I watched the Tennessee Titans lose to the Miami Dolphins yesterday afternoon, 29-17. The Dolphins lost their first- and second-string quarterbacks—the two hanging Chads, Pennington and Henne—to injury during the game, yet the Titans couldn’t take advantage of the situation. Miami’s last QB standing, Tyler Thigpen, finished off the victory, looking savvy and determined and making me wonder—after the Chads return—if possibly the Dolphins could lend us Thigpen. See, the Titans have quarterback issues: the play of Vince Young and Kerry Collins is erratic, and injuries have set them back.
The Titans also have arguably the finest runner, Chris Johnson, in the NFL. When he gets loose, Johnson is as dangerous as they come, but alas, despite good numbers this season, he too has been erratic. Too often, Johnson gets bottled up, tending to spin his wheels in the backfield or at the line of scrimmage. His play has also given rise to suspicions that maybe the Titans’ offensive line isn’t maybe as good as everyone supposed.
The Titans’ defense also has some problems, but lack of effort doesn’t seem to be one of them. It can be fairly stated that if the Titans’ offense were more consistent, the defense would probably look a lot better.
Later yesterday, I watched the New England Patriots dominate the Pittsburgh Steelers, 39-26 (it wasn’t that close, really). They beat them in Pittsburgh, no less, and once again America saw why Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is the greatest coach of his generation.
He may seem surly and manipulative and ego-maniacal, and doubtless Belichick has his personal foibles and tics, but his ability to re-tool his team—dumping older players and finding rookies and youngsters and the occasional free-agent pickup to replace them—is simply uncanny.
Belichick is in his 11th season as Patriots coach. His first year, 2000, he was 5-11. He hasn’t had a losing record since. He hasn’t even had a .500 record since. From 2000 through 2009, Belichick’s regular season record is 112-48, with seven postseason appearances and three Super Bowl victories (plus one SB loss). The team is 7-2 in 2010. The only constants in this run of success are Belichick’s brain and the guts and right arm of Tom Brady, who, no matter what Peyton Manning supporters might say, can rightfully claim the title of best pro quarterback of his era.
Belichick and Brady proved it yet again Sunday evening. Belichick’s defense started four rookies. There’s almost no one left recognizable from their previous successful defenses. Those guys either retired or were let go or traded. A few of the down linemen—Wilfork, Warren—were familiar veterans, but otherwise, Belichick plugs in defenders, especially defensive backs, like new ecologically friendly light bulbs. Suddenly, a third-year linebacker like Jerod Mayo is playing like Mike Singletary in his prime. The D-team was all over Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger, the original immovable object, sacking him five times.
On offense the Pats are the model of efficient system play. No Chris Johnson in the backfield? No problem. Just use instead a three-headed monster comprising the immortal BenJarvis Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead and Sammy Morris, who together gained 100 yards on 23 carries. Brady also does something that might seem downright innovative in Tennessee: He uses his running backs as pass receivers! All the time! (In their confusion this year, the Titans apparently forgot that Chris Johnson on the move, taking swing passes and screen passes, could be hugely dangerous and tough to predictably defend.)
Even after the Pats dumped receiver Randy Moss—who ironically is now a Titan—Brady just finds others to throw to. He still has Wes Welker, who is the best possession receiver in the game, and has somehow miraculously returned after blowing out a knee at the end of last season. After Moss left, the Pats reacquired Deion Branch, who played on two of their SB teams. They are also developing second-year man Brandon Tate, who didn’t catch a single pass in 2009 but seems to have a knack for getting open deep. (Hey, why pay Moss millions to do that when you don’t have to and can get the same results?)
And then there’s Brady, who, after rebounding in ’09 himself from knee surgery that scuttled his ’08 season, takes advantage gladly of an offensive line hellbent on protecting him. Whereupon he stands back there, smartly surveying the field and finding his open man. Sunday night was vintage Brady: 43-30, 350 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs and a QB rating of 117.4.
And it’s not just Brady’s accurate arm that matters. Like a truly great QB, he also handles the ball flawlessly, faking to his runners convincingly—Ever see Vince Young try that? No one is ever fooled—and operating the play-action to perfection, maximizing his options and unrelentingly moving his team down the field.
I don’t know if the Pats are the very best team in football in 2010. Certainly they will have their challengers. But if the Pats are the template for success, then the Titans, now 5-4, surely are NOT a viable contender for the Super Bowl crown. As Brady and the Patriots have proven for a decade, without reliably consistent and deftly executed quarterbacking, it’s almost impossible to move into the NFL’s upper echelon.
For Titans fans, that means more of the same: watching the physically gifted Young have his exciting moments, rise to occasional wondrous feats, win a few games...but falter as soon as he meets a first-rate defense, and just when it matters most.