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An in-depth look at the Titans' offense, defense and special teams this year.
The Music City melodrama between Jeff Fisher and Vince Young is finally over. The either-or ultimatum resulted in both high-profile personalities leaving town with varying degrees of regret, disappointment and unfulfilled potential.
Fisher went 142–120 (and 5–6 in the playoffs) over 16-plus seasons after taking over as interim coach of the Houston Oilers. One of the most respected coaches in the league during his heyday, Fisher fell one yard short of OT against the Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV — following a “Music City Miracle” run in the team’s first season as the Tennessee Titans, which was preceded by a nomad’s journey that detoured through Memphis after an ugly exit from Houston.
Young went 30–17 as a starter — while the team had a 15–18 mark in games the seemingly bipolar passer did not start during that time. Once viewed as Steve McNair’s surrogate son and heir apparent, a series of strange events and clashes with both coaches and fans led to V.Y.’s image as a spoiled prima donna — the anti-Air McNair. As a result, 88-year-old owner Bud Adams must move forward, despite his outspoken support of both Fisher and Young.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Titans replace the NFL’s longest-tenured head coach — who had been with the team since 1994 — with a man who has been with the organization since 1982. And the team went from one dual-threat quarterback with accuracy issues to another athletic “it” factor signal-caller wearing No. 10 and rolling out of the pocket.
Fisher and Young are out — Mike Munchak and Jake Locker are in. But the identity of Adams’ Titans remains intact.
Fisher may be gone, but the Titans’ ground-and-pound offensive philosophy will certainly continue — with new coordinator Chris Palmer being given the keys to gold-grilled Ferrari running back Chris Johnson, who famously goes from zero-to-40-yards in 4.24 seconds.
The 61-year-old playcaller may think he has seen everything in pro football from his stops in the UFL, CFL, USFL and NFL — notably as the first coach of the expansion Browns and an assistant under Bill Parcells and Tom Coughlin. But Palmer has never coached a playmaker as dynamic as Johnson — who broke Marshall Faulk’s yards-from-scrimmage record with 2,509 total yards, while becoming only the sixth 2,000-yard rusher in history back in 2009.
Johnson is the focal point of every opposing defense, but the 25-year-old fourth-year back has the luxury of running behind one of the game’s top offensive lines. And although Pro Bowl left tackle Michael Roos, right tackle David “Big Country” Stewart and everyone on the interior rotation were already rock solid, the unit could be even better this year — with guidance from a pair of coaches who already have busts in Canton.
Munchak starred on the Oilers’ O-line from 1982-93 before joining the team’s coaching staff in 1994 — serving as the O-line coach since 1997 — and being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001. His position coach replacement on the staff is good friend and former linemate Bruce Matthews, who blocked for everyone from Earl Campbell to Warren Moon to Eddie George during a 19-year career that included an O-line record 296 games played, 14 Pro Bowl nods and induction into the Hall of Fame in 2007.
Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is new to Nashville, but the 35-year-old already has several friends within the Titans organization — notably GM Mike Reinfeldt, Palmer and Locker. A pair of former Seattle residents, Hasselbeck and Locker — the No. 8 overall pick in the draft — both bring the type of leadership and intangibles the team lacked with Young. The 6'3", 215-pound Kenny Britt has been unstoppable at times, but several run-ins with the law have raised concerns within the organization. The Titans will need Nate Washington, Justin Gage and one of the young pass-catchers to step up in order to keep defenses from loading the box against Johnson, who also is a deadly decoy in the play-action passing attack downfield.
The biggest perceived loss on Tennessee’s defense is Jim Washburn, the D-line coach who motivated and molded Albert Haynesworth into a walking $100-million contract and turned countless other defensive linemen from reclamation projects to redemption stories. The departure of defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil, a coach most well known for flipping the bird to the officials, may be addition by subtraction. New coordinator Jerry Gray coached defensive backs under Fisher during the Titans’ Super Bowl runner-up run.
Up front, Jason Jones is on the verge of stardom. The 6'5", 276-pounder has the physique and technique to suffocate the pocket as a 3-technique tackle or kick outside to pressure passers as an edge-rushing end. Last year’s first-round pick, end Derrick Morgan will be a “redshirt rookie” this year after a season-ending ACL injury cut short a promising rookie campaign.
Depth will be an issue along the D-line. Sen’Derrick Marks, Jovan Haye, Shaun Smith and rookie Jurrell Casey must stay healthy and active inside, while Dave Ball will need to capture lightning in a bottle for the second straight season in order to take pressure off of a secondary that struggled due, in part, to the lack of a pass-rush.
Established Pro Bowlers like safeties Michael Griffin and Chris Hope and corner Cortland Finnegan, along with up-and-coming second-year ball-hawk Alterraun Verner, look good on paper. But the foursome struggled as the league’s 29th-ranked pass defense in 2010.
At linebacker, newly acquired middle man Barrett Ruud brings leadership and toughness. Rookie Akeem Ayers has the skill set to help the pass rush and pass coverage. The same was once thought of Gerald McRath. Otherwise, it’s special teamers and overachievers like veteran Will Witherspoon, David Thornton, Rennie Curran and rookie Colin McCarthy.
Already one of the best kickers in the game, Rob Bironas is coming off of arguably his best season as a pro — hitting 24-of-26 field goals (a career-best 92.3 percent), with a long of 55 yards. As a rookie, return specialist Marc Mariani earned a trip to the Pro Bowl. Punter (and holder) Brett Kern hasn’t made anyone forget retired Pro Bowler Craig Hentrich.
At first glance, the Titans are in rebuilding mode and at a considerable disadvantage with a first-year coach and rookie quarterback during the lockout. But the AFC South is a wide-open division. And remember, the Titans started 5–2 last season before the Fisher-Young fiasco sent the team into a 1–8 tailspin — proving once again that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” With new leadership in place and a unified locker room, a breath of fresh air could breathe life into Tennessee.
Outside the Huddle
Hall of Fame Duo
New head coach Mike Munchak and right-hand man offensive line coach Bruce Matthews were a dominant one-two punch during their playing days with the Oilers. Then, in an odd twist, Munchak coached his old teammate Matthews with the Titans. The close friends (each served as the other’s presenter at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio) have always been an intimidating duo, with Munchak listed at 6'3", 281 pounds during his playing days and Matthews at 6'5", 305. Now, Munchak and Matthews will attempt to pave the way for the Titans from the sideline.
Angel in the Backfield
Jake Locker was selected by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the 10th round of the 2009 MLB First-Year Player Draft. The rocket-armed center fielder was given a reported $250,000 signing bonus, and the Angels will hold Locker’s rights until 2015. In the summer of 2008, Locker was named the top prospect in the West Coast Collegiate Baseball League by Baseball America, after hitting .273 (9-of-33) with one HR, three RBIs, six runs and four stolen bases in 10 games. Locker isn’t the only Titan quarterback with a baseball background; the late, great Steve McNair was a 35th round pick of the Mariners in 1991 before becoming a power-hitting, slick-fielding shortstop in Jeff Fisher’s annual charity softball game.
Face of the Franchise
During the lockout over the summer, many Titans — as well as Nashville residents such as Derrick Mason and Golden Tate — gathered to work out, run drills and practice plays in 7-on-7 drills at Father Ryan High School. All eyes were on rookie quarterback Jake Locker during the player-organized mini-camps. And Locker showed enough on the field — albeit in shorts and a t-shirt — for trash-talking cornerback Cortland Finnegan to give the No. 8 overall pick a new nickname: “Face of the Franchise.”
The meteoric rise of Chris Johnson has the Orlando, Fla., native and East Carolina alum in rarified air among history’s best backs. Famous for his quick first step, C.J. is off to one of the fastest starts of all time, with more all-purpose yards (5,606) over his first three seasons than anyone other than LaDainian Tomlinson (6,145) and Eric Dickerson (5,816).
Show Me the Money
After skipping last season’s offseason voluntary workouts in Nashville in an effort to secure a new contract, Johnson was a surprise attendee at player-organized team mini-camps this year. “I really didn’t come out here to try to prove a point,” said Johnson. “I came out to get a good workout in and to try to get the team better.” Make no mistake, however, with uncertainty in the passing game and a little lockout leverage on his side, Johnson will once again be chasing millions of dollars — or holding out “to try to prove a point.”
Jeff Fisher’s Son’s Friend
Marc Mariani was a seventh-round pick who had been a teammate of Jeff Fisher’s son, Brandon, at Montana. But in just one season, Mariani established himself as one of the NFL’s premier return specialists. As a rookie, Mariani was both reliable and explosive — scoring TDs on a 98-yard kickoff and 87-yard punt return en route to being named to the Pro Bowl. While in Honolulu, Mariani set Pro Bowl records with nine kickoff returns for 326 yards (36.2 ypr) during a 55–41 NFC win.