Week 12 offers tale of two rookie QBs in AFC South

Posted Nov. 21, 2011 @ 7:47 p.m.
Posted By Arthur Arkush

While half of the AFC South was off last week — the Texans preparing Matt Leinart to make his first career start in almost four years and the Colts trying to decide which bad QB to march out against the Panthers in Week 12 — the other half of the division was coming up just short of pulling off road upsets. The Jaguars couldn't punch it in the endzone from the two-yard line on the game's final three plays, resulting in a 14-10 loss to the Browns. The Titans were manhandled by the Falcons for most of the afternoon before rookie QB Jake Locker replaced an injured Matt Hasselbeck, igniting the Tennesee offense late. Locker would trim a 20-point deficit to six before the Falcons eventually prevailed.

Jacksonville, for all intents and purposes, will now be playing for pride the rest of the season; Tennessee, now two games back in the division, is on life support. The biggest difference between how the two teams are likely feeling today is that the Jaguars remain unsure of what they have in rookie QB Blaine Gabbert, while the Titans have to be giddy about Locker's impressive showing.

The PFW spin

Locker and Gabbert, separated by just two picks in April, were both supposed to learn from the sideline as rookies. The Titans made one of the better offseason acquisitions, signing Matt Hasselbeck to show Locker how a consummate professional operates. The Jaguars released their starter five days before the start of the regular season and quickly handed the keys to Gabbert, despite the former Mizzou product clearly not being ready to steer the club.

For Gabbert, there have been far more downs than ups in his rookie season, and the loss to the Browns was no exception. He completed just over 50 percent of his passes and struggled to get in a groove throwing the football all day. Still, all of that would have easily been forgotten if he could have found a way into the endzone late in the fourth quarter. That Gabbert drove his club 69 yards downfield with under three minutes remaining is encouraging, though the drive was aided by two Cleveland penalties. Gabbert misfired on a number of throws, none more costly than on the game's final play. He took the snap and faked to his right, where an open Maurice Jones-Drew appeared to have a clear path to the goal line, with LB Scott Fujita at least two yards deep in the endzone. Instead, Gabbert threw behind Mike Thomas, who was blanketed by LB D'Qwell Jackson.

The rookie's first defining moment as a Jaguar will have to wait at least another week.

Meanwhile, Locker walked on to the Georgia Dome field with his team trailing by 20 points late in the third quarter and looked as though he had been there a thousand times. After throwing incomplete to Damian Williams on first down and finding Jared Cook with an eight-yard strike while on the move one play later, Locker tossed his first career TD on 3rd-and-2 to draw his club within 10 points. On the score, Locker was again on the move to his right, firing a bullet to Nate Washington, who stiff-armed one Falcons defender and strolled into the endzone for the 40-yard score.

After moving the chains just once on his next possession — also a pretty pass outside the pocket to Washington — Locker began his third series deep in Tennessee territory with under seven minutes remaining. During the 14-play, 84-yard drive that took just 3:30 off the clock, we saw just how much further along Locker is than Gabbert. He made plays with his legs, such as a nifty 11-yard scramble on 3rd-and-long to get a fresh set of downs. He made throws when he absolutely had to — a 22-yard laser in the middle of the field to Jared Cook on 4th-and-17 to keep his team alive. He succeeded in the red zone, hooking up with Washington for his second TD toss, a four-yard score, to make it a one-score deficit with 3:06 remaining. The Titans wouldn't see the football again, as the Falcons ran out the clock, but it is impossible not to be impressed by what we saw from Locker.

Granted, it was a very small sample size and the Falcons were playing not to lose. But the kid showed tremendous moxie and playmaking ability in his first extended action. We can't help but think the biggest reason why Locker looks so far ahead of Gabbert is because of the way the Titans have handled the situation, easing Locker in while Gabbert was thrown to the wolves. It also helps that Locker has slightly better weapons and much better coaching. Mike Munchak quickly quashed any brewing QB controversy by saying after the game Hasselbeck will definitely be the starter in Week 12 if he is healthy. If the Titans fall much further behind the Texans, one would hope Munchak would reconsider.

It is far too soon to write off Gabbert or crown Locker; both kids have a chance to make fine NFL quarterbacks. But on a day when both teams' slim playoff hopes took serious hits, the Titans boarded their plane with reason for optimism about the future, while the Jaguars have to be wondering when their No. 1 pick is going to play up to his capability.