AFC South: Chrisitna Ponder

Jake LockerAP Photo/Wade PayneJake Locker has thrown nine TD passes and nine interceptions in his first season as a starter.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The ticking clock for young quarterbacks is louder and louder.

If they allow for it, they can hear it at every turn.

Quick success for Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson means a large share of pundits, and even players, look at a guy like Jake Locker and wonder if he has "it."

It might not be fair to a quarterback with just eight starts, but as Locker prepares to lead the Titans against the Jets at LP Field on Monday night, it’s a fact of life.

"Those guys, especially in their first year, are setting the bar, and I think it’s normal to make those comparisons," Titans GM Ruston Webster said. "So Jake is having to live with that. That’s OK. In my mind, playing quarterback is a long-term thing, and really when you look back on a player’s career and how he improved and how he played, I think that’s the most important thing.

"But it’s amazing to me how well some of these guys are playing now early in their careers."

Locker is 2-6 in his starts. Luck, playing in the same division, is on the verge of taking the Colts to the playoffs at 9-4. Those team win-loss records are the most important thing, but quarterbacks are hardly entirely responsible for them. Locker's passer rating this season is almost two points better than Luck's.

Many of his contemporaries are faring well early, and plenty of great NFL quarterbacks had sterling first years as starters. (See chart.)

In last week’s loss in Indianapolis, Locker threw a terrible interception out of his own end zone that turned into a Colts’ touchdown. He also ran a quick sneak his coaches called for despite the fact that the play before had produced a first down. The two plays were part of an effort that left me questioning his situational awareness.

"He had an awesome first half,” said Matt Hasselbeck, Locker’s veteran backup. "And then throughout the game he had some other mistakes that he will learn from. Hopefully late in his career if those situations ever come up, he’ll have something inside of his head that says, 'No, this has happened before. I’m not doing this.'"

I don’t think Locker lacks confidence, but I do think that if he could find that one moment -- making a giant play at a crucial point in a game or leading a game-winning drive -- it might crystallize some things for him and the Titans.

When they drafted him eighth overall in 2011, the Titans said his accuracy issues at Washington were not going to be a problem. But he is connecting on 57.5 percent of his passes this season when most of the best quarterbacks who don’t have an especially vertical offense (like Luck and the Colts) are at least at 60.

Locker's supporting cast has often failed him with drops, and he is playing behind a line that has one starter left from the presumed preseason lineup.

He has been better on third down than he is during other parts of the game -- a good indicator. But he has been worse in the fourth quarter -- a bad one.

On Monday night, Rex Ryan and the Jets will work hard to confuse him with unpredictable blitzing.

"There is a lot of thinking involved and a lot going on trying to, especially protection-wise, figure out where they are coming from," Locker said.

The 4-9 Titans finish with the Jets at home, a trip to Green Bay and a home game against Jacksonville. They certainly have a chance at 2-1, and a strong finish would go a long way toward assuring that Mike Munchak will be back for a third season as the team’s head coach.

A spark from Locker would help the coach make his case. A regime change can slow a quarterback in development.

"The good thing is he’s got the demeanor. I don’t think that’s going to be a problem for him," Munchak said. "I think he can handle the pressure of things not going as well as he’d like immediately. I’ve seen guys who couldn’t handle that. He doesn’t want to have to deal with it, but this is part of him growing as a quarterback. …

"He’s not going to have a two-year career. He’s got to look at it as he’s going to be around for 15 years, God willing. I think he looks at things more long term. You mentioned the guy drafted ahead of him, Newton. Well, Newton hasn’t won anything. How many wins do they have? And how many did they have last year, six? I mean he had the stats, but they haven’t won anything. Dalton’s the only guy in his class that had a nice first year."

The Titans believe Locker is mentally tough, and that could be more valuable than ever, considering that ticking clock.

Peyton Manning’s rookie passing record stood for 13 years. It’s now been passed twice in the last two seasons, by Newton and Luck.

Even so, everyone follows a different path.

While the first- and second-year guys with big numbers get the attention, Locker is not alone.

Blaine Gabbert probably won't enter his third season as the starter in Jacksonville. Christian Ponder has been struggling in Minnesota. In Miami (Ryan Tannehill) and Cleveland (Brandon Weeden), they have rookie quarterbacks they think can be long-term answers who have played much like Locker.

Munchak and the Titans are too polite to come right out and say it, but their last first-round quarterback, Vince Young, won offensive rookie of the year with an impressive start and flamed out. They’d much prefer the opposite trajectory and are confident that’s what they will get from Locker.

Locker, Ponder, Gabbert, Tannehill and Weeden have time. They can all aspire to do what the best of their contemporaries have done. They all know the success of other young quarterbacks makes it harder for people to be patient with them.

"Andrew Luck is having a great year, and what his team is doing is awesome," Hasselbeck said. "But even him, he’s got like 18 interceptions. But he’s making those big plays; he’s making those critical plays to win the game at the end, or his team is. Someone is. As they’re winning games, he’s improving. As they’re learning how to do things together, they’re winning games. And that’s really the key, winning games along the way.

"For sure the success that those teams are having with those young guys, it eliminates excuses for anybody the same age."

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