In my personal opinion, the word "competition" is seemingly overrated. It's a label that seemingly everybody, from coaches to fans and even the media misuse. Competition is utilized to bring out the best effort and passionate emotions from players and have the best man win the job right?
How often does that happen in this league?
In 2009, the Cleveland Browns held a competition at QB between Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn, and by season's end, no one was still clear on who's the leader of the team. Just last year the Titans had a competition between an aging Matt Hasselbeck and a toolsy-but-raw prospect in Jake Locker, and again neither of them found their true place when all was said and done. To me, it seems like a lot of teams used the term competition as a holdout for transitional periods, like they don't have any good players that can succeed right now, but they still want to make the fans feel good.
Competition also over-hypes players. Considered how the Carolina Panthers handled their QB situation in 2010. Coming off a 4-1 finish under Matt Moore and a 12-4 record the year before, the cats dragged in another highly-touted rookie in Jimmy Clausen. When summer came, most Panthers fans expected a win-win situation, riding on the previous success of both players. Instead, both Moore and Clausen sucked badly, earning the Panthers with the worst record in 2010 along the way. Moore eventually left for Miami, while Clausen looks to be on the bench for a while after Cam Newton's breakout year.
All examples aside, the main gist of the whole monologue is my cautiousness and disdain towards the idea of competition - which was why when Pete Carroll first came on board the Seahawks back in 2010 and continuously preach the mantra of "Always Compete", I was incredibly skeptical, and maybe a little bit worried. The QB situation two years ago also was a bit sticky, and between the three major players of the past two seasons (Hasselbeck, Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst), I'm still not impressed.
What intrigues me about this year's QB competition, however, is Carroll's continuous openness towards the four candidates. Between Matt Flynn, Tarvaris Jackson, Josh Portis and Russell Wilson, Pete has constantly reiterated the fact that any of the four can win the job - a case of "may the best man win" and have little to no expectations for each player - which is something which I don't see very often in this league. Most of the competitions I mentioned above always seems to give an edge towards one player or another: in 2010, most expected Matt to keep his job as Charlie wasn't exactly a standout candidate ready to compete, and in 2011 Tarvaris was all but guaranteed the gig with Darrell Bevell's hiring and the lockout.
Carroll has continuously stressed this was "the most open competition he'd had since Matt Leinart and Matt Cassel were competing at USC". Others have put forth a similar scenario in 2009, where Aaron Corp, Mitch Mustain and Matt Barkley competed for the QB job after Mark Sanchez abruptly declared himself eligible for the NFL Draft after just one year.
So what exactly happened in those two scenarios?
Before I continue on this line of analysis, keep in mind that past scenarios don't always dictate future success. If there's one thing certain in the NFL, is that things are never certain. Many players, who have had great stats or successes in their first few years completely crash by their 5th or 6th season. Others may never reach their ceiling/potential until they turn 30. Football is one of the most unpredictable sports in the nation, and who knows exactly how things will turn out come September?
With that said, there are still some strong similarities between the QB competition we have now and the ones Pete Carroll experienced in 2003 and 2009. All three runs through the same common theme of open competition and uncertainty of the outcome. All three features plenty of high potential/impact players that have a even stronger argument for them to start. And of course, Pete Carroll is the man running all three contests.
We already went through countless articles concerning what Pete and John Schneider looks for in a QB, so I'll spare you my extra effort in rewriting things you already know (or things you should know!). Let's get on to the nitty gritty then:
2003: Matt Leinart vs. Matt Cassel
The background: The year was 2003, and USC was coming off their 2nd bowl win in as many years following Pete Carroll's hiring. Due in large part of that success was Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer, who will go on to become the #1 overall pick in April that year. Finishing at #4 overall in the AP Poll, who was going to fill the gap Carson has left and lead the Trojans to stardom?
Matt Cassel: (Entered the program in 2000 as ESPN's and Tom Lemming's 8th best high school quarterback. redshirted his first year at SC and backed up Palmer in 2001 and 2002. Played four total games in his collegiate career, starting none.)
Matt Leinart: (Cited as one of the nation's top recruits and a All-American, Leinart was a redshirt freshman in both 2001 and 2002 as the third string QB behind Palmer and Cassel. Appeared in three games with no passes attempted/thrown.)
Who won and why: Leinart. Reportedly, the competition and winner came down to Leinart simply because they had to choose a quarterback to run with. Steve Sarkisian, then QB coach of the Trojans, recalls "a lot of uncertainty", and that "Leinart hadn't exactly set the world on fire in practice". Carroll himself insisted that the competition "was not very clear" as to who stood out the most.
The main reason why this was such a throwaway contest and an anomaly to Pete's mantra is due to the recruiting of John David Booty. Booty himself was a highly touted true freshman who left his high school a year early to join USC, and Leinart was simply bridging the gap for the spot until Booty could fully learn the Trojans offense.
What happened next? Leinart's three years at USC was considered the heart of the program's dominance, as the team (controversially?) fought their way to two Rose Bowl wins, a shot at the BCS Championship and two finishes at #1 to the AP poll. Leinart also won the Heisman trophy in 2004, and was selected 10th overall for the Cardinals in 2006. Since then, he has failed to pan out as a starting QB, been rejected from his own head coach when given a chance and is now stuck in Oakland.
Cassel would spend his last two years at USC as a handyman, running spots at RB, WR and special teams before declaring for the 2005 NFL Draft. Selected in the seventh round by the Patriots, Cassel would spend two more seasons as a backup QB until Tom Brady went down on IR in 2008, giving him a starting gig and leading the team to a 11-5 record and a statistically impressive season. Since then, Cassel has been the starter of the Chiefs, earning a Pro Bowl selection and a division title in 2010, but still having mixed results in the stint.
The significance? While a bit ridiculous, I think the possibility of having a "throwaway" competition this year is still a very valid and possible thought. Between Flynn, Wilson, Jackson and Portis, neither, in hindsight, seems to be the QBOTF for the Seahawks. All four of them, while solid, aren't exactly raising-your-eyebrows exceptional. And while you can make the argument for Wilson to be that player, there are still questions about the overall transition from college to NFL and the height factor. (Quickly hides behind desk)
In the first few months following the end of the 2011 season, many fans believe that Carroll was preparing to land QB Matt Barkley in the draft as the future QB to come. When Barkley decided to return to USC, that image was shattered, but I still think he's Pete's guy. That's not to say the Seahawks will draft Barkley next April purely because of it, but again, the possibility that none of the QB's here are what Pete wants still holds credit. Are these four seemingly another bridge gap to the player Pete wants in 2012, especially with a considerably stronger QB class? We'll have to wait to find out I suppose.
On the flip side, the consequent success of Leinart and Cassel may also bring similar results to the four. Flynn and Wilson may both end up as great players in the league, surprising and surpassing the expectations we and the coaches have set for them respectively. It doesn't surprise me now in understanding why Pete would directly link this year to 2003, and I personally won't be shocked by either outcome.
2009: Aaron Corp vs. Mitch Mustain vs. Matt Barkley
The background: A year after leading the Trojans to their third consecutive Rose Bowl win, incumbent starter Mark Sanchez surprising leaves school a year early to enter the 2009 NFL Draft against the advice of Carroll. The most important spot in the football team is now decoratively open to one of the most dominant programs in the nation.
Aaron Corp: (A redshirt sophomore, he spent two years in the USC system, backing up both John David Booty in 2007 and Sanchez in 2008. Originally competed for the gig against Sanchez and was slated to start in the season opener when Sanchez had a knee injury. Considered the "heir apparent" and frontrunner in the competition.)
Mitch Mustain: (The 2005 National High School Football Player of the year, Mustain originally started as a true freshman in Arkansas, leading the Razorbacks to a 8-0 record and a 11th overall ranking by season's end. After losing the starter spot in 2007, Mustain transferred to USC and likewise engaged in the QB competition with Corp after the injury to Sanchez. Eventually played some mop-up/backup duty in 2008.)
Matt Barkley: (The number one prospect in high school football of 2008 who "was calling audibles at the age of 14", Barkley enrolled at USC and by spring, was practicing with the team. A true freshman with no collegiate experience, Barkley was considered the wild card in the three-man race.)
Who won and why: Barkley. Considered as the QBOTF for the Trojans 2-3 years down the road, Pete surprised many fans and media when they selected him to be the starting quarterback for 2009. In the spring season, it looked like the experienced Corp was going to win the gig, with his exceptional accuracy (no interceptions in spring scrimmages) and intelligence. Mustain was playing himself out of the picture off the field with academic ineligibility issues and seemingly regulated himself to a reserve role by June.
However, what Barkley did in spring practices was what Pete called "amazing," "great surprise" and "extraordinarily gifted", and he was elevated to No. 2 by the end of spring. When Corp went down with a fractured fibula, it was all Barkley needed to solidify the starter's gig and he never looked back since, making him the first true freshmen to ever start at QB under the Pete Carroll era.
What happened next? Despite the hype and supporting cast, Barkley led the Trojans to their worst finish since 2001, with upsets against UW, Oregon, Stanford and Arizona causing them to fall out of the top 10 and their Rose Bowl streak. A two-year postseason ban followed, but USC and Barkley improved with each impending year, capping a 10-2 finish last season. Slated to be the 1st overall pick in 2012 and a possible Heisman candidate, it's all but certain that he'll lead the Trojans back to resurgence this coming fall.
Corp, who went down with an injury in his bid for the QB spot, stayed in a backup role for the rest of USC career, with his one start leading to an upset by the Washington Huskies in 2009. Corp then transferred to the Richmond Spiders and had two talented but erratic seasons. He declared for the NFL Draft last April and is now currently on the Buffalo Bills' roster.
Mustain was eventually tried out as punter and regained the No. 2 spot in 2010. However, he was also diagnosed with ADHD, and only saw limited playing time against rival Notre Dame after Barkley went down with an injury. Mustain was arrested in 2011 when he allegedly sold his medication illegally, did not receive an invite to the combine and instead played briefly for the CFL and AFL. Currently a minor league pitcher in the White Sox organization.
The significance? Aside from the obvious factor of Carroll not hesitating to start a rookie, that year's competition also raised some points on having raw talent surpassing experience as deciding factors. It's important to note that, as exceptional as Barkley was in the spring, he also had some bad interceptions and incompletions. Nevertheless, it was his talent that gave Pete the confidence to put Barkley in as No. 2, and eventually, the starter spot in the fall. Russell Wilson could face a similar path to this, and there's no doubt that of the four players coveting for the spot, he is the most talented and unique. Keep in mind also that both players are considered the "underdogs" in their respective matches.
We could also compare the relative "mirages" of Corp and Mustain to Flynn and Jackson as well. Remember that it was Corp who originally had the starter's spot by spring and it was Mustain who was the primary challenger for it. How fast could things unravel here? Flynn may have shown some flashes of brilliance against New England and Detroit, but he still is as unproven - there's no concrete proof that he might fail miserably as a starter. Likewise, we also have to take into account Jackson's own experience as a QB last year. Is it his ceiling? Does the arm injury he had last year affect him now?
Finally, in this game, players are always only one injury of being the next guy starting. Whoever may be the frontrunner of this competition can just as easily be demoted and out of the picture as quickly and seamlessly as Corp did. Like I said, football is unpredictable.
The aim of this piece was to educate y'all in the competition process itself, and I stress again this is not meant to be a personal endorsement to any of the three/four players. Rather, the scenarios and comparisons I made is a simple note, a thought of my process as a fan and blogger.
"The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more you learn, the more places you'll go." - Dr. Seuss