Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck calls an audible at the line of scrimmage… (Mark Duncan / Associated…)
Tennessee Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has spent much more of his NFL career under the radar than under the microscope.
In many ways he has enjoyed that, going from Seattle to Nashville and joking that it sometimes feels like being enrolled in the witness protection program. But with the way Hasselbeck is playing, he can't hide much longer.
Through the first four games, he's looked like the smartest free-agent acquisition of the season. His Titans are 3-1 heading into Sunday's game at Pittsburgh, and he's second in the AFC to New England's Tom Brady with a 104.7 passer rating. Hasselbeck has eight touchdowns and three interceptions, and has been sacked only four times.
"I'm not trying to do anything crazy, I'm just being myself," he said in a phone interview this week. "When Coach [Mike] Munchak brought me here, he was like, 'Listen, we don't need you to try to do anything that you've never done. We need you to be what you've been in Seattle the last 10 years. We've got all the other pieces.'
"There are signs around the building that just say, 'Be a pro.' That's all they're looking for. I'm down with that."
And the Titans are decidedly up. They're coming off consecutive victories over Baltimore, Denver and Cleveland and now look to be getting star running back Chris Johnson going — he had his first 100-yard game of the season last Sunday — although they have lost top receiver Kenny Britt to a knee injury.
From the perspective of the 36-year-old Hasselbeck, everything starts with the Tennessee offensive line, which for 16 years was coached by Munchak, a Hall of Fame lineman. The line is now coached by Bruce Matthews, also among the elite linemen in Canton, and assistant Art Valero, who was with Hasselbeck in Seattle last season.
Over the last four seasons in Seattle, Hasselbeck was sacked 113 times and sat out 13 games because of various injuries. The Seahawks made a lot of changes along their offensive line during that span, including using No. 1 picks on tackles the last two years. This is one quarterback who understands the value of a cohesive unit up front, and he knows his head coach feels the same way.
"This guy gets it," Hasselbeck said of Munchak. "He gets that you can have whoever you want at wide receiver, but if you don't have a good offensive line that's been together, if you don't start there, then so what?"
It doesn't hurt Hasselbeck's cause that Tennessee's defense has given up a league-low 14.0 points per game.
"Coming to Tennessee was a fantastic move for him," NBC's Cris Collinsworth said of Hasselbeck. "In the middle of that Ravens game, I started seeing some of the flair and the fun and the sidearm throws that have always been his trademark as a quarterback, and I was like, 'Uh oh.' If you have this guy and he's healthy and he's getting protected, and Chris Johnson when he gets back up to speed … they're going to be something."
Hasselbeck concedes it wasn't easy to leave Seattle — he liked playing for Coach Pete Carroll — but said the Seahawks made it clear they planned to move on without him.
"They were super honest with me when the lockout ended," Hasselbeck said. "They called me and said, 'Hey, listen, there's no easy way to say this: We're going to go in a different direction.' It was basically, we're breaking up with you. … It's never easy to hear that, but I appreciated the honesty. I didn't have to read it on the ticker."
His assumption was he'd stay in the NFC West, maybe landing in either Arizona or San Francisco. Instead, it was Tennessee that pursued him most aggressively, saying he would be more than a short-term bridge to rookie quarterback Jake Locker; someone who could start multiple seasons.
"We thought he had a lot left in the tank from watching him in the playoffs last year," Munchak said. "We didn't bring him in here to retire quietly. We brought him here to do exactly what he's been doing."
Experienced as Hasselbeck is, it was still very challenging for him to learn a new offensive system so quickly. The lockout led to a compressed off-season, and veteran free agents had to sit out the start of training camp with their new teams.
That's where Hasselbeck got a lot of help from his brother, Tim, a former NFL quarterback who had played for Titans offensive coordinator Chris Palmer when they were both with the New York Giants.
"Matthew had been in Tennessee maybe two days, and I sent him a text message saying, 'Hey, did you guys install 62-Read?' " said Tim, now an ESPN analyst. "And he texted me back [sounding very surprised], 'Do you know this offense?' "
That proved to be a eureka moment for the Hasselbeck brothers, who had many conversations about the nuances of that offense and which plays best fit Matt's style. Tim became like a human highlighter pen for his big brother.
"One play we talked about, he asked me if I liked 'Kitchen' or I liked 'Read,' " Matt said. "He's like, 'Dude, Kitchen? No.' Then he told me a story about Kitchen. But then he's like 'Now, Read, that's going to be your play. You need to own that play. And here's why. …' It's like having a veteran quarterback in your room. You need that."
That was similar to the friendship Hasselbeck had with fellow quarterback Trent Dilfer in Seattle for four years, with Hasselbeck eventually taking over and Dilfer — who had a Super Bowl ring from his Baltimore days — acting as a second set of eyes.
"He's very tough to stop when he's being protected and he feels comfortable," said Dilfer, now an ESPN analyst. "He sees it, he's highly accurate, and he's decisive.
"When he's hot — and he's on fire now — he's as good as anybody."