Hasselbeck more than passing test with Titans

Matt Hasselbeck(notes) took a lot of hits over his last several seasons in Seattle, as the Seahawks’ once-dominant offensive line devolved into a dubious pass-blocking unit.

Last July, he was utterly blindsided by a sack that knocked him all the way to Music City.

A veteran free agent who had spent the previous 10 years with the Seahawks, Hasselbeck believed over the offseason he was still in the franchise’s plans. Expecting to enter negotiations on a new deal upon the forging of a labor settlement, he instead received a phone call from Seattle general manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll telling him his services were no longer required.

Matt Hasselbeck has been a pleasant surprise through the first quarter of the season.
(US Presswire)

“The first day the lockout was lifted, they let me know,” Hasselbeck recalled Sunday night from Cleveland, a couple of hours after leading the Tennessee Titans to a 31-13 victory over the Browns. “Something definitely changed for them in the offseason from the exit meeting to the end of the lockout, and that’s fine. They’re entitled to their opinion. They chose to go with their plan.”

The plan made sense on paper – Hasselbeck seemed to be on the decline, and the Seahawks were implementing a new scheme better suited to a more mobile quarterback – but four games into the 2011 season, a whole lot of skeptics have been blindsided by Hasselbeck’s performance thus far. To be fair, I am one of them: After the Titans’ season-opening loss at Jacksonville, I ranked them 31st in this very column.

Three impressive victories later, Tennessee has my attention. And while Tarvaris Jackson(notes), the quarterback the Seahawks chose ahead of Hasselbeck, struggled mightily in September and has lost three of his first four starts, the 36-year-old signed by the Titans to replace Vince Young(notes) is the league’s fourth-rated passer, trailing only Aaron Rodgers(notes), Tom Brady(notes) and Eli Manning(notes).

[ Related: Brett Favre says Aaron Rodgers ‘fell into a good situation’ ]

How did this happen? How did a player who took more abuse in recent seasons than any Seattle resident since Courtney Love end up partying in NashVegas like it’s 2005 again?

For one thing, the lockout gave his body a much-needed break. Instead of running through football-specific drills, Hasselbeck embarked upon the SealFit training regimen, an offshoot of the CrossFit program specializing in survival and combat skills.

Yeah, it sounds heavy – but it sent Hasselbeck to training camp feeling “healthy and fresh. More than anything, it was mentally a break, too. Being in Tennessee is nice. There’s humidity; we’re on grass a lot; and I’m not getting hit, ever.”

[ Video: Big Ben is in big trouble ]

That last part is the key – while not as decorated as the Seahawks’ unit during the team’s Super Bowl XL run, the Titans have a strong, experienced group of offensive linemen who have protected Hasselbeck effectively. He has been sacked only four times while throwing 132 passes. As he told me after the Browns game, a sturdy line and a stingy defense go a long way.

The upshot is that Hasselbeck has been able to rediscover the pocket presence that was no longer attainable in Seattle. Though he shined in the team’s shocking first-round playoff upset of the Saints last January, Hasselbeck had struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness in recent years. Still, as he suggested, he left his exit meeting after the season convinced that the Seahawks wanted him back, and Carroll made public comments indicating that was the case.

Six-and-a-half months later – after Carroll had replaced offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates with Darrell Bevell and hired former Raiders coach Tom Cable as assistant head coach/offensive line – Hasselbeck was told his time with the team was done. Jackson, whom Bevell had coached in Minnesota, was signed as the team’s new starter while Hasselbeck chose the Titans over the 49ers shortly thereafter.

The quarterback was caught off guard, but he doesn’t sound bitter about the Seahawks’ decision.

“They were pretty honest with me,” Hasselbeck said of Schneider and Carroll. “They called me and said, ‘We’ve really enjoyed you and appreciated you, but we’re just choosing the next process.’

“I was surprised, but I also understand that given the lockout, there were a lot of holes they wanted to fill. They were trying to build a program for the future. I understand that. They wanted to get a zone-run scheme going and use a lot of naked bootlegs as part of that, as plays that would be helpful. That’s not necessarily my thing.”

Schneider declined to talk about the specifics of the decision but expressed his appreciation for Hasselbeck’s time in Seattle.

“We have a great relationship with the Titans and we’re happy for Matt and his family that the Titans are playing well,” Schneider said Tuesday. “And I’m glad he’s playing well right now.”

Hasselbeck has enjoyed his abrupt transition to Nashville, as he and his wife, Sarah, have made a point of enjoying the local music scene. They most recently attended a Taylor Swift concert two nights before the Titans’ 26-13 upset of the Ravens, complete with pre-show backstage access. “It had to be before the show,” he said, laughing, “because the kids fell asleep. I walked out with an 8-year-old on one arm and a 6-year-old on the other.”

[ Related: Absurdly premature 2011 playoff picture ]

His right arm has been busy on Sundays: He already has 1,152 passing yards, the second-highest figure after four games in franchise history, behind Hall of Famer Warren Moon’s 1990 total of 1,344 for the Houston Oilers. The eight touchdown passes thrown by Hasselbeck are the most he has ever had at this point of the season.

Chris Johnson hasn't yet produced at the high level of the previous two seasons.
(Getty images)

The numbers are even more impressive given the challenges the quarterback has faced, from having to learn a new system in short order (he got some help from his brother, Tim, who coached under Titans offensive coordinator Chris Palmer on Tom Coughlin’s Giants staff in 2007, to the post-holdout struggles of star halfback Chris Johnson, to the season-ending knee injury to standout receiver Kenny Britt(notes) in Week 3.

Hasselbeck adjusted admirably in his first game without Britt, throwing first-half touchdown passes to tight ends Jared Cook(notes) and Craig Stevens(notes) and wideout Damian Williams(notes) against the Browns. None of that was necessarily part of the plan – but as Hasselbeck has learned over the past two months, making things work on the fly can be a good thing.

In that spirit, here’s an aerial view of this week’s ever-evolving list of queries. You’ll notice the Titans have ascended to the upper half for the first time in nearly a year, while the team at the top hasn’t changed since last January.

1. Green Bay Packers: If Mike Holmgren got Gross Avenue and Mike McCarthy gets Ridge Road, can Mike Sherman at least get an alley near Lambeau Field named for him?

Stevan Ridley(notes) ran for 148 yards against the Raiders.
(Getty Images)

2. New England Patriots: Was it just a coincidence that the Patriots rediscovered their running game shortly after an old high school buddy gave me a pink Power Balance bracelet on the O.co Coliseum sideline Sunday – and, if not, can someone kindly present me with roses before every Cal football game?

3. Baltimore Ravens: In retrospect, is it possible that the Week 2 stumble in Nashville wasn’t such a bad loss after all?

4. New Orleans Saints: Will certain Saints players be tempted to christen the Mercedes Benz Superdome with a decorative tribute to team owner Tom Benson?

[* Yahoo! Sports Radio: Sean Payton on 3-1 Saints]

5. Detroit Lions: Now that Cris Carter has dubbed Calvin Johnson(notes) the King of the NFL, is James Cameron in danger of losing his throne?

6. Buffalo Bills: What’s more alarming – that the Bills gave up 171 rushing yards to the Bengals on Sunday, or that the figure roughly matched their 2010 per-game average?

7. Oakland Raiders: Is Hue Jackson jumping on my bandwagon – and is it possible we’re both crazy?

8. Houston Texans: If Andre Johnson’s(notes) hamstring heals as thoroughly as Arian Foster’s,(notes) how relieved will Gary Kubiak be?

9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: When tackle Donald Penn(notes) said “we showed everybody that old Bucs football is back” after Monday night’s victory over the Colts, did ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer put on a Creamsicle jersey and scream, “Give me the damn ball”?

10. New York Jets: When will the Jets’ offensive linemen and Mark Sanchez(notes) start doing their jobs so that Santonio Holmes(notes) can be his awesome self?

11. Dallas Cowboys: Did Felix Jones(notes) really forget what down it was on the Cowboys’ final play Sunday, or was he just hoping for J.C. Louderback to bail him out?

[ Related: Chris Cooley relishes in Tony Romo’s misery ]

12. Washington Redskins: If Phillip Buchanon(notes) were being honest about his “honest mistake,” would he admit that the mistake he made was “getting caught”?

13. New York Giants: Is Osi Umenyiora(notes) soothing the chip on his shoulder by putting quarterbacks on their backs – and shouldn’t someone pay the man, already?

Matt Forte(notes) ran for 205 yards against Carolina.
(Getty Images)

14. Chicago Bears: Did Mike Martz counterintuitively decide to ram the ball down the Panthers’ throats last Sunday – or did Lovie Smith ram that game plan down his throat?

15. Tennessee Titans: Has any NFL assistant done a better job than defensive coordinator Jerry Gray so far this season?

16. San Francisco 49ers: Yo, travel gods – the next time I get shut down on an upgrade request on a coast-to-coast flight, can I please run into Jim Harbaugh?

17. San Diego Chargers: Wow, A.J. Smith – when you gave Bob Sanders(notes) $1 million last March, who could have possibly predicted he’d last just two games?

18. Pittsburgh Steelers: Now that he has an orbital fracture, how will James Harrison(notes) give his teammates the stink eye?

19. Atlanta Falcons: If Tarvaris Jackson threw for 319 yards against their defense, will Aaron Rodgers throw for 600 on Sunday night?

20. Cincinnati Bengals: If I told you they had the best statistical defense in the AFC North – and the entire NFL – would you think I was as loopy as this ex-Bengals receiver once was?

21. Philadelphia Eagles: After Ronnie Brown(notes) explained that he was “trying to out-think myself” on his goal-line fumble against the 49ers, was I the only one bothered by the implication that he was thinking in the first place?

22. Cleveland Browns: Upon learning that teammate Alex Mack(notes) played last Sunday with appendicitis, did running back Peyton Hillis(notes) exclaim, “It’s a good thing he wasn’t really ill”?

23. Carolina Panthers: When Ron Rivera says “it’s time to grow up,” is he talking to Steve Smith’s baby, too?

24. Seattle Seahawks: When he heard that former USC coach Pete Carroll called for a 61-yard field-goal attempt with Sunday’s game on the line, did current USC coach Lane Kiffin ask, “Only 61?”

25. Arizona Cardinals: Why, again, did they draft Levi Brown instead of Adrian Peterson in 2007 – and why do I get the feeling they’ll regret it even more come Sunday in Minneapolis?

26. Denver Broncos: Should I give my aforementioned pink Power Balance bracelet to Knowshon Moreno(notes)?

27. Jacksonville Jaguars: Yo, Wayne Weaver, cheap much?

A fired-up Matt Cassel(notes) help K.C. to its first win Sunday.
(AP Photo)

28. Kansas City Chiefs: If Matt Cassel seems to respond well when pushed, what took Todd Haley so long to start screaming at his quarterback this season?

29. Minnesota Vikings: Has any NFL player had a more ignominious stretch over the past 13 months than Donovan McNabb(notes) – and is there any chance it will get worse?

30. Indianapolis Colts: How is it possible that Curtis Painter’s(notes) longest career touchdown pass is now longer than Peyton Manning’s?(notes)

31. Miami Dolphins: When team owner Stephen Ross declared that Tony Sparano “is the right coach,” did he forget to add, “and Andrew Luck is the right quarterback for this team next April”?

32. St. Louis Rams: Does Austin Pettis(notes) believe fair catches are for sissies – and has the rookie wideout become a metaphor for this team’s 2011 season?

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Michael Silver covers the NFL for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Mogotxt, Twitter and Facebook. Also check out ridewithsilver.com. Send Michael a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Oct 5, 2011