Seahawks QB Competition: Tarvaris Jackson Wins Round One
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There are a number of myths being promoted as facts regarding the Seahawks quarterback competition. Let’s tackle one at a time.
MYTH: Tarvaris Jackson getting the first reps in training camp is meaningless
There is a depth chart. There is a quarterback competition. The way Pete Carroll has structured the competition is to give each player a day with the first unit. Tarvaris Jackson was given the honor of beginning the first organized team activity (OTA) with the first team because he ended last year as the starter. Everyone understood it was largely a symbolic gesture, as someone had to get the first reps. What many people, including myself, failed to notice during the initial Matt Flynn and Russell Wilson-centered media reports was that the order of the reps never changed. It didn’t change after the first OTA. It did not change after the second OTA, and it did not change after mini-camp. This qualifies as “non-news” for most, as the absence of change is hardly titillating stuff.
The coverage on sports radio and in the papers was largely about Flynn’s accuracy and Wilson’s fast start. When Jackson was mentioned, it was often derisively or with frustration that he was the same player, demonstrating no clear improvement. I went as far as predicting his outright release from the team.
A variety of conversations and observations led me to do a 180 less than a week later. Jackson was not tearing up the practice field, but neither Flynn nor Wilson has played well enough to impact the depth chart. More reports surfaced that Wilson had cooled after his hot start and that Flynn was not demonstrating the ability to throw down-field. None of this means the die has been cast. What it does mean is that if nothing changes, Jackson will be the starter. It also means that this competition will last well into the pre-season, and that will cut down the chances of Josh Portis making the final squad considerably. Portis needs Flynn to win the starting role and Wilson to prove he can man the back-up position.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking a three-way competition means a three-way tie. Jackson is currently out in front at the quarter-pole, then Flynn, then Wilson. It will be big news if the order of reps change, but it will be equally big if the order stays the same.
MYTH: The QB competition has to remain a three-man race
Carroll and Schneider are fully aware how important the quarterback decision is, and they also know the only way to decide it is to see enough of each player. The natural assumption after hearing that Wilson joined the competition for the starting role is that he will be in the race until a starter is named. That need not be the case. The coaches and front office could decide at any time that Wilson is not starter material this season and cut his reps in order to get a better look at Jackson and Flynn. A three-way competition requires a significant amount of coordination and focus, and only makes sense if there is a substantial chance for each player to win the spot. Wilson’s entry into the competition was a victory for the rookie. He can end up as the back-up or third-stringer without any shame. I had expected that Flynn would have moved up to the top of the depth chart by now, leaving Jackson to compete with Wilson for the back-up role. Since Flynn has not stepped up yet, Wilson would be the only obvious player to exit the competition early and allow the coaches to spend more time on the top two competitors.
MYTH: Matt Flynn is a shoe-in to win the starting position (partially due to his contract)
Charlie Whitehurst received a two year, $8M contact. He was the back-up both years. Jackson received a two year, $8M contract. Flynn got $10M in guaranteed money in his three year contract. Some reports have that structured where he will receive $6M this year in signing bonus, $2M in salary, and another $2M in first-year incentives, leaving no guaranteed money over the next two seasons. If Flynn earns the starting role and plays enough, he could end up with as much as $26.5M over three years. He was signed to a contract that gives him a chance to compete for a starting role right away, and potentially grow into a reasonably paid NFL starter. If he played great football, he’d be well positioned to restructure his deal by the end of next season for better money. There is nothing in the contract that should give him an advantage over Jackson or Wilson. The Seahawks are not married to Flynn contractually beyond this season.
MYTH: Matt Flynn losing the QB competition would reflect poorly on Pete Carroll and John Schneider
Lots of fans have been asking what it would say about Carroll and Schneider’s ability to select quarterbacks if Flynn does not work out. After all, Whitehurst was a disaster and Jackson does not appear to be franchise material. The truth is that the front office wanted to increase the level of competition at the position, and Flynn provided an affordable way to buy some credible competition. They spent roughly the same amount to bring in Whitehurst and Jackson, but there was more of a market, and more upside potential, with Flynn. Schneider was not chasing down Flynn in free agency. He and Carroll made their pitch and their offer, and would have been fine if Flynn had decided to take more money elsewhere. Their perspective is the price to get some real competition at quarterback this off-season was $10M (Flynn) and a 3rd round pick (Wilson). The downside is low, but if they hit it with one of these guys, it will be a screaming deal. Fans and media will want to believe The Guy is already among us with these three players. Nobody is going to be anointed. Either one of them will step up and earn the role, or the front office will reload again next year. Should Carroll and Schneider ever draft a QB in the first round and have him tank, or allow a franchise guy to sign elsewhere without pursuing him, then the flood gates can open on their QB evaluation skills.
MYTH: The Seahawks are screwed if Tarvaris is named the starter
Nowhere is it written here that Jackson is the answer as a franchise quarterback that can take a team to a Super Bowl victory. He has made 34 starts in the NFL, and is 17-17 in those games, including 7-7 last season. He is not the worst quarterback in the NFL, nor is he one of the best. He is tough, steady, and strong-armed. Believe it or not, his play in the red zone was pretty darn good in 2011. His passer rating was 90.5 inside the opponents 20-yard line, and 98.6 inside the opponents 10-yard line. That included a stellar 9:1 red zone touchdown-to-interception ratio. Tom Brady, by comparison, has a passer rating of 95.5 in the red zone with a 29:3 TD-to-INT ratio. That’s roughly the same ratio, for those of you that don’t feel like doing the math.
Where Jackson struggles is when his team is tied or trailing, and on 3rd downs. He had an abysmal 44.5 passer rating on 3rd down and 11+ yards to go. That’s a tough situation for any quarterback, though, right? Mr. Brady boasted a 102.9 rating in the same situation. Okay….then. Nobody really thinks Jackson and Brady belong in the same sentence, but Jackson is talented enough to get the Seahawks a division title and a playoff berth if accompanied by a strong running game, a Top 5 defense and a great special teams. He should have all of those things in 2012. Making the playoffs is not the destination, but it would count as progress for the organization.
The reason fans will, and should, continue to focus on Flynn and Wilson is that if one of them can beat out Jackson, it means the coaches believe that player can take the team farther than just making the playoffs. Jackson represents good enough. Flynn and Wilson could get this team’s quarterback position to just plain good. It has yet to be determined if “great” is on this roster.