Saturday, September 02, 2006

Titans 2006: Fasten Your Seatbelts, It's Gonna Be a Bumpy Ride

The Tennessee Titans were 9-23 the past two years. They were trying to rebuild and achieve at the same time, which simply doesn't work. Mediocrity is the only result of that strategem. Now the last vestige of recent success, Steve McNair, is gone, and it's anybody's guess whether the team is doing any rebuilding or achieving. Peter King, Sports Illustrated's football guru, was heard recently on ESPN Radio saying that he thought the Titans would "compete" this year. He didn't exactly say they'd be competing for a division title, however. It sounded like a positive spin, but it also sounded like King was hedging his bets.

Unfortunately, the Titans still look bad. Or at least bad when compared with the teams they play against on this year's schedule. They've got the Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars twice apiece. Then the schedule makers, who are supposed to go easy on teams with bad records, pitted the Titans against Miami, Dallas, San Diego, Washington, New York Giants, and New England, all teams with legitimate hopes of making the playoffs. The Titans might eke out a "W" here and there, but a pessimist could see them losing all of these games. So if, perchance, they manage to go 4-2 against their lesser opponents, they'd wind up 4-12.

I wish I could paint a more Pollyanna-ish picture. But there are a lot of good reasons to suspect that the Titans will suck in 2006. Here they are position by position:

QUARTERBACK—In a late training camp move, the team added veteran QB Kerry Collins. Collins has been to a Super Bowl and has 11 years experience in the league with Carolina, New Orleans, the Giants and Oakland. He's a good quarterback, except that he throws way too many interceptions, which explains why he's never quite ever vaulted into the highest echelon of pro QBs. His presence makes supposed incumbent #1 Billy Volek nervous, and with good reason: Volek's preseason performance seemed, well, lacking. With either guy at the helm, mediocrity awaits. The only alternative is to go with savior Vince Young (left), who didn't look too bad in the preseason finale against a bad Packers team. Watching Young play could be fun, if also a little painful, as he learns how to do it in the NFL. So the choice is a mediocre veteran or a fresh young turk who could run the offense like a Chinese fire drill. In the interests of the future, I'll take the fire drill.

RUNNING BACK—If we're doing things Chinese, then, in Column A, you get fourth-year pro Chris Brown. Talented, injury-prone, and with a straight-up running style that continues to annoy his critics. In Column B, there's Travis Henry, a swift, darting scatback type who performs when healthy and not suspended for substance abuse. In Column C, there's rookie LenDale White (left), who hasn't shown much in preseason but remains a hope for the future. Maybe give him the ball in the Chinese fire drill. Might be worthwhile to see him develop.

WIDE RECEIVER—Free agent David Givens (left) has been injured all summer and no one knows what he can do yet. Instead of starting, Drew Bennett, tall and hustling, would probably be a #3 on a better team. Bears castoff Bobby Wade is short, intense, can catch a ball in a crowd, but is not as fast as you hope he'd be. Possibly one of last year's three rookie wide receivers, like Brandon Jones maybe, will emerge to boost the corps. It is not, however, an elite corps, no matter how you line 'em up.

TIGHT END—Ben Troupe (left), in his third year out of Florida, looks like a talent finally blooming. Vet Erron Kinney has been sidelined with injury, and second-year man Bo Scaife, out of Texas, seems to be getting serious playing time. If Troupe improves his blocking, he could become a fixture for years.

OFFENSIVE LINE—Brad Hopkins retired and Justin Hartwig fled to Carolina. So third-year man Jacob Bell gets a chance to be the new left tackle and veteran Kevin Mawae (left), 35, with six Pro Bowl credits, was signed to play center. The line has some experience but now it has some age and a new learning curve. They might be okay. Eventually.

DEFENSIVE LINE—This unit was tagged as a strength at one point, mainly because it had depth. Then Rien Long was lost for the year and Antwan Odom hurt his knee. Still, the starting four of Kyle Vanden Bosch, Randy Starks, Albert Haynesworth (left) and Travis LaBoy looks to be a promising blend of youth and experience. On the other hand, Haynesworth, supposedly a big talent yet to hit his stride, enters his fifth year having played in 52 games but with only 7.5 sacks. A big talent gets that many sacks in less than a season. Haynesworth talks it up, but he hasn't really produced as expected. But there is hope here.

LINEBACKER—With Keith Bulluck (left), this unit is a strength. Another plus is David Thornton, who joined the team in the off-season from the Colts. Peter Sirmon is a nice complement to their skills. Not much depth here, however. The starting trio needs to stay healthy.

SECONDARY—Safety Chris Hope (left) joins the Titans from the Super Bowl-winning Steelers of last year. That's good news. Cornerback Pacman Jones gets arrested again. That's bad news. Just seeing Jones' punk ass on the field makes the viewer nervous. Maybe he'll grow up. Maybe he'll perform. Maybe he won't. Reynaldo Hill is the other cornerback. He hustles and might get better. The other safety is Lamont Thompson. He hustles but has yet to distinguish himself as a top-flight player. We can say that this might be a very good unit if everything falls into place. But we could be wrong.

KICKERS—Rob Bironas (left) appears to be a solid, workmanlike placekicker, able to convert the field goals he should and occasionally hitting a long one. Craig Hentrich (right) enters his 14th season as an NFL punter and is the model of consistency. He can also handle long placekicks in a pinch. The kicking game looks good.

KICK RETURNS—It looks like Bobby Wade (left) will handle the kickoffs this year, and Pacman Jones (right) will do his thing as a punt returner. Wade is surehanded, but he's not really very fast. He'll do okay, but it seems unlikely that he'll break a long one. Jones, if he doesn't freak and drop the ball, is capable of long punt returns, and given what offensive struggles await the team, he'll have to be worth the risk.

SPECIAL TEAMS–Who knows? Let's hope they don't blow any big assignments and get downfield to cover punts and kickoffs without suffering any severe injuries. Alan Lowry, Titans special teams coach, is pictured at the left.

The Titans might jell in some respects. Worse-looking teams have had their surprise seasons. But there are so many what-ifs that it seems impossible for the team to actually achieve, much less compete for a division title. The brutal schedule will test Coach Jeff Fisher's PR skills. And maybe cost him his job.

MEDIA NOTES: Anybody catch the Titans' final preseason game on Friday afternoon at 3 p.m.? Some of us were fortunate to be home at that time, watching football, instead of facing rush-hour traffic. Doing so got us a dose of the Titans local TV coverage on WKRN-Channel 2. John Dwyer handled the play-by-play. (Eh...not bad, but he kinda stumbles his way through trying to be "cool," and "snappy.") Then there's Eddie George, whom we all love for good reasons, though I'm not sure any of them are about his color analysis skills. Ex-jocks get a wide berth and plenty of time to ride the learning curve. He still stutter-steps his way through reportage, fumbles through his phraseology, and, when at a loss for words, will exclaim, "Now THAT'S what ya gotta do!" (over and over). Maybe he'll get better at this, but it's apparent that rushing for more than 10,000 yards came a lot easier to him. The wild-card booth presence was Chris Stout, an executive for the Titans television network. Not sure what that means. The Titans were on Channel 2, so isn't WKRN the Titans' TV network? I guess they feed those broadcasts to other southern cities, and Stout must be in charge of that, and it's all part of some corporate arrangement, etc. Anyway, Stout's okay, in a typical youngish sports executive way, although it was he who introduced Albert Haynesworth's puny sack statistic onto the airwaves (7.5 in 52 games), which he did by way of praising the defensive tackle. Not really very incisive work. On the sidelines, we got a dose of Joe Dubin, a newish Channel 2 sports guy. His interviews were good, and maybe it helps down there to be a big hulking guy who can stick your microphone into somebody's face. Dubin was articulate at a moment's notice. His presence begs a certain question, however. Since when is television NOT a visual medium? With the coming of Dubin, and the news that Channel 2 has also hired Brad Schmitt of the Tennessean to do his bullshit entertainment thing, you'd have to believe that being bald, fat and geekish had suddenly come into telegeneic vogue. Maybe it's sorta the same reason that Taylor Hicks won American Idol last time out, even though Katharine McPhee was clearly more talented, and happens to be beautiful. It's the latter-day anti-glam impulse, the attempt to show that people are acknowledged for their brains as much as their beauty. Not sure the formula computes where Schmitt is concerned. (But thank goodness for FOX, where being blonde, beautiful, and brainless still has merit.)

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