BY Doug Farrar 05:00PM 01/03/2011

Bates’ adjustments led to Whitehurst’s success

Seahawks reaped benefits in NFC West division-clinching win

For the first time, the Seahawks seemed to be able to tailor their offense to Charlie Whitehurst's abilities. (Drew Sellers/Sportspress Northwest)

The need to transition quarterbacks who play in spread offenses to the pro game has an interesting history. At the 2008 Scouting Combine, former San Francisco 49ers General Manager (and current Seahawks Senior Personnel Executive) Scot McCloughan discussed the difficulties in evaluating players with great talent who have never played in an NFL-centric system.

“It makes it tougher for some positions to figure out,” he said. “It’s kind of nice when you go watch a college team on tape like USC when you can see an NFL-type offense. It’s, ‘Oh, it’s easy to see what the guy can or can’t do.’ It’s the same for every team.”

But as the spread offense and its knockoffs have gained a stronghold on the NCAA, pro personnel executives are forced to merge their own systems with the talents of players who seemingly don’t fit. The penalty for excluding athletes who may fail the scheme-fit test is an inevitable decline in the ability to acquire and develop a roster of championship caliber. Thus, NFL coaches are bending to the shotgun formation – the NFL sees three times more shotgun sets per season than it did a decade ago – and the combination of read-and-run offenses with playbooks that may be pared down to a greater or lesser degree.

The recent on-field successes of Vince Young in Tennessee and Michael Vick in Philadelphia are perhaps the two best examples to date of the successful marriage between collegiate and professional passing structures. And in a more short-term and under-the-radar fashion, the Seattle Seahawks adjusted their game plan to match the talents of one Charlie Whitehurst in Sunday night’s division-clinching win over the St. Louis Rams, and they reaped the benefits.

Charlie Whitehurst and Jeremy Bates discuss the game plan during the division-clinching win over the Rams. (Drew Sellers/Sportspress Northwest)By tailoring the game plan to Whitehurst’s relatively limited skill set and option-based background as a quarterback at Clemson (which was the last time Whitehurst threw meaningful passes at any level before this season), offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates gave his backup quarterback a window to NFL success he’s never had before. Instead of a full NFL playbook, Whitehurst went with a play sheet very much like the one Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur designed for rookie quarterback Sam Bradford.

At times, it looked as if Bates and Shurmur were sharing one playbook, and alternating its use whenever one or the other team had the ball. But the results for Bates and Whitehurst were impressive enough, given their collective status among most of the fanbase as the personifications of the offense’s recent failures.

Bates’ plan was a diet heavy on dink-and-dunk passes (according to ESPN, 23 of Whitehurst’s 36 passes went five yards or less in the air), designed rollouts to take advantage of his escapability outside the pocket, and subsequent stretch running plays which took advantage of the defensive need to key on the quarterback. It was not, under any circumstances, an offense you would see designed for Matt Hasselbeck.

And as Pete Carroll said at Monday’s press conference, the ability to have Whitehurst take all the starting reps in practice allowed Bates to put the right concepts together. It’s why the need to alternate reps between Whitehurst and Hasselbeck, as Carroll said would be done this week, could complicate things.

“That was part of the plan,” Carroll said. “We said early on to Charlie that he was going to get ready to start this game, so that we could orchestrate the plan to fit him and the opponent. Matt’s deal was totally different, and it’s likely it will be much that way again. We don’t know. That’s why I have to find out – that’s why I don’t know what the game plan is until I see what we’re capable of doing. It’s unfortunate that it’s a short week, but the coaches will work with those guys until they can’t keep their eyes open to get this done.

“We’re underway now, and tomorrow’s a big day for us – tomorrow’s Wednesday for us. We need a lot of work done, and we’re going to have to be flexible to figure this thing out.”

Whether Hasselbeck or Whitehurst starts on Saturday, a similar short passing game may help them out to a degree as long as there isn’t the over-reliance we’ve seen in certain games.

Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted efficiency metrics have the 2010 Rams defense ranked 27th against passes to running backs, 18th against tight ends, and 23rd against ancillary receivers – the players most likely to catch short passes. For their measure, New Orleans’ defense ranks 26th against running backs, 27th against tight ends, and seventh against ancillary receivers.

Under the right circumstances, the opportunities will be there. The key, and it was shown in the Rams game better than any other in the Carroll regime, is to tailor the scheme to the quarterback, mystery through he may be at this time.