RENTON – What the Seattle Seahawks face with their quarterback situation is less of a controversy than a quandary.
Controversy implies dissension, whereas a quandary seems more of a dilemma. The former causes people to argue their case, the latter causes all factions to ask, “Uh? What’s going on here?”
Typically, quarterback controversies in the NFL involve a starter who is not producing and is being pushed by a backup whom many consider superior.
The Seahawks, however, are in the midst of a three-way competition involving two relatively unknown commodities and one whose talents are known but unconvincing.
Coaches dislike any hint of debate because quarterback is the most important position on the field and it is very rare that a team can reach elite status without a quarterback in clear command of the job.
The Seahawks just don’t have enough evidence, yet, to know if they have that kind of quarterback on the roster. And that’s what makes the exhibition schedule – starting this Saturday at CenturyLink Field against Tennessee – so important.
Today, we examine the situation.
• How did it reach this point? Incumbent Tarvaris Jackson played through injury last season with mixed results as the team finished 7-9. So the Seahawks picked up free agent Matt Flynn, who was impressive in limited action with Green Bay, and then drafted Wisconsin star Russell Wilson in the third round.
On the surface, the calculus seems simple. Flynn was signed to $10 million guaranteed, so he seems the logical starter. Jackson is making a backup’s salary anyway and would seem a reliable second-teamer. And Wilson could sit and learn and be ready for re-evaluation in a year or two.
But from the start, coach Pete Carroll declared this an open competition.
Why? When Jackson was acquired during the lockout summer of 2011, Carroll named him starter before he’d set foot in Seattle. The move seemed so counter to his daily proclamations – that every position is open to competition – that he drew criticism. Carroll seemed so sensitive to the commentary that he often brought up his reasoning even when it wasn’t the topic of the moment.
This time around, his “Always Compete” mantra has been served by making the position race wide open.
• Tarvaris Jackson
Strengths, weaknesses: Jackson earned loyalty from the staff last season by continuing to play through a torn pectoral injury. Performing at less than 100 percent physically might have been good for the team, but it didn’t allow Jackson to demonstrate his talents.
It’s likely his inability to lead the team to scores in crucial moments will be remembered more than his toughness. He would need more game situations to prove whether he can rally a team to late touchdowns when healthy.
He’s still young at 29, durable, athletic, and has big-time arm strength. But he tends to hold the ball too long and at times is indecisive. He has started 34 NFL games, which seems a large enough sample that if he were destined to be an elite quarterback, we’d know by now.
Illustrative play from practice: Jackson is such a competitor and tough guy that during one play, when nothing else was possible, he threw a pass with his left hand. He’s right-handed.
Intangible: Jackson truly seems like a “team-first” guy who kept his mouth shut during unrest in Minnesota, and who is liked well enough by his teammates that he was voted a team captain after having been in training camp only a few weeks last season.
• Matt flynn
Strengths, weaknesses: He is 27 and served a four-year apprenticeship behind Packers starter and league MVP Aaron Rodgers. The good parts of that for Flynn were learning the game from a top-notch staff and watching up-close how Rodgers went about his business. The bad side is that Flynn got only two starts in that span.
He got his contract with Seattle based on what he showed in those two games: Throwing three touchdowns (100.2 passer rating) against New England in 2010, and a monster six-touchdown, 480-yard passing effort against Detroit in the 2011 regular-season finale.
Flynn is a cool customer, seemingly unruffled by pressure or circumstance. He’s not viewed as physically imposing, but his listed height and weight (6-foot-2, 225 pounds) is exactly that of Aaron Rodgers. His ball in flight is not as impressive as Jackson’s or Wilson’s, but he anticipates well and has a command of the offense.
Illustrative play from practice: During a two-minute drill session, Flynn sensed a blitz coming. He audibled, and connected with Doug Baldwin on a slant-in route with a perfectly placed and welll-timed pass. It might have been the only way to turn that situation into a positive, and Flynn found it.
Intangible: Flynn knows his strengths and is confident in them. When asked about arm strength and some of the other qualities analysts consider important, he responded: “What it all comes down to is you have to be smart and accurate. That’s the main objective of a quarterback.”
That statement is likewise smart and accurate. With a top-10 defense already in place, and a rushing game powered by Marshawn Lynch, Flynn knows that the Seahawks need a quarterback who can move the chains and keep them out of negative plays.
• Russell Wilson
Strengths, weaknesses: Wilson is the least-known variable. Going by passer rating alone, he was the best college quarterback in NCAA history last season, grading out as more efficient than top overall pick Andrew Luck and No. 2 Robert Griffin III.
But at 5-103/4, Wilson doesn’t meet the accepted specs for an NFL quarterback. Yet he made it obvious from his first day in Seattle that he does not have the arm of a small quarterback. He’s quick and elusive and throws very well on the run when the pocket collapses. Wilson has such arm strength that he is able to gun the ball into tight “windows,” one time hitting a receiver so hard it bounced off his chest and was intercepted.
The liability of that arm strength is that, at least for now, he’s tempted to force those unlikely passes. It’s obvious he’s a quick learner who is highly competitive with leadership qualities.
Whether his height is a limiting element in the NFL, as some suggest, will become evident once games begin.
Illustrative play from practice: Wilson connected on one of the best passes during training camp, finding Golden Tate in stride with a deep ball up the left sideline. Because of his arm strength, Wilson doesn’t have to put such high arc on deep passes, so they arrive quicker and give safeties less time to get over and help cornerbacks.
Intangible: Carroll and GM John Schneider love finding players with unique talents so he can deploy them in unique ways, and if that means taking a player whom others think can’t make it, that only makes it more fun. Wilson is that kind of player.
So what’s at stake for the Seahawks as they evaluate their candidates? Oh, maybe the future of the franchise. If one of them develops into a playoff-caliber quarterback, sure, it’s that big.
However, none has a wreck-the-salary cap contract if it doesn’t work out and the team has to scrap them at some point.
But two consecutive 7-9 seasons puts pressure on the staff to find some manner of solution that shows improvement and hope for the future.
• Timetable: Carroll has treated this like a mystery, offering only hints when asked about the competition on a daily basis. After Sunday’s scrimmage, he said he’d have more to evaluate on Monday’s day off and would have a better idea today how the staff would approach the first exhibition game Saturday.
“I would like to figure this out as soon as possible. I have thought that the whole time,” Carroll said. “But I felt it is going to take a while.”
The downside is that every training camp repetition taken by the eventual second- or third-team quarterback is one stolen from the eventual starter, who will need to develop timing and rapport with his teammates on offense.
• Other factors to consider: If Jackson is the best option, then it feels as if the moves in free agency and the draft were ineffective. If he doesn’t win the position, is he the kind of player who will be content as a backup?
Flynn didn’t land a contract that screamed long-term commitment. Still, he’s the highest paid quarterback on the roster, and that is generally an indicator of what the front office would like the depth chart to reflect.
Teams are no longer committed to the old protocol of letting a rookie quarterback sit around and learn the position. If Wilson can claim the job, it should mean good things for the future, but it might also mean the team has to live through his inevitable growing pains.
It’s probably unwise to think the player who gets picked as the season starter is necessarily a long-term anointment.
• Options: I think they’d like the winner to be Flynn because he is still young enough to have a long future, but has at least enough experience he shouldn’t face a steep learning curve.
If it is Flynn, then Wilson’s performance might determine Jackson’s status. If Wilson shows enough maturity to be a workable backup, then it makes no sense to have the veteran Jackson as a third-teamer.
• My take: It will be Flynn when the season starts. Jackson has shown he’s willing and able to be a solid backup. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see a limited roll-out package put in that could exploit Wilson’s skills as a change-up for a series or two as he learns what the NFL game is all about.
Until then, it’s a email@example.com 253-597-8440 @DaveBoling