Home > NFL > So is Matt Hasselbeck really not done after all?

So is Matt Hasselbeck really not done after all?

Sample size is the enemy of a good narrative, because the more we actually know, the easier it is to explain events that happen.  This analogy extends beyond the scope of sports as well, but instead of looking at world trends and trying to shoot holes in such a statement, I’m going to use such a sentence to try to explain Matt Hasselbeck’s first two games as a Tennessee Titan.

Hasselbeck ranks third behind only Tom Brady and Ryan Fitzpatrick in ESPN’s TQBR metric, though he ranks a seemingly more realistic 10th overall in passing VOA.  Two weeks is not a large enough sample to make a conclusive claim about Hasselbeck’s rebirth, but Hasselbeck has never been below 5.0% in sack rate in his career.  He has been sacked just twice in two games, good for an early sack rate of 2.6%.

The numbers are very flattering outside of that.  Even though the most team sensitive passing statistics (TD% and INT%) are more like what we would have expected from Hasselbeck and the Titans offense this year: 3 TDs, 2 picks in two games.  But because Hasselbeck is blowing away all projection in other stats: yards per attempt, net yards per attempt, sack rate, completion percentage; the stats where the quarterback, the offensive scheme, and the receivers are in control of the results (where game situation has the smallest effect), Hasselbeck and friends have excelled.

The problem for the Titans is this: if these passing numbers are a fluke, then their hot start is a fluke.  Hasselbeck, not Chris Johnson, is the driving force behind the Titans beginning a hard-luck 1-1, and blowing out the Baltimore Ravens.  The defense has been a willing participant in the winning, but the Titans can only remain competitive against good teams like Baltimore so long as Hasselbeck plays like one of footballs 15 best quarterbacks.

Since we can’t conclude that Hasselbeck is a born again quarterback, we can only ask questions about how rare this is.  Since the merger, I found four other aging players similar to Hasselbeck who had “true talent” seasons below a defined level of performance in sack rate, adjusted net yards per attempt, and passer rating, while still getting a majority of their teams snaps.  That last part is key: typically almost every player who has played like Hasselbeck for the last two seasons lost their job with their current team.  Hasselbeck lost his in Seattle, at least, but Tennessee paid him a lot of money to be their quarterback.

The list of aging quarterbacks where the public perception was that they had no future at the position but continued to attempt passes was short:

So how rare was a bounceback season in another city?  Well, Bledsoe posted above average numbers for the Dallas Cowboys in 2005.  And Esiason returned to Cincinnati in 1997 after a fling with a new system in Arizona and was fantastic for the final 186 attempts of his career.  But for Hadl and Bulger (and Bulger has long been a close Hasselbeck comparable), they were effectively finished as starters during their Hasselbeck comparable season.

So a lone rebound year from Hasselbeck is not completely historically unprecedented.  However, Bledsoe is the only example of a player who even threw more than 500 more passes after hitting rock bottom, the amount Hasselbeck has hit over the last two years.  No one is expecting Matt Hasselbeck to continue performing at his current level of performance, but a league average season is achievable.  We also know that performance beyond age 36 — this year — is historically unprecedented for a player who declined as much as Hasselbeck did after age 32.  Esiason’s Bengals had a 6-2 stretch, including a 4-1 stretch with him as the starter.

All the numbers say that the Titans could be sitting pretty around the midway point of the season with Hasselbeck at the helm.  But here’s why this cannot last: Hasselbeck is on pace to throw more than 600 times this season.  With a 36 year old quarterback throwing that often, either the level of performance will not be sustained, or his health throughout the season is not ensured.  And if the Titans running game is as useless as it has appeared in the first two games, there will not be playoffs down the road for Matt Hasselbeck and the Titans.

Which hardly means we cannot enjoy that one of the games’ real good guys is defying the odds set for him here and by others to accomplish something in Tennessee after playing most of his prime out in Seattle.  Seattle is floundering around without Matt Hasselbeck, and even though his success might run out sometime soon, there could be a couple more wins in the coming weeks for the Titans behind a passer who is in the midst of a stretch as good as any in his career.  And that stretch deserves our respect and admiration for how rare an occurrence like the one that Hasselbeck is driving in Tennessee, really is.

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