The flip side to my recent pick of Derrick Morgan the biggest surprise for the Titans in 2012 is picking the biggest disappointment. While Morgan wasn't the only player I considered for that honor, after a 6-10 season following up 2011's 7-9 mark, the disappointment field is sadly a competitive one.
The problem with picking a disappointment (and also a surprise) is that it is relative to expectations; one man's disappointment may be another's reasonable performance. Take, for instance, Karl Klug. He had a very productive rookie year with 7.0 sacks, and many Titans fans were looking for that many or more again in 2012. He slipped to only 3.5 this year, and many people might rate him a disappointment. As I wrote before the season, though, he was lucky with how many sacks he got relative to how much total pressure he had, and 3-4 sacks would be a more reasonable expectation for his 2012 production. That's right in line with the 3.5 sacks he ended up with as a fourth defensive tackle who tended to play situationally. That doesn't make him a disappointment in my book.
My pick for the biggest disappointment for the Titans in 2012 is quarterback Jake Locker. I wrote before the season that "whether Hasselbeck or Locker is the starting quarterback will not dramatically change how good the Titans will be in 2012." As far as my predictions go, this isn't the worst one I've made, but it certainly wasn't the best one either. Through much of the season, it was relatively close to true, but the Titans ended up a better offense with Matt Hasselbeck under center than they were with Jake Locker thanks to a string of six consecutive below-average offensive performances to end the season .
I'm not going to try to turn this post into a full evaluation of Locker's 2012 season. That's something I'm sure I'll be spending time on, and it's a multi-post project I'll work through over time. Obviously, the entire blame for the second half of the season doesn't fall on him. Nevertheless, Locker's performance over the course of the season was little more than a disappointment to me. His shoulder injury against the Texans came off a slot blitz where he failed to identify the blitzer, a situation similar to the Saints game his rookie season where he suffered a similar injury, albeit one he was able to return from.
Locker was pretty efficient as a rusher and, as I predicted, more efficient on a per-play basis than VY was a rookie. What was disappointing, though, was research by my colleagues at Football Outsiders has indicated running backs who play with a mobile quarterback tend to experience a slight boost in productivity, even if the team calls very few rushing plays. That wasn't apparent in the Titans numbers in 2012, as Chris Johnson tended to run more efficiently in the games Matt Hasselbeck started.
Meanwhile, the two things I identified as weaknesses for Locker relative to Hasselbeck before the season were both issues for the Titans. The Titans were an excellent red zone offense in 2011, ranking fifth in the league in points per red zone possession. They remained similarly turnover-light in the red zone in 2012, but it came at a tremendous cost in overall efficiency. I'll break down the Hasselbeck and Locker possessions later, but the Titans as a whole came out tied for 23rd in points per red zone possession this season. That inefficiency cost the Titans about half an expected win last year, and the first Jaguars game is a good example of just how red zone inefficiency costs teams.
Avoiding sacks, meanwhile, was an area where Hasselbeck excelled last year. Locker was sacked at a raw rate (sacks + attempts, not including scrambles) of 7.0% last year in his limited sample size last year. In 2012, he got worse, being sacked at a raw rate of 7.4%. I plan to break down sacks later this offseason in a way similar to what I did last year, and I'll have more thoughts about how many of those were on Jake Locker and how many on an offensive line that saw some non-starters play and struggle. Still, it was a preseason concern of mine as something Locker needed to improve at, and I'm not seeing the improvement.
Oh, and as I noted on Twitter a bit ago, the Titans scored more than 20 points on offense in regulation once in the ten games Locker started, that being against the Dolphins. That sort of productivity makes it very, very hard to win games in the NFL unless you have a very good defense, which of course the Titans did not. Even though my expectations weren't high, add the numbers and what I saw up, and Jake Locker is the clear choice as the Titans' most disappointing player in 2012.
I believe that Locker got shell shocked. He was hit so much because of the ineffective interior lineman that the Titans had to play due to injury and mismanagement by the former GM. Once he suffered the dislocated shoulder he got happy feet in the pocket (mainly because there were to many pocket crashers), and looked to run first and throw second. I did expect Locker to struggle in his first year as a starting QB, but I also expected better line play.
I hope that the current GM will take the time and spend the money to get the interior linemen that we need in order to be able to provide a talented QB with ample weapons the time and space required to be successful. To me the most disappointing person in the Titans organization was the former GM who wasn't able to draft, sign or otherwise acquire the personal to build upon a promising 2011. Other players I would have chosen instead of Locker are Griffin and Britt.
Although there were a host of Titans that fell into the "disappointing" category - Britt, Cook, Hutchison, Babineaux, Griffin, Wimbley, CJ, just to name a few - I agree that Locker was head and shoulders above these guys. I thought, as the year went on, he regressed. He became Sanchezesque. But for the huge defensive plays in the Jets game and in the second Jaguars game (and the willingness of both Sanchez and Henne to turn the ball over in those games), the Titans would not have won either game. The offense could not move the ball. In each of those two games Locker only had one or two successful drives. Most of us expected Locker to struggle with consistency this year and expected im to have his good and bad weeks, but the way he fell off at the end of the season was quite stark. He did not seem to develop any chemistry with his receivers. He didn't show that he had a strong grasp of the complicated offense of Palmer or even the more simplified offense of Loggains. And he didn't demonstrate any improved ability to read defences as the season went along. The defences of the Jets, Packers and Jaguars were hardly stout, yet he was severely overmatched in each of those games. After reviewing his performance this year, I have a great deal of difficulty seeing him as the future of this franchise. That is disappointing.