AFC South: Chuck Cecil

INDIANAPOLIS -- Jeff Fisher and Gregg Williams are longtime friends.

Or perhaps they were longtime friends.

[+] EnlargeGregg Williams
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyGregg Williams, a new senior assistant/defense for the Titans, and Jeff Fisher have a distant friendship at this point in time.
Fisher, the coach of the St. Louis Rams, said at the combine that he has not spoken to Williams since the NFL reinstated him. The former defensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints, Williams recently completed a yearlong suspension for his role in the Saints' pay-for-injury program, as judged by commissioner Roger Goodell.

Williams is now senior assistant/defense with the Tennessee Titans, for whom he previously worked, with Fisher as the head coach.

Fisher fired Blake Williams, Gregg’s son, after the season; Blake had been the Rams' linebackers coach. Fisher made it clear he had moved on from Gregg Williams, the man he brought to St. Louis in 2012 to be his defensive coordinator.

On Friday, Fisher said that decision didn’t come after the season, but during it.

“I made that decision well before the season ended, that we wanted to go a different direction,” Fisher said. “It probably wouldn’t have been as easy had we not had the assistants that we did on the staff. But when you’re talking about Dave McGinnis and Chuck Cecil, then coach [Mike] Waufle, you’ve got guys who have coordinated. I’m very fortunate to have gotten Frank Bush, who has also coordinated.

“We just felt like we wanted this to be the Ram defense, so we’re moving a little different direction than from what Gregg’s philosophies are.”

That’s a tidy answer. But if all that defensive coordinator experience helped make Williams expendable, it seems a bit odd none of those coaches were named defensive coordinator. Instead, Fisher recently hired Tim Walton as his new coordinator. Walton previously coached defensive backs for Detroit under another former Fisher assistant, Jim Schwartz.

Fisher expressed no ill will toward Williams. And I wouldn't expect him to publicly.

“I’m very happy that it worked out the way it did,” Fisher said. “I believe Gregg can help the Titans and help coach [Mike] Munchak and, of course, Jerry Gray. The other side of that is that they can help him to re-establish himself back in the league.”

We have no idea how Williams feels about Fisher at this point, either.

But when the Titans introduced Williams, he trumpeted how important it was for him to work with people he knows, like Munchak and Gray.

Well, he knows Fisher, too.
We know Jeff Fisher is in play for Miami and St. Louis. Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz told PFT he believes Fisher is in the mix in Indianapolis too.

[+] EnlargeJeff Fisher took over as interim coach of the Houston Oilers in 1994 and guided the team through its move to Tennessee.
Jim Brown/US PresswireJeff Fisher is a candidate for the head coaching job in Miami and St. Louis, but could also be in play in Indianapolis.
Indications are Fisher will listen to everyone. But coaching code says you don’t talk about a job that’s not vacant, so I don’t think he’d go beyond backchannel communication while Jim Caldwell remains in place.

At any rate, Fisher is the hot veteran coaching candidate and until he’s coach somewhere, he still qualifies foremost as the Titans former head coach and falls under our purview. He said last week in an interview on Nashville’s 104.5 The Zone that a GM and a quarterback were the two biggest factors for him as he explores job opportunities.

So some thoughts on his eventual re-emergence in the coaching ranks.

Power: There can be a misperception he’d want general manager powers. He won’t. He wants to work with a GM he gets along with and can build consensus with. Fisher will want control of his 53-man roster. And he won’t want a situation where a GM is forcing free agents or draft picks on him that he and his staff don’t want. But wanting a voice is a lot different from wanting to be a de facto GM. He believes in the value of a traditional coach-GM split and has no desire to work the scouting end of things as a fulltime GM.

General manager friends: Fisher’s got strong relationships with Rich McKay of the Falcons and Bill Polian, just let go by the Colts, as he served with both on the NFL’s competition committee. McKay’s in an administrative capacity now, but could he want back into football? He wouldn’t come cheaply. Polian is probably too strong a personality. I have no feel for the relationship between Fisher and Chris Polian, who was also let go.

When the Titans replaced Floyd Reese in 2007 it was largely because Fisher and Reese’s relationship had frayed. Among the replacement candidates Fisher helped interview before the Titans hired Mike Reinfeldt were: Ruston Webster (now with Reinfeldt in Tennessee), Reggie McKenzie (Green Bay’s director of football administration), Ron Hill (NFL VP of football operations), Mike Ackerley (now a Texans scout) and Charles Bailey (former Jaguars pesonnel executive). The Titans wanted to talk to Randy Mueller, then with Miami, but didn’t get permission. He’s now with San Diego as “senior executive.”

Maybe Fisher hit it off with one of those guys and would like to work with them. At years of league meetings and functions, he’s likely formed friendships we don’t know about with other, future-GM types.

If Fisher lands in a situation where he comes in hand in hand with a GM or in advance of a GM, he’ll have a guy or two to put forward and be open to forming a new relationship if he hits it off with an existing GM or an owner’s candidate.

Assistants: His primary assistant coaches may be hard to predict.

His top defensive lieutenants from Tennessee are booked up. Gregg Williams is the coordinator in New Orleans and may be a head coaching candidate himself. If he was free, Fisher could pounce. Jim Schwartz is head coach in Detroit. (Brandon Fisher works on Schwartz’s staff.) Chuck Cecil may be radioactive as he was a central figure in things coming apart for Fisher with the Titans. He could return to the league as a defensive backs coach, but Fisher would have to answer for a lot if he wanted to make Cecil coordinator. He’d certainly take recommendations from Williams and Schwartz about up-and-comers from the defensive staffs with their teams. Detroit linebacker coach Matt Burke was a young assistant on Fisher’s staff who went with Schwartz for a promotion.

Fisher’s top offensive friend and long-time coordinator, Mike Heimerdinger, died recently after a battle with cancer. Fisher could look to his former running backs coach Sherman Smith, who’s now in the post with Seattle. But Smith’s lone stint as an offensive coordinator didn’t include play-calling duties under Jim Zorn in Washington. Titans quarterback coach Dowell Loggains is a bright young mind, but like Burke he may not be ready yet.

While Fisher spent time away from the game in a year off, he certainly has lists of coaches he would pursue and could get. But he’d be going with people he’s not worked with before at a lot of spots -- like on the offensive line, where his former position coach, Mike Munchak, and his best line player, Bruce Matthews, are not available.

Markets: He can be a star behind those shades. But don’t think he’ll take the bright lights of Miami over more low-key St. Louis or Indianapolis if he’s choosing.

Fisher enjoyed the ability to be anonymous at times in Nashville and the willingness of the population to allow him a large degree of privacy. He’s a Southern California guy who loves spending time at his Montana cabin.

He's not desperate for a beach, or television lights.
One game that doesn’t count in the standings doesn’t give us a lot. But out of the Titans’ Saturday night win against the Vikings, I saw one change that I think is highly representative of what’s going on at the start of the Mike Munchak era.

Two moves since 2010 have bumped Gerald McRath out of the starting lineup as an outside linebacker. Akeem Ayers was drafted to play the strongside, and the addition of Barrett Ruud to man the middle means Will Witherspoon in now on the weakside. That is probably the team’s best lineup at linebacker in its base defense.

I have been critical of the lack of plays from the linebackers last season, particularly from McRath and the departed Stephen Tulloch.

Jeff Fisher and his coordinator, Chuck Cecil, stubbornly took McRath, a good pass defender, out on third downs, and left Tulloch, a weak pass defender, on the field. It was experience-over-skill-set stubbornness.

Right now, Munchak and coordinator Jerry Gray are pulling both Witherspoon and Ayers off the field in nickel and sending McRath on to join Ruud.

Whether it’s what the defense is doing on opening day in Jacksonville remains to be seen.

But it’s a clear illustration of the basic principle most good coordinators try to key on: Putting players in situations that maximize their chances to do what they are best at and keeping them out of situations where they do not excel.

If this is McRath’s role, he’s got a lot better chance to make plays than he did last season, when things were backwards and he was in base but not in nickel.
Michael GriffinFernando Medina/US PresswireSafety Michael Griffin had an up-and-down season in 2010, just like the Tennessee Titans.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Michael Griffin puzzles me.

The Titans safety is a supremely gifted athlete who’s been remarkable for the team at times during the four seasons since he was the 19th overall pick in the 2007 draft. He’s also gone through stretches in which he’s been far less than remarkable, winding up on another kind of highlight reel -- chasing players who’d made big gains against Tennessee.

With a new staff awaiting the team when the labor impasse ends, and Griffin participating in a two-day player minicamp this week, I sat with him and also talked to his new defensive coordinator, Jerry Gray, seeking clarity.

The drop-off from 2008 Pro Bowler to 2009 disappointment, we already knew, had a good deal to do with some off-the-field issues and a torn labrum.

Wary of making excuses or tossing anyone under a big yellow transportation vehicle that carries children, Griffin still offered a lot of hints about what went wrong in 2010.

He was great as the Titans jumped out to a 5-2 start. But he struggled the rest of the way -- like just about everyone else on the roster -- as the team lost eight of its final nine games to finish 6-10. Football Outsiders charted him as missing 17 tackles, the most in the league and 12 more than he missed in that bad 2009 campaign.

(His Pro Bowl selection and standing as a Second Team All-Pro were testament to the impression his early-season success made on voters, and also spoke to the state of safeties in the AFC and the league as a whole.)

[+] EnlargeMichael Griffin
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMichael Griffin had four picks in the first half of last season, but none in the second half when he played closer to the line of scrimmage.
“There was just too much finger-pointing instead of us all saying, 'Let’s sit down and let’s resolve it',” Griffin said. “There was just too much going on and we were divided ...

“There was a lot going on behind the scenes. It was kind of good that there was a change. I think it was a change for the best. With a lot of the things that made headlines, you could just see where this team was. We were all on different pages, and it started from the coaches on down.”

Although Gray says Griffin has the skill set to play strong safety, given his skills and other available personnel, Griffin has clearly been best as a free safety for the Titans. He collected an interception in four consecutive games at one point last season, earning AFC Defensive Player of the Month honors for October.

Yet as the season moved along, he found himself playing a good deal of strong safety. He was asked to play nearer the line of scrimmage and make tackles on running backs and tight ends instead of roaming center field, reading quarterbacks and pouncing on pass-catchers.

“I feel like I’m better in the field. I’ve always been a free safety, playing in the field and trying to get jumps on quarterbacks,” he said. “Two years ago, all my interceptions came when I was in the field playing Cover 2 or playing Cover 1. Last year all my interceptions came playing the field. Then, all of a sudden I kind of got moved to the box.

“If I know this guy right here can get to the quarterback on passing downs, get him in the game and get him to the quarterback. If I know this guy is a great run-stopper, play this guy on run downs. I am not telling coaches how to do their job, but those are my examples. Compared to how we played two years ago when we were one of the top secondaries and doing a great job and had three Pro Bowlers, we were just never put in those same positions.”

Veteran strong safety Chris Hope was partially the issue. He wasn’t the in-the-box presence he’d been in years past, and the Titans believed getting Griffin more involved in defending closer to the line of scrimmage would be beneficial. But Hope has slowed down and wasn’t a big help in coverage, either.

Another curious move from coach Jeff Fisher and his defensive coordinator, Chuck Cecil, was made at the end of October: Longtime nickelback Vincent Fuller was taken out of the lineup. A staff that had always been incredibly loyal to veterans pulled Fuller and began shifting starting rookie cornerback Alterraun Verner inside to cover the slot receiver, replacing him outside with Jason McCourty.

“It’s just the way our business is,” Griffin said. “You can understand why they did it, but at the same time, you can’t understand why they did it. It makes sense, but it doesn’t really make sense. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I’m not saying it's the reason things started going bad. There were just a lot of things going on.”

[+] EnlargeJerry Gray
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyNew Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray plans to play to the strengths of his players on defense.
Jerry Gray’s a Texas guy just like Griffin. I expect the two will build a good rapport.

Gray said Griffin is capable of playing free or strong safety, comparing him to the late Sean Taylor. Gray coached the versatile Taylor in Washington.

“What Griffin did best, he got four interceptions last year. I thought he did a good job of tracking the football, reading the quarterback when he was in center field,” Gray said. “But he made tackles too. … You’re going to start him out at free. His identity is going to show up in practices, hopefully before it gets to games. Our job is to not spread him thin and let him go play what he’s really good at.

“Sometimes you may give up 10 to 20 tackles a year. But you gain five or six interceptions. Is a tackle more important than a turnover? If it’s not, then put him at free safety. That’s what we’re kind of leaning on in the beginning and wanting to see if we can make work.”

Hope will turn 32 in September. If he can regain form and the pass rush helps the secondary, things could get a lot better. If he cannot, the Titans don’t appear to have a guy in the backup pool who is clearly next in line at either safety spot.

Young corners Verner and McCourty should be better, and Fuller, a sure tackler, could resurface.

Whoever is on the field, Griffin is confident that Gray and holdover defensive backs coach Marcus Robertson will provide a unified plan that maximizes the chances to be effective and will provide answers if things don’t go according to plan.

He’s most concerned with a return to winning football. But heading into the final year of his contract, he also said a consistent season is mandatory if he wants to ensure a good future for himself.

“It has to be a great year,” he said. “I think they are going to put us in the best situations possible for us to make plays. After that, when they put us in the positions, it’s up to us as players to make plays. If we can’t make the plays, that’s when we’ll point the fingers at ourselves.”
Jerry Gray, Chris PalmerGetty ImagesNew coordinators Jerry Gray, left, (defense) and Chris Palmer bring experience to the Titans' staff.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Maybe it was overplayed. But at the end of Chuck Cecil’s two-year tenure as Titans defensive coordinator, some of his colleagues and some of his players were hardly quietly talking about their utter lack of opportunity for input.

Those people will surely find what Cecil’s successor, Jerry Gray, said Tuesday afternoon refreshing.

Mike Munchak’s defensive coordinator, who served as an assistant with the franchise from 1997-2000, said getting his players to feel they have ownership of the defense will be a big priority for him.

“You have to get the guys to understand that they are a part of the defense, it’s not just your defense and they are playing a part in it,” he said. “They take ownership. And when they take ownership, the defense works very well. They take pride in it, they take it home, they want to tell their wives and kids about it. And that’s what we’re hoping to get back here.”

Gray said he will learn what guys can and cannot do, and use them accordingly. He cited DeAngelo Hall, the cornerback he coached in Washington, who hated to play up on receivers at the line of scrimmage. Gray, therefore, allowed him to play off.

Since he was hired Saturday, Gray has not watched all of the Titans’ 2010 season, but said in what he has seen there were a lot of near misses on plays. If he can change that and help turn a good share of those into made plays, the defense can get better quickly.

He also doesn’t want players thinking too broadly. If disciplined, smart players can consider the two most important things and leave the other eight aside, he said they stand a better chance to succeed.

Gray hopes to meet with as many players on the defense as he can before a probable lockout on March 4.

The defense is still without a line coach, and the fates of the carryover defensive staff will be determined soon.

Munchak also had a chance at the news conference to sell new offensive coordinator Chris Palmer. The Titans announced earlier in the day that Palmer, a well-traveled 61-year old coach who’s worked with a variety of quarterbacks -- ranging from Tim Couch and David Carr to Tony Romo and Eli Manning -- would fill the void created when Munchak fired Mike Heimerdinger.

At first glance, he doesn’t appear the sort of fresh outsider Munchak spoke of bringing in as he formed a staff.

But Munchak said a veteran coach was just what he needed, as he’s got some assistants on offense without a great deal of experience. The Titans won’t know who their quarterback will be, and Palmer will be able to adjust quickly, which could be called for if there is an extended labor impasse.

The Titans new coach said he had “a couple” or “a few” offensive coordinator candidates to Nashville, and did a lot more work weeding people out on the phone.

He wouldn’t talk about how many guys he asked for permission to talk to from around the league. Two were reported: The Titans were denied permission to speak with Bill Callahan of the Jets and Mike Tice of the Bears.

Another element that makes Palmer an attractive deputy for Munchak is that the systems he’s been in have required quarterbacks to call the protections. If a quarterback is doing that, his position coach and coordinator have to know the intricacies of the pass-blocking scheme.

Munchak, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman, doesn’t like the idea of a play-caller whose purview doesn’t include protection issues. Some leave them strictly to the line coach.

“[Palmer] can call a game knowing where the problems are up front,” Munchak said.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Titans will take their time and they will be thorough in searching for Jeff Fisher’s replacement.

But incumbent offensive line coach Mike Munchak’s candidacy has one major thing going for it.

[+] EnlargeMike Munchak
AP Photo/Kevin TerrellHall of Famer Mike Munchak has been an assistant with the Oilers/Titans since 1994.
Regarded as the top in-house candidate, Munchak’s been an assistant with the Oilers/Titans since 1994. The Pro Football Hall of Famer has strong relationships with the staff, and he’s one of 14 remaining assistants from Fisher’s staff who is under contract.

Bud Adams hates to pay people who are no longer working for him. But he’s paying Jeff Fisher $4 million and paying former defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil an unknown amount for the 2010 season.

The Titans will also be paying those assistants -- whether those coaches remain in Nashville or not.

But the new coach will have the discretion to choose who to keep.

Munchak -- or offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger or linebacker coach Dave McGinnis, also likely candidates -- would be more apt to retain holdovers.

And that would save Adams money at a time when he could lose revenue because of a lockout. He’d rather pay one coach per position than two, and an outsider is more likely to want to infuse the staff with his own people.

Fisher didn’t offer an endorsement of Munchak when asked, leaning on his regular stance of not getting into hypotheticals.

Instead, he encouraged confidence in the two men with whom he could not move forward, the team’s top Nashville official, Steve Underwood, and GM Mike Reinfeldt.

“You should have all the confidence in the world in Mike and Steve and the decisions they make going forward,” Fisher said. “That allowed me to be successful here, the confidence they had in me and vice versa.”

Munchak is an Adams favorite. He's dealt with him as a player and as an assistant. He’s made the owner proud by gaining football immortality with a bronze bust in Canton and a yellow jacket. He’s reasonable and measured, and while I think it would take time for him to become comfortable as the face of the franchise, he could surely work well with Reinfeldt to achieve the sort of consensus the team wants to have key the center of its operation.

I looked at the three current assistants on Thursday, here.

To me, it’s still wise to be thorough and allow for the possibility that you encounter the next Mike Tomlin.

But if you follow the money, it says place your early bets on Munchak.
In what has to rank as one of the sloppiest divorces in recent NFL history, Jeff Fisher and the Titans are parting ways after all.

"The Tennessee Titans and Jeff Fisher have agreed to part ways and Fisher will no longer be the head coach of the team," said a release just issued by the team.

The parting was initially reported by's Don Banks.

Banks reported it’s unclear whether it will be couched as a firing, a mutual separation or a resignation.

[+] EnlargeTennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher
AP Photo/Orlin WagnerAccording to a release from the team, "The Tennessee Titans and Jeff Fisher have agreed to part ways."
Titans owner Bud Adams sounded every bit the 88-year-old owner to hear Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean tweet it before the announcement:

  • Just talked to #Titans owner Bud Adams about Jeff Fisher news "“Where did you hear that? I better check on that. I can’t talk about it now."
  • More Adams: " I really can’t talk about it now because I don’t know what’s been said. I want to see what is going on.’’ #titans

With Fisher’s remaining one-year salary of more than $6 million in play, Adams elected to retain his long-time coach earlier this month. That came after he announced the team would part ways with quarterback Vince Young, whose relationship with Fisher had become unmanageable.

I find it hard to believe Adams has changed his mind and will pay that salary to someone not working for him. My best guess is that they reached some sort of agreement in which Fisher will get some but not all of the money, and we will see him surface as a TV analyst for a season before becoming a candidate for open jobs in 2012.

Since the initial decision, Fisher has been operating as a lame duck. He lost highly regarded defensive line coach Jim Washburn to Philadelphia (though the Titans did offer him a three-year deal to remain) and running backs coach Craig Johnson to Minnesota.

Last week, Fisher surprisingly fired defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil, his close friend who The Tennessean reported actually signed his one-year contract offer late in a disastrous 2010 season.

Now what?

Fisher has two NFL disciples who’ve gone on to success. Jim Schwartz is under contract as Detroit’s head coach. Gregg Williams is currently defensive coordinator in New Orleans, and while his stint as head coach in Buffalo was a failure, some strong coaches have fared better in their second chances.

But if Adams has a clean slate, he’d be wise to go a new direction as he looks for someone to take hold of a team in disarray, with no starting quarterback and, as far as we know, only offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger under contract in terms of a coaching staff. Heimerdinger was diagnosed with cancer and began treatment late in the season.

When the Titans let general manager Floyd Reese’s contract run out in January 2007, the team’s top executive, Steve Underwood, created a list of GM candidates and helped Adams sift through them. I suspect the winner of that job, one-time NFL defensive player of the year Mike Reinfeldt, who played for the Houston Oilers, likely would be asked to run a similar coaching search.

A top candidate could be someone he overlapped with during his stints as an executive in Green Bay and Seattle.

Titans coach Jeff Fisher either completely butchered the Chuck Cecil situation or completely manipulated it.

Whichever it was, Fisher looks horrible today and has some very tough questions to answer when he finally has his staff together.

[+] EnlargeTennessee Titans head coach Jeff Fisher
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliJeff Fisher has vacancies to fill at defensive coordinator and defensive line coach.
Fisher fired Cecil, his defensive coordinator the past two seasons, Thursday.

Originally we thought Fisher merely declined to retain Cecil. But Jim Wyatt reports that Cecil was offered and signed a one-year extension late in the season. That means he’s getting paid by Bud Adams in 2011 while not working for the team. And Adams is an owner who absolutely hates to pay people who are no longer around. It likely takes money from the pool Fisher has available to pay other assistants as he signs them to one-year deals that line up with his.

I believe one of two scenarios panned out regarding Cecil:

  • Fisher finally realized the extent of the team’s discontent with Cecil after hearing from Jim Washburn, the defensive line coach who bolted for Philadelphia Wednesday. Though several players had told the head coach they would be disinclined to return if Cecil remained, Fisher didn’t take such talk as seriously as he should have. Thursday, the switch finally flipped.
  • Fisher knew he was going to have to part ways with his good friend even as he gave him the extension. Leaving Cecil out of the loop, Fisher put as large a time period between a new contract and the firing as he could, ensuring his pal has a 2011 salary if not a job.

It's a sad development, either way. Cecil deserves blame, but he didn’t draft underachieving players such as Gerald McRath or Sen’Derrick Marks and he didn’t underperform like Will Witherspoon and Tony Brown did.

Who can Fisher get? Dave McGinnis could be promoted from linebackers coach. Maybe Dick Jauron or Jim Mora would buy into a year with Fisher providing a payoff. Or maybe we see something David Climer smartly proposed: Fisher captaining the defense himself.

If the ship is sinking, the top guy might as well be at the wheel.
Chuck Cecil will not return as the Titans defensive coordinator, Jim Wyatt reports.

[+] EnlargeChuck Cecil
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyChuck Cecil was hired as a quality control coach by Titans head coach Jeff Fisher in 2001.
Cecil was promoted by Jeff Fisher two years ago to replace Jim Schwartz when Schwartz got the top job in Detroit. But the defense underachieved under Cecil and players grumbled about the lack of adjustments he made and his unwillingness to take their input.

It’s a big move for Fisher, who’s heading into the final year of his deal and was close friends with Cecil, whom he hired as a quality control coach in 2001.

“Nothing surprises you in this business,” Cecil told Wyatt. “You just have to move on. That's life in the NFL. As good a friends as we are, sometimes you have to put the professional things first and it is a profession….

“He felt like he needed a fresh start, so that’s what we’re doing.’’

Fisher’s been fiercely loyal to players and staff throughout his 17-year tenure. He has control over his coaching staff. So admitting a change was needed at the head of the defense was a real concession for a captain that many assumed would stubbornly go down with his ship if his ship was going down.

I had heard about a potential for creatively restructuring Cecil’s responsibilities, but didn’t think such a demotion could work.

It does seem odd that Fisher waited as some other staffs were filled out, but he likely couldn’t draw the same guys that have landed with new head coaches who had long-term deals to offer. It’s also highly unlikely he’s made the move without having his contingency in motion.

Linebackers coach Dave McGinnis has extensive experience and is a quality coach. But his group was at the root of the defense’s issues this season, making very few plays.

Fresh perspective from an outsider seems called for now.

Only one Fisher assistant, offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, is under contract for 2011.

Two have left for other jobs. Highly regarded defensive line coach Jim Washburn went to Philadelphia despite what Wyatt reported was a three-year offer from the Titans. Running backs coach Craig Johnson, who worked with quarterbacks before 2010, took the quarterback coach position on the staff of old friend Leslie Frazier in Minnesota.

Part of why Washburn left was his unhappiness over the direction of the overall defense. Surely Fisher made the Cecil decision in time to use it in his case to retain Washburn and still came up short. If Fisher actually decided to let Cecil go a day after Washburn left, the lame duck coach really botched things.

Fisher cannot offer long-term job security, but is now in the market for a defensive coordinator, a defensive line coach and a running backs coach.

The patience he had with Gregg Williams and Schwartz early in their tenures as the Titans' defensive coordinator is a luxury he was unable to offer Cecil any longer.
Jeff FisherJim Brown/US PresswireJeff Fisher may still not be safe now that Vince Young is out.
Bud Adams loved Vince Young, but the Titans' owner was not beyond convincing.

He came to see Young as Jeff Fisher had. Senior executive vice president Steve Underwood and general manager Mike Reinfeldt backed Fisher’s stance and evidently persuaded Adams that Young was not right for the future of the franchise.

The Titans are moving forward with Young out of the plans. (See this post for the statements with the news.)

Fisher has won Round 1, but he has not won.

Included in Adams’ statement was this: “I also informed Jeff today that I was continuing the evaluation of the coaching staff and I am hoping to make a decision soon.”

I’ve been saying that in Fisher versus Young, Fisher had to win.

But has Fisher become stale and expendable as well? He certainly overestimated his 2010 roster, underestimated the leadership void and oversaw insufficient in-game adjustments. Judge him strictly on his merits, with Young now out of the equation, and a case can still be made for change.

Maybe he had a quarterback forced on him, but Adams didn’t push any defenders on Fisher. A defensive coach, Fisher had an awful defense this season.

Still, with Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis getting a new contract and Houston's Gary Kubiak and Jacksonville's Jack Del Rio surviving, it's hard to envision Adams paying Fisher for 2011 as well as paying a new coach while labor strife may result in a lockout.

I suspect this will all amount to an in-house trade -- Young off the roster and the right for Fisher to approve the next quarterback in exchange for Fisher making some staff alterations.

Fisher’s under contract through 2011, but all but one of his assistants have expiring deals.

The most controversial guy is defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil, who Fisher promoted from defensive backs coach two years ago when Jim Schwartz left for Detroit. I thought he was growing on the job, but several players have grumbled about his unwillingness, or inability, to make in-game adjustments. And he’s not the one assistant with another year on his deal.

It would be very difficult for the super-loyal Fisher to sign off on parting with Cecil, but he probably must be flexible here.

While we await Phase 2 of Adams’ decision, here’s numerical context on Fisher that Keith Hawkins of ESPN Stats & Info compiled for us.

  • Fisher’s winning percentage now is .542 (142-120). Among NFL coaches who have at least 140 regular-season wins, only Dan Reeves has a lower win percentage. Reeves was 190-165-2 in the regular season, for a .535 mark.
  • Among head coaches with at least 140 regular-season wins, no one has had fewer winning seasons than Fisher’s six. The next closest would be nine winning seasons (Mike Shanahan and Marv Levy).
  • If you knock that down to a 120-win threshold, Fisher still has the fewest winning seasons. Jim Mora (215), Dick Vermeil (120), Mike Ditka (121) and Weeb Ewbank (130) all had seven winning seasons.
  • Among coaches with 140 regular season wins, Fisher’s 5-6 playoff record makes for the third-worst playoff winning percentage (.455). Marty Schottenheimer is at .278 (5-13) , Chuck Knox at .389 (7-11) and Bud Grant is also at .455 (10-12).

Titans regular-season wrap-up

January, 5, 2011
NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 20
Preseason Power Ranking: 16

Kenny Britt
Drew Hallowell/Getty ImagesTennessee really missed Kenny Britt when he was out of the lineup from Weeks 10-13.
Biggest surprise: A rift between coach Jeff Fisher and Vince Young wasn’t impossible to forecast, but the size of the rift was. Fisher and his staff became completely disillusioned when Young’s work ethic and commitment didn’t appear to them to meet their standards in his fifth year. Thought the quarterback showed improvement, he caused distractions by missing meetings, not showing great toughness and ultimately swearing out Fisher in front of the entire team. Fisher’s struggles, meanwhile, extended beyond his quarterback and he’s currently in limbo as owner Bud Adams decides if it’s time for a change. He should be measured beyond the head-to-head battle with Young, and those measurements are not good.

Biggest disappointment: The Titans completely overrated their roster coming into the season. They failed to see that their smallish defensive line would wear down. They thought moving Eugene Amano to center and installing Leroy Harris at left guard would strengthen an offensive line that was excellent in 2009. The line's performance declined in 2010. They believed strong safety Chris Hope had more left than he did. They thought a revamped group of linebackers would be playmakers, and it did little. Most significantly, with four successful, aging veterans gone as free agents, the Titans presumed sufficient leadership would emerge. It did not.

Biggest need: Quarterback. I’m not sold on Young as a 16-games-a-year, lead-the-team NFL quarterback. Until the Titans have one, the position tops the list for a team with plenty of other needs. Kerry Collins or Rusty Smith is not the answer. Tennessee needs some size at defensive tackle, some playmakers at linebacker and an upgrade at safety. The Titans need to sort out their interior offensive line. And a changeup running back to help make things less difficult for Chris Johnson could help as well. For all their affection for Javon Ringer, letting LeGarrette Blount go may prove to be a monster mistake.

Team MVP: Kenny Britt. The wide receiver missed four games in the third quarter of the season and the Titans lost all four. He was dynamic and difficult to cover with an 18.6 yard average per catch and eight touchdowns.

Under-adjusting: There were rumblings in the locker room about the Titans' inability to adjust in-game, particularly regarding defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil. From my vantage point, Fisher and his staff crafted game plans on Tuesdays that they fully expected to work. But when games dictated that they steer away from that plan, they too often stubbornly stuck with what was installed. Players were looking for Plan B and alterations they didn’t get often enough. If Fisher’s back, I think this is something he’s got to admit on some level and do better to address.
Peyton ManningGeoff Burke/US PresswirePeyton Manning thrives off play-action fakes even though the Colts have the NFL's worst-ranked run game.
To run believable play-action plays, a semi-effective run game is a necessity.

At least that’s what I’ve always heard.

Call me a play-action skeptic, though. Even against pretty good run teams, if an offense has a quarterback who can throw and targets who can catch, I’d rather my linebackers and safeties take more risks against the run in front of them than the receivers potentially behind them.

So, at least in some situations, I’d tell defenders, “Don’t play run until you’re sure it’s run.”

I know it’s not that simple, that in decision-making every fraction of a second can be crucial, that aggressive defenders are eager to head for the line of scrimmage and blow up a play or get to the ball-carrier.

Still, I started asking more play-action questions after seeing the play-action passing numbers of two AFC South quarterbacks.

Matt Schaub has the league’s most productive running back in Arian Foster, and Schaub has a 94.8 passer rating on play-action throws, according to ESPN Stats and Info. Peyton Manning’s Colts have the worst-ranked run game in the NFL, and his play-action rating is 105.3.

Manning, of course, is regarded as a play-action master, running precise and perfect fakes on plays that look exactly the same as Indianapolis running plays.

Still, if he can do that with a terrible run game and Ben Roethlisberger can post a 77.5 with the league’s eighth-best run game, is effective play-action really linked to an effective run game as we’ve always been made to believe?

How is Jay Cutler at 122.6 on play-action with the 25th ranked run game and Carson Palmer at 134.8 with the 27th while Mark Sanchez is 87.9 with the sixth and Kerry Collins at 58.5 with the 13th?

“I can’t explain the numbers part,” Jacksonville offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. “Other than how your offense sells it, I think there are just linebackers and different safeties as you go through your scouting report that just bite more than others. We always have a guy or two targeted each week where we say, 'OK, this guy will bite play-action.' Where Gary Brackett over the years we’ve played him, he’s hard to get.”

During the offseason, I talked with Schaub about play-action, and he said he couldn’t believe how well the 2009 Texans had done with run-fakes, because they ran so poorly.

So the Texans encapsulate my play-action confusion. In 2009, they ranked 30th running the ball and Schaub posted a 130.4 passer rating on play-action throws. Now they are tied for 10th running it. With his team up 20 spots in rushing, Schaub’s play-action work should be as good or better, not nearly 36 points worse.

Titans safety Chris Hope said the quality of a play-action fake is determined mostly by the scheme and the mindset of the offense running it and their salesmanship. But ultimately it’s not the offense determining the effectiveness, it’s the defense.

He’ll study film and see a play-action pass out of a set from which the team never runs. So he’s never going to read it as a run when he recognizes it in a game. Even the Colts have one he noticed, a counter or trap where they have not handed the ball off out of a certain formation. (If Manning is somehow reading this, I bet he goes and finds it now.)

“The biggest thing is the defense has to buy what you’re trying to sell them,” Hope said. “On Peyton, I’ve seen where the play-action looks just like the actual run play. He does the same mechanics, identical. Some teams run play-action passes but they aren’t selling anything where they normally run...”

“The other thing is, are you playing against a physical team that’s downhill, are you playing physical safeties that are nosy and play good in the run front? That makes the play-action work.”

Smaller offensive lines that don’t do a lot of power stuff in the run game also help it work, Hope said, because teams like the Colts and Texans often slide at the snap, which creates a gray area in terms of revealing whether what’s to come is a run or pass.

According to Trent Green, who played quarterback for five different teams and now works as an analyst, the Colts go so far as to pull a guard on some play-action passes, which makes Manning even more effective.

While Manning is a great faker, quarterbacks can get too much credit for making it work, because it’s the line that has the biggest share of the sales pitch.

“If your offensive linemen are pass setting and you have the best play-faker in the world, the linebackers aren’t going to bite it, the safeties aren’t going to bite it,” Green said. “… The way that system really works well is based on their line.”

Stats might lump together all play-action, but the play-action games of the Texans and Colts are at different ends of the spectrum, Titans defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil said.

Houston gets people moving laterally to stay sound against the run, then forces them to change direction against the play-action pass. Indianapolis’ play-action is less reliant on having an effective back and is more about gaining space vertically.

Cecil said he understands my desire for defenders to stop biting against a team that doesn’t run well. He’s actually told defenders in certain situations not to play run against the Colts until seeing the ball in a running back’s hands.

“A certain guy is pulling, but that’s not a run for them -- when he pulls, stay pass,” Cecil said, talking to me as if I were in his defensive meeting during a Colts week.

“You can work it and work it and work it, but it’s a hard thing to tell a guy not to react to something, because he’s reacted to it in every other game, and all year long and his whole life. It’s hard to get that out of them sometimes.”

Sunday at Oakland Coliseum, a Raiders linebacker will inevitably follow instinct over instruction, and Manning will connect with a target who gained space from a fake.

And I’ll still shake my head and wonder why, exactly, that defender feared a carry by the Colts.
Dirk KoetterAl Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesOffensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and the Jaguars are thriving with a simplified approach.
Portray coaching as an amazingly intricate and complex task all you like. But the guys who succeed at keeping it simple are often the guys who succeed, period.

If your team is incomplete, if you’re not stocked with every ingredient -- and it’s a rare team that is -- then maximize what you can do well and minimize the need to try what you don’t.

Jacksonville offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is doing just that, and with an effective effort Sunday in Indianapolis, the team can complete an improbable worst-to-first run in the AFC South. Through 13 games, I think Koetter is the division’s most effective assistant coach.

The Jaguars have won five out of six to jump to the top of the division at 8-5, and the run game has been the backbone of the team -- just as it’s designed to be. And a team that was held to 3 points in each of its two worst losses of the season has been averaging 27.5 in that six-game stretch.

Since returning from the concussion that knocked him out of an Oct. 18 loss to Tennessee and cost him the next game at Kansas City, David Garrard has been efficient, completing 65.4 percent of his passes while posting a 99.3 passer rating.

He’s benefited from a run game that’s averaged 193 yards a game during that stretch. Koetter’s balanced things nicely, calling for runs 54 percent of the time.

According to one opponent, the Jaguars and Koetter have done smart work stripping things down.

“When you look pre-Garrard’s injury and now, they’ve really gotten back to basics,” said Titans defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil. “I hate saying simplify, but that’s exactly what they’ve done. Their route structures are slant-flat, tear (an out into the flat and another behind it), curl-flat. I mean it’s as basic as it gets. But now they couple it with turning and handing it off to Maurice Jones-Drew. And that’s what drives their engine ...”

“It’s a smart thing. They’ve made the reads very easy. It’s a situation where you are setting yourself up for success. I think they’ve basically gotten rid of all the mumbo jumbo in their offense and they’ve gone, ‘OK we’re going to hand it to that guy and when we need to pick up yards throwing it, we’re going to do this.’ ”

Abridging an offense can be seen as a bad thing, suggesting a quarterback can’t handle it all. But effectiveness is the goal. The Jaguars are finding a rhythm, hardly ever going three-and-out and getting themselves into highly manageable third downs.

Getting Garrard into situations where he can best make plays means Koetter’s scheme is working.

Koetter said Garrard responded to owner Wayne Weaver’s public call during the offseason for the quarterback to match the preparation work of the top guys in the league. The coordinator shied away from the characterization that anything’s been simplified for Garrard.

“I wouldn’t say it that way because we aren’t doing any less,” he said. “I think Dave is preparing Monday through Saturday better than he ever has, and I think that’s paying off. Any quarterback benefits when you can run the football. Dave’s rededicated himself to preparation during the week. I think he has more confidence in his protection and his playmakers.

“I told people every time they’d listen that Dave would return to 2007 form when we played better around him, and we’re playing better around him right now. Other guys are helping him. He’s always been an accurate passer. He’ll stand in there until the last second. He’ll take the hit. We’ve got more guys making plays. He throws a beautiful ball last week to Jason Hill and Jason Hill is fast enough to go get it and make a play. That’s great to have that.”

A Jaguars’ win at Indianapolis on Sunday would produce the franchise's first division title since 1999. The recent success on offense has the team's confidence at its highest point since Koetter’s first season in 2007, when Garrard threw just three interceptions in 12 games and the Jaguars went two rounds into the playoffs as a wild card.

“I think he's tailored to David's strengths, he's tailored to the fact that as an offense we're a team that's more about physicality than finesse,” right guard Uche Nwaneri said. “He's really come up with a lot of good game plans and a lot of good strategies on how to use that to our advantage. It's really become more evident now because it's like we're almost exposing other team's weaknesses with the plays that he calls.

“It's really a good asset for us to have. There are a lot of teams in the league that have good personnel but they don’t call plays to the strengths of their personnel. It's really a privilege to have somebody that's able to adjust how he structures his game plan each week to take advantage of what we do well against what another team may not do so well.”

Where coordinators spend Sundays

December, 2, 2010
CBS RapidReports points out that the Texans’ defense has allowed an average of 281.5 yards per game since defensive coordinator Frank Bush moved from the coaching booth to the sideline two weeks ago.

In nine previous games, the unit allowed an average of 409.7 yards per game, second-most in the league.

All coordinators decide which trade-off to make. Being in the booth offers the best overall view of an opponent and how things are unfolding. But being on the sideline allows face-to-face interaction some feel is invaluable.

That got me thinking that a lot of people would like to see a comparison of which coordinators are in the booth and which are on the field.

So here’s a divisional breakdown:


OC Rick Dennison is in the booth; DC Bush is now on the field.


OC Clyde Christensen in on the field; DC Larry Coyer is in the booth.


OC Dirk Koetter is in the booth; DC Mel Tucker is in the booth.


OC Mike Heimerdinger is on the field*; DC Chuck Cecil is on the field.

*Heimerdinger just began chemotherapy and quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains is expected to be the playcaller. It’s unclear where Loggains will be and what influence Heimerdinger’s potential presence in an assistant capacity could have on his locale.
HOUSTON -- Andre Johnson was contrite. From what I am told, Cortland Finnegan was invisible.

[+] EnlargeAndre Johnson and Cortland Finnegan
AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Karen WarrenAndre Johnson and Cortland Finnegan engaged in a fistfight for which both were ejected.
The two had a hockey style, fourth-quarter fight and both got ejected from the Texans’ 20-0 win over Tennessee. Finnegan, the Titans' feisty corner, covered Johnson, the Texans' super low-key receiver all game.

While Johnson caught nine passes, the Titans and Finnegan did well to keep him in front of them. He managed only 56 yards but did score on a 1-yard pass.

Afterward, Texans owner Bob McNair said he gave the bout to Johnson in a decision.

“I awarded it to Andre on points,” McNair said. Asked if he feared a suspension, McNair continued: “I don’t know why there would be. The DB was all over him and he (Finnegan) is the one who initiated it and he’d been doing it the play before and the whole game. He just went a little too far and Andre’s the one who was on camera when the action heated up. That’s not Andre.”

I couldn’t chase both players at the same time after the game. Johnson talked right as the Texans' locker room opened. Colleagues who were in the Titans' locker room said Finnegan didn’t speak or wasn’t around.

Johnson said he knows people will make jokes about it. But he takes pride in a clean reputation and was distraught over doing something that could dent that.

“I would like to apologize to the organization, our owner, my teammates,” he said. “What happened out there wasn’t me. I just lost my cool and I wish I could take back what happened, but I can’t. I’m pretty sure I’ll be disciplined for it, I’ll have to deal with it from there.”

As for how it unfolded, he said “it’s just a buildup of things over plays.”

Titans defensive end Jason Babin was a teammate of Johnson’s with the Texans.

“I was surprised. He’s a soft spoken guy who works hard, does the right things,” Babin said. “To see him land punches on someone without a helmet on, that was surprising. Emotions get high. That’s the way it goes.

“You’d think for a guy who’s 220 pounds to connect like that three times he would knock him out. I don’t know, I already thought he was tough, but I guess Cortland is tougher than I thought.”

Titans coach Jeff Fisher said he was confused by the ejection for his player as Finnegan said he never took a swing.

The fight sparked a broader round of accusations from Texans offensive lineman Eric Winston, who echoed the sentiment from the Denver Broncos from earlier in the season that the Titans are dirty.

Asked to reiterate a statement a moment earlier about them being dirty, Winston said: “I think that they are.”

“You’ve got guys pushing guys over piles, hitting quarterbacks late, doing that stuff, obviously throwing punches. That’s all crazy stuff to me,” Winston said. “I don’t understand it. I don’t get why that is. It seems like they get away with a lot of it though, so I guess they decide to push the limit on it.

"You’ve got guys clearly targeting other players who don’t have the ball. To me, that’s dirty. Maybe by other people’s definition of it that isn’t. I don’t think that they think that’s dirty, for whatever reason. But to me that is. It’s not like they’re doing it by themselves. That’s what they are taught to do. And I’m not trying to make a statement about them. I’m just saying that’s the Titans. You know what you’re getting into."

Relayed Winston’s feelings on the subject, Titans defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil couldn’t suppress a grin.

“If there ever has been a pot calling a kettle black," he said, "that is it."