We never knew if Charlie Whitehurst was struggling in practice. It was suggested. Suggested as an explanation for why Seattle would invest so heavily in Whitehurst but not play him even though Matt Hasselbeck was struggling so badly. And however you split on the Hasselbeck debate, he is struggling very badly. Be it him or his surrounding talent, the result is the second worst season of Hasselbeck's career. If we assume Pete Carroll and John Schneider traded for Whitehurst as a response to Hasselbeck's 2009, then 2010, in which Hasselbeck is completing a lower percentage of passes for fewer yards per attempt, should hasten Whitehurst's arrival but hasn't. It hasn't and many would point to last Sunday's blowout loss to the Giants as why.
That presumption is not supported by statistics. Whitehurst was bad, but New York has made quite a few quarterbacks look bad this season. The Giants dominated Matt Schaub and the Texans. Houston has the second best offense in football by DVOA and the third best by ER. To put that into perspective, if Houston played Seattle on a neutral field, the Texans would be expected to score 600 points and amass 4,000 yards of total offense. Really.
No it's not supported by statistics though Whitehurst's line was rotten. It's not supported by statistics because statistics rarely support a conclusion based off a sample of 23. But if practice is the measure and Seattle is determining its starting quarterback through practice, it's pretty obvious why Matt continues to start over Charlie. He knows the offense better, can execute a wider variety of plays, make more reads within a play, and though Hasselbeck frustrates the crap out of us with his own particular brand of self-immolation, he's mostly free of the stoogery of bumbled snaps and missed cadences and infinite drop backs. Hasselbeck is undoubtedly a more skilled quarterback than Whitehurst.
If Carroll is preaching "Win Forever" and "Always Compete" and "Buy In" then there are not many ways to justify benching the quarterback that is 4-3 and led the team to the top of the NFC West. The quarterback that is out-competing his rival in practice. The quarterback that commands the locker room and helped spread the message of buying in, and himself bought in.
The Hasselbeck question has become something of a culture clash. On one side is the orthodox and traditional that believe systems work, starters start for a reason, and great players earn loyalty long after their stats nosedive. On the other is the progressive and radical that believe systems are meant to be overcome, loyalty is a euphemism for corruption, and the name lives long after the talent dies. We're all somewhere within that spectrum. We all reacted to the reinstatement of Hasselbeck as starter with a different mix of explanations why. Some of us are comforted. Over the last week, many times have I stumbled upon optimism stemming from Hasselbeck returning. It's as a major reason the Seahawks will win in Arizona. Some of us are frustrated. Over the last week, maybe at Field Gulls more than anywhere else, the calls to give Whitehurst another chance have provoked more enthusiasm and vexation and angry rebuttal than almost anything else this season. It has a overshadowed a potentially season-defining inter-divisional matchup in Arizona.
In five years, I am pretty sure Charlie Whitehurst will be remembered mostly as prominent figure in the end of the Mike Holmgren and Matt Hasselbeck Era. Great quarterback prospects like Matthew Stafford, who were great quarterback prospects in high school and have cannon arms and declare before they can drink and whose agents don't fluster over leaked Wonderlic score, great quarterback prospects typically fail. About half are eventually shuffled out of the league or forced into permanent backup status. Of those that stick, many will never be much better than average. Long shot prospects like Whitehurst are underdogs to even become starters, and nothing he has done in his first season with the Seahawks has changed that career trajectory.
The hunt for a franchise quarterback can be a harrowing task. The 49ers thought they had it good. They drafted Alex Smith first overall and as Smith struggled and the 49ers rebuilt, San Francisco was able to build around him with marquee talents like Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis, Joe Staley, Michael Crabtree, Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati. San Francisco almost did it "the right way." The way fans and analysts and beat reporters can all agree on, slowly and through the draft, but Smith just never developed. He has now started 40 games over five seasons, but his run in San Francisco appears to be over.
Troy Smith, of no pedigree and little chance of becoming a franchise quarterback, is now the 49ers starter. San Francisco seems better for the move. A home win against the Rams and a road loss by the Seahawks puts the 49ers within one game of first place in the NFC West. Maybe San Francisco is a long shot to ever be a Super Bowl contender with Smith under center, but fans of Alex Smith's pedigree and profile and presumed potential could only ignore overwhelming failure for so long. Troy Smith may not ignite fantasies of a 49ers dynasty, but he gives the team some of kind of future and some kind of present.
That is what I hope for out of Charlie Whitehurst. It's unlikely Whitehurst ever becomes a franchise quarterback, but between franchise quarterbacks and the Alex Smiths and Matt Hasselbecks of the world, there is a strata of good but not great quarterbacks. The Kyle Ortons and Tony Romos and Shaun Hills and David Garrards of this era; the Jon Kitnas and Warren Moons and Jim Zorns that populate Seahawks history: Good quarterbacks that help teams escape the cellar and end ceaseless rebuild and become something like a functioning football team again. For a time, Matt Hasselbeck was a franchise quarterback. With Hasselbeck the Seahawks were not backdoor contenders or playoff fodder trounced and forgotten but happy for the opportunity; but dominant, proud, victorious. But that's gone and chasing our own particular fantasy of reclaimed glory is a big part of how we ended in this mess.
Whitehurst was playing in the Jeremy Bates version of the Seneca Wallace offense. He knew his primary read and he could make a basic read of the defense. Shortly after taking the snap, the ball was out. Bates kept it simple and that kept the ball flying, often incomplete. Whitehurst didn't escape pressure because the Giants dialed down the blitz. He attempted 23 passes and the Giants blitzed him nine times. They also blitzed his fumbled snap. His ability to take the snap and wing it speaks both to Whitehurst's still limited mastery of the playbook but also his ability to follow orders. Compare how Whitehurst played to starts by Seneca Wallace and Charlie Frye. All three played in dumbed down offenses, but Wallace and Frye broke the pocket, took coverage sacks, made poorly planned scrambles and looked both overwhelmed and incapable. Whitehurst by contrast looked limited but functional. He stayed in the pocket, he watched routes develop and, for the most part, he put it where it was supposed to be.
23 pass attempts, some in desperate situations, some in garbage time, fail to define Whitehurst. He isn't surely interception prone, though unless he learns to look off receivers and not lock on, he will be. He isn't surely wild. Most of his passes landed where he targeted, and most of those that didn't were less about poor accuracy and more about route confusion and poor mechanics. Charlie spent so little time in the pocket, it's hard to measure his awareness of pressure. He broke the pocket once flashing the infinite drop back. On another play he opted to throw off his back foot with Chester Pitts in his grill rather than scramble and reset. I still think pocket awareness will determine if Whitehurst can become a bridge quarterback or just another Frye, Friesz or Gelbaugh.
But that's where I am slotting him. That's what he looks like to me. If read and recognition is a kind of tool, Whitehurst looks significantly enough incapable that I doubt even after a few seasons starting he will show much development. Whitehurst will live on first and second reads and checkdowns. He isn't Matt in his prime or Tom Brady or Drew Brees or Peyton Manning. And if his read and recognition are never likely to develop much beyond adequate, Whitehurst is never likely to be much more than a Jake Plummer or Jeff Blake or Neil O'Donnell.
That's not too exciting. It's not SUPER BOWL. But it's a start. And it's how most broken franchises crawl out of the crater they've crash landed into.