The Titans faithful hope the third time is a charm for coach Mike Munchak and quarterback Jake Locker, who are each entering their third season with the franchise following the disastrous breakup of Jeff Fisher and Vince Young.
With iconic owner Bud Adams entering his 90s, Tennessee is in win-now mode but may fall short of having the personnel to win the first Super Bowl in Oilers-Titans history.
Make no mistake, all eyes are on Munchak and Locker, both of whom have given reasons for hope as well as doubt.
Munchak is a Hall of Fame former O-lineman who brings a blue-collar pedigree and attitude. But he has also lost to the then-winless Indianapolis Colts in 2011 and the even-worse Jacksonville Jaguars in 2012 — inexcusable defeats to AFC South Division foes.
Meanwhile, Locker has the type of dual-threat tough-guy swagger Steve McNair would approve of. But his completion percentages over the last six seasons (the first four at the University of Washington) read: 47.3, 53.8, 58.2, 55.4, 51.5 and last year’s 56.4.
Unless Munchak and Locker both take the next step, the Titans could be doomed for a Fisher-style 8–8 season.
Athlon Sports AFC Power Ranking: 8th
Chris Johnson has to be the most overlooked of the seven 2,000-yard rushers in NFL history. Rumors of his demise have been greatly exaggerated. CJ is still CJ2K-capable. Last year, he had scoring runs of 80, 83 and 94 yards, the longest TD run in the league since 2006. The key to Johnson’s revival is two-time BCS champion and 40-game Alabama starter Chance Warmack, the No. 10 overall pick in this year’s draft. “War Daddy” is the type of mauler at guard who can pave the way for Johnson and new change-of-pace power back Shonn Greene.
Former Pro Bowl left tackle Michael Roos and enforcer right tackle David Stewart are entrenched. Guard Andy Levitre has started all 64 games of his career and was the Titans’ top free agent target, inking a six-year, $46.8 million deal.
Tennessee’s receiving corps is a mixed bag. Talented manchild Kenny Britt is oft-injured and saddled with off-the-field problems. Second-year wideout Kendall Wright has chemistry with Locker, but he sustained a sprained knee during the second preseason game. Although the injury isn't believed to be serious, it will impact the amount of practice time Wright will get before the season starts. Nate Washington was in offseason trade rumors, while rookie Justin Hunter has upside. Newly acquired tight end Delanie Walker likely will line up all over the field, bringing a physical style and run-blocking dimension the team lacked with Jared Cook, who is now in St. Louis. He also also has been slowed during training camp by a knee injury, so it may take him a little longer to get fully acclimated to the new system and his role.
Coordinator Jerry Gray and free safety Michael Griffin were both Texas Longhorn defensive backs. And both are on the hot seat this season after the Titans’ historically bad defensive performance last year, when the stop-unit allowed over 30 points eight times, including 51 to the Chicago Bears and 55 to the Green Bay Packers. The team brought back former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams as a senior assistant coach in hopes that he can help instill the same type of physical mentality and aggressiveness that his Titans' defenses during the late '90s were known for.
Former Baltimore Raven and infamous Tom Brady pest Bernard Pollard brings a nasty demeanor and in-the-box mindset to strong safety, freeing Griffin to ball-hawk in center field. Depth could be an issue at cornerback, where Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner have run hot and cold during their young careers. Verner could see more time at nickel back if rookie Blidi Wreh-Wilson steps up early on the outside.
Speed is paramount at linebacker, where Akeem Ayers, Zach Brown, rookie Zaviar Gooden and man in the middle Colin McCarthy fly sideline to sideline. McCarthy was the Titans’ best defender last preseason before injuries limited him to just seven games. Brown showed promise as a rookie, with 93 tackles, 5.5 sacks and three interceptions for 156 yards and two TDs.
The pass rush is a question mark, with Derrick Morgan — who was infamously drafted one spot behind Giants star Jason Pierre-Paul — having failed to provide the type of splash plays (10.5 career sacks over three seasons) expected from a first-round edge rusher. Veterans Kamerion Wimbley and Ropati Pitoitua and rookie Lavar Edwards are hard-nosed defenders who provide scheme versatility. A late push to sign a pass-rush specialist like John Abraham or Dwight Freeney could make all the difference in a division that features Indy’s Andrew Luck and Houston’s Matt Schaub, and a schedule that includes games against Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick.
Jurrell Casey has shown flashes as a star in the making at tackle, while Mike Martin and Karl Klug are underrated overachievers inside.
Kicker Rob Bironas is one of the best in the business, and the Titans locked up the former All-Pro with a two-year contract extension this offseason despite coming off his worst statistical season (25-of-31 field goals) since 2006. Bironas was only 6-of-12 from 40-plus yards in 2012, after connecting on 40-of-46 from outside of 40 yards from 2009-11. For a team that has historically played a ground-and-pound, low-scoring style, Bironas’ ability to make long field goals is essential.
Brett Kern averaged 47.6 yards per punt but suffered the first two blocked kicks of his career last year.
The return game has multiple candidates in former Pro Bowler Marc Mariani, who suffered a broken left leg last preseason, and Darius Reynaud, who was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Month in September — after executing a perfect Music City Miracle-style home run throwback. Reynaud finished the season with 1,240 kick return yards and a 105-yard TD, along with 410 punt return yards and two TDs.
Final Analysis: 3rd in AFC South
The offense should once again revolve around Johnson, with Greene — who is a two-time 1,000-yard rusher in his own right — providing another option on the ground. With a strong running game, beefed-up offensive line and variety of pass-catching options, Locker appears to have the supporting cast necessary to succeed. Should he stumble or get hurt, backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick could follow in the Tennessee tradition of proven second-fiddles — remember Kerry Collins and Neil O’Donnell? — who make the most of their opportunities on the big stage in Music City.
Defensively, there are many more concerns. The pass rush is weak, the secondary is thin and the linebacking corps is inexperienced. The schedule opens at Pittsburgh, then includes seven games against playoff teams from last season.
But if Locker takes another stride in his development and Munchak avoids his annual ugly loss, the Titans could make a run at the Wild Card playoff berth the Colts claimed last season.
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New England (8/30)
NY Giants (8/30)
St. Louis (8/23)
Green Bay (8/29)
New Orleans (8/26)
San Francisco (9/3)