Monday, January 07, 2008

Fisher Deserves Better: Titans Coach Bushwhacked by Ailing, Failing Offense

After Sunday’s 17-6 loss to the San Diego Chargers, one can only imagine what Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher will do when he first finds some quiet, peaceful moments alone. He might sit heavily in his favorite chair, look skyward, close his eyes, and mutter to himself, “Lord, if only I had an offense...”

For the second time in five weeks, Fisher’s squad lost a physical battle to the Chargers, yet another game where his defense had asserted its superiority and shut down LaDainian Tomlinson, Philip Rivers and the rest of the San Diego offense, only to watch his million-dollar quarterback Vince Young fail to direct the requisite scoring drives that might give his team a decent cushion of points, which a better-rested D would be more apt to protect.

The Titans took a 6-0 lead into halftime. Not unlike the Dec. 9 game in Nashville, which the Titans led 17-3 in the third quarter (and lost 23-17 in overtime), Young continuously failed to work any sustained magic, giving the Chargers’ offense plenty of time to get back in the game and eventually wear down the Titans’ inspired defenders, whose performance brings to mind an old Billy Ray Cyrus tune, “Some Gave All.”

Fisher was quoted after the game saying, "I thought Vince played well enough for us to win. He got banged around a little bit and bounced back, made some throws." If you call 16-29 for 138 yards and no touchdowns “making some throws,” Jeff. You’re way too kind.

Sadly, Rivers began to connect with receivers Chris Chambers and Vince Jackson, and the Tennessee secondary couldn’t play perfectly. LT was still held to only 42 yards on 21 attempts, however, and yet again, all things considered, the Titans’ defense played well enough to win against a well-favored opponent.

Young’s postgame remarks were his usual monosyllabic cliches. He never discusses what kind of looks the opposing defense was giving him. He’s rarely able to articulate how his game plan unfolded—or went awry. There were some holes on the Titans’ offense due to injuries, true. But after 30 games as a pro QB, Young plays with little microcosmic purpose and no apparent sense of overall strategy. He’s like an improv actor being told to get onstage and play Hamlet. Once in a while he gets his lines right, but mostly he flounders, out of his depth. Watching him complete two- and three-yard passes is painful, but moreso is watching him panic in the backfield and then throw an incompletion that probably was ill-advised to begin with.

“Run, Vince, run!” is all I can think of, going against my own firmly held belief that quarterbacks who win—Manning, Brady, Elway, Favre, Montana, Aikman, Bradshaw, Starr, Unitas—do (and did) so because they know how to stand back there and run their offenses. Even the very mobile Elway only ran when he had to.

It even occurred to me to wonder if Fisher would have the balls to yank Young at the beginning of the second half and put in veteran Kerry Collins. Collins is no Unitas, but he’d’ve been a better bet to sustain a drive, or maybe complete a long pass. Fisher stuck with Young, but the possibility of substitution must have crossed his mind.

Fisher is a terrific coach. He doesn’t have half the raw first-string talent of teams like San Diego, Jacksonville, New England, Dallas or Seattle. His philosophy is based on the hand he’s been dealt, which includes about three major defensive stars, one much-ballyhooed but underachieving young quarterback, and a remaining roster of virtual unknowns or re-treads who are willing to give up their bodies determinedly till they’ve got no more to give.

One can only wonder what Fisher might do at the helm of a team like, say, the Washington Redskins, owned by Daniel Snyder, who has absolutely no problem spending his money in order to give his coach options and depth.

Fisher just completed his 14th season at the helm of the Oilers/Titans. His career regular season record is 115-99. He’s made five playoff appearances, including losing the Super Bowl following the 1999 season. This year has been a case-study in the limits to which motivation and strategizing can take a modestly talented football team.

In fact, 10-6 and a first-round playoff loss isn’t bad at all. Especially when you don’t have a playoff-caliber quarterback calling the shots.

Fisher’s future fortunes—surely he’d like to get back to the Super Bowl someday—rest with Young. It’s an interesting but nervous prospect. It’d be a shame to once again waste all that bone-crunching defense while VY gets his on-the-job training.

Meanwhile, Snyder might be looking in a year or so, depending on how long Joe Gibbs plans to extend his Second Coming. You never know.

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