Yet Another Look at the QB Situation

(For those of you who are interested, former Seahawk Addicts owner and writer Chris Sullivan is back in action.  He’s recently started up a new blog, Thirty Acre Fortress, which you can find here.  Nice to see you back at it, Chris!)

The other day while I was doing some research1 I came across a newspaper column that Mike Detillier wrote for the Houma Courier back in 2005.  Most of you have probably never heard of Detillier, and there’s no real reason you should have since his main job is covering the New Orleans Saints.  Even so, I try to remember to read his stuff every now and then because he’s one of the precious few sportswriters in existence who doesn’t tend to pad out his articles with half-assed research, baseless opinions, or aggressively dumb lists.

Anyway, let me set up the context of the article for you.  It’s week fifteen of the ’05 regular season, and the Saints have lost eight of their last nine games thanks in no small part to the erratic play of quarterback Aaron Brooks.  As a result, head coach Jim Haslett had finally made the decision to bench his longtime starting QB, which prompted Detillier to remember something retired coach C.W. “Wimp” Hewgley once said to him:

“Guys like Aaron Brooks, Jim Everett, Kerry Collins, Kyle Boller, Joey Harrington, Tommy Maddox, and Trent Dilfer are all the same sorts of players,” Hewgley would say.  “They are like middle range-priced stocks that jump up at times, and they look like terrific long-term investments.  But if you hang on to them too long they eventually will lose you all the money you made on them.”

The concept Hewgley is talking about is pretty straightforward: keep QBs while they’re good, but be sure to ditch them when they go bad.  That goes for more than just “middle range” QBs, of course.  Given a long enough timeline, age and injury will turn even the best quarterbacks into bad investments.  One day we’ll all be talking about Peyton Manning and Drew Brees in that kind of half-sad, half-exasperated tone of voice we used to use when we talked about Dan Marino and Troy Aikman in the last few painfully gimpy years of their careers.

But even though the idea was easy enough to grasp, there was just something I couldn’t . . . well, you ever read something and then have it nag you the rest of the day, like there was something you’re missing but you aren’t quite sure what?  That’s the effect Hewgley’s list of QBs had on me.  Now, I’m generally a forgetful person; I forget people’s names as soon as they finish introducing themselves, I misplace pens and full cups of coffee everywhere I go, and I don’t even want to think about how much money I’ve spent over the years on late fees of all shapes and sizes.  But when it comes to random bits of info like that list, my mind latches on like a pitbull on a mailman, forcing me to think about it over and over, day after day, week after week until I finally figure out what the hell was bothering me about it.  My brain is kind of a dick, is basically what I’m saying here.

Thankfully, later that night I found the answer I needed while I was thumbing through Paul Zimmerman’s book on Weeb Ewbank’s last season as head coach of the Jets2:

“Well, the first thing I [Ewbank] did was to study all the quarterbacks in pro football at the time.  I got ahold of all the films I could and I watched them, their peculiar quirks, the way they handled themselves back there.

“I learned that you have to let ‘em alone.  No two of them are going to do it alike.  You can try to improve on what they do, and if there’s a mechanical error, you can try to correct it, but you can’t change a man’s style.”

Ewbank was talking about the traits that make QBs successful, but I realized the same could be said of failure, too — the QBs on Hewgley’s list may have all arrived at the same middling conclusion, but the characteristics that made them (semi-)failures were wildly different.  Kyle Boller may have great athleticism and a strong throwing arm, but those assets have never been able to make up for his terrible accuracy.  Trent Dilfer only ever found success in run-heavy offenses that masked his poor decision-making skills.  Jim Everett and Joey Harrington both never regained their confidence after being beaten to a pulp — Harrington in the four years he spent behind the Lions’ porous o-line, and Everett in a brutal playoff game against the 49ers.  Kerry Collins is a self-destructive alcoholic who spent the first several years of his pro career in a drunken stupor.  Aaron Brooks had plenty of physical ability, but lacked the personality to take control and gain his teammates’ trust.  Tommy Maddox declared for the draft too early and wasn’t able to handle the speed and complexity of the pro game.

I’d be remiss here if I didn’t point out that the quarterbacks on Hewgley’s list all enjoyed a degree of success at some point in their careers.  Everett in his pre-phantom sack days looked an awful lot like a star in the making, for instance, and Dilfer and Collins were the two starting QBs in Super Bowl XXXV.  Even poor shell-shocked Harrington kept his QB rating above 90 on nineteen separate occasions.  The problem was that their good performances weren’t stustainable over a long enough period for teams to be able to count on them.

And with that we come to the Seahawks and the choice they have before them this offseason.  Do they re-invest in longtime but aging starter Matt Hasselbeck, or go with the largely untested but intriguing talent Charlie Whitehurst? (There’s a good chance a third candidate is in play, but I’ll wait to talk about him when we know for sure who he might be.)

Hasselbeck has been a proven asset for the team.  He’s been to three Pro Bowls, played in the Super Bowl, and in 2007 pushed Seattle’s flagging offense into the playoffs through sheer force of will.  He’s smart, his teammates respond well to him, he’s never been given enough credit for his ability to run3and he’s got some of that same flair for improvisation that made Brett Favre and Fran Tarkenton so valuable under center. 

2008 onward, unfortunately, is a different story.  In the last three years, Hasselbeck has missed 11 games due to injury, and even when he’s been able to play through those injuries they’ve clearly affected his performance.  After throwing 137 touchdowns to 76 interceptions from 2002 to 2007, he’s thrown 34 touchdowns to 44 interceptions.  What’s worse, he’s clearly lost some velocity on his throws — passes that would’ve previously zipped in through tight windows in years past have started hanging in the air for an extra split second, which is all the extra opportunity a good defensive back needs to make a play on the ball.  Granted, he turned in some impressive performances in the playoffs, but I don’t know that that’s enough reason to re-sign a player as expensive as an established quarterback.  I mean, Jon Kitna had a career season last year, but I wouldn’t want to start him based on just those nine games — why make a different decision with Hasselbeck based on two?

Charlie Whitehurst has many things going for him that Hasselbeck doesn’t.  He’s got a much cleaner bill of health, for one, and he’s got great touch on deep passes, which is something Hasselbeck has never possessed (Hasselbeck is, however, more accurate on short to mid-range passes).  He’ll be 29 next year, making him a bit old to be counted on as a long term starting QB for the team, but Roger Staubach was also 29 when he became the starting QB for the Cowboys and I hear that worked out pretty well for all concerned.

Still, Whitehurst is awfully inexperienced for a guy entering his sixth year in the league.  He never rose above third place on the depth chart in San Diego, which would be more concerning if the guys he was stuck behind weren’t star QB Philip Rivers and his criminally underrated backup Billy Volek.  Additionally, Norv Turner may have a lot of faults as a coach, but when it comes to offenses and developing quarterbacks he’s one of the premier minds in all of professional football.  A competent QB could learn more by falling asleep on top of one of Turner’s playbooks than he could in a season’s worth of one-on-one tutelage from half the offensive coaches in the league, and Whitehurst spent three years on Turner’s team — even third on the depth chart, that’s a positive thing.

Whitehurst had that one great game against the Rams to close out the season, but prior to that he looked awfully shaky in spot duty.  He clearly lacks a veteran’s ability to read defenses quickly, and when his primary receiver is covered he has a tendency to panic and throw a pick (the best example being that game against the Cardinals when he threw late to the short route on the backside of the play).  But you know what?  Hasselbeck did the same thing in his first two years in Seattle, and he turned out just fine.

But which one to choose, the aging starter with the proven track record or the promising young guy with lots of potential but not much else?  Plenty of QBs like Whitehurst have gone on to great success after being rescued from the depths of another team’s depth chart (Len Dawson, Matt Schaub, etc.) but sometimes you just end up with a Rob Johnson-level disappointment who loses games and gets head coaches fired.  Likewise, some teams who gamble on aging vets get rewarded with an end-of-career flurry of Pro Bowl greatness (like the Eagles when they signed Norm Van Brocklin), but plenty of others just find themselves saddled with the broken-down husk of a former great (like the Rams when they signed Joe Namath).

The velocity Hasselbeck’s lost on his throws makes me want to lean toward Whitehurst, but the real answer is that I haven’t got a clue which one is the right choice.  And despite all the opinions floating around out there, I’m here to tell you that no one else does either for one simple reason: when it comes to predicting a given QB’s worth, no one, and I mean no one, knows their ass from a hole in the ground.  Take the draft, for example.  Back in the late ’60s, 50% of all QBs taken in the first ten picks turned out to be busts, and the same percentage held true for all QBs taken in the first round.  In the 40+ years since then, teams have spent millions upon millions of dollars turning player evaluation into a science.  They’ve improved scouting methods, refined grading techniques, researched the mysteries of throwing motions, release points, and foot placement . . . and they’re still hitting that same 50% success rate on first round QBs4.  So much time and effort, and NFL teams still can’t manage to better the predictive powers of a simple coin flip.

And at this point, it’s rather doubtful that they ever will.  It isn’t their fault, it’s just the nature of the QB position.  An offensive guard, no matter his particular quirks or personality, is going to have to play the position in more or less the same manner as every other offensive guard in existence.  The same goes for centers, 3-4 nose tackles, kickers, and so forth.  There just aren’t that many different ways to play the position, which makes things much easier when it comes time to evaluate prospective players.  Quarterback is the odd man out.  As Matt Taibbi so eloquently put it,

Here’s the thing about quarterbacks: You just don’t know.  Any coach who tries to tell you that he knew this or that late-round college quarterback was going to be an NFL star is a f[***]ing liar . . . Quarterbacks are like cats or teenage girls: it’s impossible to tell what the hell is going on in their flighty heads or know how they’re going to act even five minutes from now.

And since I can’t improve on Taibbi’s words, this seems like as good a place as any to stop.  With any luck, the lockout will be over soon and we can all go back to having a steady stream of actual football news to write about.  One can only hope.


1 Why?  Because it’s sort of my thing, that’s why.

2 Titled, conveniently enough, The Last Season of Weeb Ewbank (quote taken from page 18).  It’s a pretty good read.

3Hasselbeck has slowed down a bit in recent years, but he’s still got 1,139 yards on 306 attempts for a career average of 3.7 yards per carry.  Oh, and 8 rushing touchdowns.

4Brian Billick, More Than a Game, page 101.