Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Spring Cleaning in Nashville

So the Tennessee Titans are cleaning house. After the team's hugely disappointing 5-11 finish in 2004, General Manager Floyd Reese looked around, saw cobwebs in the corners and dust bunnies under the beds, and decided to get out the broom.

But it's not like he chased away bad players. Within the past week, the Titans have lost to free agency wide receiver Derrick Mason, cornerback Samari Rolle, defensive lineman Kevin Carter and offensive lineman Fred Miller. All four have Pro Bowl credentials. All four probably have some very good years left. It was money (or the Titans' lack thereof) that supposedly made these moves necessary.

Carter, a popular and durable player who won a Super Bowl ring with the St. Louis Rams after the 1999 season, was becoming a staunch citizen in Nashville social circles. He didn't want to go. But the Titans weren't going to offer him the kind of money he could make elsewhere, so he made a beeline for Miami, where the defense-minded Dolphins gladly cut him a fat check. So long, Kevin. You will be missed. Not only for your effort on the field, but also for your articulate manner and positive spirit. This one kinda sucks.

As for Mason and Rolle, they both ended up with the Baltimore Ravens. There's some irony here, given that the Ravens were arch-enemies of the Titans for several years. But again, it was the money. The Titans are overextended at the bank. They have salary-cap issues. They're paying too much money for the talent they have (had) on their roster. They need to move their money around, use less of it on more players, and develop their younger hands. So be it.

The Ravens have been desperate for a top-flight wide receiver for a long time. They almost had their hands on Terrell Owens a couple of seasons ago. They'd have loved to have cut a recent deal for Randy Moss, but they couldn't afford him. Mason comes a bit cheaper, but he fits the bill. He's very underrated, having toiled in the shadow of Owens and Moss and others for eight years now. He's not a prototypical modern-day wide receiver. At 5'10" he's more in the mode of the Washington Redskins' Smurfs from the 1980s. But Mason is tenacious and reliable and can be flat-out exciting. He's got quickness, wiry moves, and enough speed to make you think he's faster than he really is. He caught 96 passes last year, and it still didn't seem like the Titans got him the ball enough. Plus, Mason's got personality. Baltimore fans are lucky: Mason's a cool guy to root for.

Rolle is a perfect fit for the Ravens: their defense has a reputation for being aggressive and punishing, and Rolle was recently hauled in by the Brentwood (Tenn.) police for hitting his wife. The missus managed to show up at the press conference, though, all smiles at the thought of Samari's new multimillion-dollar contract. It's true then: time heals all wounds. When he's healthy, Rolle is one of the finest cornerbacks in the league. He was injured a lot last year, but he has an excellent chance to return to prior form. He should kick some ass playing behind Ray Lewis.

Miller leaves Tennessee for the Chicago Bears, and on this one the Titans were smart. Miller's a veteran, and, like Carter, he's been very durable. He's a very nice guy, too. He also has made a positive impact on the Nashville do-gooder circuit. But close watchers of the team have to be glad that Miller is gone. Yeah, Fred could block. And he always showed up on Sunday. But he was also the King of the False Start. Miller had an unerring knack for getting called for motion penalties, and it always seemed to happen just when the Titans' offense was making a significant push down the field. They'd mount a long drive, chew up significant yardage, get in place for something big and--WHAM-O!--good ol' Fred, nice guy and all, would be called for illegal motion, either ruining a productive play or setting the team back five or ten yards. With all his physical gifts, Miller is a drive-killer of the first order. Must be all in his head. He's also in his early 30s, so his best days have to be behind him. Why the Bears gave him a five-year contract is beyond comprehension. They're welcome to him.

Where all this leaves the Titans, though, is something to ponder. They were 5-11 this past season, and now they've lost four guys who were a big part of 13-3 seasons just a few years ago. This isn't deadwood that's gone; these are pros with a history of winning consistently. The departures leave the Titans especially weakened at cornerback and wide receiver. It removes their one truly veteran presence on the defensive line. And Miller, for all his faults, still needs to be replaced. Even with a typically shrewd draft, it'll take a while to figure out who can plug these holes.

The D-line has a ton of raw young talent on it. But will they achieve? And if yes, then when? The receiving corps just lost the closest thing they had to a megastar. Last year's other big performer, Drew Bennett, is making strides, but I dunno: Name me the last successful NFL team you know whose #1 wide receiver was a white man. (Maybe Lance Alworth with the Chargers, or Fred Biletnikoff with the Raiders, in the '60s. Or maybe Steve Largent with the Seahawks of the '70s and '80s.) The Titans' defensive secondary was a mess last year, with a bunch of no-names trying to fill in for injured starters like Rolle and Lance Schulters. So...will they be better with Rolle gone?

So far, the Titans have made no moves through free-agency. They have a history of building solidly through the draft, and making their wisdom pay off for years. Now, the chickens have come home to roost. Last season was supposed to be a good one. The talent was there, but players dropped like flies onto the injured list. So a 5-11 team enters 2005 with a young, raw, promising but still-as-yet-unproven defensive line; a defensive secondary decimated by injuries and free agency; a linebacking corps that was also wracked by injury; one talented white wide receiver and a bunch of other wannabes of all colors; a so-so offensive line that needs help; a great young running back (Chris Brown), who nevertheless also sat a lot last year due to chronic turf toe; and, at quarterback, the magnificent Steve McNair, who also missed a good deal of the season due to injuries, and whose physical history and age make it a tossup whether he'll ever complete a full season again.

Even a good draft can't solve so many problems at once. And so, for the first time since the Titans moved to Tennessee in 1997, 5-11 is looking pretty good.

Sometimes a good house-cleaning can take a lot longer than it should.

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