The Hurt Locker: How Ken Whisenhunt Can Save His Promising Quarterback

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

Jake Locker has been a topic of some conversation this offseason. In January, Numberfire’s JJ Zachariason wrote about Ken Whisenhunt’s move to the Titans. Zachariason highlighted Coach Whiz’s success with Ben Roethlisberger, Kurt Warner, and Phillip Rivers. The gist: All three quarterbacks performed better with Whisenhunt than they did without him. In June, Zachariason took it to the next level by making the case for Locker as a QB1 in 2014. He highlighted Locker’s rushing prowess, surprisingly strong Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) numbers, and supporting cast.

Our very own Justin Winn issued something of a rebuttal a week later, calling Locker a “value trap.” Winn argued that J-Lock’s numbers in both college and the NFL have been inconsistent, at best. Moreover, he addressed Locker’s biggest flaw: He gets hurt. A lot.

I’d like to bridge the gap a bit between these two viewpoints. My point is straightforward: Coach Whiz’s offensive approach may be well-suited not only to improve Locker’s numbers, but also to keep him healthy.

Jake Locker May Not Be Terrible

Locker’s career to date is a bit of an enigma. He has flashed some signs of brilliance, yet has often looked helpless. As Winn pointed out, Locker was flat-out mediocre in college:

Year (games played) Comp % AY/A
2007 (12) 47.3 5.1
2008 (12) 53.8 5.7
2009 (4) 58.4 6.9
2010 (12) 55.4 6.6
Overall 54.0 6.2

He notes that Matt Ryan is the only current NFL starter with a worse completion percentage than Locker in his final college season. Even more ominous is Locker’s company in the “Lower than 60 percent College Completion Percentage” club. Locker’s only fellow club members who are or were viable fantasy starters are Matthew Stafford (57.1 percent), Jay Cutler (57.2 percent), and Colin Kaepernick (59.8 percent).

However, I think that Locker’s college numbers can be partially explained by the quality of his team. Namely, the Washington Huskies of 2007-2011 were bad and played tough competition. Here’s how they fared out of 120 college teams in points score per game, points allowed per game, and strength of schedule:

Year PS/G Rank PA/G Rank SOS Rank Record
2007 53 93 2 4-9
2008 118 117 1 0-12
2009 69 70 12 5-7
2010 96 80 2 7-6

In three of his four years at Washington, Locker faced one of the top two toughest schedules in the country. To make matters worse, the offensive talent on those teams was severely lacking. Only one of Locker’s offensive teammates was ever taken in the NFL Draft: Senio Kelemete, a 2012 fifth-round pick who is now a guard on the Saints’ practice squad.

Locker has performed decently in the NFL:

Year (games played) Comp % AY/A
2011 (5) 51.5 9.4
2012 (11) 56.4 6.0
2013 (7) 60.7 6.8
Overall 57.2 6.6

He has even shown flashes of greatness. He scored more than 19 fantasy points in half of his six full starts last season. Shawn Siegele, writing at Pro Football Focus, recently noted Locker’s surprising fantasy efficiency. Locker averaged only slightly fewer fantasy points per drop back than Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees in 2013.

Locker also has a solid supporting cast in 2014: Kendall Wright is a capable possession receiver, Bishop Sankey is a fantastic receiving back, Delanie Walker is a weapon in the red zone, and Justin Hunter has decided to score more touchdowns. Throw in one of the league’s easiest schedules and you have a recipe for a breakout candidate, right?

So, Locker has potential upside. Why is he going undrafted in most formats?

The Hurt Locker

The reason that we haven’t gotten a complete portrait of Locker’s fantasy potential—and why fantasy owners treat him like he’s radioactive—is because Locker has been so frequently relegated to the sideline.

Year League Injury Details
2013 NFL Foot Suffered Lisfranc injury after busted play in Week 10; missed the rest of the season
2013 NFL Hip Missed weeks 5 and 6 after severe hip injury after being hit twice in the pocket on one play
2012 NFL Shoulder Aggravated shoulder injury; missed Week 11
2012 NFL Shoulder Injured shoulder after bone jarring sack; missed weeks 5-9
2010 College Ribs Fractured a rib, had to leave the game
2008 College Hand Missed seven games after breaking a finger
2007 College Neck Limited participation in a game due to lingering neck sprain

Locker’s lengthy injury history isn’t surprising when you consider how frequently he is sacked.

Year Sack % NFL Rank1
2011 7.0 24
2012 7.4 27
2013 8.0 26

Sacks, intuitively, are highly correlated with injuries. For every one percent increase in sack rate, the percent of QB starts missed due to injury rises by 2.6 percent. This is especially significant when you consider that QBs tend to only miss 11-14 percent of their starts due to injury.

If Locker could become a more accurate passer while getting sacked a bit less, then he could be good enough and healthy enough to be viable fantasy option. Is that possible in 2014?

The Whizard’s Apprentices: The Good

Whisenhunt’s offensive philosophy is simple: Get the ball out of the QB’s hands quickly. Accordingly, Whiz prefers short and intermediate passes to deep bombs. About a third of the targets in his offenses go to slot receivers, compared to a league average of about 25 percent. This often translates into improved accuracy and fewer sacks for Whisenhunt’s QBs.

The Whizard’s first apprentice was Ben Roethlisberger, who he coached during Big Ben’s first three years in the league. Here are Roethlisberger’s AY/A and sack rates for his three seasons with Whisenhunt and the two seasons thereafter.

Years (starts) AY/A Comp % Sack %
Whiz Years: 2004-2006 (40) 7.4 62.4 8.8
Post-Whiz: 2007-2008 (31) 7.4 62.4 9.6

These results are mixed. Roethlisberger’s AY/A and completion percentage didn’t budge over his next two seasons without Coach Whiz, though his sack rate rose. The sack rates are both high, but it is nonetheless notable that—despite being a young QB—Big Ben was sacked less frequently with Whisenhunt.

Next, Whiz’s philosophy rejuvenated the career of Kurt Warner. Warner’s career had basically been left for dead after an abysmal 2002 campaign; he battled multiple injuries and ended up in Arizona after an unsuccessful stint with the Giants. When Coach Whiz arrived in 2007, Warner was 36 years old, usually the period of QB decline. Instead, Warner thrived. Here are the numbers for his 31 starts preceding Whisenhunt and his 42 with Whisenhunt:

Years (starts) AY/A Comp % Sack %
Pre-Whiz: 2002-2006 (31) 6.5 63.9 8.5
Whiz Years: 2007-2009 (42) 7.3 65.4 4.3

Warner’s numbers improved dramatically during his time with Whisenhunt. Most impressively, Warner was sacked about half as often as he was in his previous 31 starts. Unsurprisingly, Warner’s average time from the snap of the ball to a pass attempt was among the shortest in the league from 2007-2009; after five injury-plagued seasons, Warner only missed a total of three games over his three seasons with Whiz.

Most recently, the Whizard mentored Philip Rivers in San Diego as the Chargers’ offensive coordinator. As you know, Rivers had a tremendous 2013 season. He almost managed career highs in both TDs and yards:

Year (starts) AY/A Comp % Sack %
Pre-Whiz: 2012 (16) 6.5 64.1 8.5
Whiz Year: 2013 (16) 8.5 69.5 5.2

Like Roethlisberger and Warner before him, Rivers was sacked much less frequently under Whisenhunt’s tutelage. He also significantly improved his efficiency and accuracy. The Chargers ran more short routes, allowing Rivers to get rid of the ball quickly; as a result, he cut his average time in the pocket significantly.

The Whizard’s Apprentices: The Bad

You may have noticed that I skipped over Whisenhunt’s final three years in Arizona. The Cardinals’ post-Warner era did not go well. Whisenhunt used Derek Anderson in 2010 and Kevin Kolb in both 2011 and 2012.2 Let’s see how Anderson performed under Whisenhunt compared to his performance with Cleveland in 2009.

Year (starts) AY/A Comp % Sack %
Pre-Whiz: 2009 (7) 2.7 44.5 5.7
Whiz Year: 2010 (9) 5.4 51.7 7.1

Kolb’s putrid AY/A and completion rate actually did improve under Coach Whiz. However, unlike Whisenhunt’s more successful apprentices, Anderson’s sack rate increased.

Like Anderson, Kolb’s AY/A and sack rate both increased with Whiz.

Year (starts) AY/A Comp % Sack %
Pre-Whiz: 2010 (5) 5.4 60.8 7.4
Whiz Year: 2011 (9) 7.0 57.7 10.6

Overall, here is how the Whizard’s apprentices have performed with and without him.3

AY/A Comp % Sack %
Without Whiz 5.7 59.1 7.9
With Whiz 7.1 61.3 7.2

Bottom Line

To date, Locker has been injured consistently while performing inconsistently. Yet, he has shown flashes of ability and has at times been a solid fantasy QB. With a solid supporting cast and a cushy schedule, Locker has attracted some attention this offseason as a potential fantasy sleeper. His proponents argue that Whisenhunt has been a miracle worker with QBs in the past. His detractors (rightly) contend that any potential that Locker may possess won’t be realized if he can’t stay on the field.

While Whisenhunt’s history is a bit checkered, his overall success with QBs cannot be denied: Except for Roethlisberger, all five of Whiz’s starting QBs have improved their AY/A with him calling the plays. Most importantly for Locker, the Whizard has been pretty good at lowering his QB’s sack rates. If he can do the same this season, Locker may finally be able to stay healthy.

Locker is being drafted in the 14th round as the 29th QB off the board. The benefit of waiting that long to draft your QB2 is that it allows you to accumulate more lottery tickets like Jonathan Stewart, Lance Dunbar, Charles Sims, Aaron Dobson, and Greg Jennings. Locker constitutes a very low cost investment that will pay sizeable dividends if Whisenhunt works his magic.

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  1. Among QBs with at least 200 attempts.  (back)
  2. John Skelton also played in 2011 and 2012 when Kolb was injured and/or ineffective. However, I’ve omitted him from the analysis because he’s never started a game without Whisenhunt at the helm.  (back)
  3. I’ve weighted each QB equally.  (back)
By Vaughn Stewart | @VaughnMStewart | Archive

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