By Jordan Churchill
This is but the beginning of an extensive Titans Anthology that will span current and past players. There is so much that goes unnoticed in the NFL world, and so much that is equally under-appreciated. This Omibus is but my personal rendition of the lives of true Titans; men who exemplify all the qualities of leadership, excellence, and work ethic that provide an example for all future players who look to pursue their dreams of NFL stardom.
To break us in, we will begin with the Titans starting Quarterback, Jake Locker.
For the small city of Ferndale, Washington, there was never a question about him. The town is no stranger to pro-athletes in a multitude of sports, but their attentions, and hearts were invested. This kid was their favored son, a home-grown hero for the locals, and that attitude touched every corner of the idyllic 12,000 person township. The Mayor, Mr. Gary Jensen, quipped once that if Jake Locker decided to run for office tomorrow, that he would be out of the job. You'd be hard pressed to fault him in that opinion. With a Locker-signed football on his desk, Mayor Jensen elaborated for Scott Johnson, a journalist for The Herald of Everett:
"We've had professional athletes before...But Jake has captured the attention of this community. Jake's special..."
Photo courtesy of Otto Gruele Jr.
In honor of his story-book football career at the local high school, his graduation to the University of Washington, and his eventual step into the NFL ranks, Jensen even had a 115 year old founders celebration renamed Jake Locker Day.
But don't think this goes to his head. Forget the 2005 high school state championship, forget his first round NFL draft status. You will find none of it when you speak with him, according to family and friends, and just about everyone in Ferndale, Washington. It is easy to see where Locker got the humble persona he carries; Ferndale holds a heartland-ish feel, an atmosphere right out of a Hollywood flick set in American Suburbia.
It is also easy to forget for those outside of Washington, that Locker turned down offers to be the starting quarterback for the likes of USC, Michigan, and Cal, in order to attend UW and stay close to home. The more well-known event happened years later, when Locker decided to forgo the chance of being a sure-fire top 10 NFL draft pick, giving up a $40 million contract, as well as being potentially the first QB off the board, to return to the University of Washington for his senior season.
"The stardom thing is a great thing; anyone who put on a uniform would hope for it. But there are hurdles. I take my hat off to (Jake). He's handled it all well," Locker's father, Scott, said of his son.
Locker never looked back. His family, friends, fans; they all mean something more to him, that is Jake at his core. This is the reason he lights up a room, and what elicits the glowing impressions of everyone that speaks to him.
The goals Locker set himself at UW were well-enjoyed at the end. Locker celebrated the finale of his college career by following through on the promise he had made when he agreed to be their new Quarterback; the promise to turn around the floundering program and transform them into winners. He did more than leave a college record book littered with entries, he brought the school back to relevance. Locker's final game was as much of a story-book ending as any LA screenwriter could generate; a convincing win over streaking Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl.
"For him to experience this moment is why we coach," Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said after the Holiday Bowl victory.
This was but the first step, though. He is a home-town hero in Washington, a local-legend bound for the national stage. But the road ahead was destined to challenge him like never before.
Too inaccurate, poor touch, lack of field vision...these were the things that were discussed among NFL scouts when looking at the kid from UW. After forgoing the Draft to return for his senior year, Locker found fewer friends among talent evaluators, who labeled him as a project Quarterback, not the potential 1st overall draft choice he had been touted as the year before.
"I've got a great ability to find the open space on the field and run the ball, and I've got some decent arm strength. I want to get faster for sure, and I want to learn different pass coverages a lot better."
This is what Locker had to say of his own strengths as a football player. He had always been lauded for his mobility, arm strength and his decision-making, but now his talent was being pitched against other top signal callers from around the Nation. The anonymous NFL GM evaluation, per Chris Mortensen, of Locker, that he was a "bigger, taller, right-handed version of Steve Young", was forgotten by many. He went from facing the 1st overall selection, to rumors of his drop into the 2nd or even the 3rd round.
Turns out that is not how destiny would have it. Looking for rebirth at the position after almost a decade of failure, the Tennessee Titans selected Jake with the 8th overall pick. He was to sit behind celebrated former Seattle Seahawks Quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck. In Matt, Locker found a mentor and a friend, a figure who gave Locker his best shot at success.
"I think he's affected my life more off the field than he has on. He's just a great guy, a guy that I'm very thankful to have a friendship with. And, yeah, he's been a blessing in my life." - Jake Locker on Matt Hasselbeck.
Locker's first taste of NFL action came on November 20th, 2011, against the Atlanta Falcons when Hasselbeck was forced from the game with an injury. The rookie signal caller proceeded to toss for 140 yards and two scores in an effort that eventually fell short.
Locker was again inserted into the lineup against the New Orleans Saints, where he proceeded to conduct an unlikely comeback. Though Locker wasn't able to make one final play to win the game, his performance caught the eye of many around the NFL. Soon Titans fans were clamoring to see more of the ex-Husky signal caller.
Locker ended his rookie season with five total touchdowns while acting in relief of Hasselbeck, and entered his sophomore season in position to compete for the starting job.
Locker doesn't take the criticisms personally, he has said as much more than once, but it is a fair argument to make that the Quarterback has faced a level of scrutiny that far outweighs the short-comings in his NFL career to date. In an era where the expectations for first-round QBs are higher than ever, the Media have gotten carried away with the image of the pro-ready rookie quarterback.
Jake's first start against the Patriots in the season opener of the 2012 campaign was but the beginning of a troubled year. Much like in UW, Locker struggled with injuries that hampered his play. He was facing the familiar prospect of attempting to conduct an effective offense behind a porous offensive line and a non-existent running game. This trend persisted throughout the year, culminating in one of the worst Titans teams of the decade.
But unlike most human-beings, Locker remained steadfast. He never doubted his own abilities on the football field or off of it. Instead of blaming teammates for their shortcomings, or making excuses for his poor play, Locker got to work in Nashville over the offseason with renewed purpose; an effort to lead his team like he was taught to, to be accountable when nobody else was, to go the extra mile in preparation, to lay his body on the line to win.
And this vigor and work reflected in the opinions of his teammates. Afore-mentioned mentor Matt Hasselbeck is a constant supporter of Jake as an NFL Franchise Quarterback for the Tennessee Titans.
"He's off the charts. His character is amazing. He's actually very, very smart What he really needs is experience. He needs to fight through some adversity and just do it himself. Last year what I thought he had to work through was playing hurt. He got hurt on a play ... that should've been whistled dead but wasn't whistled dead. And it caused him the whole season to try and play hurt with his shoulder injury. He manned up and did it and the coaches respected him for it."
Too inaccurate, poor touch, lack of vision. These criticisms resurfaced with a vengeance over the course of the 2012 season, and even into the past year when Locker again went down. This time though, the criticisms were largely unwarranted.
6.2 ypa vs 6.9 ypa
60.2 comp. % vs 60.7 comp. %
2.55 TD/INT ratio vs 2 TD/INT ratio
The numbers above illustrate the similarities between Andrew Luck (the left) and Jake Locker (the right) in the 2013 season. There is no question that Luck has had more success to this juncture in terms of an NFL career, but these alike numbers just go to show the stigmas that have followed Jake to where he stands today, despite the obvious improvements and growth easily visible from those who have followed his career.
This latest injury was but another bump in a road Locker is all too familiar with, but he has never, and I would hedge my bet that he never will, let that stop him from striving to achieve success in the NFL.
A New Beginning
Jake Locker's future remains firmly in the hands of destiny; in 2014 the hometown hero from Ferndale, Washington is looking at a career crossroads. Can he overcome his weaknesses and be the Quarterback that the Titans envisioned when they selected him at 8th overall? Can he silence the doubters who have harried him since his college days? Can he lead a winning football team in the modern NFL?
The short answer? We don't know. There is nothing guaranteed in life, nor in the fiercely competitive arenas of the National Football League. There are a thousand reasons players do not live up to expectations, but will Locker fall into this category like his naysayers already claim he has? No. I sincerely don't believe that.
Beyond all the mechanics of footwork and coverage-reading abilities, the football delivery, the finesse to make the touch passes as well as the bullets; beyond all this there is an unquantifiable quality that sets certain individuals apart from the common stock. This quality is a mixture of intangibles; work ethic, leadership, and above all: desire. Locker has the fire and the competitive edge to lead his soldiers into battle, and he has the bravery and raw physical talent to elevate himself to a higher level. The old adage couldn't be truer; "Leaders aren't born, they are made"
"As for Jake, he has the personality, the mentality that you want to be a part of. You want to play for that guy...I’ll lay my body out there for him, week in and week out. I’ll take as many shots and play hurt to play for a guy like that to protect him, and everyone else on this team feels the same way. When you’ve got guys who feel that way about one another, it’s a powerful thing." - Rob Turner on Jake Locker
Locker has faced the fires his entire career, and he has done it willingly and with a steely resolve. There is an unmistakable quality about him that separates him from simply a football player. He carries the pride of millions of fans on his shoulders with aplomb, and is never shaken when questioned, criticized, or worse. Teammates continue to tell the story of a guy who emulates everything a football leader should be, a guy who goes the extra mile; running laps and gassers after practice if he made mistakes. He said last offseason that the pressure from the outside is irrelevant, and his thick-skin has a source; those pressures doesn't come close to measuring up to the drive he puts on himself to improve and succeed in everything he pursues.
So with new Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt in town, Locker has been granted an offer of rebirth, a chance to begin again and re-make his image in the eyes of the league and it's millions of fans. He has the tools at hand, both in himself, and in his talented supporting cast, to get the job done. Locker himself has let his enthusiasm to work with the new staff be readily known, and since then Whisenhunt has reciprocated those feelings.
Times may be changing in Tennessee, but I feel like the book on Locker is long-still to be finished. Jake is human above all things; he has flaws and weaknesses. But his resolve to overcome these hurdles in the past is what sets him apart from the crowd, what draws players and coaches, friends and fans alike to his side, to root for a guy who they whole-heartedly believe deserves the success that so many crave and so few ever realize. The local-legend from idyllic heartland America has history yet to write in Nashville, and I for one, could not be more excited to watch him go to work.