- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
PITTSBURGH -- There are some downsides to being a small-market team. But the Tennessee Titans learned long ago that there are easier elements to life when you are not under a constant, searing spotlight.
Perhaps they get less attention. Without it, maybe there is less scrutiny, maybe they endure down cycles more easily, maybe they can sneak up on people and offer surprises.
But for how often players chirp about the lack of respect afforded Tennessee’s NFL entry, the league certainly didn’t disrespect the Titans by putting them in Thursday night’s season-opening game against the Super Bowl champs at Heinz Field.
And, given this stage, they can shape the opinion of a national audience all on their own:
Play well and win, and fans and media can’t ignore you. Play poorly and lose, and surrender your right to complain about being under the radar for at least a month.
I threw that at several Titans and most agreed with the first part, but not with the second.
“We go out, we win this game, it’d be hard for people to overlook us just because we’re the only teams that played, then there are two more days before people start talking about New England and Tom Brady and Peyton Manning and Donovan McNabb and whoever else they are going to talk about,” Keith Bulluck said.
“If we lose, we don’t surrender the right, because if you lose one and then win however many in a row, knowing how things go in Tennessee we’d be left out anyway. We started off 10-0 last year and we still kind of went, not necessarily overlooked, but kinda sorta ‘Is this team for real?’ Given the respect it seems that Jeff Fisher gets, you would think people around the league would know what kind of teams he’s bringing to the table, you know?”
Like most teams, the Titans like to say they don’t pay a lot of attention to what people are saying about them. But two of their biggest leaders acknowledged this week they’re conscious of how many prognosticators are looking for Houston to break out and for the Titans to slide in the AFC South.
Kevin Mawae and Kyle Vanden Bosch didn’t point to ESPN.com’s consensus pick of Tennessee as second in the division ahead of Houston (with five of 14 of us picking them first ahead of the Colts, too) or to Michael Silver of Yahoo! Sports picking them to win the Super Bowl. Instead, they focused on others with different, lesser expectations.
“I think we’ve been overlooked,” said Mawae, who was answering my question, not issuing a complaint. “You come off two playoff appearances and still get ranked third in your division? I think that’s kind of overlooking us again. But it is what it is. Everything I’ve seen they’ve had us third in our division, as far as all the magazines and stuff. But that’s sportswriters.”
What’s Vanden Bosch seen?
“I don’t think anybody is picking us to win our division," he said. "We played well in the division last year and we had the best regular-season record in the NFL. We return almost everybody, we had one big loss [in Albert Haynesworth]. I don’t understand why, no.
“We’ve become a really veteran team with some really good players, we’ve added some weapons. So I don’t understand it in that sense. I think for people who are writing up rankings and predicting things, it’s not always sexy to pick the team that won by running the ball, controlling the clock, forcing turnovers and not turning the ball over.”
Chris Johnson certainly raised the Titans’ sex appeal last season.
And those additions Vanden Bosch referred to -- receivers Nate Washington and Kenny Britt, and tight end Jared Cook -- are dynamic players who can boost the passing attack and make the Titans a more attractive team to those who pay attention more to playmakers than teams with solid line play. (Washington is questionable against the Steelers, and the injured Cook is highly unlikely to play.)
That element can help in the respect department too, though I think many of the Titans have come to mold and shape that theme to suit them, even to rely on it. Motivation should come, I often argue, from those giant weekly paychecks and professional pride, not from some perceived slight.
Mawae tends to agree.
“I think some guys use it to get themselves fired up, other guys use it to create media hype and other guys really believe in it,” he said. “Me, it’s go out and play a ball game… I don’t buy into disrespect and all that. You go out and play football and you earn your respect.”
An even if those looking to find surprises in the 2009 season tab Houston to break out and the Titans to slide, Vanden Bosch said he feels like the Titans have gained some traction.
“I don’t think we are as under the radar as we’ve been in the past since I’ve been here,” he said. “There are very few teams we’d probably go into the opener as underdogs against, but this is one of them and we kind of relish that role. It’s the opening game and the national media is not around us this week. Obviously the story is with them because they are the defending Super Bowl champs because of the things they did in the postseason last year. And that’s fine with us.”
Win and get into the conversation about the best AFC teams; lose and disappear at least for a while?
“Yeah, if that happens, if we lose, that puts us right back in our underdog role and regardless of what we do for the next five or six games, nobody’s going to talk about us,” Vanden Bosch said. “That would be fine, too. I like the way this team is when we’re hungry and I hope regardless of what happens, regardless if we have some success, I hope we stay hungry.”
Another outspoken player, running back LenDale White, won’t even allow for the possibility of a loss to the Steelers.
“When we win it, we will be talked about,” he said. “I can’t think about it any other way.”