- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Halfway through the first season of what they’ve sold as a new era, the Titans are a wishy-washy team. They are capable of good, but often likely to mix in enough bad to offset it.
Sunday they played a solid first half, then basically disappeared. The half-and-half performance matched their halfway record of 4-4 and showed them to be a marginal team.
The 24-17 loss to the Bengals was built out of a 17-7 halftime lead. Cincinnati wore the Titans down and beat them up, showed them what it was like to have a productive premier young weapon, got better instead of worse as the game moved toward crunch time and established themselves as much more of a realistic AFC playoff contender.
The Titans talked a lot about their lack of plays while defending their alleged playmakers.
The lockout cost every team with a new coaching staff and every team with a new quarterback. This team has both and might still be suffering ill effects. But it’s long past the point where it can use that as an excuse.
“The record is what it is, so that’s what we are,” general manager Mike Reinfeldt said. “It’s frustrating because we’ve played really well at times. But we’ve played equally as poorly at times. I’m not quite sure what we are. When you see the glimpses in the first half of what we’re capable of, it makes the second half very frustrating.
“Maybe in a regular year, you would know, but I’m not sure what we are. We need to know in the next two or three weeks, we’ll know if we’re contending or pretending. I think we have a chance to get better.”
If you're still dealing with an identity crisis halfway through the season, you've got issues.
Weapons: I understand why the Titans drafted a quarterback eighth overall, and I endorsed them taking one if they thought they were getting a long-term solution. But right now Jake Locker is about the future, not the present.
And, boy, could the present quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck, use a deeper pool of receivers -- not that one was sitting there for them at No. 8 as the Bengals had already taken A.J. Green and Julio Jones was already wearing a Falcons hat. Without Kenny Britt, gone since suffering a torn ACL in Week 3, the Titans are unthreatening.
Johnson's miserable season's been well-documented. He had a good first half with 55 yards on nine carries, then took five carries 9 yards in the second. And although the team pushed the ball to Cook more against the Bengals, his lost fumble with 3:49 left in the game and the Titans down 21-17 meant the offense would be in complete desperation mode once it got the ball back.
“Of course we have enough weapons,” Cook said afterward. But what else could be said by a guy defending himself and his teammates who knows Calvin Johnson won’t be walking into the locker room?
Said offensive coordinator Chris Palmer: “We have the team that we have and it’s our jobs as coaches to try to get them to play as well as they can play. I think some guys are playing very, very well. I think there are some guys that are playing up to their ability and we just have to do it for 60 minutes. They show spurts.”
Very, very well? Really?
Out of sync: I think there are still too many plays on offense where Hasselbeck and his targets look out of sync. I tend to lean toward giving the veteran quarterback the benefit of the doubt in such situations, and coach Mike Munchak said last week that in such situations Hasselbeck is right more often than not.
But Palmer said sometimes against the Bengals, balls came out rushed. That can throw things off when the quarterback and intended receiver have to read things the same way.
Hasselbeck is clearly unhappy that such issues continue to linger and that he’s been unable to get them solved.
“It’s just us, it’s a partnership,” he said. “It’s frustrating. If we could just fix that part, we probably win this game. … We’ve got to be more crisp.”
The solution comes with doing things better in practice, then carrying them over, he said. The failures in this game mean the issue will be magnified as the team prepares for a trip to Carolina, and that emphasis could help get it fixed.
Defensive shortcomings: Rookies roasted the Titans' defense. Andy Dalton threw three touchdowns for the Bengals while only taking one sack and Green caught all seven balls thrown his direction for a game-high 83 yards.
On a third-and-18 early in the fourth quarter when Dalton hit Green for 20 yards up the right side, the receiver was bracketed by corner Jason McCourty and safety Michael Griffin. While the ball was in the air, it looked as likely to be a pick as a catch.
But the two Titans smashed into each other as Green went up and made the catch, extending the touchdown drive that put Cincinnati up for good. Griffin and McCourty were down hurt for some time, though they returned to action later.
“It doesn’t matter about rookies,” Tennessee defensive coordinator Jerry Gray said. “He threw the ball up, we had two guys around him, he made the play. What else are you going to say? They made plays and we didn’t.”
He repeated that several times, as did many Titans players.
It’s a bit of a simplistic, one-note theme from a ticked-off coach and upset players. Gray is likely to offer deeper theories about why the Bengals made plays and the Titans didn't in the meeting room after he’s watched film.
But defensive tackle Shaun Smith knows this much already: “When you’re up by 10, there is no reason why you should lose a game. … The coach put us in position to make plays and we didn’t make plays.”
The Titans better flip the playmaking formula quickly.
Otherwise, they’ll be downgraded right out of the category of fringe playoff contenders, already a grouping far below the one they thought they’d qualify for back when they were 3-1.