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Tuesday, August 9, 2011
Camp Confidential: Tennessee Titans

By Paul Kuharsky

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Titans severed ties with their coach and their quarterback and set about for a fresh start.

They’ll suffer from time lost with the lockout, but in Mike Munchak, a largely new staff and a new combo of quarterbacks in Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker, the franchise hasn’t just turned a page.

It’s opened a new book.

The early chapters could well be choppy and rough.

Defensive coordinator Jerry Gray is looking for a bigger defense that will stop the run first, and offensive coordinator Chris Palmer is bringing a scholarly approach to a group used to being screamed at. They have new signal callers on offense and defense (middle linebacker Barrett Ruud was signed as a free agent from Tampa Bay), so there is a lot of new stuff to cover.

But external expectations are low. If the Titans can get their best player, Chris Johnson, on the field and make strides on defense, it’s not impossible to improve on last season's disastrous 6-10 record.

Munchak preaches the virtues of being a true professional -- know what to do and do it. The question is, does he have enough talented guys who, following that mantra, can win football games?

THREE HOT ISSUES

1) Will Johnson be around?

It’s hard to imagine his sitting out the season. The flamboyant running back loves the NFL stage. But he's one of the league’s most dynamic players and is certainly scheduled to be underpaid at $1.065 million. The Titans won’t negotiate if he’s not at camp. He won’t come to camp without a new deal. There are currently no signs of any real movement.

He’s not fired up about a compromise that would have him join the team but not practice until a deal is reached. Someone will bend. But in the meantime, we’re likely to see a much less threatening offense.

“It’s tough to tell how long it takes to become an issue,” left tackle Michael Roos said. “Once he’s here he’s here and we start working with him. We’ll be a different team without him. He's definitely one of the top two, if not the best running back in the league. A special player, very dynamic. It makes for a different kind of offense when he’s not in there.

“The plays wouldn’t change. Just without having his speed in there people would play us differently. I wouldn’t say it would necessarily be a worse offense. It would just be someone else running it, Javon Ringer or the rookie (Jamie Harper). It wouldn’t have CJ’s dynamic and people having to worry about his speed.”

Tennessee's Chris Johnson
The Titans will be a different team if they are without Chris Johnson, who rushed for 1,364 yards and 11 touchdowns last season.
If defenses aren't worrying about that speed, things will be far more difficult for Hasselbeck and the team’s other best weapons, receiver Kenny Britt and tight end Jared Cook.

2) How will Munchak’s style translate?

He’s a Hall of Fame player, and he’s been a top position coach for years. Odds are Munchak can coach a football team.

“He’s his own man,” linebacker Gerald McRath said. “Everybody is going to have to sit back and watch, but it’s definitely going to be different. He has that personality. He wants to establish something that’s his, something that he’s worked hard for. I feel like it’s a great opportunity. It’s a privilege just to be involved in that, to be able to put into some of that.”

The question really is about his CEO role. How does he deal with the late-night calls about DUIs or the overeating defensive lineman? How does he react to the city calling for the starting quarterback’s head or the player enduring stuff at home that’s hurting his play?

Munchak has talked about accountability and discipline and consequences, things that all had slipped at the end for Jeff Fisher. Can he enforce all that effectively?

One other thing: Fisher was great with rules and clock management. In Munchak’s first turn in the primary headset, it will be interesting to see how he fares in those departments.

3) Can the Titans stay healthy up front?

Part of the Titans’ push to be bigger up front on defense is about being better against the run. Part of it is about being more rugged deep into the season. Some of Tennessee’s speed rushers in recent years wore down late, and the Titans suffered for it.

Tracy Rocker has big shoes to fill as defensive line coach, where Jim Washburn had a great run of success. Can Gray and Rocker show the discipline to pace the linemen the way they are talking about doing now?

“I think we have to be real smart this year because our (defensive linemen), for some reason, get hurt quite a bit,” Munchak said. “We have to limit their plays not only in games but in practice so you don’t lose guys… We have to find a way to keep them healthy. You can’t control all that, but we have to be smart.”

BIGGEST SURPRISE

It’s early, of course. But the team’s talking up Cook again, and this time he seems prepared to live up to it. The tight end is running plenty of routes that take him deeper than most tight ends, and the quarterbacks are thrilled to have such a big target stretching the field. He seems to be responding better to the mellow approach of Palmer than he did to the high intensity of Mike Heimerdinger.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Britt’s offseason was filled with off-the-field issues. The Titans gave him a clean slate coming in, but hamstring problems have kept him out of camp so far. He said that he thought yoga was going to help him solve such problems but that his instructor apparently took the money and ran with it. The Titans are already without their most dynamic player in Johnson. With Britt sidelined, they are also missing No. 2.

OBSERVATION DECK