Jake Locker needs to take a big step forward if the Titans hope to be a contender in the AFC South this season
The Tennessee Titans are turning the page to a new chapter in franchise history. The 2014 season marks the first year since the Houston Oilers franchise was founded in 1960 that K.S. “Bud” Adams will not be calling the shots. The longest-tenured owner in NFL history died at age 90 in October. While ownership of the team remains in the hands of Adams’ immediate family, Tennessee has gone outside the Oilers-Titans family tree to hire the 17th head coach in franchise history — and only the second coaching change since the franchise planted roots in Nashville and became the Titans in 1999, the year of the “Music City Miracle” run to Super Bowl XXXIV.
Unlike predecessors Jeff Fisher (1994-2010) and Mike Munchak (2011-13), new coach Ken Whisenhunt was not promoted from within. The 52-year-old Whisenhunt was arguably the top free-agent coach on the market after coordinating the San Diego Chargers’ fifth-ranked offense (compared to the Titans’ 22nd-ranked unit) last season. Prior to that, the former tight end — who played seven seasons in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons, Washington Redskins and New York Jets — served as coach of the Arizona Cardinals, leading the Redbirds to a Super Bowl XLIII loss against his former team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Before six seasons in the desert from 2007-12, Whisenhunt coached in Pittsburgh from 2001-06 and was the offensive coordinator for the Super Bowl XL champions.
Whisenhunt won a Super Bowl with a 23-year-old Ben Roethlisberger and lost the big game with a 37-year-old Kurt Warner. Now fans in Nashville hope their new quarterback guru can just make the playoffs with 26-year-old Jake Locker, who enters the final year of his rookie deal after being the No. 8 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. Locker has not lived up to his “face of the franchise” expectations — throwing for a combined 3,432 yards, 18 TDs and 15 INTs with a 58.0 completion percentage, along with 446 rushing yards, three rushing TDs and five lost fumbles over a total of 18 starts in 2012-13. Locker’s 2013 season was cut short after seven games due to a Lisfranc injury in his foot. In 2012, the Washington product missed five games with a non-throwing shoulder injury.
Keeping Locker upright and on the field is priority No. 1. And after years of subpar line play under Hall of Fame O-lineman Munchak, the Titans have invested heavily in the front five during the past two offseasons. It was too little, too late to save Munchak, who is now the offensive line coach in Pittsburgh. But this year’s line should be among the best in the game, as the team’s past two first-round draft picks, guard Chance Warmack (No. 10 overall pick in 2013) and rookie tackle Taylor Lewan (No. 11 in 2014), join former Pro Bowl left tackle Michael Roos and guard Andy Levitre (80 consecutive starts), giving Tennessee legitimate star power up front.
Chris Johnson, the third-leading rusher (7,965 yards) in Oilers-Titans franchise history — behind Eddie George and Earl Campbell — was allowed to leave as a free agent and signed with the Jets. The runner once known as CJ2K will be replaced by second-round pick Bishop Sankey (1,870 yards and 20 TDs at Washington in ’13) and Shonn Greene, who had two 1,000-yard seasons before managing just 295 yards in his first year in Tennessee.
Offensive coordinator Jason Michael and game-day play-caller Whisenhunt will have a variety of options in the passing game — with Nate Washington and Justin Hunter providing vertical threats downfield while Kendall Wright and Delanie Walker work the middle. Triple-threat Dexter McCluster will be a wild card as a receiver-runner-returner jack of all trades.
Defensive coordinator Ray Horton is transforming the Titans from a base 4-3 defense to a hybrid 3-4 scheme. Horton played 10 seasons as a defensive back in the NFL and coached alongside Whisenhunt in both Pittsburgh and Arizona, including 2011-12 as the defensive coordinator. Last season, Horton coordinated the ninth-ranked Cleveland Browns’ stop-unit. The 54-year-old defensive boss inherits plenty of talent in Tennessee. But even the powers that be aren’t exactly sure where all of the pieces to the puzzle will fit just yet.
Jurrell Casey was one of the worst Pro Bowl snubs from last season. But there were few players on the big island of Oahu better than the Titans’ 305-pound big man, who had 10.5 sacks and commanded constant double teams in his third season out of USC. Health permitting, the 24-year-old Casey will make plenty of Pro Bowl trips in the future. He will anchor the defense. And although much has been made of Tennessee’s switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 under Horton, the new coach’s scheme will allow Casey to remain a disruptive 3-technique tackle. Former Steeler Al Woods and 6'4", 328-pound Sammie Hill should man the all-important nose tackle position. Rookie DaQuan Jones, 6'8" Ropati Pitoitua and overachiever Karl Klug bring versatility and depth to the D-line rotation.
Derrick Morgan appears to be the odd man out. A traditional 4-3 end, Morgan — a former first-round pick with 16.5 sacks in four seasons — does not have an obvious fit in the new hybrid 3-4 defense.
There’s upside off the edge at linebacker, where Akeem Ayers, Shaun Phillips, Kamerion Wimbley and possibly Morgan will pin their ears back to rush the passer. Inside, Zach Brown, Wesley Woodyard will look to stuff the run and shoot the gaps. Unfortunately, the injury bug struck Colin McCarthy once again, as he suffered a shoulder injury in the second preseason game. He underwent surgery and is out for the season.
The secondary will miss cornerback Alterraun Verner, who had five INTs and a pick-six in his final season in Tennessee before signing with Tampa Bay as a free agent. Jason McCourty is a proven corner, but Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Coty Sensabaugh must step up. Center fielder Michael Griffin and sledgehammer Bernard Pollard bring stability to the safety spots.
“M-M-M-My Bironas!” will no longer be played over the speakers at LP Field following the departure of Rob Bironas. The kicking game will be uncertain for the first time since 2005. Punter Brett Kern returns for his sixth season in Tennessee. Game-breaking return specialist Leon Washington is one of the best in the business, with a record-tying eight career kick return touchdowns.
Munchak posted a 6–12 division record in three seasons against a relatively weak AFC South. Whisenhunt must reverse that trend if the Titans are to return to relevance. All eyes will be on Locker, who is in a make-or-break season. If Locker can stay healthy and the new-look defense gels early, the Titans could earn their first trip to the playoffs since 2008. If not, Whisenhunt could be looking for a new QB to mentor heading into 2015.