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The Charlie Whitehurst Possibility

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This begins a series of short articles previewing this Sunday's game. We're putting our ambivalence on the shelf for now and embracing what is the last guaranteed game of the season. Fans might disagree about whether it's better to win or lose, but a game is a game, and after Sunday, there may be no Seahawks games for a very long time.

Charlie Whitehurst has one good game. One game in which he didn't just post quality superficial counting stats, but in which he played very well. It's so long ago that it's all but forgotten, but in week one of the 2010 preseason Whitehurst looked downright qualified against the Titans.

[Whitehurst] did it through good process: pocket awareness, reads, timing, decisiveness. He did it though apparent ability: crisp rollouts, mid-range zip, a beautiful rainbow to Deon Butler streaking up the left sideline. Whitehurst played the preseason game every hope-drunk Seahawks fan was desperate to see. He put it all together. He played like a somebody.

If I ballparked Whitehurst's potential to ever become a franchise quarterback at 10% before, it would be premature to move that to even 20% now. There is too much we do not know. Most basically, how bad is the Titans second-string defense? Jovan Haye and Sen'Derrick Marks are ok, but the ends were shoddy, the secondary porous and the linebackers slow. Whitehurst was tossing through some huge windows. His pocket wasn't pristine but pressure edged in rather than exploded. Charlie made some throws a quicker end could have killed him for attempting. Mostly, he locked on, watched his man and zipped it in when the receiver flashed free against a coverage scheme so vanilla it catalogues kissing as one of two types of foreplay.

We can look back at that game with some kind of perspective now: Tennessee has the seventh overall defense by DVOA and the 11th ranked pass defense. By ER, the Titans rank fourth and 18th. Substitutions are too fluid in the preseason to take too much from that, and as noted the Titans were fielding a very stripped down defense. It was still top of the world for ol' Charlie, and about as much reason for hope as he's ever offered.

Given that Whitehurst looks lost, i.e. overwhelmed by the speed and complexity of the NFL and thus unsure what to do, the simplest explanation for his success in week one of the preseason and his failure in every week following, including the rest of the preseason, is that the Titans didn't test that which Charlie is worst at: reading a defense.

Another explanation, one I have flirted with in my mind and look back to now as a way to feel hopeful, is that in week one, Whitehurst was able to execute the plays he had perfected in practice, and wasn't expected to execute a dynamic game plan designed to counter the opposing defense, and designed to be able to adjust to what the opposing defense was showing. That is, it was simple and simplicity accentuated Whitehurst's tools and minimized his underdeveloped skills. It was a small set of plays Whitehurst was truly confident in and thus able to execute well.

Whitehurst improving dramatically is still the Seahawks best hope of contention. Though that possibility may seem remote, it is only remote insomuch that it was always unlikely that Whitehurst would turn into a great quarterback. He has attempted 63 passes over his entire career. He still has only one start and it was against a top-five pass defense.

The supposed final nail for Whitehurst was his performance last weekend against the Bucs. Broadly speaking, there is no evidence that a quarterback performs any different with a week to prepare than he does as an in-game substitute, but that's a generality. Playing as substitute might not be a magic bullet defense, it might not excuse his struggles entirely, but it could have impacted his performance.

Whitehurst and Hasselbeck are two very different types of quarterback. The team on the whole prepared as if Hasselbeck would be the quarterback, and the team on the whole practiced plays designed around Hasslbeck's strengths and weaknesses. I doubt very much that Seattle's first team offense practiced contingency plays in case Whitehurst had to sub in, and the offense Whitehurst took over looked nothing like the offense he executed in the preseason or in week nine against the Giants.

Against the Bucs, Whitehurst threw 16 consecutive short passes before throwing his lone bomb towards Mike Williams. He was throwing the swings and quick hitters Hasselbeck used in the opening drive. Whitehurst's fifth pass attempt against the Giants was thrown deep, and of his 23 attempts, seven were targeted deep. Despite throwing an interception, damning in a sample of seven, Whitehurst averaged 7 ANY/A on deep passes. He had completions of 17, 22 and 36 yards. The final resulting in a touchdown.

Whitehurst didn't do much to improve Seattle's chances of winning in week nine, but I think about every Seahawks fan would agree that he looked quite a bit more competent against the Giants than he did against the Bucs. That is part of the mystery of football. Joe Montana could not have executed Air Coryell. If he had to, Montana may have become just another busted third-round quarterback prospect. Instead, Bill Walsh helped him become a legend. He didn't make Montana talented, but he did find what talent Montana had and maximized it. It's easy enough to say Whitehurst is just bad, just hopelessly bad and incapable of ever being good, and maybe that's so. But maybe Jeremy Bates just hasn't figured out yet what it is Whitehurst can do. Maybe, right now, in some 11th hour film study, Bates is figuring out the exact game plan to bring out the very best in Whitehurst. Maybe, against a much worse pass defense, in a system much better tailored to what he can do, Charlie Whitehurst is about to have the game of his life. And if that seems like a stretch, I challenge you to prove it's impossible.