Are you experienced? As this season starts, Locker just might be

For Steve McNair, it was a turning point.

His 12th career start came in Week 7 of 1997, his third NFL season. He and the then-Tennessee Oilers had lost four in row, and he had thrown multiple interceptions in consecutive contests for the first time in his career. The previous week he was a miserable 12-for-28 for 101 yards at Seattle.

Beginning with the following week’s 30-7 victory over Cincinnati and continuing through the end of 2003, the third overall pick in the 1995 draft went 64-33 as a starter. That stretch included back-to-back 13-3 seasons, the only Super Bowl appearance in franchise history and a co-MVP award.

Although it guarantees nothing, that bit of franchise history is notable because Jake Locker, now in his third NFL season, will make his 12th career start for the Tennessee Titans on Sunday at Pittsburgh (noon, CBS).
To this point, the 10th overall pick 2011 has been underwhelming in the role. His completion percentage is pedestrian. He has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns. Most notably, his won-loss record is terrible courtesy of four defeats in his last six outings.

If nothing else, McNair’s history gives the Titans reason to believe that a quarterback does not need a full season as a starter to learn all he needs to be effective in the NFL. Perhaps three training camps and 11 starts are all it takes.

“I think he’s just more comfortable with what we’re doing,” coach Mike Munchak said Wednesday. “He’s much more at ease in his relationship with the players, the receivers, the backs out of the backfield, the screen game. There’s a lot of things he’s just a lot better at. … We’re excited about where he’s at. We’re going to find out where we’re all at. Most teams in the league are in the same boat. You just don’t know quite what you have until you get it started.”

Vince Young did not have to wait nearly as long for his opportunity. The third overall pick of 2006 was a starter by the fourth game of his rookie season and logged 11 starts by mid-December.

He carried a five-game win streak into his 12th, in Buffalo on Christmas Eve, where he completed 13 of 20 passes for 183 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. His 127.7 passer rating remained his best for a full game until a rout of Oakland in the 2010 opener.

Young maintained that early momentum all the way through 2007, when he led the Titans to a 10-6 record and a playoff appearance. His completion percentage in his first – and only – full season as a starter was a tidy 62.3, still his career-high.

A look at how McNair, Young and Locker performed in their first 11 NFL starts:

Locker: 177-314 (56.4 percent) 2,718 yards, 10 TD 11 INT
Young: 156-301 (51.8 percent) 1,789 yards, 10 TD 11 INT
McNair: 160-292 (54.8 percent) 2,136 yards, 12 TD 9 INT

Locker: 41-291 (7.1 yards per carry) 1 TD
Young: 73-462 (6.3 yards per carry) 5 TD
McNair: 55-311 (5.6 yards per carry) 0 TD

Locker: 4-7
Young: 6-5
McNair: 5-6

Like McNair and Young, Locker did not enter the NFL as a finished product. He arrived strong-armed, undeniably athletic, equipped to make something out of nothing, which made him — in the eyes of team executives — worthy of selection early in the draft.

He also had technical flaws, however, some of which might never be remedied. McNair learned to maximize his strengths. Young’s weaknesses eventually overwhelmed his gifts.

Based on what current Titans coaches saw through his first 11 starts, they retooled the playbook in offseason to focus on the things Locker does well.

“Obviously, he is a talented young player,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. “I’m really impressed by his mobility, his accuracy on the move that he has displayed in the preseason. We have some concerns about containing him. … His escapability is a part of what they do both by design and by ad lib. That is something you have to be concerned about if you are on defense.”

As was the case with his first-round predecessors, coaches committed to Locker as soon as they felt prudent. None simply walked into a starting job. In this latest case, it was after one season as Matt Hasselbeck’s understudy. Locker would have gotten to his 12th start last season had a shoulder injury sustained in the opener not sidelined him for more than a month.

So it is now. Has he experienced enough that his experience will start to pay off?

“I’m just trying to learn [with] every opportunity I get,” Locker said. “You always wish you had more snaps, but I’m just trying to learn from every one I get the opportunity to take.”