It’s déjà vu all over again for the Tennessee Titans in 2013. That means a season of “what-ifs”—and a season of “what-ifs” usually translates to mediocrity. But if the Titans’ defense replicates 2012’s study in incompetence—471 points allowed, by far the worst in the entire league—we may actually be viewing a repeat of last season’s 6-10 finish as a hopeful thing. As it is, it looks like 5-11 is a realistic projection. To surpass that, here’s what needs to happen:
1. Somehow, defensive coordinator Jerry Gray becomes a creative and perspicacious planner and an ace motivator.
Chances are that isn’t going to happen, and the fact that former NFL head coach and Saints DC (and Bountygate co-star) Gregg Williams is hanging around as consultant just seems weird. But maybe most importantly, there are no game-changing upgrades to the defensive personnel. That includes Bernard Pollard, who might have something left in the tank—as a safety, mind you—but has never earned Pro Bowl honors. When local media keep talking about your contribution as inspirational force, it’s time to start looking down the depth chart.
2. Quarterback Jake Locker establishes early on that he’s ready to officially launch his big-time NFL career.
All the signs are positive, but the third-year kid is still an unknown quantity. His backup is former Bills wannabe Ryan Fitzpatrick, who suddenly went from franchise QB with big contract to expendable journeyman in the blink of an eye. Hard to believe the Titans are better off without Matt Hasselbeck, whom they let walk, and now, irony of ironies, hangs his helmet in Indianapolis with the AFC South rival Colts. (Scenario waiting to happen: Andrew Luck gets hurt against the Titans and Hasselbeck steps up in a relief role and saves the day for Indy.)
3. Chris Johnson recaptures the brilliance of 2009.
Hmmm….not likely. He turns 28 on Sept. 23. He may still produce at a high statistical level, but unless the Titans’ air attack blossoms to the point where CJ2K can pace himself easily and function as more of a surprise weapon, he’ll probably have his share of tougher days. Johnson only had five 100-yard games in 2012.
4. The reworked offensive line excels.
Well, it may happen, and if the Titans’ offense has a legit glimmer of hope, it’s that free agent Andy Levitre and rookie Chance Warmack might inject some beastliness into the trenches, thus protecting Locker sufficiently and giving Johnson room to run. Fingers crossed.
5. The receiving corps reaches its long-overdue potential.
This prospect is closely tied to Locker’s performance, of course. Nate (the Great) Washington is one of the most underrated WRs in the league. If newcomer Delanie Walker regains maximum health, the highly touted (if possibly overrated) free agent tight end should provide a stable target. Same goes for TE Craig Stevens. Then there’s talented, injury-prone sorta/maybe head case WR Kenny Britt. This is a make-or-break season for Britt. Wideout Damian Williams has developed into a reliable pro. Younger talent Kendall Wright and rookie Justin Hunter are definitely “what-if” guys, and maybe there’s a monster player there waiting to happen.
Gray’s skills as a DC aside, there are otherwise just flat-out many question marks about the personnel he’s been handed. The talent falls into three categories: 1) Guys who ought to be good but you can never be sure of (Derrick Morgan, Michael Griffin); 2) Guys who have seen better days (Pollard, Kamerion Wimbley); and younger pros who need to establish themselves as winners (Alterraun Verner, Jason McCourty, Jurell Casey, and the trio of LBs Zach Brown, Colin McCarthy and Akeem Ayers). Depth is another big what-if.
If the defense hardly improves, the offense, under OC Dowell Loggains, would have to show marked gains to give the Titans a chance to win some 35-34 ballgames. Strictly speculative business, though.
Head coach Mike Munchak: It’s make-or-break for him, as well. “Munch” is a very even-keel personality and seems like a genuinely decent human being. But besides being a Hall of Fame offensive lineman, he projects only a Joe Average energy and a pretty dull charisma. Is he the firebrand leader and strategically perceptive taskmaster who can take this team into the playoffs?
The ultimate arbiter of a regressive 2013? The schedule. Here it is, with predicted outcomes:
Sept. 8 at Pittsburgh—L
Sept. 15 at Houston—L
Sept. 22 vs. San Diego—W
Sept. 29 vs. N.Y. Jets—W
Oct. 6 vs. Kansas City—L
Oct. 13 at Seattle—L
Oct. 20 vs. San Francisco—L
Nov. 3 at St. Louis—L
Nov. 10 vs. Jacksonville—W
Nov. 14 vs. Indianapolis—L
Nov. 24 at Oakland—W
Dec. 1 at Indianapolis—L
Dec. 8 at Denver—L
Dec. 15 vs. Arizona—W
Dec. 22 at Jacksonville—L
Dec. 29 vs. Houston—L
There are still plenty of “what-ifs” in the schedule. Maybe the 1-5 divisional projection is too dour. Maybe Andy Reid’s Chiefs squad won’t be that good, after all. Ditto, Jeff Fisher and the Rams.
On the other hand, the Titans have always had trouble with San Diego, so that’s no gimme even if it is a home game. And who knows what could happen in Oakland. The Titans don’t usually fare well on those long western jaunts.
The offense rises up under an inspired Locker and a killer OL, Johnson runs like a madman, the youngster WRs catch fire and go wild with their YAC stats, and Jerry Gray’s defense totally jells in every phase, thus making 27-10 victories possible every week of the season.
Sorry, Virginia…in fact, there is NO Santa Claus. But it’s nice to dream.