In less than 15 years, the Tennessee Titans have had more than their fair share of quarterback battles.
Coming as they did in the cultural Dark Ages before the Twilight series and Twitter, no one in Nashville felt compelled to declare their allegiance to #TeamSteve or #TeamNeil. There were no T-shirts festooned with the visages of Billy Volek or Kerry Collins. And if anyone had any special allegiance to Vince Young, they are no longer admitting it.
Years tend to rub petroleum jelly on the lens of memory, softening the focus of once-hard edges. But in honest moments, fans remember pitched debates about the merits of McNair versus O'Donnell. The gunslinging Volek had his defenders, as did the graybeard Collins. And yes, some folks stayed solidly behind Vince Young — at least until he gave his shoulder pads the heave-ho.
In that context, the current quarterback battle between Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker seems downright, well ... boring.
Those ancient quarterback battles played out like religious wars, Reforming Huguenots fighting the tested methods of the Catholics for the soul of Western Europe (or at least of the East Bank).
But Locker and Hasselbeck is a battle over which seems more appropriate. As sports conflicts go, that's about as exciting as a tweedy fireside talk about the merits of the Oxford comma.
Bridges burned over those other competitions for the top of the depth chart. This one is more like a bridge club.
Hasselbeck is coming off a season in which he was great at times — far exceeding the expectation he would simply be OK and keep the ball warm for Locker. When Locker had to play last year, due to the inevitable Hasselbeck injury, he played well.
Hasselbeck is the vet, likely in his last starting job. Locker is the first-round draft pick, poised for a long career as the franchise quarterback.
Locker is more fleet of foot and has the stronger arm, both of which come from the advantage of being in his early 20s. Hasselbeck has the wisdom of experience — and part of that wisdom is knowing he'll eventually cede the mantle to his protégé.
But when is the right time? That's the question that rages with the white heat of a crockpot.
Hasselbackers claim Locker isn't ready for the forge of an NFL season, that he needs more time to learn at the feet of a man with a career .525 winning percentage.
There are rightful claims Locker might get hurt — a risk in any event — and weirder claims his feelings might be bruised with a few brutal losses, as if playing for the University of Washington didn't give him plenty of opportunities to inure himself to the sting of defeat.
To them, Locker is like a bottle of champagne being saved for a big occasion. It stays in the refrigerator unopened because no occasion seems big enough.
Thus Locker is in a situation that Major Major Major would envy. He doesn't have enough game experience to start games, but he can't start games unless he has the experience.
Not that there aren't reasons to keep playing Hasselbeck. Having a promising quarterback patiently wait for his chance behind the effective veteran helped turn Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers into the NFL's best signal-caller, learning the secrets of reading defenses — if not sending text messages — from Brett Favre.
But Favre was winning Super Bowls. Hasselbeck isn't.
Titans Coach Mike Munchak insists he is not a more generously proportioned, clean-shaven Jeff Fisher. But forcing a young player to beat out a vet is as much a part of Fisher's ethos as that crumb-catcher and that fist pump.
Quarterback battles are supposed to be messy and contentious. Years of watching Steve Spurrier-coached teams have prepared Southerners for that. But this one is being stage-managed to death, down to a near-even split in snaps and a predictable switch from Hasselbeck to Locker as the starter in pre-season games.
Nothing is being left to chance. And that's the great disappointment here — as well as a microcosm of what's been wrong with the Titans for years.
Big risks lead to big rewards. Playing it safe gets you to 8-8.
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