AFC South: Steve Watterson

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Ken Whisenhunt is down to two position coaching vacancies.

While they are all important, these may be the two most important: The offensive and defensive lines.

Offensive line was supposed to be rebuilt into a strength last season as the Titans signed veteran guard Andy Levitre, drafted guard Chance Warmack 10th overall and drafted center Brian Schwenke in the fourth round.

[+] EnlargeTennessee's Ken Whisenhunt
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyOffensive line coach and defensive line coach will be two of Ken Whisenhunt's most critical hires.
But a rebuilt interior didn't jell quickly or play consistently even with mentoring from two Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive linemen, head coach Mike Munchak and line coach Bruce Matthews.

One of the criticism of Whisenhunt during his six years as head coach in Arizona was the Cardinals' failure to develop young offensive lineman. Another Hall of Famer, Russ Grimm, was Whisenhunt's line coach for his entire tenure in Arizona.

Grimm didn't coach in 2013, but I do not expect he will be joining the Titans' staff.

Offensive line was generally a strength for the Titans when Munchak was the position coach before he was elevated to the top job in 2011.

The Titans used to thrive on defense because they developed pass-rushers, Jevon Kearse and Albert Haynesworth, both first-round draft picks, head that list, but it also includes Kyle Vanden Bosch, a huge hit as a reclamation project.

Jim Washburn, recently retained by Detroit as the Lions' line coach, was a big part of that. Tracy Rocker followed him as Munchak's line coach, and for two years he had the assistance of Keith Millard, the team's pass-rushing coach.

The Titans really developed just one pass-rusher in that time, and defensive tackle Jurrell Casey is the sort of player who I think would play well under anyone.

Defensive coordinator Ray Horton will run a hybrid front that will feature 3-4 and 4-3 elements. The Titans have been a 4-3 since before the franchise relocated to Tennessee in 1997.

Whisenhunt, Horton and a new line coach will have a voice in drafting a guy – or a couple – who fit what they are looking for up front. It's imperative the team adds a quality edge pass-rusher, and the line coach Whisenhunt hires will be largely responsible for developing him.

Ron Aiken was Whisenhunt's defensive line coach for all six years in Arizona. He is now coaching the line at Oregon.

Whisenhunt is at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., where he is likely interviewing candidates for his remaining staff positions.

Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean reported Tuesday evening that the Titans will hire John McNulty as quarterbacks coach.

I reported early on that McNulty had an inside track on the offensive coordinator post, which wound up going to Jason Michael.

Whisenhunt's staff at this point, with holdovers in italics.

Offensive coordinator: Jason Michael
Quarterbacks: John McNulty
Running backs: Sylvester Croom
Tight ends: Mike Mularkey
Wide receivers: Shawn Jefferson

Defensive coordinator: Ray Horton
Linebackers: Lou Spanos
Secondary: Sigismondo “Louie” Cioffi
Assistant secondary: Steve Brown

Special teams: Nate Kaczor
Assistant special teams: Steve Hoffman

Strength and conditioning: Steve Watterson
Mike Munchak's staff cuts are growing increasingly surprising.

Special teams were up and down this year, but the ups didn’t count for enough.

Alan Lowry, who penned the franchise’s most famous play, the Music City Miracle kickoff return that beat Buffalo in a 1999 playoff game, is out, reports Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

“It’s been a great run for me,” Lowry told Wyatt. “I’ve enjoyed my time with the Titans. To me, it wasn’t about production on the field.”

Among coaches who ran meeting rooms, Lowry was the longest tenured coach with the team. He joined the Oilers in 1996. (Strength and conditioning coach Steve Watterson’s been with the franchise since 1986.)

That’s four assistants out since the season so far for Munchak -- running back coach Jim Skipper, tight end coach John Zernhelt, linebacker coach Frank Bush and Lowry.

Munchak has those four spots plus quarterback coach position to fill. Dowell Loggains was promoted from quarterback coach to coordinator with five games left when offensive coordinator Chris Palmer was fired. Indications are Loggains will remain in the coordinator role.

No names of potential incomers have surfaced yet except for John Shoop, who interviewed for the quarterback coach job.

Munchak got a vote of confidence from owner Bud Adams the day after a 6-10 regular season ended. He has two years left on the deal he signed when he replaced Jeff Fisher in 2011. That transition came late and he didn’t necessarily get to shop for assistants while the market was at its peak.

There are plenty of possibilities out there for him now.

We need to see who comes in to have a fuller feel for what Munchak is doing, and I'm not certain he's done showing people the door.

I always remember talking with a coach in his first couple years who said one of the best pieces of advice he got from a veteran mentor was not to think of his initial staff as anything close to permanent. While loyalty is important, it is trumped by performance and working relationships, and the odds of everyone proving to be the fit a coach needs on his staff are small. As a team evolves, staff needs can change.

Munchak is very likely heading toward a season where he needs to make the playoffs or be fired.

Significant turnover on the staff clearly is part of what he’s expecting to help improve the Titans’ fortunes.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Notes and thoughts from the Titans Thursday night practice:
  • At his best, Jake Locker gives the Titans a big spark. But on a night like tonight, he came up far short of that -- hitting 1-of-10 or 11 passes in team periods with an interception to Jordan Babineaux, who wrestled a pass away from tight end Cameron Graham. The accuracy issue is alive and well. One miss was for a crossing Jared Cook on the left side in a ton of space near the line of scrimmage. He should be fielding an easy ball and turning upfield. Instead he was reaching for one that was beyond catchable. Locker did make one of the best throws of the night in a red zone period, but Nate Washington let a ball that was fit beautifully over his left shoulder bounce off his hands.
  • The other best ball was Matt Hasselbeck to Cook -- a looped throw up the right side that the tight end pulled in over defensive backs Christian Scott and linebacker Zach Brown.
  • Cook’s looking, and sounding, confident. He stoned Akeem Ayers in a rush drill pitting tight ends against linebackers as Ayers tried to run through him and found solid resistance. (Though in a team period just a bit later, Kamerion Wimbley zipped inside Cook into the backfield and “sacked” Hasselbeck.) Later Cook was chirping at middle linebacker Colin McCarthy about how he was beating him.
  • Center Eugene Amano left the field after suffering a triceps injury. He either got his arm caught up in something or banged it, Mike Munchak said. Kevin Matthews was already out with concussion symptoms. The Titans were intending to get Fernando Velasco back in the center mix, so he moved there. Life in the NFL: Amano was still down and in pain, being tended to by trainers, when the Titans simply moved 20 yards and resumed the team period the injury interrupted.
  • Receiver Kenny Britt looked to be running comfortably in rehab work on the side under the watch of strength and conditioning coach Steve Watterson. Britt ran straight, in figure eights and laterally, appearing smooth and unbothered.
  • Recently signed rookie receiver Kendall Wright was not allowed to participate in any contact and the Titans reminded everyone. He ran some early routes, then watched. He was in a red jersey like the quarterbacks. He won’t be a full go until Saturday.
Fisher/YoungKirby Lee/US PresswireFor Bud Adams, the choice won't be as simple as picking Vince Young or Jeff Fisher.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Vince Young-Jeff Fisher showdown and its spillover has many observers thinking Bud Adams will ultimately have to choose one or the other.

But the math in the equation is off, and this is not a simple, one-against-one situation.

If the love-struck Adams chooses his favorite quarterback, he’s not only going to lose Fisher, he’s going to lose all, or most, of Fisher’s staff.

While Adams would be making a poor choice, even he’d have to admit that Young at his best isn’t going to do much to offset the loss of some excellent assistant coaches.

All but one Titans assistant coach is working with an expiring contract, according to a Titans source. Fisher’s contract runs through 2011.

In a typical scenario, Fisher would get an extension and then line up his assistants with deals of the same length.

“We are in the process of extending contracts for the entire staff," Fisher said after practice Friday. “I don’t comment on negotiations other than to say we’re in the process.”

But there has been no word on any talks about a new deal for Fisher, and now it’s a safe bet there will not be one before the Young issues are resolved. If they come to fruition, those staff extensions could be for only one season.

And the uncertain labor situation gives Adams the potential to hold off on anything new until after things are settled between the league and the players, in case he has to withstand a lockout.

Whenever it comes around, the staff issue is more significant now given the battle between Fisher and Young and Adams’ comments to The Tennessean saying he expects the two to find a way to co-exist next season.

I think we’re past the point where that’s a possibility and Adams is going to have to make a choice. Hopefully it’s a well-reasoned one.

[+] EnlargeMike Munchak
AP Photo/Kevin TerrellThe Titans' solid pass protection and good run blocking are due to efforts by coach Mike Munchak.
Pick Young, and you probably sacrifice Mike Munchak.

Munchak is one of eight members of the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans franchise in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He’s a steady teacher who recognizes talent and has consistently groomed quality guys. The Titans have regularly had good pass protection and solid run blocking in large part because of Munchak’s exhaustive work.

Pick Young, and you probably sacrifice Jim Washburn.

The Titans’ defense is tied for second in the NFL with 30 sacks. They’ve come from players Washburn has rebuilt such as Jason Babin, Dave Ball and Tony Brown or guys he encouraged the front office to draft, such as Jason Jones. A large number of franchises in the league would love to add a high-energy defensive line coach who can get production from such reclamation projects and draft picks.

Those two are key coaches on a staff that’s widely regarded around the league as one of the best. A staff Fisher has been able to shape and hold onto because of his stability and the loyalty he shows -- occasionally to a fault.

His staff also includes offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, who has been mentioned as a candidate for head-coaching jobs and once interviewed with San Francisco for its top post; defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil; veteran linebackers coach Dave McGinnis, who has been head coach of two teams; defensive backs coach Marcus Robertson, who had an excellent career as a safety for the franchise; special teams coach Alan Lowry, who scripted the Music City Miracle; strength and conditioning coach Steve Watterson; receivers coach Fred Graves; tight ends coach John Zernhelt; running backs coach Craig Johnson; and quarterback coach Dowell Loggains.

They are not all irreplaceable superstars, of course. And with expiring contracts, some of them could be moving on even if Fisher is firmly in place.

Washburn is a Nashville fixture who appreciates the second-chance Fisher gave him in 1999. But if he becomes a coaching free agent, perhaps a team with a bad defensive line would make him an offer too good to refuse.

Still, the chances he stays in Tennessee are far higher if Fisher is in the big office. I'd be willing to bet the same would be true for all the assistants.

If Adams chooses to stick with Young and Fisher negotiates out of his contract, or if another team strikes a deal to give the Titans picks to get Fisher out of his last year, I predict all the assistants would be totally turned off by Adams’ choice.

Some might have to stay if they could to ensure themselves of a job. But given any sort of choice, I believe they’d be unlikely to sign new deals with Tennessee to work under Fisher’ replacement.

More likely, these assistants would rejoin Fisher with a new team if he is able to move on for 2011. If not, they would find jobs elsewhere. The older guys might ponder retirement or take a year off with assurances from Fisher that they’d have a job with him once he re-enters the league.

The top in-house candidate to replace Fisher with the Titans would have to be Heimerdinger, and I believe his loyalty to Fisher would mean he wouldn’t even allow his representative to talk to Adams about the post.

Even Fisher’s harshest critics have to appreciate assistants like Munchak and Washburn and acknowledge they’d be difficult to replace. (You can make a case against Fisher, sure. But in a head-to-head against Young there is no way not to choose the coach.)

If Adams makes his move against Fisher, Fisher could have solidarity from his staff of 16.

If Young is the one shown the door, he’d be walking through it alone.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- I love offseason stories of crazy or offbeat workouts.

My favorite this spring was that David Garrard has regularly thrown tennis balls to receivers.

This one goes in a different category all together.

To build strength to get ready for the Titans’ offseason program, defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks and linebacker Gerald McRath were among a small group that spent six weeks doing three-hour, 1,000-rep workouts with strength and conditioning coach Steve Watterson.

They started in mid-January.

“We were doing 100 reps a day squats and 100 reps a day bench press, just 100 reps of almost everything we did,” Marks said. “Me and Gerald just put the commitment in and said we’re going to do it no matter how much it takes…

“The first week we couldn’t move. But that’s what it takes.”

A second-round pick in 2009, Marks came into the league weak for a defensive tackle. Coming into Auburn he couldn’t bench press 225 pounds. Leaving college he was doing 265 twice. Now he said he’s popping up 325 “like it’s nothing.”

“Who does 1,000 reps?” Marks said. “And we were doing it every day.”

McRath is suspended for the first four games of the 2010 season for a violation of the league’s policy against performance enhancing drugs. He claims it had to have been a tainted supplement.

“Those were like breakdown workouts, you totally take your body to its breaking point, you take care of it, you replenish, you refuel, you hydrate and you come back and do the same thing over again,” McRath said. “I threw up once a week for the first three weeks when we were squatting. It was legit.”

Watterson never talked about 1,000 reps. He simply kept telling them what they’d add next. He revealed the count only after they finished for the first time.

A regular workout now is maybe 300 reps -- a relative breeze, McRath said.

While we are talking about strength, here’s something also worthy of mention: running back Javon Ringer's who weighs 215 pounds, can squat more than two-and-a-half times his body weight. It’s documented here by Bob McClellean.
Several reporters and writers joked at a recent Tennessee Titans OTA session that tweets from Stephen Tulloch about offseason adventures often seemed to coincide with OTA days.

Tulloch, who’s yet to sign his $2.621 million restricted free-agent tender, has not been with the team this offseason. (He’ll sign it by June 15 -- because the Titans can reduce it to 110 percent of his 2009 salary then if he hasn’t. But that won't mean he re-joins the team.)

I don’t think Tulloch was intentionally vacationing or heading for the spa on OTA days, and I never doubted he was working hard in South Florida to be super fit.

For anyone who might have a concern, he tweeted (@stephentulloch) a link to a workout video Wednesday. Because we don’t have rights to the profanity-laced background music, you’ll have to go find it through his Twitter or on YouTube for yourself if you care to watch.

I’m sure Titans strength and conditioning coach Steve Watterson is unimpressed. But that’s not the audience Tulloch is targeting.

This seems like a crafty use of social media here -- except for the profanity-laced background music part.

Cook progress vital for Titans

March, 18, 2010
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Jared CookAP Photo/David RichardBecoming more consistent is important for Jared Cook if the tight end plans on being more involved in the Tennessee Titans' offense.
If there is a bigger X factor on offense in the AFC South for 2010 than Titans tight end Jared Cook, I’m not sure who he’d be.

As a rookie, Cook dazzled us with his post-draft, training camp and preseason work. His height, speed and athleticism made him look to be an impossible matchup as a route runner. He looked like he would plug in and be the team’s second-most dynamic offensive weapon, behind only Chris Johnson.

Then he suffered an ankle sprain and disappeared. Tennessee got nine catches for 74 yards out of him in 14 games, and the word out of team headquarters was his confidence plummeted and he did nothing to force the Titans to get him on the field.

“He needs to become much more consistent week to week if he’s going to play for us,” offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger said this week. “He has to be more consistent in everything before he can play.”

And how much does he need to know what a consistent Jared Cook can bring?

“Oh, a tremendous amount,” Heimerdinger said. “Hell, I don’t even know who our team is besides C.J.”

It’s not surprising that a gruff coach like Heimerdinger would be unenthusiastic about his group in March as he prepares to prod them into improving and sets about refining the schemes in which people are deployed.

But Cook has the potential to make Heimerdinger a happier man. He also has the potential to make the Titans look bad. They traded their second-round pick this season, No. 48 overall, to New England in order to snare Cook with an extra third-rounder, No. 89, last year.

And Tennessee has a lot of needs, so a lot of people, Cook included, will be acutely conscious of how the trade will ultimately measure out. Some want to jump the gun and judge Cook a failure after one season, but it’s far too early for such conclusions.

“I’m aware,” Cook said. “I know I just have to do what I do best. Definitely it’s a chip on my shoulder, so as long as I put in hard work, everything is going to be all right.”

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Michael Lombardi asks fives questions about each team in the AFC South.

Houston Texans

Nothing Thursday morning.

Indianapolis Colts

In an ongoing position-by-position series, Colts.com talks to Jim Caldwell about the team's wide receivers.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Cole Pepper picked for the Jaguars in a mock draft on "First Take."

Tennessee Titans

Strength and conditioning coach Steve Watterson talks with Gary Estwick about the Titans' offseason program. Watterson said LenDale White is 20 pounds lighter than he was at this point last year.

Free-agent corner Donald Strickland visited the Titans Wednesday, when they signed return man/ receiver Mark Jones, reports Terry McCormick.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

We asked for your input earlier this week on who you think the Titans' best assistant coach is.

Here's a sampling of replies in the comments to the post and in my mailbag:

Ken in Franklin: I think it's gotta be Washburn. With few exceptions (Haynesworth most notably), the Titans have always undervalued defensive linemen. Yet Wash always seems to coach them up and put together a solid, if not great, front four. There are a slew of linemen that the Titans have allowed to walk for bigger contracts, yet I can't think of one of them that was as effective as he was under Washburn, and quite a few of them were complete busts.

Ross in Brentwood: As to the Titans' best assistant... You pretty much nailed it already, it just has to be one of those line coaches, and of the two I give just a SLIGHT edge to Munchak. Granted, on both sides of the ball it all begins and ends with the line, what Washburn does with those players dictates what the rest of the defense can do, ditto for Munchak and the offense. Based on what they try to do on each side of the ball, I would argue that Munchak is "better" because of his track record with numerous low-round/undrafted picks.

Tenakeytyrant: wash!!! munchak a close 2nd

Jim in Georgetown: Paul, Let's be honest here. How can the Titans' best assistant coach be anyone but Jim Washburn? While it's true he hasn't always gotten the most talented players, his defensive lines constantly pressure the quarterback- evidenced by the fact that the Titans defense has finished in the top 10 in the NFL in sacks 5 out of the last 7 years. And furthermore, former Titans John Thornton, Robaire Smith, Carlos Hall, Joe Salave'a, Henry Ford, and Jevon Kearse seemed to disappear after leaving Tennessee: Ford retired the year after he left, Hall has not played in a game since 2005, Salave'a was cut and only made a minor impact with Washington afterwards, and Kearse, of course, was hit with a rash of injuries. Only Juqua Parker, it seems, was really able to leave Tennessee and raise his level of play- he's now with Philadelphia. I acknowledge that Mike Munchak coaches up one of the best pass-blocking units in the league year after year, but Wash is the full package as a D-line coach and simply a master at working with what he has. Thanks, Jimbizzle

Ben in Franklin: No doubt you have to go with Munchak. His lineman kept Collins clean all year and paved the way for a rookie to gain over 1000 yards.

Chrisdgunter: ya know what? I'm gonna go against the grain here.. I'm going Steve Watterson. We had a HUGE issue with health the past 3-4 seasons until last season, and that's when Steve and his crew instilled a sort of "Crossfit" into their daily regime. I do crossfit in Murfreesboro and it's not only made me more athletic, but it's also made my agility go way up thus I don't sustain as many injuries. Strength and Conditioning coaches are very under-appreciated around the league, but if you don't have a good one - all of the other coaches are just filling holes with 2nd stringers.

Bojackson30: I'm torn between Munchak and Washburn. Their ability to "coach up" players sets them apart. I wouldn't consider a guy like Amano to be "top-shelf talent" (I like the way you put that), but he's become starting caliber under Munchak.

Looking at what recent D-line losses have done elsewhere, and I have to say that Washburn gets the edge. Considering how Jones and Hayes both were able to make an impact this year also shows his ability.

The Washburn vs. Munchak debate can go on endlessly. They have much different styles, with Munchak a soft spoken counselor and Washburn an in-your-face motivator.

They've both turned low picks and undrafted players into contributors.

Look at what the Titans have drafted for each since 1999 and Munchak's gotten zero first-rounders and one second rounder (Michael Roos). Washburn, meanwhile, has gotten two first-rounders (Jevon Kearse and Albert Haynesworth) and two second rounders (John Thornton and Jason Jones).

But on the free agency front, Munchak got Kevin Mawae and Jake Scott while Washburn got a second-term Kearse and guys who got minimum salaries.

I can't call a tie, I've got to pick one. So on the high draft pick imbalance and on two players who were All-Pros this season, I think things tip slightly to Munchak, who is, in my eyes, the Titans' best assistant coach.

Titans' O-line revels in faux friend

December, 4, 2008
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Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- He's a good listener who doesn't talk back. He's reliable and steady. He's always good for a laugh.

He probably ranks as the offensive linemen's favorite teammate.

So popular is Bryan Pride, his offensive linemates got a special nameplate installed above his locker. They track his weight gains like proud parents. They sometimes put a "Monday Night Football" hat on him and drape a towel around his midsection when reporters visit the locker room.

 
 Paul Kuharsky/ESPN.com
 He started as an empty Gatorade bottle wrapped in tape. Bryan Pride has grown into a running joke for the Titans' offensive line, complete with his own locker stall and a name plate.
It's not a bad life for a giant ball of tape the position group has been nurturing for months, a symbol on a larger scale of the light-hearted mood and style of the team with the AFC's best record. The defensive line has Dave Ball, the offensive line has Pride.

This morning he weighed in with the rest of the fellas, and he's up to 122.4 pounds. He's on the last line of the official report strength and conditioning coach Steve Watterson passes on to general manager Mike Reinfeldt and coach Jeff Fisher.

"So far, he's been a model guy for the locker room," Watterson said. "He's there, he's steady. It's amazing. I don't know that he sleeps at all. He's there before the first guy gets there, and I swear to you, sometimes I've been here late, 11, 11:30 at night, and he's still here. He's dedicated. I don't think he has much of a life outside of here."

That doesn't mean the Titans don't have to monitor him closely.

"If you don't keep him on track and keep him balanced, he will drift away," Watterson said. "If he gets on a slippery slope, you're in trouble."

Pride started as a time-killer for reserve lineman Daniel Loper, who wound athletic tape around a Gatorade bottle. He took the shape of a football or rugby ball, and the group would toss him around.

"He was very oval shaped and football like," Loper said. "And we were throwing him around to people. It was fun when he was like six or seven pounds. Once he got to 20, it stopped being fun and we quit doing it."

The name is homage to Jacob Bell, the guard who jumped to St. Louis as a free agent who called everybody Bryan. Loper said it was left tackle Michael Roos who had the ingenious idea of making Pride round. Someone found an old Christmas tree stand, sat him on it in front of an empty locker and an imaginary teammate, an honorary mascot and running joke was born.

(Read full post)

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