A rookie and a veteran pair up with the Titans as transplants Jake Locker and Matt Hasselbeck get a fresh start in Nashville.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In the Music City, they’re playing Seattle’s song.
Listen to Matt Hasselbeck, the best quarterback in Seahawks history, barking instructions at the line of scrimmage. Listen to Jake Locker, the agile and resilient University of Washington quarterback, laughing as he scrambles past an angry defense for a touchdown during a red-zone drill.
They sound familiar. They sound like Seattle. But they’re 2,400 miles away now, dressed in matching red practice jerseys, teammates via one strange and nostalgia-inducing coincidence.
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Their new team is called the Tennessee Titans, but back home, it might as well be spelled Tenne SeaTitans. Two fully dissimilar cities now share space on the shoulder pads of two of Seattle’s beloved quarterbacks.
But the oddity doesn’t stop with Hasselbeck and Locker. The Tennessee general manager, Mike Reinfeldt, was a Seahawks executive from 2000 to 2007. Safety Jordan Babineaux, two assistant coaches and another executive all have Seahawks roots.
Nashville is Seattle South.
“Obviously, I spent eight years in Seattle, and I have a great fondness for it,” Reinfeldt says, grinning over all the connections. “But I can honestly say that we didn’t choose these guys because they’re from Seattle.”
Reinfeldt chose them, especially the quarterbacks, because he thinks he can win with them. If he’s right, the Titans have an “ideal complement” at quarterback, Reinfeldt says. Hasselbeck could be the veteran starter the Titans need to win right now. Locker could be the talented understudy who takes over in a year or two and leads a seamless transition.
It’s the kind of quarterback succession plan the Seahawks have longed to have for quite some time. And before the April NFL draft, many fans hoped the Seahawks would re-sign Hasselbeck and draft Locker. Instead, the Seahawks decided to let Hasselbeck sign elsewhere in free agency, and Locker was drafted No. 8 overall, 17 spots ahead of Seattle.
“I know what you’re here for,” a rental-car employee told me Monday after learning I was visiting from Seattle. “So, tell me, are we going to be happy with your quarterbacks?”
I grinned, nodded and answered in typical reporter fashion.
“I think so,” I said. “But we’ll have to see.”
“Well, I think you had better get used to Nashville,” she replied. “I predict you’ll be back here a lot.”
Hasselbeck is the 35-year-old veteran. Locker is the 23-year-old rookie. But if you’re judging them only in terms of comfort level, the aw-shucks Locker has an advantage over the polished Hasselbeck.
While Locker is new to the NFL and easy to mold, Hasselbeck is trying to grasp a new offense after spending his first 12 years in the West Coast offense. Everything is different: the terminology, the nuances, the expectations.
Hasselbeck is also dealing with his fourth offensive coordinator in four years. In Seattle, he spent his glory years with the demanding Mike Holmgren. Holmgren left after the 2008 season, and Hasselbeck dealt with coordinators Greg Knapp and Jeremy Bates the past two years. The transition was easy because they ran variations of the West Coast offense. Titans offensive coordinator Chris Palmer doesn’t.
“This has been, like, a wholesale change,” said Hasselbeck, who signed a three-year, $20 million contract with the Titans last week that should pay him $9 million this season. “The change from Holmgren to Knapp was like moving from Boston to South Carolina. And then to Bates was like moving to Southern California. But now all of a sudden, I’m in France.”
Hasselbeck embraces the challenge of learning something new. It’s just that there are many layers to his transition.
He had to move his wife, Sarah, and three children to Nashville. It’s tough for the family, especially 6-year-old Henry, who was born during the Seahawks’ Super Bowl run. Some of Henry’s complaints are simple. He loves Blitz, the Seahawks’ mascot. He misses his friends, all of the kids do. But at least Hasselbeck won’t be a displaced father. It would’ve been tough to leave his family back in Seattle.
On the other hand, Locker is a newlywed. He married former Huskies softball player Lauren Greer last month.
“I don’t think we could ask for anything more, coming to a city to call home,” Locker said. “My wife and I are both really happy to have ended up here.”
Hasselbeck is, too, but he admits he won’t get to spend much time getting to know Nashville this season. He has too much to learn. And at this point in his career, he realizes he is a short-term solution.
“We’ve really been out of touch with reality,” Hasselbeck said. “The average career in the NFL is, like, three years. We’ve been in Seattle for 10. That’s a long time. It’s not going to last forever. We’re going to make the most of our time in Nashville.”
Said Locker: “I’ve heard they have great hunting and fishing here. I’d like to explore that in the offseason, but we have to take care of business first. I have time.”
“He’s there for me”
Hasselbeck and Locker first met about three years ago at a Washington women’s basketball game. Hasselbeck was with his children and went to the concession stand for a beverage. A college student tapped him on the shoulder.
“Hey, Matt, I just wanted to introduce myself,” the student said.
Hasselbeck thought the student was a tight end or a linebacker. When the student extended his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Jake Locker,” Hasselbeck was stunned.
“Ohmigosh, dude, you’re huge!” Hasselbeck said.
Over the years, they have been friendly, swapping text messages. But a true relationship didn’t begin to develop until the NFL lockout began in March. They found themselves both working out at UW on several occasions. They didn’t figure they would soon be teammates.
Locker is impressed with Hasselbeck’s willingness to mentor him.
“He’s great with me,” Locker said. “Obviously, yeah, we’re competing, but it’s not, ‘Hey, I’m going to try to screw you so I can be the guy.’ He’s really willing to help, and anytime I need any kind of help, he’s there for me. It’s been a great couple of weeks here getting to know him and getting to work with him. It’s another piece of the puzzle that I’m very thankful to have.”
Hasselbeck is amazed that Locker is such a fast learner. The four quarterbacks in Titans camp ride to practice together most days in a truck. A bond is forming. Hasselbeck jokes about Locker’s poor renditions of Garth Brooks songs. Locker takes the ribbing and listens intently as Hasselbeck explains the subtleties of being a successful NFL quarterback.
Reinfeldt — the Titans’ architect, the Seattle QB-napper — grins, proud to have two quarterbacks that we sometimes took for granted.
“Well, if you had told me March 1 we’d be where we are now, I’d say, ‘Hallelujah! Amen!’ ” Reinfeldt said. “It’s worked out really well for us.”
Give ’em credit: The Tenne SeaTitans are shrewd importers.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer