. He chose to rate Matt Flynn as the Seahawks starter and put him at #27 on the list. Flynn enters training camp as the #2 quarterback on his own team. Jaworski is not alone in assuming Flynn will win the starting role. Nearly every media member that covers the Seahawks and most fans expect the same thing. It may prove harder than most expect.

Comparing a player like Flynn, with two career starts, to a player like Tarvaris Jackson, with 34 career starts, is challenging. There certainly is not a large enough sample size to make confident assertions about Flynn, but there are some trends that imply strengths and weaknesses that show up when watching Flynn play, and are supported by the statistics he has recorded thus far.

Flynn is a competitor

Of the nine career touchdowns Flynn has thrown in the NFL, eight of them have given his team the lead. That’s eight go-ahead touchdowns in two starts. By comparison, Jackson has 4 go-ahead touchdowns in 34 starts. Jackson will get examined more in a future post, but Flynn’s performance is impressive even when compared to more established starters. Philip Rivers threw 27 touchdowns last season, four of which gave his team the lead. Of those four touchdowns, three came when his team was tied, and only one took his team from trailing to leading in the game. All six of Flynn’s touchdowns in his start against Detroit last year brought his team from a trailing position to a leading position. Rivers only had seven go-ahead touchdowns the year before, three of which came when his team was trailing. Tom Brady threw 13 go-ahead touchdowns last season, four came when his team was trailing.

Among those six go-ahead touchdowns was a 4-yarder to Jermichael Finley that put the Packers ahead for good in the 4th quarter. That’s one game-winning drive after two starts. Jackson has four game-winning drives in his 34 starts, and three that came in the 4th quarter.

Going toe-to-toe with Tom Brady in New England in 2010, and winning the national title with LSU after JaMarcus Russell went to the NFL is further evidence that Flynn does not back down from anything. People can say what they want about his physical tools, but he has shown a propensity for battling whenever he gets on the field.

People might have a point about Flynn’s physical tools

The constant knock on Flynn is that he does not have ideal NFL measurables, particularly in the arm strength department. His two starts have been dazzling statistically, but look further and there is evidence for some concerns.

Flynn struggles on intermediate throws down the field

The results tell us a few things. Flynn is awesome throwing the ball behind the line of scrimmage. Joking aside, not all quarterbacks do that very well. It’s still not the first thing a quarterback wants on his resume. The bulk of Flynn’s throws have been between 1-10 yards down field. That’s not abnormal. Brady, for example, threw 64% of his passes between 1-10 yards down field last season. Flynn has been at 50% through two starts.

The troubling number is what happens between 11-30 yards down field. Flynn’s completion percentage drops from 70%+ on the short passes down to 35% on these intermediate routes, including just 16.7% on passes 21-30 yards in the air. If not for a touchdown thrown in the mix, his rating would be in the dumps on these throws. These are the throws where arm strength really can make a difference because safeties and corners have more time to react and converge the longer the ball is in the air. Many of these throws are in the seams, which require timing and zip to get the ball between the safety and the corner. Looking safeties off can buy a quarterback a split second, but there is some pure physical skill needed to make these throws work in the NFL.

You may wonder why Flynn wold perform better on the deep passes. The odd truth about long bombs is that they are less about arm strength than the intermediate routes. All NFL quarterbacks can chuck a football down the field on a loop. Intermediate throws require the ball to be thrown on a line with speed. That’s not to say every NFL quarterback is good at throwing the deep ball. Matt Hasselbeck, for instance, was far better at the intermediate routes when he was with the Seahawks than he was at throwing go-routes. Flynn has shown some early signs of having the touch on deep balls, with two touchdowns in five attempts, and an unsustainable 60% completion percentage.

Flynn relies on preparation and anticipation

Tarvaris Jackson’s overall passer rating in 2011 was 79.2. His performance on first downs was worse. He was about a 76.0 passer on 1st downs last season. Flynn has been a 95.0 and higher passer in those situations, including 107.7 in his game last season. First down is a where film study and line adjustments like audibles tend to play a large role. Defenses are going to be more unpredictable and more likely to disguise their attack plan. What a quarterback, and his offense, does on first down has a major impact on how the rest of the series will play out. Jackson averaged 6.94 yards per attempt on first down last season. Flynn was at 8.35 in his one game.

Third down is another place where this plays a role. Defenses are pulling out every exotic look they can offer in the hopes of getting off the field. Flynn performed remarkably well in his two starts in 3rd and long situations where the defense was anticipating a pass. In 3rd and 6+ yards when playing New England, Flynn had a 142.5 rating on 10 attempts with a whopping 11.7 average per attempt. He followed that up with a 158.3 rating in his game last season with a 16.25 average per attempt. Jackson, by comparison, was a pedestrian 76.4 last year in those situations with a 6.92 average per attempt.

Flynn appears to have a plan, know the defense, and execute it in valuable situations.

Pre-season will be tough

Roughly speaking, Flynn is a heady football player who competes like crazy with less than ideal physical skills. That’s a hard thing to demonstrate in the pre-season and in practice. The average practice is 80% throwing against air, and maybe 10% 7-on-7 and 10% scrimmage. A player like Flynn will not stand out on the practice field, especially when there is a guy like Jackson who has spent seven years in the offense and has a stronger arm. Pre-season games could be the chance for him to separate himself, but keep in mind that defenses are pretty vanilla, and may not really provide much opportunity for Flynn to demonstrate his ability to make adjustments. It’s also not common for a player to be able to illustrate how he can lead a team back in the fourth quarter. Starters rarely play more than a few quarters, and back-ups play against non-NFL players.

If Jackson goes in there and runs the offense capably, will there really be a way for Flynn to show coaches where he excels in ways that differ from Jackson? Jackson would get the first start if nothing changes during training camp, which would mean a home game against the Titans, and Flynn would get the next start which would be an away game against the Broncos. Von Miller and Elvis Dumervill on the road makes for a tougher test.

Flynn may be the better quarterback for the Seahawks this season. His performance thus far indicates his strengths match-up well with what the Seahawks offense requires. He makes sound decisions on 1st and 3rd downs, and is comfortable playing in front or from behind. These are things that Jackson has not demonstrated often in his 34 starts. Flynn must find a way to prove he is better than Jackson in an environment that does not play well to his strengths. His ability to run that gauntlet could very well determine how good this Seahawks team can be in 2012.

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