I'd like to think I have a fresh take on most things football, but let's face it, great teams need great quarterbacks. Or, more accurately, great quarterback play. Jim McMahon hardly led an accomplished career, but for one year, healthy and with his head at least partially out of his ass, he constructed a masterful season and led a Bears' juggernaut to a Super Bowl title. On the flip side, Rex Grossman's complete inability to create steady production through the passing attack took the league's best special teams, a top five defense and a top ten rushing offense completely out of contention in a very winnable Super Bowl.
Seattle has a once great quarterback, a once great quarterback who must be great again if Seattle wishes to compete in 2007--and when I say compete, I'm talking Super Bowl.
In 2005, Beck was a surgeon. He completed over 65% of his passes and ranked fifth in the league in DPAR. I'm sure we all remember that, but Beck was great in 2003 and pretty darn-diddly good in 2004, too. Ranking 3rd and 12th in DPAR, respectively. Over that span Beck has had few consistent weapons, D-Jack has been off and on. Koren Robinson flew the coop. Joe Jurevicius came and went. Jerramy Stevens unsteady and tottering. So it's not a stretch to say that come fall, Beck will have the best set of weapons of his career: Deion Branch is better and steadier than Jackson. D.J. Hackett is a better route-running Robinson with his head together. Nate Burleson has remarkable talent. And Bobby Engram is a rock. So after a down year, his worst year since his rookie campaign, what can we expect out of the guy who looks like he should be middle-management at a Best Buy?
First, let's first try and figure out how someone drops nearly ten points from their completion percentage.
Hasselbeck suffered two major injuries during the season, one to his hand, where he broke his palm and one to his right knee that cost him four games. He also played with a left labrum tear for the third consecutive season. Without game by game DVOA breakouts it's hard to say this with absolute certainty, but his play doesn't looked markedly worse upon his return. In two of three contests where the Hawks were playing their opponent for the second time, Beck actually performed better. Therefore, while both affected Hasselbeck, neither can be directly linked to his decline in passing performance. Also confounding is that Beck seemed unaffected by the quality of the defense he played. In back to back weeks he looked shoddy against the league's 26th ranked pass defense, Arizona, before picking apart the Giants' 13th ranked pass defense the following week. I thought that pressure might be the key, because Beck is not a great passer on the run, but his average QB rating in contests where he was sacked 1 or fewer times (including the Wild Card round versus the Cowboys) is actually worse than his QB rating for the complete regular season: 73.2 vs. 76.0. Though, given some of his attempts to pass whilst avoiding the pass rush, perhaps he should have just taken the sack.
Maybe the wide receivers played a part. In the four games Jackson missed Beck completed just 52% of his passes. With D-Jack, 59%. I'm removing the Minnesota contest as incomplete. That completion percentage drop is not because of strength of opponent, either. In the four contests without Jackson, Seattle's opponent averaged a pass defense DPAR of 10.1, good for 25th in the league. In the nine contests D-Jack and Beck both played, the average opponent's pass defense DPAR was -0.55, something like facing 11th ranked Miami nine times.
Not coincidentally, Jackson's completion percentage for the year was 56%, split end Branch's, 52%. Still, both saw a pretty large decline from 2005, when Jackson completed a remarkable 69% of his passes and Branch 62%. Initially, that might cause some concern, but from 2002-2005, Branch caught 61% of his passes in 347 attempts, easily besting Jackson's 56% in 452. I derived that by using Football Outsiders' wide receiver stat page and then simply weighting their completion percentages each year for the number of attempts they received that season. Branch was forced to learn a very exacting system on the fly, and it shouldn't be too surprising that his numbers took a hit, or that he should see a rebound to his career norms next season. Burleson did his part in Beck's decline as well, catching just 49% of passes targeting him. He should also rebound, in his three previous seasons Burleson caught 60% of his passes on 211 attempts.
So was it injury? Was it a shaky line? Or was it simply importing two wide receivers into starting jobs before they learned the system? I think all three played a part, but that the instability, or lack of chemistry if you will, between Beck and Branch and Burleson was the most important factor. Hasselbeck won't turn 32 until the season starts and given a Hawk's system that puts little emphasis on the deep pass, should see no major physical decline. I have tons of faith in both Gloves and Burleson to rebound, Engram to return to form and Hackett to flourish in full time duty. It's up to the line and especially Walter Jones to keep our great quarterback healthy, but if they do, the tools and talent are there for one of the best passing attacks in football.