NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Matt Hasselbeck handled the news that he will not be tabbed the Titans' starting quarterback in 2012 with class, professionalism and a vow to be as ready as possible should he be called on in his 14th NFL season.
Titans coach Mike Munchak informed Hasselbeck Sunday night that second-year QB Jake Locker won the starting job and officially announced the news Monday to end a friendly competition that spanned several months this offseason. Munchak emphasized that Hasselbeck, a free agent signee in 2011 who threw for 3,571 yards in 16 starts last year, didn't lose the job. Instead, the second-year head coach said Locker "earned it" through growth that Hasselbeck helped foster.
"Well I think he handled it well," Munchak said of the personal conversation he had with Hasselbeck. "When I kept talking about this competition and that fact that someone was going to be disappointed, that conversation was the one I was least looking forward to all camp. It was probably one of the hardest conversations I've had with a player since I've been the head coach with a guy because of how much I respect him as a player. He's come in here and done so much for me as a head coach — a new head coach. He really helped me get my job done last year. That meant a lot to me, and I know to this team.
"When you make decisions about playing, you have to just lock into what is best for the team in a different way," Munchak continued. "So I think that's what made it hard for me. I wasn't putting it off. It made it tougher telling him that because I know how much the game means to him and what a competitor he is. I knew he was going to handle it the way he did, with class like he does everything he does. Was he upset? Yes. Does he want to start? Yes. Does he still want to play? Definitely, yes. I think he's been nothing but great for Jake (Locker) going through this season."
Munchak's preparation for his first season as head coach encompassed a period of overhaul at the quarterback position and also included the lockout that eliminated offseason work between coaches and players. A major component of Munchak's philosophy is "Be a pro. Know what to do and do it," and he's instilled that since the lockout ended and he and his staff could work with Titans players.
The Titans selected Locker in the first round with the eighth overall selection, but because of last year's lockout, they were unable to work with him. When the lockout ended, they quickly signed Hasselbeck, who was coming off 10 seasons in Seattle that included three Pro Bowls and a trip to Super Bowl XL and an already solid friendship with Locker from their time in Washington.
Hasselbeck led the Titans to a 9-7 mark that was a three-win improvement from 2010 and missed the playoffs by a tiebreaker. He became the second player in franchise history to throw for more than 3,500 yards in a season (joining Warren Moon). Receivers Nate Washington, Damian Williams, Lavelle Hawkins and tight end Jared Cook all posted career highs in 2011, but the Titans' QB spot, like almost all others in professional football, was opened to competition.
Hasselbeck handled the competition not as a slight but as the reality that comes with one of the most scarce and toughest jobs in sports. He continued to work well with Locker and reserve QBs Rusty Smith and Nick Stephens throughout camp.
"For me, it was always just trying to be the best I could be," Hasselbeck said. "They were up front with me even before I signed here, just saying, 'Here's the model we'd like to go with. We'd like to be really strong and really stable and really secure and really professional at this position. We'd like to lock this position down.' In terms of Jake, specifically, what I was told was that they were going to go at Jake's pace. If he was ready to play last year, if he was ready to play in four years, whatever that might be. I think his development in all areas has been impressive. I think he's done a really good job."
Hasselbeck said although he's not ready to not start, he thinks Locker is ready for the role.
"He has been impressive 24 hours a day in this building with coaches, teammates, staff, everybody," Hasselbeck said. "He's everything that they hoped he'd be. I would certainly agree. I'm a big fan of his and am going to support him and help him. I think he'll do well."
Locker said the news is "fulfillment of a childhood dream." He has often publicly credited Hasselbeck for being a big part of his growth at the position in the past year.
"I can look back on last year and say that I grew a lot as a player and as a person, and I'm thankful for the situation I was in, and I'm thankful for the opportunity," Locker said. "You guys know Matt. He's a great guy — one of the best guys I know. It wasn't awkward or tough (once the announcement was made). He's very supportive and encouraging to me, and that shouldn't surprise anybody."
Throughout camp, coaches and teammates have said how good they feel about the Titans chances with either Hasselbeck or Locker at QB, and Monday was no exception. Instead of a chasm that some QB competitions have created around the league, the Titans are focused on moving forward together.
"I think those two guys handled the situation very well," Washington said. "They did everything they were supposed to do so we could just come out and focus on getting better. With that being said, it's an opportunity for us to do some different things with both of those offenses and progress forward with our offense.
"I'm very proud with either way it was going to go," Washington added. "The best thing that's going to come out of this is we're going to have an excellent No. 2 quarterback. If anything does happen to Jake with him starting out, Matt's probably going to be the best No. 2 quarterback in the league. If it was the other way around with Matt the starter, we're going to have the same thing with Jake coming in. That's fortunate for us. We're very fortunate that we have both those guys on the roster."
Williams said it's "very rare" to see two guys compete at the level of professionalism and respect that Hasselbeck and Locker have brought.
"I was telling guys earlier with that quarterback competition, it's not like any other competition around the league," Williams said. "It's two guys that really do like each other. They work hand-in-hand, they see the same things and they work together. That's something, that even though Jake is the starter, he's still going to have Matt in his ear at all times and vice-versa if it were the other way around."
When asked to compare the situation to earlier in his career, Hasselbeck said the most obvious relationship was with Trent Dilfer during their first seasons in Seattle. Hasselbeck had been traded from Green Bay, and Dilfer signed with the Seahawks as a free agent after he and the Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV. Hasselbeck initially struggled, and the QBs jostled for position but had a good relationship. Hasselbeck became the starter again after Dilfer suffered an Achilles injury and went on to become Seattle's franchise leader in completions and passing yards and is still highly respected among Seahawks fans.
Guard Steve Hutchinson, a former Seahawk and Minnesota Viking who joined the Titans this offseason, remembered the way that Hasselbeck and Dilfer approached their competition more than a decade ago.
"Matt backed Brett Favre up in Green Bay and didn't get much experience on the field," Hutchinson said. "He came over (to Seattle) and was expected to start, and we all thought we started the 2001 season not as well as we would have liked to, and there's a quarterback competition between him and Trent. That's the way it is. Those guys at that position are usually pretty friendly and tight because there's only a few of them and they help each other out."
Hasselbeck described that period as simultaneously "rewarding and challenging" and added it was "something I wouldn't change, looking back, but was really hard for me."
Hasselbeck added that he thought Munchak made the decision based on what the coach things will be best for the team.
"I respect that and respect his authority on the matter, but at the same time, I feel like my job's not over," Hasselbeck said. "I've still got to prepare to play. If the team needs me to play this year, I've got to be ready to go, so that's what I'm going to do."