Seahawks Quarterback Competition Evolves

Horizontal American Style Football in high contrast on black
Practice is hard to quantify. Pete Carroll and his staff do their best by incorporating ways that individual players and the offense or defense can “win” competitions. He even installed a scoreboard they use to track whether the offense or defense is on top (although, I have not figured out what qualifies as a point in their system as of yet). No number matters more to a player on the field than how many snaps, or reps, they get. This number is indicative of where they are in the depth chart. Starters typically the get the bulk of the snaps, followed by the second and third strings. Starters may get extra snaps in any given series, and then also get another go of it after the third stringers finish. Sometimes, there is not even sufficient time for players in the third string to get a snap during a certain portion of practice. Up until today, the Seahawks quarterbacks had roughly the same amount of snaps in each practice. It was a truly even competition, even though one player was technically the “starter” each practice. That changed today. Matt Flynn took his scheduled turn with the starters, but also took the lion’s share of snaps.

In what was almost a typical NFL breakdown, Flynn took 33 snaps, Russell Wilson (2nd string today) took 22 snaps, and Tarvaris Jackson (3rd string) took 16. Now, before we dive deeper, let’s get all the necessary disclaimers out of the way. And there are a lot of them, so bear with me.

Practice is broken up into many parts. For simplicity sake, let’s reduce it to team drills and position drills. The first half of practice is position drills where units like linebackers and offensive lineman and quarterbacks all break out into different drills with their respective coaches. The second half of practice consists of team drills where the offense faces the defense in various situations. There is a gray area where 2-3 quarterbacks and wide receivers face the secondary for 1v1 passes while the other 1-2 quarterbacks hand the ball off to the running backs in a drill mainly meant for the offensive line, defensive line, linebackers and running backs. I don’t start counting snaps for the quarterbacks until true team drills start. This includes full team drills and 7v7 where the lineman are removed. Doing it this way allows me to get a better apples-to-apples comparison of the quarterbacks.

Coaches call out substitutions all along the way. That can be individual subs, or wholesale line changes from first string to second, and so on. The point is, this is scripted. There are no accidental or unplanned snaps, other than perhaps when an injury occurs during practice. I count each snap a quarterback is in for, even if it is a running play and they simply hand the ball off. All of this is an imperfect science. I cannot always see who every throw is to, or may miss a snap or two from time-to-time. It should all be directionally accurate.

It did not occur to me to track snaps until the third practice, so I only have numbers for the last three. The good news there is that there was a different starter at quarterback in each of those practices. Last thing is that drills change from day-to-day, and that some drills reward quarterbacks who get first downs by giving them additional snaps until the defense stops them. This is meaningful as it moves the control out of the coaches hands. Assume a maximum delta of 3-5 snaps that the coaches are not controlling. Okay, that should do it on the disclaimers. Make of this what you will.

Yellow indicates the day each player was the designated starter

Even without the actual numbers from practice one and two, I can say with confidence that they were run in very much the same way practice three and four were. Each quarterback got roughly the same number of snaps. It is also worth noting that Flynn was the biggest beneficiary of earning extra snaps due to gaining first downs on those days. So, for example, he likely had the most snaps on practice three because he played better in those variable drills.

I noted yesterday that we saw the first signs of change in the way coaches were handling the quarterback rotation when Wilson was skipped in a team drill the first time through. It went Jackson, Flynn, Jackson, Flynn, Wilson. Mistake? Possible, but not likely. There are quality control assistants on top of assistant coaches on top of position coaches on top of coordinators on top of head coach. The organization is designed to eliminate mistakes like that. Today, Tarvaris was skipped entirely in the first team drill. He also had one series where all he did was hand the ball off four times. The other quarterbacks passed more than handed off during the same drill.

Some will call this over-analysis. These are all facts, with the disclaimers above in mind. Whether they are worth analyzing is up to each individual. I will offer my take.

The front office reviewed film during the day off yesterday and made a decision to start moving toward uneven reps for the quarterbacks. People scoff at the idea that the front office would make any decisions based on a few days of practice. After all, there are five weeks of pre-season. That assumes the team wants this decision to drag on all the way through those five weeks. It would be ideal if one player stood out in the first week and allowed them to make the call with confidence. If not, making the call after the first pre-season game would make some sense. Allowing this to drag on much beyond that starts to really damage your starter. When you frame it as a 1-2 week competition, five practices becomes a pretty large chunk of time.

It is in the best interest of the organization to avoid talking about this shift in reps. They already started giving themselves air cover the days prior by admitting on-air that they “know” Jackson, so they don’t need to see him as much. While true they have a better handle on him, they would not knowingly reduce the reps of a player they expect to be the starter. That goes against their competition mantra, and against common sense. Add to that the fact that Flynn and Wilson have been outpacing Jackson in practice since training camp began, and it seems even farther fetched.

The next test will be tomorrow when Wilson is scheduled to take his turn with the starters. Do we see the same snap disparity based on who the first string quarterback is, or do we see Flynn still get the bulk of reps? Jackson should take snaps on Saturday with the starters. We will see if that occurs.

What we know for sure is that the shape of the Seahawks quarterback competition did change today, and that changes like this are not by accident. The saga continues tomorrow…