AFC South: Jeff Fisher

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans' shift from a 4-3 front to a 3-4 alignment doesn't come with a plea for patience.

Changing the shape of a defense isn't a multiple-year process in today's NFL, and the Titans don't have to look far for evidence of that.

In 2010, the Houston Texans hired Wade Phillips as their defensive coordinator. As he had many times before, he remodeled a 4-3 into his 3-4, installed a new mindset and got new results. The Texans ranked second in defensive yardage and won the AFC South.

In 2012, the Indianapolis Colts hired Chuck Pagano as their head coach. He and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky converted a 4-3 into a 3-4. While they didn't mirror the Texans' statistical success from two years earlier, the defense was good enough for the Colts to win a wild-card spot.

[+] EnlargeWade Phillips
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports"Saying it's going to take time and that stuff, that's to help personnel people and coaches keep their jobs," Wade Phillips said of switching your defensive front. "You've got to win now."
Neither Phillips nor Pagano expected the luxury of a transitional year, in which he could hit pause on expectations. Phillips didn't hesitate to flip things and engineered another big first-year turnaround. Pagano talked about the need to be a hybrid defense in transition. They expected results, and got enough for their teams to go to the playoffs.

Along with the Titans, the Falcons (moving to 3-4) and the Bills (to a 4-3) are changing defensive fronts and philosophies.

Phillips believes fans in any of those markets should be wary of any talk from the brass about the need for patience.

"That's protecting yourself," said Phillips, who lost his job when Houston hired Bill O'Brien and is currently out of the league. "It doesn't matter in this league, they are going to fire you anyway if you don't get it done.

"Saying it's going to take time and that stuff, that's to help personnel people and coaches keep their jobs. You've got to win now. You've got to change things. Usually you're coming in to fix something. "

Perhaps a switch from a straightforward 4-3 to the more old-school, two-gap 3-4 like the Pittsburgh Steelers run would make for a time-consuming changeover. But while 3-4s are on the rise, more are in line with ones Phillips ran as coordinator or coach in New Orleans, Philadelphia, Denver, Buffalo, Atlanta, San Diego, Dallas and Houston. They are schemes with edge setting, pass-rushing outside linebackers who do not require a mammoth nose tackle and don't ask the three down lineman to account for two gaps.

Under Ken Whisenhunt in Tennessee, defensive coordinator Ray Horton's 3-4 base front will seek to create confusion about who is rushing and from where. There will be enough two-gapping to make offenses have to look out for it, but it won't be the default or the norm.

What sense would it make for Whisenhunt, Horton and defensive line coach Giff Smith to ask Jurrell Casey, who was the Titans best defense player last season and had 10.5 sacks, work to occupy defenders and allow linebackers behind him to make the plays?

"He's a heck of a player," Smith said. "I told Case when we got here, he'll actually get more one-on-one situations out of our spacing than he would out of a 4-3 spacing. ... Our deal is to get him in as many as we can. I think he puts stress on offensive linemen, he's a difficult guy to block. ...

"It's more of a loaded box where you have to man up. It looks like single coverage on the outside whereas when you're in 4-3 spacing, sometimes your backers cheat back to 5, 5 1/2 yards and they're on the second level and you've only got four guys up front. They can bump, they can chip, they can double (to slow you down). Where in a 3-4 with what Ray is doing and walking guys up, they have to man and they don't have the time to be able to chip and climb."

[+] EnlargeRay Horton
AP Photo/Mark DuncanNew Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Ray Horton will embrace the players he inherited.
If the Titans have enough good players as they believe they do, then they should be able to get them in positions to maximize their talents.

Whisenhunt said schematically the 2013 Titans ran hundreds of plays in the exact same scheme that will now be their base. Holdover guys "at least have some basis as a starting point," he said.

"The old-school ways of playing the 3-4, schematically that was a difficult defense to play," Whisenhunt said. "Just from a standpoint of the two-gap and having the right guys like Carl Banks and Lawrence Taylor outside.

"It was a different defense than we're running. We're a more aggressive type of defense that is going to give you multiple looks. It's not a 3-4, two-gap defense. But when you say 3-4 defense that's the perception of a lot of people."

St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher, a 4-3 guy who ran the scheme for his 16-plus seasons coaching the Oilers/Titans, said the franchise's switch "is moving a guy here and there, it's not as hard as people speculate."

Both Whisenhunt and Phillips share a philosophy that helps make an altered approach easier: It's more about the players than the scheme.

Phillips points to three different approaches with three different players all aiming for the same result: ownership of one of the A gaps in the middle of the line.

"Ted Washington was 340 pounds in Buffalo, he played nose but we play a one-gap defense," Phillips said. "We played him in the middle of the center and let him take the center and just control his gap. Jamal Williams was a power guy (in San Diego), we offset him and let him basically knock the center back and take the same gap. Then I had Greg Kragen in Denver, another Pro Bowler. He was a smaller guy, so we stunted him to the gap.

"They all played the same position, had the same assignment, but played it differently."

We don't yet know what the responsibilities of certain positions will entail in Horton's defense. But he can have wrinkles that make things easy for certain players.

Derrick Morgan and Akeem Ayers look to be the two primary strong outside linebackers. Morgan's been a 4-3 end and Ayers hasn't fared particularly well in space so far in the NFL. In Phillips' system, the only coverage they'd have been asked to play would have been in the flat.

"It's what the players can do, not what you can think of," Phillips said. "Some people are so scheme-oriented that they block people out and say, ‘Hey, we can't use this guy even though he's a good player.'"

The Titans are being inclusive, not exclusive.

Horton and his staff are embracing what they inherited -- much of which may have been insufficiently coached by the previous staff. They've also added a nice splash of 3-4 help: Linebackers Shaun Phillips, Wesley Woodyard and fifth-rounder Avery Williamson and linemen Al Woods and fourth-rounder DaQuan Jones.

Whisenhunt and Horton aren't looking at Andrew Luck or the top offensive players they will be trying to slow this year and thinking, in another year or two this scheme will be equipped and stocked to get the job done.

"Our expectation is to have success defensively this year," Whisenhunt said. "Will we get better at it in time? I think you get better at anything when you have more reps with it. But it doesn't mean I don't feel like we'll play good defense this year."
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Three of the Jaguars who participated in this NFL Nation confidential survey are probably a bit disappointed today. The survey asked which NFL coach other than their own they’d most like to play for .

Their choice is unemployed.

Those three players picked Gary Kubiak, who at the time of the survey was still the Houston Texans' coach. He was fired on Dec. 6, one day after the Jaguars beat the Texans for the second time in 2013.

Kubiak received the most votes of any coach among the 10 players surveyed. Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin was the only other coach to receive multiple votes. He was named twice. San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh, St. Louis’ Jeff Fisher, Kansas City’s Andy Reid, Seattle’s Pete Carroll, and New England’s Bill Belichick each got one vote.

It’s understandable why Kubiak received more votes than anyone else. He coached a division rival so the players are familiar with him. Several players also are friends with Texans fullback Greg Jones, who spent the first nine season of his career with the Jaguars before signing with Houston as a free agent last March.

Carroll was the coach most named by the 320 players who participated in the survey. He got 72 votes. Tomlin received 44.

The case for and (more) against Munchak

December, 27, 2013
12/27/13
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Mike MunchakJim Brown/USA TODAY SportsMike Munchak has a .091 winning percentage versus teams finishing the season with winning records.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Monday the Titans begin the process of deciding what to do with Mike Munchak, who’s under contract for one more year as head coach.

Let’s set aside all the predictions and expectations.

We know very little about how team president and CEO Tommy Smith will operate in his new role and how he will balance his family’s long-term relationship with Munchak against the results he’s produced as a head coach. We don’t know if Munchak has the backing of general manager Ruston Webster going forward.

We do know what goes into the case for him and the case against him. So let’s examine those and then delve into things I consider significant issues where I don’t see a clear counterargument in his favor:

For: The Titans are on the verge. They’ve lost six one-possession games this season. Make the jump in just half of those and they could be a 10-win playoff team.

Against: They are unable to finish games, and there is no reason to expect they find it all of a sudden under the same leadership.

For: The division is bad and there is room to get better in a hurry against rebuilding Houston and Jacksonville.

Against: The Titans are 3-8 in the division in the past two seasons and 1-4 this year heading into the finale against Houston. Tennessee lost to the Texans and Jaguars this year when it should be sweeping those teams when they are having down years. That’s the path to actually competing for the division.

For: This roster has stood firmly with Munchak. There has been no dissension. They haven’t quit on him and have been playing hard to the end. His message is working. They work hard to execute what is asked of them.

Against: Having a roster of guys committed to following a coach who’s not doing a good job is nice, but if he’s not doing a good job it doesn’t matter as much. What is asked of them isn’t right often enough. This team’s in-game adjustment to what opponents do is typically poor.

For: Smith has pledged another big offseason, and the Titans will create a spring and summer buzz much like last year’s, when they spent over $100 million on free agents and had the 10th pick in the draft.

Against: The fan base is angry and/or apathetic. The tickets are bought, in part because so many people are financially committed with PSLs. But that hasn’t meant they have showed up. A new coach and staff will also have a free-agent class and draft and that will do a lot more to get Nashville interested.

For: Though they were overmatched, the Titans stood toe-to-toe for a good while with some of the NFL’s best -- Seattle and Denver. They lost twice to the AFC South champion Colts by a combined 11 points.

Against: Munchak is 2-20 -- not a misprint -- against teams that finish the season with a winning record. Whether they are close to the caliber of those teams or not, that is a .091 winning percentage against winning teams. How can Smith endorse that?

For: They could be one player away, and we’ve seen them make a big addition and a big jump before.

Against: The odds of landing Jevon Kearse are small, and the 1998 Tennessee Oilers had more pieces in place than the 2013 Titans do.

For: They’ll move away from Chris Johnson and by doing so they’ll be in line to have the run game they expected this year. This offensive line needed time to jell. In 2014, Shonn Greene and a mid-round draft pick will be more effective.

[+] EnlargeChris Johnson
Don McPeak/USA TODAY SportsMike Munchak wanted the Titans to be a run-first team but inconsistency in the run game plagued Tennessee all season.
Against: Three years in and a Hall of Fame offensive lineman as a head coach with a Hall of Fame offensive line coach still haven’t produced a team that can run consistently. How can they possibly say, “We need more time” and get it? How did lines with injuries in Seattle and Miami manage to play well enough to win? They have to replace David Stewart at right tackle, right? Another change positions them for more excuses about needing time to jell.

For: The Titans didn’t have their starting quarterback for nine games this year. Who wins without their starting quarterback? Injuries to Greene and center Brian Schwenke also hurt.

Against: It would be a good argument if Jake Locker was a proven NFL franchise quarterback. He is not and they sold Ryan Fitzpatrick as a top-flight alternative. We know Locker has potential and is injury prone. Pinning hopes on that for 2014 seems dangerous. The Greene and Schwenke injuries should not be regarded as hugely impactful and are on par with the sort of thing every team in the league deals with.

For: He doesn’t care about the peripheral stuff; he’s not going to play the game. He just wants to coach and do things the right way.

Against: Tough for him. A head coach is a CEO and the responsibilities require more. You have to be a PR guy and a marketer. He doesn’t embrace that stuff and it hurts the franchise. You can’t play the “I just want to coach” card until you’ve proven you can win.

A few other things don’t fit as neatly in a for-and-against format and mostly qualify as arguments against his return.

I think it’s very difficult to make a case for him based on his work in the division, his record against winning teams and his inability to explain what’s wrong.

Warped thinking: Munchak endorsed a foolish onside kick approach with an unconventional, tee-less spinner that kicker Rob Bironas clearly did not like. Worse, the coach judged his team to be 1-for-3 with it rather than 0-for-3 because San Francisco bobbled the kick before recovering it. Note to Munchak: Such a kick is judged a success if, and only if, you recover it. We know it’s very difficult to do. We also know it’s ridiculous to deem one a success when the other team comes out with the ball. Lo and behold, the Titans recover a conventional, high-bounce onside kick during a furious comeback against Arizona.

Straying from his philosophy: Over and over Munchak spoke of how the 2013 Titans would be able to get the tough yard on the ground. These Titans were going to throw it when they wanted to, not when they had to. But given a chance to win the Arizona game with 10 seconds left with a two-point conversion play from the 1-yard line after a penalty, he chose overtime. The team he promised shouldn’t have even considered kicking the extra point. In sharing more about his logic a day later, he said the team hadn’t run it in an hour as it played hurry-up to overcome a big deficit. Shouldn’t a team built around the offensive line and backs be able to run for a yard whether they’d been running it or not?

Salesmanship: He’s a better salesman than he is a head coach. In memorializing Bud Adams when he died, he spoke about how he used to walk the hallways of the team’s facility on a Saturday before the game with Adams and Adams’ friends, looking at the pictures of the team’s history and telling stories. It showed me that Munchak was shrewd in how he dealt with the owner, playing right into what the owner liked and taking Adams right where Adams liked to go. It endeared him to his boss and did a lot to make him the choice when the team and Jeff Fisher parted ways. I expect he will do well selling Smith on the plan going forward. But the team gets better by adjusting the plan, not by selling the plan better to a new person at the top of the organization. Old-time Oilers memories should mean nothing now.

Lame duck: His résumé certainly doesn’t warrant an extension. That means he and his staff would be working as lame ducks in 2014. Lame-duck scenarios aren’t typically healthy. They make it hard to attract players and assistants. They make it easy for a team to tune out if and when things don’t go well.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- With the Tennessee Titans preparing to face the Denver Broncos for the first time since then-free agent Peyton Manning chose the Broncos over Tennessee, Manning's choice has been a big storyline this week.

John Glennon of The Tennessean recounts the pursuit and shows the Titans really thought they were going to get him.

I’ve heard from two reliable sources that one thing that worked against the Titans for Manning was the team's offensive coordinator at the time.

Chris Palmer’s offensive philosophy was to react, not to dictate. (Here’s a piece from Sept. 2012 I did about his options route scheme.)

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesPeyton Manning spent about eight hours with Titans executives on a plane and at the team's headquarters in March 2012.
I can see how that wouldn’t jibe with Manning. And Eli Manning worked with Palmer as quarterback coach with the Giants from 2007-09, so Peyton Manning had some extra insight into Mike Munchak’s chief offensive lieutenant.

When the Titans got their time with Manning, they met him in Knoxville for a workout, then he spent some time in Nashville. The Knoxville contingent was team president Mike Reinfeldt, general manager Ruston Webster, Munchak, Palmer, quarterback coach Dowell Loggains and strength coach Steve Watterson.

I don't want to over-interpret Manning's comments about that time, but he does tend to be very precise in what he says and does.

"I ended up working out for them in Knoxville," he said. "Like I said, I really enjoyed getting to know Dowell Loggains, really enjoyed spending some time with him. I played against Coach Munchak’s teams for many years when he was the offensive line coach. I enjoyed spending some time with him, really enjoyed that time. That was kind of a unique workout I guess, but like I said, I enjoyed the time with them."

His failure to mention Palmer is not super-telling. But after hearing from two places that Palmer was an issue, the fact that Manning left him out is open for at least a bit of interpretation.

Bear with me and trace this circular path that led to the Titans missing out on Manning, who I believe felt a pull from Munchak but a bigger pull from Broncos executive John Elway because of the obvious connection with a quarterback who won big late in a Hall of Fame career.

  1. Late Titans owner Bud Adams was late in sorting out his head-coaching search in 2011. When he parted ways with Jeff Fisher and hired Munchak after the Super Bowl, a lot of hiring had already happened around the league.
  2. As a new head coach without a large network of connections and a narrowed pool of candidates, Munchak had to turn to Palmer, an old friend, as his first coordinator.
  3. A year later, Adams told Titans brass he wanted Manning on the team.
  4. And one of the reasons Manning went elsewhere was because he didn’t feel like working with Palmer would have been the best scenario for him.

Palmer’s an innocent victim here. He’s a good man, though his philosophy is ineffective in the NFL circa 2013. Munchak fired him with five games left in 2012.

If Adams had moved more quickly in sorting things out with Fisher and getting Munchak in place, perhaps Munchak would have hired a different offensive coordinator.

If Manning was more comfortable with that coordinator, perhaps he'd be a Titan instead of a Bronco.

Double Coverage: Rams at Colts

November, 7, 2013
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Zac Stacy and Antoine Bethea AP Photo/L.G. PattersonZac Stacy and the Rams have run well of late. That will be vital against Antoine Bethea and the Colts.
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Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford were supposed to be the key players when their teams meet at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday afternoon. Luck will be on the field taking snaps, but Bradford is stuck being a spectator after tearing his ACL earlier this season.

The Rams have been hit hard by the loss of Bradford: They have lost three in a row and don't appear close to turning things around. Meanwhile, Luck is an MVP candidate despite not putting up off-the-charts statistics. He’s simply overcome the loss of five key offensive players to lead the Colts to first place in the AFC South.

ESPN.com Colts reporter Mike Wells and Rams reporter Nick Wagoner break down the matchup.

Wells: Nick, I’m sure most fans thought St. Louis would make progress off its seven wins last season. That doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. How much has Bradford’s season-ending injury affected the Rams? Or do you think they were going to struggle even with him leading the way?

Wagoner: It's been a strange season in which it's really hard to predict what you're going to get from the Rams from week to week. There's no question the team was better with Bradford at quarterback. If he'd been healthy the last two weeks (and making the big assumption that everything else stayed the same), the Rams likely would be sitting at 5-4 right now. The Rams already had a really small margin for error, and it got even smaller when Bradford went down. They have had way too many self-inflicted mistakes to overcome, and they have a knack for not being able to get out of their own way.

We can talk about Luck in a minute, but I wanted to get to a big-picture Colts issue first. The Rams and Colts both began 2012 in something of a rebuilding mode. The Colts were able to do it really quickly, whereas the Rams are still sifting through the process. Aside from Luck, what do you think has been the biggest key to the Colts' turnaround?

Wells: The defense. It took the unit a season to get used to the 3-4 scheme employed by coach Chuck Pagano and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky. They also acquired players comfortable in the system. Linebacker Robert Mathis is a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate with 11.5 sacks. The unit itself isn’t highly ranked – 22nd overall – but it seems to find a way to make plays at the right time. It deserves just as much credit as Luck for the victory over Denver on Oct. 20. The defense must continue to make plays to help out the offense, which is without receiver Reggie Wayne for the rest of the season.

I have to say, Nick, there are not a lot of recognizable names on the Rams' roster. Is there any reason to believe they can go into Lucas Oil Stadium and upset the Colts?

Wagoner: Honestly, I don't see how the Rams can win this one. Credit to the Rams, they've really shown some fight the past two weeks without Bradford. But they were unable to pull off a couple of winnable games because they keep making mistakes they can't surmount. The Rams' best hope in this one is to continue to run the ball well -- which, considering the Colts have the 27th-ranked rush defense, seems possible -- and to get some turnovers on defense.

One area that continues to plague the Rams is defending the run. Tennessee's woeful rushing attack got healthy on the Rams last week. I wonder if the Colts and Trent Richardson can do the same. It seems the return on investment hasn't been there for Indy on the Richardson deal. What's been the struggle, and do you think the Colts can get him and their running game going?

Wells: It seems that every week the talk is about Richardson getting closer to having a big game. But everybody is still waiting. First it was a matter of Richardson getting comfortable with the system the first few weeks after he was acquired from Cleveland. Then offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton came out last week and said he has to do a better job of finding ways to get Richardson out in space. The Colts’ running game was put into some perspective when they ran the ball only four times in the second half last weekend against Houston -- and three of those runs came on their final offensive series when they were killing some clock. Titans running back Chris Johnson had his best game of the season – 150 yards – against the Rams last week. Maybe Richardson will do the same. Finally.

The Colts are pretty familiar with Jeff Fisher from his days with their AFC South rival Titans. Is there any danger of the Rams' coach losing his job at the end of the season?

Wagoner: Short of some wild scandal breaking out, I'd say the chances of that happening are pretty much zero. He's in only his second season, and the Rams knew they had a long road to climb to get back to being a contender. They exceeded expectations in his first season, and that may have sped up the way people view the rebuilding project. But the Rams have always viewed 2014 as the year they hoped to really take a major step forward. This season will likely go down as a disappointment, but if Bradford returns healthy and the Rams have a good offseason, they'll believe they can be back in the mix. The biggest disappointment this season has been the lack of progress by many of the team's young players. That's not to say nobody has made that move; it's just not as many as the Rams would have liked, at least not yet. That said, I do think it's possible Fisher could take a look at some of the guys on his staff. He's a loyal guy and many of his assistants have been with him for a while, but that doesn't mean everyone is exempt.

I do want to ask about Luck, but I wanted to take a different approach than the old "Why is Andrew Luck so awesome?" question you probably get every week. Each of these teams has a No. 1 overall pick at quarterback, but they have very different salaries. How much of a difference has it made for the Colts that they not only got a franchise-changing quarterback but one they don't have to pay like an NFL megastar for a while?

Wells: I’m going to take it beyond the fact that the Colts don’t have to pay Luck megastar money for a while. The Colts will likely have their choice of free agents to choose from because many will want to play with Luck. As one player recently told me, “You want a chance to win a couple of rings? Come to Indianapolis because 12 is going to be here for a long time and he’s going to win this organization some Super Bowls.” The best part from an organizational standpoint is that Luck is in just his second season and his desire to win and get better on a daily basis is something a lot of players in this league wish they had.

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Locker Room Buzz: Tennessee Titans

November, 3, 2013
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ST. LOUIS -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Tennessee Titans' 28-21 win over the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome:

Munchak
Drive by: The handshake between Titans coach Mike Munchak and Rams coach Jeff Fisher after the game was a very quick one with no extended conversation. There is no bad blood between the two. The game clearly meant a bunch to both. But Fisher didn’t linger as he swallowed a loss in a game he surely felt he could have -- and should have -- won. "He has things to do and so do I,” Munchak said.

Smart adjustment: Jake Locker’s 5-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter gave the Titans a 21-14 lead and came on a crucial third down. Coordinator Dowell Loggains said Locker checked from one pass to another, the Rams countered with exactly the right defense and Locker recognized there was no one to account for him, so he took off pretty quickly knowing he could get to the end zone.

Ended streak: Receiver Nate Washington said he was disappointed that his streak of 85 games with a catch ended, but he was satisfied because the Titans won. Loggains credited Washington with an RBI for a block on Cortland Finnegan during Chris Johnson's second touchdown run, a 19-yard burst that provided the winning margin.

Check pkuharsky at Instagram for a few postgame pictures.

Double Coverage: Titans at Rams

October, 31, 2013
10/31/13
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Alterraun Verner and Chris LongUSA TODAY SportsTitans CB Alterraun Verner and Rams DE Chris Long are two of the league's best at their positions.
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Any time the St. Louis Rams and Tennessee Titans meet, memories of Super Bowl XXXIV are sure to come to the fore. In one of the greatest Super Bowl finishes of all time, the Rams emerged with their lone championship during their time in St. Louis.

A lot has changed since, but neither team has managed to get back to the promised land and it seems like a long shot either will this season. This week, the Rams and Titans renew acquaintances at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. ESPN.com Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky discuss some things worth watching, including an interesting role reversal for one of the key figures in that Super Bowl.

Wagoner: Well, it's pretty obvious what the big story is going to be this week. Jeff Fisher is facing his former team for the first time since taking over as the coach in St. Louis. As is to be expected, Fisher is downplaying that whole angle, but you were around him a lot in his years in Nashville. Do you expect Fisher to have a little something extra for his old team this week?

Kuharsky: It would be so much better if it were in Nashville. Then we’d have the crowd reaction as a part of it, too. Still, it’s intriguing. He will definitely have something (or some things) drawn up that he feels will uniquely exploit the schemes and styles of his former underlings Mike Munchak, Jerry Gray and Gregg Williams. If those things work, I’d expect Fisher will then talk about how one of his assistants who was once in Tennessee -- Chuck Cecil, Dave McGinnis or even Ray Sherman -- was instrumental in the design. Fisher didn’t leave with hard feelings, and I believe he wishes the organization well. Still, any proud former employee in this sort of circumstance wants to outperform the former employer. He’s talked about it meaning more for the guys on the roster who were once Titans.

Jared Cook had a monster opening day but has been quiet since. Cortland Finnegan missed some time hurt. What’s the status of those guys?

Wagoner: Cook has really struggled dealing with teams giving him more attention and, more specifically, being physical with him at the line of scrimmage and downfield. He stopped on a route last week against Seattle, and it resulted in an interception. The Rams have gone back to more of a power running scheme that has also limited his snaps because he doesn’t bring much to the table as a blocker. Finnegan won’t say it, but I believe he was banged up at the beginning of the season; his first four games were downright brutal. He returned last week against Seattle, and for now he’s working exclusively in the nickel as the team’s third corner rather than just bumping inside in those situations. Given that he’s only a little more than a year into a monster contract, it’s hard to categorize him as anything but a disappointment for the price.

A lot will be made of the Fisher-Tennessee connection, but I’m more intrigued by the Gregg Williams situation. The way things went down with him and the Rams, and between Williams’ son Blake and the Rams, had to have created some tension on all sides. What has Williams’ impact been down there in Tennessee, and what exactly is his role?

Kuharsky: By title, he’s senior assistant/defense. In practice, he’s not-quite defensive coordinator. Gray is still calling the plays, but Williams’ influence is undeniable. This defense had no personality or attitude last season. Now it’s the backbone of the team. It mixes it up and disguises its looks up front, it blitzes more often and it plays far more man-to-man. Bernard Pollard has been a great fit who has talked with swagger and backed it up. Some guys most people have never heard of -- defensive end Ropati Pitoitua and middle linebacker Moise Fokou -- have been very good additions. Williams certainly had a say in bringing those guys in. He has stayed in the background and seems comfortable there. I would imagine he and Gray are excited to put together a plan to make Kellen Clemens uncomfortable.

How do you think Clemens will respond in his second start since Sam Bradford went down?

Wagoner: To paraphrase one of the great philosophers of our time, Mr. Dennis Green, Clemens proved last week against Seattle that he is what we thought he was. He’s a tough, gritty, consummate professional who can occasionally extend plays with his legs and make something happen. He’s also consistently inaccurate, a bit indecisive and has a knack for costly turnovers (though his two interceptions Monday night weren’t completely his fault). Another week to work with the starters should help, but he was a bit sore after Monday night’s game against Seattle. The Rams don’t need him to throw for 300 yards and five touchdowns, but they do need him to convert in the red zone and not turn the ball over.

There are something like 16 players from the Fisher era remaining in Tennessee, one of whom is running back Chris Johnson. The Rams have been better defending the run the past two weeks, but they need to prove they can keep doing it. It appears Johnson has struggled after the team made efforts to help him in the offseason. What’s going on with Johnson, and is he (and the Titans' offensive line) capable of taking advantage of the Rams’ run defense?

Kuharsky: The Titans are built on a philosophy of throwing it when they want to, not when they have to. That’s a mistake because the revamped line and Johnson are not equipped to run it they way they think they can. Jets fans get a kick out of this, but to a large degree the Titans' hope things will get better comes from Shonn Greene. The bigger back was brought in as a compliment to CJ, but he got hurt in the opener and made it back only the week before the bye; he has hardly played. They need him to emerge and contribute. Based on current numbers, the Rams are the third-softest run defense the Titans will have seen this season. If they can’t run Sunday, it will really speak to their issues.

Chris Long and Robert Quinn looked really good against Seattle. Have they been giving everyone problems like that?

Wagoner: Quinn certainly has. Through the first half of the season, he’s really starting to realize his immense potential. I believe he’s the Rams’ best player right now, and have felt that way since the beginning of the season. He’s an athletic freak who gives slower tackles problems. He feasts on inferior players, but he can get it done against good tackles as well. Long was banged up earlier in the season but has battled through it and is starting to find his stride. Given the situation on offense right now, the Rams need this duo to take over games on a regular basis and set the tone for a defense that, before last week, had largely disappointed this season.

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Jeff Fisher remembers Bud Adams

October, 21, 2013
10/21/13
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Bud Adams often got tagged with an unfair label of being cheap.

In a guest appearance talking about his old boss, St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher told The Midday 180 radio show about Adams always saying yes to requests for player salaries.

Fisher
"You could call him and ask for $10 million to sign a key free agent because that’s the player that you need to get over the hump and he would not bat an eye,” Fisher said. “Then you could come back 20 minutes later and ask for him to sign a purchase order for laser pointers and he’ll take two months. That’s how he was. As long as you know that going in and understand that, things are OK.”

Fisher said he’s eternally grateful to Adams, his late wife Nancy and the entire Adams family for the opportunity it gave him as a head coach. He called the Oilers and Titans owner who died Monday morning “just a fascinating man.”

Adams had the foresight to see Nashville as a viable NFL market, and stuck with it even as the initial stages of the team’s relocation were shaky.

“He just basically said, ‘Go move,’” Fisher said. “And so it wasn’t easy. I’ve declined numerous opportunities to do a book on those years. It was not an easy thing. ...

“He had this vision. He said, 'Once we get the stadium in place, the team should be in position where we can make a run. And he was right."

Fisher recalled a time when they were discussing the third pick in the 1995 draft. The team had already decided on Steve McNair and the Friday night before the draft Adams was distracted.

He was a huge art collector with an emphasis on Native American art.

“He was telling me about this doll,” Fisher said. “I was trying to tell him about the first and second pick and who we thought was going to go, he was more interested in this collectible doll that he got from Chief Sitting Bull some place after Custer’s last stand.”

When Houston hosted the Super Bowl in February 2004, Fisher visited Adams in his box at the game between New England and Carolina.

“I got to go into this suite with Bud, Lamar Hunt and Ralph Wilson, they were all in there together watching the Super Bowl,” Fisher recalled. “The three original founders of the American Football Conference. If you love the game, and you studied the game and everything that took place leading to where we are now, Bud had such a heavy hand in everything.”

Hear our whole interview with Fisher, right here .

Tennessee Titans cut-down analysis

August, 31, 2013
8/31/13
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Most significant move: Marc Mariani came back from a vicious broken leg suffered in the preseason in 2012. A shoulder injury suffered in the preseason opener cost him the rest of camp and the preseason, and the Titans put him in injured-reserve Saturday, ending his season. He might have been ready as soon as Week 3, but the Titans clearly didn't like the uncertainty. They could have waived him injured, exposing him to a claim. In that scenario, St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher, who was instrumental in the Titans drafting the receiver/returner out of Montana in 2010, might have wanted him. But the Rams or anyone else would have had to have added him without getting to examine the injury, and Mariani's not under contract beyond this year so a new team could have been at risk for picking up a year's salary and getting nothing out of him. If he wasn’t claimed, he would have reverted to Tennessee’s IR. By putting Mariani directly on IR, he is assured of his $575,000 base salary this season but won’t play anywhere. The move means Darius Reynaud is the returner. He showed himself to be only the team’s fifth-best running back during camp, but sticks to handle punts and kickoffs.

Wildcard: If Rusty Smith clears waivers, the Titans will want the fourth-year quarterback back on their practice squad. He’s not been on the active roster for nine games in any of his first three seasons, so he retains his practice squad eligibility. If Smith is claimed, the Titans will need to find a young quarterback for the spot, who they can work to develop as insurance and who will be able to offer an option as the No. 2 if Jake Locker or Ryan Fitzpatrick suffers an injury that results in any missed time. One team that won't claim Smith -- his hometown Jacksonville Jaguars.

What's next: I could see the Titans shopping for a veteran safety as they sift through cuts. Seventh-round pick Daimion Stafford is on the roster now, but the Titans are heavy with strong safeties and light at free safety. They’d probably like better balance and Stafford could ultimately land on the practice squad. With 10 defensive linemen plus strongside linebacker Akeem Ayers in line to play a good share of end, the last pure end -- Keyunta Dawson -- is hardly a lock at this point. Only one injured Titan, rookie linebacker Zaviar Gooden, is likely to miss the season opener at Pittsburgh.

Tennessee Titans cuts: S Al Afalava, T Daniel Baldridge, TE Brandon Barden (injured), DT Stefan Charles, DT Zach Clayton, TE Jack Doyle, LB Gary Guyton, DT DaJohn Harris, S Corey Lynch, FB Collin Mooney, DE Nigel Nicholas, RB Jalen Parmele, WR Rashad Ross, LB Tim Shaw, QB Rusty Smith, LB-DE Scott Solomon, G Kasey Studdard, WR Dontel Watkins, LB Jonathan Willard, CB Khalid Wooten, C-G Fernando Velasco

Placed on Injured-reserve: WR/returner Marc Mariani.
Reading the coverage…

Houston Texans

Reviewing the play of the outside linebackers in 2012 with Nick Scurfield of the Houston Texans web site.

The Texans defense needs reloading, says Patrick D. Starr of State of the Texans.

Indianapolis Colts

Jeff Saturday’s biggest regret is that the Colts didn’t pursue the perfect season in 2009, writes Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star.

A trip to visit the troops was life-altering for Clyde Christensen, says Mike Chappell of the Star.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Running through the Jaguars roster and considering where the biggest reconstruction is needed, with Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union.

How points per attempt weighs in on the Blaine Gabbert versus Chad Henne, from Nate Dunlevy of Bleacher Report.

Tennessee Titans


Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean expects the Titans will be able to keep Rob Bironas, and that they will chase Andy Levitre.

An apologetic letter from Vince Young to Jeff Fisher was like a lot of stuff from Young, too little too late, says Wyatt.

Saturday's Twitter mailbag

March, 2, 2013
3/02/13
10:21
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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.

Reviewing Moss' time in Tennessee

January, 31, 2013
1/31/13
8:40
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Randy Moss' short time with the Titans in 2010 still stirs debate in Nashville.

The team was hardly stacked at receiver, claimed Moss off waivers, then hardly used him.

It’s still a punchline that former coach Jeff Fisher and his staff, once Kenny Britt was healthy that year, said they couldn’t find a way to play both Britt and Moss at the same time because they played the same position.

[+] EnlargeRandy Moss
Jim Brown/US PresswireRandy Moss played in eight games for the Titans, catching just six passes for 80 yards and no scores.
The fact was that the Titans determined Moss couldn’t run. Once that was the case, it seemed to me they should have cut him. But cutting him wouldn’t have gone over well in the locker room because most of the team loved him.

Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean asked Moss, now with the 49ers and preparing to play in the Super Bowl, about the weird time in Tennessee.

He said he was blackballed.

“Why they claimed me, I really don’t know. There were some things where I could really tell I really wasn’t liked, and that was coming from the coaching staff. To be able to still make plays … there were some things going on in-house that I probably won’t speak upon until I write my book.”

But Jeff Fisher had what I thought was a reasonable answer, one that he didn’t offer publicly in 2010.

Writes Wyatt:
(Offensive coordinator Mike) Heimerdinger was undergoing cancer treatment, and three weeks after Moss arrived there was upheaval at quarterback — Vince Young suffered a thumb injury, threw a tantrum in the locker room, fell out of favor and wound up on injured reserve. Kerry Collins took over as the starter.

“From Randy’s perspective, I can see where he thought it might have appeared to be a little dysfunctional,” Fisher said on Wednesday. “But he did everything we asked and he was OK when he wasn’t getting playing time.”

It’s clear with what happened since Moss left that he is hardly the playmaker the Titans hoped he might be when he came in. Still it was silly that they didn’t make more of an effort to get him on the field and throw to him.

As for now?

Moss isn’t dramatically different from Damian Williams, who ranks as the Titans' fourth wide receiver.

In San Francisco this season, Moss caught 28 passes for 434 yards and three touchdowns.

In Tennessee, Williams caught 30 passes for 324 yards and no TDs.

How gap between Titans, Ravens grew

January, 28, 2013
1/28/13
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The Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens used to be bitter rivals, closely matched.

Then Tennessee collapsed in a playoff game after the 2000 season at what now is LP Field, losing 24-10 despite dominating the game in a lot of ways.

Since that fork in the road, the teams have gone in very different directions.

Writes Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean: “The Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl, and they will play for a second championship on Sunday in New Orleans against the San Francisco 49ers. The Titans, meanwhile, haven’t won a playoff game in nine years and are coming off a 6-10 season.”

But that’s not the line of demarcation I’ll use.

The 2008 Titans were the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. The sixth-seeded Ravens won in Miami to earn another playoff trip to Nashville. And Tennessee lost that divisional round game in a similar fashion to the game in 2000, even though the score was a lot closer, 13-10.

Since then:
  • The Titans are 29-35 (.453) with no playoff appearances.
  • The Ravens are 43-21 (.672) with a 6-3 playoff record.

That playoff meeting in Nashville was Joe Flacco’s second playoff game, and while he’s had his ups and downs, he’s now a Super Bowl quarterback.

Since then, the Titans have started Kerry Collins, Vince Young, Matt Hasselbeck, Jake Locker and, in an emergency situations, Rusty Smith.

Instability at quarterback is only part of the reasons the teams have been so different.

John Harbaugh has developed into a steady coach while Jeff Fisher’s tenure fizzled out and Mike Munchak hasn’t established any solid footing after two seasons.

Led by one of the NFL’s top general managers, Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens have continued good roster building.

The Titans actually have more starters and contributors out of their last four drafts, but it’s partly because of previous failures -- think Young, Adam "Pacman" Jones, Chris Henry, Paul Williams -- that so much opportunity is available.

Baltimore’s gotten far more production out of outside veterans it’s brought in: Center Matt Birk, receiver Anquan Boldin (via trade), fullback Vonta Leach, safety Bernard Pollard, resurgent left tackle Bryant McKinnie, receiver/returner Jacoby Jones.

Compare that to Tennessee’s veteran additions: Receiver Nate Washington, linebacker Will Witherspoon, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, safety Jordan Babineaux, guard Steve Hutchinson, end Kamerion Wimbley, returner Darius Reynaud.

The Titans fired their offensive coordinator late in the 2012 season, and didn’t see much change with Dowell Loggains promoted to replace Chris Palmer.

The Ravens fired their offensive coordinator late in the 2012 season, and got a major boost from Jim Caldwell taking over for Cam Cameron.

It’s a copycat league, and the Ravens were already a model franchise in many ways.

The Titans are one of a long list of teams that need to look at how the Ravens work and borrow some ideas.

Quarterback is the key, but the gap between these two teams was a playoff field goal just four years ago. It’s a deep moat now.

If Gregg Williams indeed becomes the Tennessee Titans' new assistant head coach after a year off the NFL map, he’ll face a load of questions. Many will be about players trusting him after the way he spoke with the league about some guys on the New Orleans Saints while cooperating with the commissioner's investigation into what Roger Goodell determined was a pay-for-injury program.

But he’ll have one major thing going for him in Nashville that may lead Titans fans to quickly look beyond all that: He’s not Jerry Gray.

Gray might be the most unpopular guy in Music City sports. Many were baffled as to how he held on to his post as defensive coordinator after the Titans' offensive coordinator was fired with five games remaining in the season and four other veteran coaches were either let go or saw their contracts not renewed.

If Williams joins the team with the assistant head coach title Adam Schefter reports he would carry, Williams would rank as more powerful than Gray. If Gray is as overmatched as it appeared last season, he’ll have someone to lean on -- and perhaps someone to lean on him.

Williams’ relationship with Gray goes way back.

The two were assistants on Jeff Fisher’s Oilers and Titans staff from 1997-2000, and when Williams left after the 2000 season to take the head job in Buffalo, he took Gray with him as his defensive coordinator. Later, Williams brought Gray to Washington.

[+] EnlargeGregg Williams
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonGregg Williams left the Titans after the 2000 season to become head coach of the Buffalo Bills.
In Gray’s second incarnation with the Titans, he has hardly looked like a disciple of the aggressive Williams, who ran Fisher’s 46 defense, loved to blitz and carried elements of that to Buffalo, Washington, Jacksonville (where he really ran what Jack Del Rio wanted on defense) and New Orleans.

The 2012 Titans played their cornerbacks way off, suggesting fear in a season when the franchise yielded the most points in the NFL and an Oilers/Titans franchise record. They were destroyed by top quarterbacks and top teams.

It seems that Gray, a former NFL defensive back, too often thinks like a passive defensive back as a coordinator when it’s a lot healthier to think like an aggressive lineman. If, in working together, Gray and Williams meet somewhere in the middle -- as a position coach for Fisher, Williams worked with linebackers before becoming coordinator -- Tennessee could face a philosophical upgrade.

Of course, it won't matter if the personnel upgrade to match doesn't arrive.

Three other thoughts on the idea of Williams re-emerging as part of the Titans staff if it happens:

Respect of the room: Much has been made of the idea that he won’t command the respect of players because they will see him as a guy who sold out some of their brethren when coming clean about what went on with the Saints.

To that, I say the Titans should come to terms with it quickly. I imagine Williams would address it early on in some fashion. Head coach Mike Munchak should too, and he should put it in these simple terms: “I don’t particularly care what you think of him. I think he helps us. Follow him or I’ll find someone who will.”

If players don’t respect Williams, they will do so at the risk of their job security. He might have softened in a year away, but he won’t stand for not being listened to.

Ego: Williams is a good football coach whose ego can be an issue. It’s part of what made him work, but it’s also part of what led to his downfall. He simply has to strike a better balance at this stop.

He’s a good coach with a good mind, and he can be a wonderful guy. But it would be healthy for him to acknowledge that there are plenty of good coaches with good minds around the league and to be that wonderful guy more regularly.

Part of that can come with a separation from his son, Blake, who worked with his father in three previous stops and was in line to work with him in St. Louis last season. While Gregg Williams was suspended, Blake took on a great deal of power for the Rams defense, which was particularly surprising considering he turned 28 in December. When the season ended, Fisher ended things with Blake Williams quickly and word came out via Mike Silver of Yahoo! Sports that the Rams were completely put off by Blake Williams’ “brusque, tactless style.”

A dad’s going to be a dad, but Gregg Williams has to concede that some of his negative personality qualities rubbed off on his offspring and that the rest of the NFL world doesn’t necessarily fall in line with his opinion of his son as a coach.

If Munchak somehow hires Blake Williams, I’ll have a major issue -- and so should any players who would be coached by the younger Williams, whose résumé is more about his parent that his achievement.

Munchak doing it his way: Munchak has two years left under contract, but if the Titans don’t make the playoffs in 2013, it would take something extraordinary for him to stay in the job for a fourth season.

Many of his moves since his second season ended suggest that if he’s going down, he’s going down his way.

Munchak knows Williams well from their time together as Fisher assistants. Williams would be the second guy from that time frame to return to the Titans staff this year, joining tight ends coach George Henshaw.

If the Titans don’t make huge gains from 6-10, Munchak and Williams will likely both be looking for work.

Williams will really have to have done solid work and reputation restoration to be appealing to someone who isn’t an old friend.

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