Let me describe a young QB for you: he has a decent-to-good arm and can place the ball well, but can't do progression reading at all, given at most two passing options, usually a primary read and a safety valve. The offense is designed to minimize the QB's impact on the game. The foundation of the offense is run, and only then pass. Who am I talking about?
What, didn't expect that? Well, remember when Danny compared our rebuild to the Jets a while back? I think there's some truth to that comparison, though there's some key differences too. For instance, the Jets FO has an unpleasant habit of having only a handful of picks in the draft, and is really sacrificing the future for the now. But to continue on the comparison, we've invested in O-line and pieces of the offense to be capable of designing an offense that minimizes the QB's impact. When you don't have a QB who plays at a franchise level - and we probably won't - you need to design to his specific limitations. The Jets do that extraordinarily well. They win games with Mark Sanchez, but they rarely win games thanks to Mark Sanchez, whose generally poor QB play actually bottoms out in the 4th quarter (clutch he is not).
I don't want to stretch the comparison as it is largely coincidental. There are a lot of young QBs out there with limitations in their ability to read defenses and lead complex offenses. Considering the limited college experience of Sanchez he has done fairly well, and the Jets can be hopeful that at some point soon he'll figure out the game and it'll all come together. Leaving youth and upside aside for a moment, he does play somewhat similarly to Charlie Whitehurst, in needing an offense primarily designed to run, one that does not have a lot of complexity in its passing options. The most noticeable difference is of course in mobility. While Sanchez has learned to scramble some he's still a plant and throw passer (much like Kevin Kolb), whereas with Whitehurst one of his greatest assets is his mobility. This can also serve to his detriment; where Sanchez's second option is a safety valve pass (and good job recognizing the value of LaDanian Tomlinson and Brad Smith there by the Jets), Whitehurst's second "read" is to scramble.
For Whitehurst, I'll primarily look at the Rams game. The interesting thing about this game is that it wasn't just Charlie being plugged into an offense designed for Matt, it was Whitehurst running the bootleg-heavy offense Bates wanted to run. It looked fundamentally different (and better) than much of the regular season, and fundamentally different (and worse) than the game against the Saints. With Whitehurst in, stacking the box became a non-option, and his ability to scramble out of bootlegs kept the defense honest. An odd route/throw stutter that still went 61 yards (and is hard to explain just from gametape) aside, I think it's fair to say the opening drive caught us all off guard in being pretty good and consisting mostly of passes. It shows Charlie's upside working in Bates' system, it was a scripted drive executed as well as it could be. It tells us Whitehurst doesn't lack the talent, but things got a lot less pretty once the scripted part was over.
It wasn't a pretty game in general, and a big part of that was that both offenses were working with limited playbooks meant to protect the QB. Bradford barely looked better than Whitehurst as both were asked to work mostly through the run and short passing games. Marshawn Lynch took 40 snaps, the most he had since week 7 (though many of them came as we were grinding at the game late), our fullback Michael Robinson took 34 offensive snaps, a season high. Those numbers are telling even if our rungame wasn't as effective as you'd hope. But I'll put that one on the Oline, which was in its 10th different combo of the season and even looked to lose Okung for a bit - though he came back after missing only four snaps. A quick tally through NFL's own play by play shows me that when Whitehurst didn't hand it off, he ran it 8 times, threw deep 6 times and threw short 30 times, short being within 10 yards. These numbers all reflect the story of the game pretty well.
Taking out the scripted drive we're left with a 9-6 game that looked like a 9-6 game. Looking through my notes, I can count on one hand the times Whitehurst did not stare down his first read and either threw it there or scrambled. There were some exceptions, for instance a 2nd and 13 from the Rams 46, empty backfield. Charlie stares down his first read in Ben Obomanu to his right, then looks away before Obomanu comes open (which he does). The Rams' George Selvie is only chipped and then comes at Whitehurst with no blockers in his path, and Whitehurst dumps off to Cameron Morrah short left for 6 yards. A poor decision with Obomanu open deeper in the field. A better example later in the game is a 2nd and 10 on the Rams 48, where Whitehurst's first read is BMW to his right. Obomanu is to his left with no one near him, and Whitehurst spots that quick enough, a good throw, a good catch, and 13 yards on we have a 1st down.
This article is going to run a bit long, so I'm splitting it into two. In the next part, I'll discuss the game versus the Rams a bit more before moving on to this series' regular best/worst-case and my take conclusion.