|ESPN.com: AFC South||[Print without images]|
|Jim Brown-US PRESSWIRE|
|Quarterback Kerry Collins' offseason has been a little different from last year as he is now the unquestioned starter for the Titans.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
For the Titans, the private, practice-field moments of the spring that are supposed to make a big difference in the fall are under way.
After weight-room workouts, quarterback Kerry Collins might have an easy catch with a receiver or two, he might work with specific receivers on specific routes, he might throw to guys working one-on-one against cornerbacks or he might even run through a seven-on-seven period with pass-catchers running route combinations against a secondary.
It's the sort of informal, impromptu work that goes on all around the league as offseason conditioning programs get under way.
Collins did it last year, but under different circumstances. He was around and he was available, and he got to throw to guys more than a lot of No. 2 quarterbacks because Vince Young was in Texas most of the time, working toward his degree.
But now, from the very beginning of the offseason, Collins is the team's unquestioned starter. And he and his top returning receiver, Justin Gage, said this week there is a lot to be gained from three low-pressure months in the facility in that capacity.
"The first thing is being here, just being around the guys," Collins said. "The second thing is showing that I am ready to put the work in, that I am going to do things a certain way. It's not necessarily any more than just being here and being out there working hard. That says more than anything. It's one of those things where they just get to know you and they feel like they can trust you and that goes both ways too."
That sort of plain, understated talk that is a big part of Collins' M.O. at 36. He's in Nashville full-time now with his wife Brooke and 5-year-old daughter Riley, and said with the possible exception of a couple getaways, he'll be around team headquarters.
"It's just knowing that you're going to be counted on to make plays," Gage said of what a full offseason as the starter will mean for Collins. "It's knowing that everybody on the team is looking forward to you to lead and make plays and be a producer. You get to relax and go out there and do what you do.
"Everybody looks to him for his leadership and his ability, sees that he's here already working out, that he's got guys coming in. We're getting our work together, our chemistry. You can definitely tell that this is a team that's going to grow behind him."
Some analysts debate chemistry, asking whether it actually begets winning or if that works in reverse. There is certainly no harm in believing chemistry needs to come first, because the work it takes to forge it also typically means the players involved play better football.
Collins' critics cite his numbers last year -- only 12 touchdown passes, an 80.2 passer rating. They wonder why he's popular with the team and how he got a two-year, $15 million contract from the Titans to reprise the role he took over last year. Collins became the No. 1 quarterback after Young tried to take himself out of the season opener, then got hurt a few plays after coach Jeff Fisher forced him to continue.
|Kerry Collins stepped in for the Titans and finished with 2,676 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2008.|
But Collins' supporters point to the calm leadership, the understanding of his role on a run-based, defensive team and his poise in the sort of key moments that determined a lot of games.
That passer rating was more than 10 points better in the fourth quarter, when he threw no interceptions. Without question, the Titans' coaches and players rallied around him when he took over, viewing him as an unquestioned system fit. And no NFL signal-caller fared better in the most important statistic: Like Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning and Jake Delhomme, Collins won 12 regular-season games as his team's starter.
Can he match or build on last year's success in 2009?
The Titans banked on it when they re-signed him, and while there is a question about what the team will do at the position in 2010 and beyond, it's something that it should be able to resolve while enjoying a quarterback who excels with the sort of high-quality protection Tennessee's offensive line provides.
Despite the NFL's best regular-season record, the Titans were ousted from the playoffs in their first game by Baltimore. When dynamic rookie running back Chris Johnson left the game with an ankle injury, the offense wasn't nearly as threatening and its lack of a fast, dangerous wideout became even more glaringly obvious.
Adding explosive skill players is a priority, and Tennessee started with Nate Washington, the speedy free-agent receiver from Pittsburgh.
Collins sat and talked with Washington when he visited the Titans in March. The quarterback perked up when asked about his new receiver, who is likely to line up opposite Gage in the starting lineup.
"The first thing that jumped out at me was his passion for the game, his passion for winning," Collins said. "He's excited about the opportunity to be the starter. He was a very effective three in Pittsburgh, but he's got all the skills to be a very good starting receiver in this league. I think he's just not had the opportunity ...
"He definitely brings some speed, brings a deep threat, can create separation, can run with the ball after the catch -- all of those things are things I think we can use and will help us in the passing game."
Gage said he, Washington, Lavelle Hawkins and the Titans' other receivers need to squeeze all they can out of the offseason work. The small scale of the work is easy to build on, he said.
"It's kind of like playing basketball, when you're playing two-on-two and then you end up getting into a game sett
ing," he said.
There will be at least one new receiver added to the mix in the draft and the team could still add a veteran such as Torry Holt.
Whoever finds his way into the huddle come opening day, the quarterback will have been in place since late the afternoon of Sept. 7, 2008. None of the guys running routes should be surprised by anything he does, nothing the guy taking the snap does should rank as unfamiliar.
"What you gain from [this work now] is just the timing of the things, Collins said. "The more you do it, the more the guys know what to expect from me. They get an idea of the timing that I am looking for and the rhythm that I think a good passing game has. I think the biggest thing in the offseason is just that they know what to expect from me. I learn what things they do well and they can get a feel for what I want from them."