Saturday, September 03, 2011

Reality Check for 2011 Titans: Mediocrity on the New Horizon

[Editor's note: Later on the same day after this story was published, the Titans announced that veteran wide receiver Justin Gage had been released from the team, and that fullback Ahmard Hall had been levied a four-game suspension to begin the season for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.]

Like many a Titans fan, I would love to believe that 2011, with all its personnel changes and sense of renewal, promises a playoff berth. Unfortunately, my rose-colored glasses keep fogging up.

The arrival of Matt Hasselbeck (left) as interim quarterback-savior bodes well--in theory. Hasselbeck is actually a very, very good quarterback. He’s not a flashy guy, but he’s a solid athlete (when healthy, of course), and he’s a poised signal-caller who’s been to a Super Bowl in which his team (Seahawks) got jobbed by the zebras. Hasselbeck turns 36 on Sept. 25, so he’s not even that much younger than Kerry Collins, who got the subliminal heave-ho by Titans brass but has re-surfaced as Peyton Manning’s understudy with the division rival Colts. (Yes, everyone notes the irony, and if Manning can’t start the season due to his neck surgery problems, then Collins will get the nod.)

Some pundits claim that Hasselbeck will be safe behind the Titans’ offensive line, considered by other pundits as the team’s saving grace. If true, then great. An oldster like Hasselbeck will need protecting in order to achieve.

My problem is I’m just not convinced that this OL is as good as people think. It’s basically the same OL as 2010, and what we know about them is that they anchored the 27th-ranked total offense in the NFL. The Titans additionally ranked 25th in the league in yards passing per game, which can certainly be improved upon. The hopeful news there is that the Titans ranked 6th in the league in least sacks allowed. (In other words, 26 other teams allowed more sacks.)

So, yes, when Hasselbeck drops back, he should get protection. That gives him time to throw to gifted Kenny Britt (if he’s not in court) or Nate Washington (who’s still trying to reach elite receiver status while the window of that opportunity may have passed him by). The other receivers are older (Justin Gage) or wannabes like Lavelle Hawkins or Damien Williams, whom the Titans keep praying are better than they appear to be. (Sadly, if they were, we’d’ve found out long before now.)

Tight end Jared Cook may be the chief beneficiary of a well-insulated Hasselbeck. Once the QB sees that his receivers can’t get open, he can check down to third-year man Cook, who seems to have the native ability to be an excellent receiving TE. Yet again, we shall see.

But here’s the real mind-bender about the Titans’ offensive line: If they’re so great, how come they finished 17th in the league last year in rushing yards per game? With the estimable (and now really rich) Chris Johnson at running back, the Titans managed to gain .4 yards more per game on the ground than the 4-12 Buffalo Bills, whose leading rusher was Fred Jackson with 927 yards.

In a 6-10 2010 season, many were the times when CJ2K went nowhere. Yeah, he accumulated yardage--1,364 to be exact, yet that was 642 fewer yards than he gained in 2009. CJ also once again led the team in receptions, with 44, but his 5.6 yards per catch average was way down from the 10.1 of 2009.

No one needs statistics to close their eyes and think back to 2010 and recall how many times Johnson tried to hit nonexistent holes or how many times he slipped in the backfield trying to cut away from invading defenders. It was a classic modern-day case for opposing defenses: If you have no passing game, then we’ll just completely shut down possibly the best RB in the game. Certainly Johnson had the ugliest 1,364-yard season in NFL history.

Now he enters 2011 jinxed as the whining marquee offensive star who held out for--and received--a stadium-full of cash to last dozens of lifetimes, so don’t be surprised to see him get hurt early on. If that happens, that’ll turn the chores over to Javon Ringer (if he’s healthy) or a rookie named Jamie Harper, who had an earnest pre-season, but doesn’t have the size or speed to carry the running back load for an NFL franchise. (Lord help this team if it has to turn to the NFL scrap heap to find a runner.)

Which further begs the question of how the Titans can afford to carry fullback Ahmard Hall, who enters his sixth NFL season having gained a career total of 56 yards on the ground on 18 carries. To be fair, Hall has occasional value as a safety-valve receiver out of the backfield, but in this day and age you should be able to get a blocking back--Hall’s main duty--who can do legit damage as a runner too.

The Titans defense has almost as many “if”s.

The news that defensive end Derrick Morgan, the 2010 #1 draft choice who missed most all of 2010, has reinjured his knee is definitely a bad karma thing. DE Jason Jones is also nursing a sore knee. Supposedly both will be back soon. Otherwise, the defensive line is a huge question mark, filled with ongoing projects and rookies and might-be’s, and no one really knows how good these guys are, individually or collectively.

At linebacker, the Titans brass let Stephen Tulloch go in free-agency to the Detroit Lions for a mere $3.25M. Tullock had 160 tackles last year, second in the NFL, and while that stat might be symptomatic of things wrong on the Titans’ D-line, it still exemplifies a hard-working dude, whom apparently the team figured was expendable. (Strange that former Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, now the head coach at Detroit, snapped up Tulloch, whom he’d coached previously. Or maybe not so strange at all.)

There is some hope at linebacker, I suppose. Will Witherspoon is a good veteran ballplayer, though he’s 31. Gerald McRath is right behind him, younger and improving. Off-season acquisition Barrett Ruud is a solid if unspectacular pro. And there’s definite upside with rookies Akeem Ayers and Colin McCarthy.

The Titans have impressive talent in the defensive backfield, starting with cornerbacks Cortland Finnegan (left) and Alterraun Verner, the latter a huge rookie surprise in 2010. Veteran safeties Michael Griffin and Chris Hope should be solid, but there are decent other vets and possibly a rookie or two for reliable backup.

Special teams look more than secure with the excellent Rob Bironas kicking field goals and Brett Kern doing the punting. One assumes that Marc Mariani will stay on as the punt and kickoff returner, after a statistics-rich 2010. Still, his value elsewhere is suspect (as a receiver), and Williams and Hawkins were both exhibiting abilities in special-teams areas in the pre-season. With new rules changes in kickoffs, one wonders if Mariani’s one-dimensional talents have a long shelf-life.

Most of the Titans’ nine draft choices are sticking with the club. Chief among them is #1 pick Jake Locker (left), who looks like he might be an NFL quarterback, after all. (If Hasselbeck goes down with an injury, fans will follow Locker’s fortunes closely.) Linebacker Ayers also seems like a keeper. Other defensive draftees McCarthy, Jurrell Casey and Karl Klug look like definite contributors. So the rookie class offers at least some support.

Of course, the coaching staff provokes a lot of newbie question marks of its own.

Who knows if new head coach Mike Munchak (left) is the real deal? His main hires, offensive coordinator Chris Palmer and defensive coordinator Jerry Gray, are both NFL re-treads. Trying to fill the hole led by the defection of former Titans defensive line coach Jim Washburn to Philadelphia is Tracy Rocker, who is a rookie NFL assistant coach working under a rookie NFL head coach. Representing some semblance of continuity is the presence of Alan Lowry, architect of the Music City Miracle, who is still around as special teams coach.

Bottom line: There simply is no way to know how this motley collection of coaching talent will jive with an equally motley collection of ballplayers. And even in the age of the salary cap--where supposedly everyone gets a fair shot at the Lombardi Trophy--the Titans look like a small-market team, unimaginatively administered, victimized by narrow vision and doing things on the cheap (except when they spend ALL their money on one guy who probably isn’t worth it in the long run).

Only the fact that the AFC South looks up for grabs in 2011 affords the Titans a fighting chance at a playoff berth. Unfortunately, the schedule looks surprisingly rough for a team coming off a 6-10 season. Besides the six division games versus Indy, Jacksonville and Houston, they’ve been matched up with the AFC North and the NFC South, which means contests against Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, and New Orleans. Other games include road trips to Cleveland, Carolina and Buffalo, three other struggling teams who’ll be desperate for victory on their home turf.

I guess the Titans could surprise, but from this vantage point, it looks like mediocrity is in store for Tennessee football fans.

Prediction: 7-9 (and it could be worse).

Sept. 11 @ Jacksonville
Sept. 18 vs. Baltimore
Sept. 25 vs. Denver
Oct. 2 @ Cleveland
Oct. 9 @ Pittsburgh
Oct. 16 BYE
Oct. 23 vs. Houston
Oct. 30 vs. Indianapolis
Nov. 6 vs.Cincinnati
Nov. 13 @ Carolina
Nov. 20 @ Atlanta
Nov. 27 vs. Tampa Bay
Dec. 4 @ Buffalo
Dec. 11 vs. New Orleans
Dec. 18 @ Indianapolis
Dec. 24 vs. Jacksonville
Jan. 1 @ Houston


ceeelcee said...

Great analysis. Let me give you a few possible (albeit homer-driven) reasons for optimism.

I don't think this roster is at all weaker than last year's, especially under center. You have to give Titans' management credit for one thing, which is knowing when to let veterans go. Every year we gnash our teeth over letting some serviceable player go and 9 times out of 10, they weren't worth keeping. I think I even complained when we let the Rockys (Boiman and Calmus) go.

The O-line will have another year of experience under their belt playing together, and chemistry is everything in the Titans blocking scheme. I don't buy the Mawae complaints from last year, since 31 other teams took a pass on him too, even though his agent shopped him hard all year long.

I think the main source of improvement is that unlike year's past, when Fisher believed that no problem couldn't be solved by the proper application of more DB's to the situation, Munchak and Matthews simply will not let this line fail. The line is now the coaching staff's focus and they will educate them and scheme the offense to ensure better results.

CJ will definitely have to step (rapidly) up, but I'm optimistic that even if we have to use the running back by committee plan that is currently in vogue, we have the horses to pull it off.

Finally, our schedule is among the easiest in the NFL. It's always hard to tell from last year's results which opponents are going to break out with good years, but if the Colts are Peytonless for even awhile, there's no division game that is not winnable. Carolina, Cleveland, Buffalo and Cincy are four of the teams that I would pick in a draft to have to play if given the choice, so I see at least eight wins on the schedule. A lot of it depends on if we can get on any sort of a roll and bring the enthusiasm back to the fan base and make LP Field a tough place to play again.

Hmm...maybe I should get my own blog if I'm going to type this much.

Thanks for the vine. Go Titans!

Martin Brady said...

Great counter. Let the games begin!