Thursday, March 16, 2006

Money Well Spent? Titans New Free Agents Intrigue but Don't Excite; Serious Draft Issues Still Looming

David Givens, Kevin Mawae, David Thornton, Chris Hope. This is the new crop of free agents signed in a hurry by the Tennessee Titans. The default reaction of local Nashville radio and TV sports media seems to be a positive one. Forgive my cynicism, but I'm not so sure.

With the exception of the 35-year-old Mawae (left), the group has both youth and legit experience on its side, and, in the case of Givens and Hope, the rings of recent Super Bowl winners (New England and Pittsburgh, respectively). Thornton is an escapee from the Colts, who are losing players to free agency left and right, a fact that has to be good news for Titans fans, who see their prospects for winning in the AFC South suddenly boosted a tad with these developments.

But are you psyched about David Givens? I'm not. Givens (left) obviously has talent, and any improvement to the Titans receiving corps is welcome. But unless he suddenly breaks out in 2006, showing a level of game previously kept under wraps, Givens appears to be a solid possession receiver with the occasional penchant for the big play. What he does not appear to be is the field-stretching speedster the Titans hoped Tyrone Calico would be when they drafted him four years ago. Calico has been a bust. Injuries have consistently hampered his progress, and even when healthy he looked tentative, despite showing flashes of big-play ability.

Givens is not Terrell Owens. He's not Antwan Randle El , either, who escaped from Pittsburgh and has joined the Redskins in free agency. Givens is a decent football player who will help a struggling offense, but he is not the answer to a prayer. It is doubtful if Mawae is either. Clearly, the former New York Jets center has been signed as insurance, since younger veteran center Justin Hartwig vamoosed from Nashville to go to Carolina. The Titans are rebuilding and putting a 35-year-old at center. Hmmmmm... That sounds...uninspired.

The Thornton signing looks better. He's a savvy linebacker who has been playing with the improved Colts defense, and any help of this kind for the excellent veteran Keith Bulluck will toughen up Tennessee's defensive middle. Free safety Hope can't be a bad addition to the Titans' D, if only because there were so many holes to plug to begin with.

It's not so much that these guys won't help. No, the big issue is that the Titans still need SO MUCH help. After two dismal seasons, the team still has way too many question marks. Since winning wasn't happening in '04 and '05, we assumed that general manager Floyd Reese was laying the foundation for the big revival. Let's look at the current state of each position:

Quarterback—Steve McNair is an admirable athlete. Alas, he's one good pop away from retirement. His mobility, once a strength, is now a potential liability. Billy Volek didn't look as good last year as he did in '04.

Running Back—Chris Brown has durability issues. Travis Henry has talent but personal issues.

Offensive Line—Last year's results were mediocre. Michael Roos was the big rookie addition. He only looked so-so to me. The aging Brad Hopkins is a salary cap victim and Hartwig is now gone.

Tight End—There's some hope here. Ben Troupe is improving. Erron Kinney is a pro, but he's rebounding from an injury.

Wide Receiver—Givens helps a corps that was dominated by rookies once Drew Bennett was injured. The second-year guys should improve, but not one of them—Roydell Williams, Brandon Jones, Courtney Roby—is a true breakaway threat. Bennett is good, but he's not really a #1 talent. It remains to be seen if Givens is.

Defensive Line—A lot of young talent here, and the emergence of Kyle Vanden Bosch was huge. There's a positive outlook on the DL, but this unit must have a big year or there's more trouble on the horizon.

Linebacker—The addition of Thornton (left) helps. They still need another guy to step up. Peter Sirmon's threat to seek employment elsewhere should be greeted with a yawn. Smart and determined, alas, Sirmon is a pro but never was a prime talent.

Defensive Secondary—Hope (left) is an upgrade, but that might not be saying too much. This unit was in disarray all season long, and despite some improvement by #1 draft pick/#1 head case Adam ("Pacman") Jones, it still suffers from the slow development of CB Andre Woolfolk and the absence of front-line safeties. The Titans are looking to second-year man Vincent Fuller to fulfill some promise. But let's face it, the Pacman situation still looks iffy, despite his obvious native physical gifts. I actually heard local sportswriter/radio guy Joe Biddle say that Lance Schulters should or could come back. Uh... no thanks.

Special Teams—Rob Bironas is a decent kicker, but that's all. Craig Hentrich, soon to turn 36, can still punt. Pacman is the punt return specialist who displayed flashes of brilliance, but he's still an adventure out there. Maybe he needs some Ritalin.

In summary, this is a team that, in order to vault into the upper echelons of the league, could use upgrading at running back, on the offensive line, at linebacker, probably still at wide receiver, and definitely in the defensive backfield. Then there's the question of McNair's health and age and the fact that the Titans are staring at a #3 overall pick in the upcoming NFL draft, making them a prime candidate for selecting marquee QBs Matt Leinart or Vince Young. (Please, no talk about Vanderbilt's Jay Cutler joining the Titans. Local guys rarely make the grade. It's just not a good idea.)

The Titans have a history of trading down in exchange for more overall draft picks. It's been a decent strategy in theory, but the QB situation needs to be addressed, and Leinart might be the answer. (Young is a brilliant raw talent, but it might take him a while to get comfortable in an NFL offense.) Possibly, the recent free-agent signings have been done as prelude to selecting Leinart, the Titans trying to fill needs they're otherwise afraid they won't get in the draft. That all makes sense; if only names like Mawae, Givens, Thornton and Hope were...uh...more hopeful.

Personally, I'm a big believer in foundation. That means strength on the offensive and defensive lines. Even if the Titans draft Leinart, they'll then be faced with the learning curve issue of a young QB. So if McNair is the guy no matter what happens, I say use the #1 pick on D'Brickashaw Ferguson, the huge OL out of Virginia. He'll be a help for years no matter who's playing QB. But New Orleans, drafting one slot ahead of Tennessee, will have first crack at him, and they've got new free agent QB signee Drew Brees to protect. (But they need defensive help as well.)

Reese and Co. have usually had good draft instincts. This is a critical year for them. Leinart's selection will make for good copy, but is it the right move?

Monday, March 13, 2006

Platitudes and Obfuscation: Inside the Vague Mind of Craig Littlepage

When CBS producers and tech staff weren't in synch with the wayward commentary of Billy Packer and Jim Nantz during yesterday's NCAA bracket wrap-up, we received an unplanned visual of an awkward Craig Littlepage, selection committee chair. While Littlepage smirked nervously on-screen, Nantz and Packer were beating up on his supposed logic in defense of the committee's work. We got a picture of Littlepage, with VO commentary, particularly from Nantz, which aimed to completely dispute what Littlepage had just said. So, Nantz and Packer were their usual overwrought selves, and it was uncomfortable, and the coverage looked like crap.

Why Nantz and Packer couldn't have had a productive but non-combative tete a tete with Littlepage, I don't know. Clearly, they were pressed for time. But whatever the failings of the network bozos, Littlepage is hugely lacking himself. From his on-air interviews to his quoted verbiage in online and wire service stories, the guy is nothing but hot air, laying out one platitude after the other about congratulating the fine teams that made the tourney, blah, blah, blah. He said things like, "In terms of selecting the teams that were best in terms of comparing their schedules against other teams in terms of non-conference games and in terms of their common opponents..." Then he let loose with another "In terms of the RPI, we don't use that as our only tool in terms of selecting teams..." When asked about the selection of Air Force—a team with a very good record but no quality wins to speak of, and also a general profile that basically defied their selection—Littlepage came up with a lame retort, something along the lines of, "Well, we just thought they were a very interesting selection in terms of the tournament..."

In my experience, never has a more inarticulate dude been in charge of this tourney. This guy is the athletic director of the University of Virginia, with an undergrad degree in economics from Penn. He was formerly head basketball coach at Penn and Rutgers (three years in each stint), but otherwise appears to be one of these career administrator types. Would it have been too much to ask for him to have given Packer/Nantz clear, fully reasoned answers to their questions? He seemed clueless. All he could do was spout the party platitudes about the process, without offering a single incisive specific insight. Even if the Air Force decision was made to bring another team into the fray from out west, he could have said so. As it was, one got the impression that Littlepage had nothing to do with any key decision-making, nor was he clued in to the reasonings behind the critical choices. It was a sad performance.

Why would the NCAA want a guy like that running such an important process? Beats me. Bottom line, it makes me totally suspicious about the choices and the seedings this time around. Oh, the system will seek its own level, and we'll have a tourney for sure. But if there's a system in place, then it's the selection chair's job to explain that, and when there are teams that get in that don't fit the mold, it's his job to explain that too. Then there's the issue of season-ending conference tourneys and their impact on the process. Littlepage was a mushmouth about that too. Hard to believe this man is a professional decision maker.

Anyway, here's the personal scoop on him:

BORN: August 5, 1951, in LaMott, Pa.

FAMILY: Married to the former Margaret Murray of Charlottesville, Va.; Erica (19), Murray Quentin (16) and Erin (14).

EDUCATION: B.A. in economics, University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, 1973.

COACHING EXPERIENCE: Assistant basketball coach at the University of Villanova, 1973-75, assistant basketball coach at Yale University, 1975-1976; assistant basketball coach at the University of Virginia, 1976 to 1982; head basketball coach, University of Pennsylvania, 1982-85; head basketball coach, Rutgers University, 1985-88; assistant basketball coach, University of Virginia, 1988-90.

ADMINISTRATIVE EXPERIENCE: Assistant athletic director, University of Virginia, 1990-91; associate athletic director for programs, University of Virginia, 1991-95; senior associate director of athletics, University of Virginia, 1995-01; named athletic director at the University of Virginia, August 21, 2001.

But Littlepage or no, March Madness has returned, and after a nice post-Super Bowl respite, so has Sports Media America.

Bruins versus Bruins
On a local note, we salute the Bruins of Belmont University, who are "dancin' " for the first time in school history. Belmont is a five-minute walk from the SMA offices. It's a small but growing liberal arts college populated by a lot of cool folks, and after paying their dues for a few years in Division I, they have finally made it to the tourney, on the strength of beating crosstown rival Lipscomb University in the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament championship game. They enter the NCAAs as a #15 seed, and guess who they get to play in their (probably only) first game? #2 seed UCLA. So Nashville's Bruins take off for San Diego to take on the basketball program that John Wooden made famous. It might be a brief trip, but it's a huge milestone for the school, and totally well-deserved. Godspeed Coach Rick Byrd and his worthy squad.