Charlie Whitehurst will start in place of Matt Hasselbeck this Sunday at home against the New York Giants. It's pretty big news. It's easy enough to hail this as a significant milestone in the pursuit of the Seahawks next franchise quarterback, but that may be getting ahead of ourselves. Pete Carroll has been steadfast in his praise of Hasselbeck and though Hasselbeck is a free agent after this season, that doesn't mean he will not be re-signed.
Step back from that ledge.
Whitehurst offers a barometer for how bad Hasselbeck has become. Football stats can not isolate the performance of one player, and so though it seems improbable that Hasselbeck would struggle for season after season with different combinations of surrounding talent and not himself be responsible for those struggles, it is possible.
If that seems difficult to swallow, okay then. If Hasselbeck is the major reason the Seahawks offense has been so bad for so long, Whitehurst will not have to be great to be a significant improvement. By DYAR, Matt has been one of the worst quarterback in football in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
So, the first difference between Whitehurst and Hasselbeck is, unless Hasselbeck is truly unfortunate or Whitehurst is truly bad, Whitehurst should be a good bit better than Hasselbeck. Seattle's passing offense should improve, as should its run offense, and though neither may be great, they may be able to pick themselves off the cellar floor. It wouldn't take much. Seahawk luminaries Jon Kitna, Trent Dilfer and John Friesz spit on Matt's 2008-2010 statistics.
Hasselbeck 2008-2010: -22.6% DVOA
Kitna 1999: 2.1% DVOA
Dilfer 2001: 6.4% DVOA
Friesz 1996: 8.9% DVOA
Apart from probably being better than Hasselbeck, in what ways is Whitehurst a different quarterback?
He is less skilled at making reads
Hasselbeck was once great like Whitehurst probably will never be, and when Matt Hasselbeck was great, his ability to distribute to receivers and move the chains was unparalleled in Seahawks history. He didn't lose that ability. It might have suffered from a change of schemes, but Matt is a smart guy, a hard worker and ultra competitive, and though he's not flawless, he generally makes sound decisions.
Whitehurst isn't likely to be as keen or as perspicacious as Hasselbeck. He will lock onto a single target more and depend more on his pre-snap reads, and offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates' ability to design passes in which the primary read is also the best read. Whitehurst will make more mistakes, but hopefully much of that will be balanced out by being able to target a greater range of receivers. In recent years, Matt made a good read, or maybe saw an attractive target, but spoiled his read with a poor pass or opted against targeting a receiver because of a tight window. Hasselbeck could make the reads but could not always execute the reads he made.
He is likely less trusted than Matt
Like third and long draws? Bates should keep the kid gloves on. That means more high percentage passes short, more conservative play calling in bad down and distance, and probably more max protect looks with fewer targets and a longer time in the pocket to find them. Some of this won't seem too terribly new, because Bates has implemented more third and long draws and max protect looks recently as the offense has sputtered, but substituting a backup should only increase those tendencies.
More moving pocket
Seattle runs some show-me roll outs, but in 2008, with Jay Cutler and the Denver Broncos, roll outs were a major part of Denver's offense. Whitehurst is more mobile than Matt, better able to throw on the run and better able to transition from roll out to scramble. That means Bates should be able to run the Seahawks offense as I presume he has always wanted to. Expect more roll outs, more naked roll outs opposite play action, and a greater emphasis on pure zone blocking run plays like stretches. The moving pocket is one way Bates attempts to spread the field horizontally, but hasn't been able to so far with the Seahawks.
More deep targets
Bates learned under Mike Shanahan and the two share an emphasis on the deep passing game. Reportedly, Shanahan's offense actually orders deep, or targets of 15 yards or more, as the first read on a play. It hasn't looked like that so far for the Seahawks, who have been about middle of the pack when it comes to deep targets, but with Whitehurst taking the reins, that should change.
I don't expect instant success for Whitehurst. The Giants have allowed the second fewest adjusted net yards per attempt in the NFL at 4.1. Hasselbeck has averaged 4.2 ANY/A. To put that into perspective, Matt is performing at 83% of league average. If Whitehurst matched Matt's average performance, he would only achieve 3.4 ANY/A against the Giants.
Which is a line like:
With three sacks for a combined -28 yards. Bad, basically.
In fact, if this Sunday afternoon, Whitehurst posts a line much better than the above, we can be pretty stoked.