NFL Nation: David Thornton
I just ran through their roster and lineups from recent years and came up with Matt Hasselbeck. But the Titans were desperate for a veteran quarterback in 2011 when they signed him quickly to a three-year, $20 million deal. That was the year with condensed free agency because of the lockout.
Before that, receiver Nate Washington was the last “big” free agent the Titans signed early in the process for significant money.
Six years, $27 million with $9 million guaranteed.
But "early" in the process? I’m finding Washington landed his deal on March 2, 2009 and free agency that year started Feb. 27, when the Redskins pounced on Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth.
So Washington’s deal came four days into free agency, as did a contract for defensive tackle Jovan Haye.
This team has holes, and currently has more than $18 million in salary cap room.
Last year, owner Bud Adams sent them in pursuit of Peyton Manning. Mike Munchak has said more than once that pursuing Manning threw the team off its plan to pursue other people who were gone by the time Manning landed in Denver.
Could the Titans be bigger players than usual early in free agency this year?
Could they be negotiating with at least one free agent-to-be in the three-day negotiating window the league has created before free-agency kicks off March 12?
“I would think we definitely would be,” Munchak said. “The hard part is you do a lot of homework right now, and then some of these guys sign with their teams in the last 48-hours or they get franchised. But I think there are people we are identifying we are interested in that could help us. It’s just a matter of who’s available. And again, the hard part is we could want them real bad, but five other teams may want them also.”
Among names I believe they could look at: Bills guard Andy Levitre, Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson and Falcons safety William Moore.
The vibe is they want a free agent class like they got in 2006, when safety Chris Hope, linebacker David Thornton and center Kevin Mawae added a strong dose of veteran leadership and did a lot to change the team’s culture.
This is just Ruston Webster’s second year as the team’s general manager. If he gets out there early and is in the mix for quality veterans who don’t qualify as discounts, a lot of Titans followers might feel a lot better about where the team is heading.
If he doesn’t, there will be a lot of lamenting.
They need more than the draft and second-tier free agency can provide.
They gave up 104.4 rushing yards a game (29th in the NFL) and 5.1 yards a carry (31st). They lost a bunch of people on the defensive line.
Free-agent addition Brandon McKinney didn’t make it to the regular season before he landed on IR. Josh Chapman, who the team knew might not play this season when he was drafted in the fifth round out of Alabama, didn’t make it back from his knee rehabilitation. Drake Nevis missed the final seven games and is on IR. Antonio Johnson missed the final two games.
Behind that three-man front, the linebackers have had to do more than can reasonably be expected.
Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky spoke to Indianapolis media Thursday about Rice, saying that Maurice Jones-Drew is the most similar back the Colts have faced this year.
“Good running back, great sight lines, a hard runner to bring down,” he said. “We need multiple people to corral him and put him down. He’s got great vision. He sees the hole and does a great job of cutting back and making plays in the open field and making guys miss. We’ve got to corral him and get him down.”
Getting run on has not killed the Colts, in part because they’ve found the most crucial stops.
“We just survive, we pull together when we need to in crunch time,” inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman told me. “We’ve had a lot of new guys and it’s been about the next man up. The 3-4 is all about being on the same page.”
The Colts credited Freeman with 203 tackles this season. When they signed him out of the CFL, he figured he’d have to make the team as a special teamer.
“If I had to tread water, I would have done that too,” he said.
Freeman had seven visits scheduled with NFL teams last January. He met with the Jets, the Buccaneers and the Steelers before he got to the Colts.
He cancelled the rest of the trips and signed the deal the Colts offered because he felt they were such a good fit.
General manager Ryan Grigson was hired on Jan. 11. He signed running back Darren Evans to a future contract on the 17th and Freeman two days later.
The inside shined in camp, but even the biggest optimist couldn’t have expected that Freeman would plug in and stick for 16 starts after Pat Angerer cracked his foot. Angerer missed five games and Bruce Arians said while he was interim coach that the 2010 second-round pick wouldn’t be back to pain-free, full-strength play until next season.
Freeman didn’t know what to expect, but he never doubted he could play in the NFL.
When he failed to make the Titans as an undrafted free agent out of Mary-Hardin Baylor in 2008, Tennessee had a starting lineup at linebacker of Keith Bullock, David Thornton and Stephen Tulloch as well as some young draft picks behind them.
Freeman wound up with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL in 2009.
His first remembrance of football in Canada?
“Cold,” he said.
“It was fun,” he continued. “It was a great experience. It’s a totally different game. I had to cover receivers. They don’t run the ball as much. I got to hone my skills.”
While he worked more in coverage in the CFL because of the nature of the game, he said he thinks he is a pretty balanced NFL linebacker, able to step up to tackle a running back or drop and cover.
Now, he’s a symbol for the Colts as they head to the playoffs. The right guy given the right opportunity can be a difference-maker. Having found one to play weak inside linebacker, they’ve got one less spot to worry about as they continue to build the roster.
At 0-7, the Colts are talking about sticking together, improving and giving themselves a chance to win.
But as they prepare for a trip to Nashville for a Sunday meeting with the Titans at LP Field, they are a severely broken team. Where they would be with Peyton Manning is an interesting hypothetical question, but we’re dealing with realities. And those realities are the sort that will test the franchise’s stitching -- seamwork that might not hold together when this is all over.
Who’s at fault? Everyone’s got a hand in it, but let’s look at the Colts from a couple different angles.
A big cover-up: It’s not a secret that Manning has helped cover up a lot of flaws and allowed the franchise to under-address certain areas.
The Colts during the Manning era have never been much concerned with size, always valuing speed and instincts more. They’ve never worried about stocking special teams with any veteran backups, in part because they spend their money on stars, or adding a high-quality return man. They’ve settled for being below average running the ball. And they’ve won despite a general inability to stop the run.
Without their four-time MVP running the offense, all of those things are magnified in ways they’ve never been before.
It shouldn’t be a surprise. They’re built to have Manning at the controls, and he’s been there all the time from the very beginning in 1998 until opening day this season.
There are maybe two teams and markets in the league that would not trade for what the Colts have done since 1999. Twelve consecutive playoff seasons followed by one complete dud? Where do I sign up for that?
The Colts get credit for adding a couple outside veterans this season -- linebacker Ernie Sims and defensive ends Jamaal Anderson and Tyler Brayton. But the drafting has dropped off.
Set aside the most recent class, as it’s too early to judge.
The Colts drafted 41 players from 2005 through 2010. I count one star, safety Antoine Bethea, and two guys who can become stars, linebacker Pat Angerer and receiver Austin Collie (if he’s working with Manning). Running back Joseph Addai is a good fit who does more than people think. And receiver Pierre Garcon and cornerback Jerraud Powers have been pretty solid starters.
Sure, the Colts drafted higher in the five years before. Still, those classes produced five guys who rank among the best players of their generation at their positions: tight end Dallas Clark, defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, safety Bob Sanders and receiver Reggie Wayne. The next tier provided steady starters on the offensive line (Jake Scott, Ryan Diem) and linebacker (David Thornton).
That list is more than a third of a starting team, a big-time core. As those guys age or disappear, I'm not seeing a core in waiting.
Colts president turned vice chairman Bill Polian said recently on his radio show that they needed to have done better recently, particularly at defensive tackle and cornerback.
And there is a domino effect to the problem. Find Tarik Glenn’s ultimate replacement at left tackle in 2007, and then you don’t need to use your top pick in 2011 on Anthony Castonzo. Hit on Donald Brown in the first round in 2009, and Delone Carter might not be necessary in the fourth round in 2011.
The Polians: Bill Polian has been pulling back and yielding responsibility to his son, GM Chris Polian. (Chris politely declined to be interviewed for this piece.)
We don’t yet have much tape on Chris Polian, so to speak. Bill Polian is a good talent evaluator who’s had success in three NFL stops and has done well to build a team Manning has won with. But Bill Polian has also overseen those recent draft drop-offs.
His strong-willed personality is part of what has made him good at his job, and his big-picture assessment of important league issues is as intelligent as anyone’s. He’s got clout and influence that extends beyond Indianapolis.
Stylistically, he’s a stubborn and demanding boss. There are indications from within that, without the steady stream of personnel hits he provided earlier in his tenure, some inside the building are tiring of the way things are run.
Polian talked recently about how Curtis Painter's play vindicates the team for having faith in him, but failed to mention that the faith was so strong that the team signed Kerry Collins to a $4 million contract shortly before the season started and handed him the starting job.
I suspect Bill Polian’s got the backing of owner Jim Irsay for as long as he wants it. That would ensure safety for Chris Polian, too.
Bill Polian made the Manning-over-Ryan Leaf call in 1998. Because of the way Leaf busted, people forget that was a coin flip at the time, that Leaf was regarded as a big-time prospect just as much as Manning was. Polian called it correctly, built a team that’s been to two Super Bowls and won one, got a new stadium built and greatly enhanced the value of Irsay’s franchise.
Cryptic messages: Further complicating things is Irsay, who clearly gets a kick out of being the center of NFL attention in the Twitter-verse but has undermined some of his people with it.
He announced the team added Collins while coach Jim Caldwell was conducting his daily news conference. It did Caldwell no favors, as he appeared completely out of the loop.
Most recently, following the 62-7 loss in New Orleans on Sunday night, Irsay provided this gem:
“Titanic collapse, apologies 2 all ColtsNation...problems identifiable;solutions in progress but complex in nature/ better days will rise again”
A day later, he added:
"Just because you perceive problems on the horizon,and you possess solutions..doesn't mean they are avoidable and implementation is instant"
Solutions in progress, but complex in nature. That sounds to me like what would be written in big silver letters on the lobby wall of a consulting company on a TV show. Or a clever, but far-too-long name for a band.
It also sounds like change is going to come.
Caldwell does a nice job managing personalities, looking at things philosophically and staying on message. I believe he’s a good teacher and his patient, quiet style is generally healthy for a team with a good share of veteran stars.
But he’s got blind spots, too, and is hardly a strategy master. There are bound to be significant changes at the conclusion of what’s sure to be a dreadful season, and he’ll be at the front of the line.
If he does the best job we can remember at holding a terrible, ineffective team together, is that enough? I’d guess not.
Injuries: This team gets hurt too much. There is a huge element of bad luck to it, of course. But is there something bigger at work as well?
Last season as quality players went down, Manning helped some role players like tight end Jacob Tamme and receiver Blair White emerge. This season, guys like linebacker Gary Brackett and safety Melvin Bullitt were lost for the season early, and there's been a revolving door on the offensive line because of injuries.
The Colts are constantly testing their depth and shuffling the back end of their roster. There is only so much shuffling a depth chart can handle.
I believe they need to attempt some change that might have a positive effect on their overall health -- whether it be adopting new training philosophies, altering how they evaluate prospects or changing personnel philosophies.
It's easy to ask them to figure out why they tend to suffer so many injuries and hard to find an answer. But some sort of shift is due, even as we know it comes with no guarantee of better health.
When the current approach is failing, it's OK to try something else. It's not admitting some sort of failure, it's merely part of a necessary process of evaluating and revising operations.
Suck for Luck: Given a chance to draft Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, I think the Colts would. Bill Polian can give Chris Polian the guy expected to be the NFL's next great quarterback, and Chris Polian's legacy would be built on a fantastic cornerstone.
But there is no losing on purpose to get in position for Luck. You think Wayne or Mathis is interested in such a master plan?
Said veteran center and team tone-setter Jeff Saturday: “'I'll steal a Robert Mathis quote: I ain't sucking for anybody.”
Bill Polian offered a classic quote after one of those early matchups against Thornton on Tennessee, saying the Colts best linebacker was wearing No. 55 for the other team.
Is Indianapolis about to endure another chapter of losing a quality linebacker to a rival?
Tania Ganguli reports that the Jaguars are in serious talks with Clint Session.
Session is an explosive player the Colts missed last season after a serious elbow injury knocked him out of the lineup. He likely has not yet played his best football yet.
The Jaguars have already struck a deal with Buffalo free-agent middle linebacker Paul Posluszny.
Session would be in line to replace Jacksonville free-agent Justin Durant.
If the Jaguars started a lineup with Daryl Smith and Session flanking Posluszny, they’d likely have the best linebacking corps in the division, though Houston would want to argue it.
I’m guessing a one-time NFL linebacker named Jack Del Rio is liking the sound of that.
He got a phone call from an interested team about a month ago, but just didn’t feel the pull.
“In my heart, I didn’t have the desire to be grinding it out for another 16 weeks,” he said.
He helped block for Chris Johnson's 2,006-yard season last year, his career highlight as he never made it to a Super Bowl. Had a team been interested when he hit free agency, he might be preparing for opening day of his 17th season. Instead he’s dedicated to being around for his family, working as an unpaid intern in Vanderbilt’s strength and conditioning program and guiding the NFLPA through CBA negotiations as its president.
I didn't know him before, but Mawae was a first-class pro during the final four seasons of his career, played with the Titans. He was one of the team’s primary spokesmen and a key leader.
The Titans made the right move in going younger, and at least some other potential employers likely steered away from him because of his union post. (He holds it until March 2012.)
So be it. He had a great career. He didn’t sound like a guy who’s going to wake up one morning and decide he misses playing. He guaranteed he’s done.
- Two receivers made nice sideline plays, showing nice body control and feet. Nate Washington climbed the ladder and spun on the first, which was delivered by Vince Young to a spot where nothing bad could have happened but wasn’t exactly crisp. Justin Gage's play wasn’t quite as nice and came on a better thrown ball from Young.
- Will Witherspoon had a short-range interception over the middle of Kerry Collins.
- During a punting period, Ken Amato struggled to snap consistently and Brett Kern had to show off his athleticism to collect a few of them. (It couldn't have been a wild snap drill, could it?) Damian Williams was among the handful of players fielding the punts and looked comfortable, but there was no one coming at him in a drill that was about the punts not the returns.
- First-rounder Derrick Morgan was dealing with some tightness left over from Monday and wasn’t a participant. Jeff Fisher said the team is being careful and indicated it’s not a big deal.
- Fourth-round corner Alterraun Verner and undrafted running back LeGarrette Blount were the two missing rookies. As their classes at UCLA and Oregon are still ongoing, NFL rules prevent them from joining the team yet. They will surface in June.
- Jeff Fisher’s not nearly as worried about the Titans’ leadership void as I am on a team that’s minus Kyle Vanden Bosch, Kevin Mawae, Keith Bulluck and Alge Crumpler: “A lot has been made of this, but I’m not concerned about the leadership on this football team. You can have leadership and you can have an awful locker room. This is a good locker room. …There are enough guys here that will step up.”
- Always reluctant to go the hypothetical route, Fisher delved into Keith Bulluck a bit: “Hypothetically if Keith was fine for the start of training camp and able to play in the preseason games and is 100 percent and we were able to get him under contract, he’s a starter, yeah. But that’s the best-case scenario and it’s not going to be a realistic scenario just from the timing standpoint as you deal with the ACL.” I feel confident the Titans are moving forward with no intention of re-signing Bulluck, who’s unrestricted.
- As for the other incumbent outside linebacker, David Thornton, who’s coming off shoulder and hip injuries: “He’s still a ways away right now,” Fisher said. “Right now he’s not able to practices, so no, he’s not [a starter]. …[His injury tendency] is a legitimate concern. Sometimes guys will have a couple years where they have issues and then can put it behind them and can play a number of more years. It’s not going to be because David didn’t work at it.”
But as Colts middle linebacker Gary Brackett, also short by NFL linebacker standards, often says, he doesn’t need to see the blockers, they need to see him.
Titans scout Cole Proctor said Curran is a special football player in a short package, who was the sparkplug of the Georgia defense and could be another Sam Mills.
The Titans have some uncertainty at linebacker, where they could have two new guys on the outside.
Stephen Tulloch will man the middle, but Keith Bulluck isn’t expected to be re-signed and a breaking-down David Thornton may not project to make it back into the lineup. Will Witherspoon will get one slot, and Gerald McRath is in line for the other.
Curran likely works as a key special teamer who could eventually work as a fill-in and would provide some insurance if Tulloch reaches free agency in a year.
Jeff Fisher said as a long-strider, Curran makes up for his height and covers a lot of ground. I don’t suspect that will be enough to help him close the gap on McRath, a well-liked fourth-rounder who’s got a one-year head start.
Though they could have a shot at Earl Thomas or Taylor Mays in the draft at No. 20, Houston could have a really good chance to upgrade at free safety in the RFA department, allowing themselves to focus on other things -- running back, cornerback, defensive tackle, interior offensive line -- high in the draft.
Here are a couple options that look like they could be good:
St. Louis safety Oshiomogho Atogwe -- The Rams free safety finished last year on IR with a shoulder injury. But he was the team’s franchise player in 2009, and now falls back into restricted status. He was tendered to right of first refusal with no draft-pick compensation attached because otherwise the Rams would have had to guarantee his salary at 110 percent of 2009 level (near $7 million). Scouts Inc. says he’s aggressive, fast and especially good over the deep middle. Sounds like a good pairing with Bernard Pollard who’s solid stepping forward. With the right offer sheet the Texans could get him for no compensation.
Indianapolis safety Antoine Bethea -- He’s tendered at a first-round level and the Texans cannot give up No. 20 for him. But Rick Smith could call Bill Polian and offer him Houston’s second-rounder, No. 50 overall, and see what kind of reaction he gets.
Indianapolis safety Melvin Bullitt -- He's been at strong safety with Bob Sanders out, but has also seen nickel action in the past and seems versatile enough to me to shift over. If Houston believes Bullitt could split the middle with Bernard Pollard to form a quality tandem, Bullitt’s tendered at a second-round level, and they could try offering a third.
Other possibilities for Houston: Washington corner Carlos Rogers is tendered at a first but we've heard he could likely be had for a fourth or even a fifth; Carolina corner Richard Marshall is tendered at a second and could be worth a third or fourth; Seattle guard Rob Sims is tendered as a fourth-rounder and the Seahawks would liked to have gone higher. A team that needs interior help could consider making an offer?
Thoughts on the rest of the division:
The Colts aren’t prohibited by the final eight rule from shopping restricted free agents. It’s just that they are highly unlikely to do so.
I don’t see a lot for them. Defensive ends and receivers aren’t on the list or aren’t reasonably priced. Unsettled at free safety, they could like Atogwe but don’t have the second-rounder they could need for Bethea.
Oakland linebacker Kirk Morrison -- He’s got a third-round tender, so how about starting off by offering a fourth? If Keith Bulluck isn’t re-signed and the breaking down David Thornton doesn’t make it out of camp -- I expect them both to be gone -- the Titans need a veteran to go with Stephen Tulloch and Gerald McRath or they’d be too young. Morrison’s experienced and can run and anticipate. At 6-2, 240, he’d also add a little bulk.
Chicago kick returner/safety Danieal Manning -- Tendered at a third, the Titans could offer a fourth. (They should get an additional, untradeable third-rounder as a compensatory pick for Albert Haynesworth.) Manning could probably solve the kick return issues and might be able to handle punts too -- he did it at Abilene Christian. He would also add some depth to the secondary. An experienced free safety, he’d be insurance if Michael Griffin continued to tumble. He could work in the occasional dime package and provide an alternative to Vincent Fuller if the incumbent nickel got hurt.
Other possibilities for Tennessee: Rogers; Marshall
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A team-by-team analysis of the division. The arrow indicates which direction each team is trending.
Final Power Ranking: 14
Biggest surprise: Despite losing tight end Owen Daniels to injury along the way, quarterback Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson connected consistently, even as defenses keyed on minimizing the receiver. Johnson led the league in receiving with 1,569 yards -- 221 yards more than No. 2 Wes Welker. Schaub answered questions about his durability by starting all 16 games, earning a $10 million option bonus to trigger the remainder of his contract in the process.
Biggest disappointment: The inability of Kris Brown to hit clutch kicks and running back Chris Brown to convert clutch chances. In back-to-back November losses to Indianapolis and Tennessee, the kicker had chances to force overtime and missed on each occasion. The running back was miscast as a short-yardage answer, and his ineffectiveness hurt the Texans at the end of losses to Jacksonville and Arizona.
Biggest need: The Texans have issues in the secondary, where free safety and cornerback need to be upgraded. But this is an offensive team and, even when running back Steve Slaton was healthy and running behind a healthy starting line, it didn’t run well enough to complement the pass attack. The Texans need a big back who can gain a tough yard.
Team MVP: Johnson. He consistently produced despite extra defensive attention, putting his combination of size and speed to the best use yet.
Contract issues pending: Three key members of the Texans -- Daniels, middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans and strong safety Bernard Pollard -- will lose chances at unrestricted free agency if there is no new CBA. In that case, they would be restricted free agents. They won’t be happy playing for one-year tenders and the Texans need to find a way to smooth things out with them.
Final Power Ranking: 1
Biggest surprise: Rookie cornerbacks Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey were supposed to be role players. But injuries in the secondary meant they were each starters for the majority of the season. Both did very well doing what the Colts asked of them. Overall, the secondary got little from three of four projected starters, with only free safety Antoine Bethea a consistent presence. But the Colts defense played very well anyway, giving up few big plays when Randy Moss wasn’t involved.
Biggest disappointment: Passing on a chance to try to carry a perfect regular season into the playoffs was a biggie. Team brass was clearly put off, and surprised, by the volume and depth of the media and fan backlash after the Colts pulled starters and handed the Jets a game that dropped the Colts to 14-1. To suggest records for wins in a decade and consecutive regular season wins were more historic than a perfect 19-0 season sure seemed silly during the spin control period.
Biggest need: Offensive linemen. Charlie Johnson did admirable work after he was promoted to replace the disappointing Tony Ugoh at left tackle and Kyle DeVan was a more physical right guard after replacing another underachiever, Mike Pollak. With legendary line coach Howard Mudd set to retire, the Colts need to restock and provide more options for his successor, Pete Metzlaars.
Team MVP: Peyton Manning is expected to win NFL MVP, so it would be hard to look anywhere else. He was exceptionally accurate and was a big reason young receivers developed and old targets produced. And it seemed like he led his team to a fourth-quarter comeback weekly.
Next men up: Anthony Gonzalez was expected to be the team’s No. 2 receiver behind Reggie Wayne. But he went down with a serious knee injury in the season opener and never made it back. Rookie Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon were effective targets for Manning when opponents worked hard to blanket Wayne and forced the Colts to go elsewhere.
Final Power Ranking: 23
Biggest surprise: They called it a retooling instead of a rebuilding, but after major roster turnover the Jaguars were 6-4 and 7-5 and very much in the thick of a hunt for an AFC playoff berth. They got quality experience for four high draft picks who started a lot of games -- offensive tackles Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton, cornerback Derek Cox and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton.
Biggest disappointment: David Garrard was sacked 42 times and hit way too much. The Jaguars failed badly in two West Coast trips, losing in Seattle and San Francisco, and closed with a four-game losing streak. Losses to Indianapolis and at New England were understandable, but defeats at home to Miami and at Cleveland in the season finale with an 8-8 record on the line were a lot harder to accept.
Biggest need: Though the team traded up for Derrick Harvey and took a second defensive end, Quentin Groves, with their first two picks just two years ago, it’s in desperate need of pass rush help. The team had just 14 sacks. Quarterbacks often had all day to throw and managed a 96.0 passer rating, 28 touchdowns and just 15 interceptions against Jacksonville.
Team MVP: Running back Maurice Jones-Drew fared very well in his first season as the team’s feature back and is the franchise’s lone Pro Bowler. He ran for 1,391 yards and 15 touchdowns behind an inconsistent line.
Mighty have fallen: Free safety Reggie Nelson, the team’s top pick in 2007, could be on his way out. He was consistently burned in coverage and failed to finish tackles. The team tried him at cornerback when injuries thinned out that position and he fared no better. By season’s end, he earned himself a spot on the bench.
Final Power Ranking: 16
Biggest surprise: Chris Johnson showed himself to be an electrifying playmaker in his first season. But when he said in training camp before his rookie campaign he would run for 2,000 yards, people scoffed. Improbably, on a non-winning team, Johnson ran for a league-leading 2,006 yards, becoming just the sixth member of the 2,000-yard club. He topped 100 yards rushing in each of his final 11 games and scored on seven rushing plays of 20 yards or more.
Biggest disappointment: After a 13-3 regular season that was the NFL’s best in 2008, the 2009 team played terribly early and dug itself an 0-6 hole. While it did well climbing out and finishing 8-8, that miserable start cost the Titans a chance at a return to the playoffs. The slow start featured a slew of drops by the receivers, horrific pass coverage, and return game nightmares. The turnaround began after team owner Bud Adams called for Jeff Fisher to replace Kerry Collins with Vince Young at quarterback.
Biggest need: Defensive playmakers. The Titans got old and less effective at several spots. Defensive end Jevon Kearse and cornerback Nick Harper won’t be back. The team is likely ready to move on from veteran linebackers Keith Bulluck and David Thornton as well. Free safety Michael Griffin took a huge step backwards and defensive tackle Jason Jones couldn’t fight through a shoulder injury. The Titans will look to add veterans and draft picks to rebuild.
Team MVP: Johnson should be the NFL’s offensive player of the year. Without him, who knows what the Titans would have done down the stretch. Getting him to 2,000 yards was a unifying team goal. Johnson even impressed his teammates by backing up the bold 2,000-yard prediction.
Back from the dead: While he didn’t finish especially strong, Young did a lot of good work in 10 games after he was reinserted as the starter. He deserves credit for maturing. His decision making has improved. He's set himself up to be the Titans starter in 2010 after changing the opinion of many of his critics, some of whom reside inside team headquarters.
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 16:
Dallas Clark's next 100-yard receiving game will be the eighth of his career, which will match Hall of Fame Colt John Mackey's total. Clark’s got the most tight end TDs in the NFL since 2007 with 27, leading Antonio Gates by four. Peyton Manning and Clark have connected on 41 touchdowns. They trail only two duos in history: Sonny Jurgensen and Jerry Smith of the Redskins (43) and Drew Bledsoe and Ben Coates of the Patriots (45).
Matt Schaub can thank his sure-handed wide receivers for the career year he's having. Among wide receivers who have been targeted on at least 45 passes this season, nobody has caught a higher percentage than David Anderson (80.4), while teammate Kevin Walter is third on the list at 77.4. The Texans are third in the league with an on-target/drop percentage of 5.3, according to ESPN Stats & Information. It’s also a testament to Schaub’s accuracy.
The Jaguars' interior line play hasn’t been great this season in protecting David Garrard from the rush, but it must be doing something right when Maurice Jones-Drew gets the ball. He should get a good deal of carries up the middle at Gillette Stadium Sunday. Stats & Info says Jones leads the NFL in rushes and yards up the middle this season. New England's interior run defense has been suspect this season. MJD has 202 of his 278 carries up the middle this season for 834 yards and seven touchdowns. The Patriots allow 4.3 yards per carry up the middle, and that number’s been 5.9 in their past two games.
The Jets blitz a bunch. Manning doesn’t flinch when teams send extra rushers. According to Stats & Info, the Jets send at least five players after the quarterback on 55.7 pct of passing plays, by far the highest percentage of any team in the league. But Manning is completing 70 percent of his passes against the blitz this season and has a passer rating of 106.8 against five or more rushers. Jets’ opponents have completed 49.6 percent of their passes against blitzes, while Manning’s hit on 69.9.
» Draft class lists: Indianapolis | Jacksonville | Houston | Tennessee
Best get: Not everyone was sold on Brian Cushing coming out of USC, often because of his injury history at USC. He missed most of camp hurt and has missed a lot of practices, but none of it has gotten in the way of his being an impact player every Sunday. The Texans need more defenders and more players in his mold. He’s a legitimate defensive player of the year candidate.
Worst unaddressed spot: The Texans had plenty of reason to expect they had a feature back in Steve Slaton, but completely misread their situation after that. Interior line injuries and a second-year slump for Slaton have made a second back even more important, and Chris Brown, Ryan Moats and Arian Foster all have proved incapable of handling the pressures of the work. A second running back ranks as one of the team’s highest priorities in free agency or the 2010 draft.
Still uninvolved: Tight end James Casey came in as a versatile fifth-rounder who was going to be a unique weapon for head coach Gary Kubiak and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to tinker with. He’s got six catches for 64 yards in 11 games. He needs to have more of an impact, given that the Texans lost top-flight tight end Owen Daniels to a season-ending knee injury.
Still to be determined: First-rounder Donald Brown has shown he will be a good NFL player. But he’s missed five games with injuries, including the last three. He’s more capable than Joseph Addai of breaking off a big run. The question: Does Brown understand that looking for the big gain isn’t worth risking a play resulting in second-and-12. If Brown is healthy, he could see a lot of touches in the last two games. The Colts are 14-0 with just 59 carries, 263 yards and two TDs from their top pick. (They haven’t gotten much out of second-round defensive tackle Fili Moala, either.)
A perfect fit: Fourth-round receiver Austin Collie, not Minnesota’s Percy Harvin, leads all rookie receivers in catches. Collie's nabbed 53 passes for 567 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s a perfect fit for the Colts' system, and adopted the necessary work ethic to win over and work with Peyton Manning. Whether Anthony Gonzalez re-emerges for the post season push or not, Collie’s crucial to it.
Best special teams addition: The Colts had eight touchbacks in 2008. With rookie punter Pat McAfee taking over kickoffs from Adam Vinatieri, they have 18 with two games remaining. Better kickoffs are a big factor in coverage improvements under new special teams coach Ray Rychleski. McAfee’s also got a net punting average of 38.0 yards, less than a yard off former Colts' veteran Hunter Smith’s number from last season.
Long-term solutions: Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton were the top two picks and have played the bulk of the season at left and right tackle, respectively. They have not been consistent, but the team loves their skill sets and upside. And early work means they’ll get to the levels the team projected when spending such high picks on them sooner rather than later.
Eighth-rounders: First-year general manager Gene Smith needed additions beyond his draft class and found a couple: Cornerback William Middleton out of Furman and linebacker Russell Allen from San Diego State are undrafted free agents who made the team and have been contributors. In the nationally televised Week 15 Thursday night loss to the Colts, Allen led the team with 12 tackles. Smith is down a second and seventh rounder in 2010 because of trades, and he hopes to hit on some undrafteds again, and annually.
Three is key: Smith did great work in the third round, landing two small school players who’ve established themselves as productive starters with upside. Cornerback Derek Cox from William & Mary has not been intimidated by anything or anyone. Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton from Temple has been a stout and reliable run stopper.
Biggest breakthrough: Since 1998, the Titans have spent draft picks in the top three rounds on Kevin Dyson, Tyrone Calico, Courtney Roby, Brandon Jones and Paul Williams. Dyson was involved in two of the franchise’s biggest plays in 1999 and did OK otherwise, but none of them solved the team's long-standing woes at receiver. First-rounder Kenny Britt is a great combination of size, power and speed who goes and gets the ball. Britt seems like he can be a consistently productive weapon.
Disappearing act: The Titans gave away a second-rounder to draft tight end Jared Cook in the third, and in camp he seemed like a great addition. Then he suffered an ankle injury, faded and never really re-emerged. Long-term he’s still very compelling. But the Titans sure could have used a jolt from him during their 0-6 start.
An heir: Gerald McRath seems comfortable and been effective as an outside linebacker when needed. He will start the rest of the way and, after bulking up in the offseason, stands to inherit the spot of either David Thornton (breaking down) or Keith Bulluck (free agent who tore an ACL in Week 15) next year. If both veterans are gone (a likely scenario), the second replacement needs to be a free agent or a draft pick.
1. Reggie Nelson, Jaguars FS: Featured here before, he hurt the Jaguars’ chances at being the team to beat Indianapolis on Thursday with his misplay on Reggie Wayne’s 65-yard touchdown catch that put Indy ahead. Nelson was pretty good as a rookie after he was the 21st pick in 2007. But his second and third years have been a disappointment. Perhaps addressing his spot in the offseason will wind up ranking on the priority list.
2. Texans run game: It’s the blocking, it’s the backs, it’s the play calling, it’s everything. Arian Foster, the newest guy to get a chance, fumbled an early catch and saw minimal time. In the second consecutive game against a bad NFC West team, the Texans could not seize control by running with any consistency. A week after AFC South rival Tennessee averaged 5.3 yards a carry in a thrashing of the Rams, Houston managed a 2.2 average.
3. Titans veteran linebackers: The Titans lost both of their outside linebackers for the season. The durable Keith Bulluck tore the ACL in his left knee and will see a starting streak of 127 games end. David Thornton, who’s been dealing with a shoulder injury, was also shelved and will have surgery.
Rookie Gerald McRath can play. But the other spot and a pairing of inexperienced outside backers McRath and Colin Allred or Stanford Keglar or newly signed veteran Jamie Winborn could be a big issue.
1. Daniel Muir, Colts DT: The position was considered a big weakness in 2008, but the top three interior defensive linemen right now were on the team last year. Second-round draft pick Fili Moala was supposed to add size and impact, but Muir has filled that role.
The 312-pounder is averaging over seven tackles a game in his last six, including 10 at Jacksonville. Offenses are averaging 3.9 yards a carry in that span, an improved number for Indy.
2. Justin Gage, Titans WR: Gage’s big leaping catch in San Francisco in Week 9 ended with a crash that broke bones in his lower back. He missed four games and is now playing as the third receiver. He hardly got wide open for his two touchdown catches against the Dolphins, but when Vince Young put up perfect passes for him, he pulled them both in. If Gage plays like that, and Nate Washington holds on to the ball, those two and impressive rookie Kenny Britt could be the team’s best receiving trio in some time.
3. Gerald Alexander, Jaguars SS: Helping offset Nelson’s poor play is a summer trade acquisition. The Jaguars got Alexander from Detroit in exchange for receiver Dennis Northcutt on June 30. In his past three games, he has an interception, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. He’s looking like a guy who could be part of a long-term answer.
After a 27-24 overtime win over Miami, the Titans remarkably stand at 7-7 in a season that started 0-6. They are in range of an AFC pack of teams fighting for wild card spots, though Tennessee needs two more wins and a slew of favorable results to qualify.
The Titans’ AFC record would kill them in a lot of tiebreaking scenarios even if they get to 9-7.
They beat Miami with an efficient and balanced game over three quarters, but had to survive a late-game collapse where they allowed two fourth-quarter touchdown drives by the Dolphins and a two-point conversion on the second one.
Inexplicably, Jeff Fisher kept three timeouts in his pocket with the Dolphins pinned at their own 2-yard line and 56 seconds remaining at the conclusion of regulation. The Titans then lost the coin toss, but were saved by Griffin’s pick and Rob Bironas' 46-yard field goal.
Vince Young threw for three touchdowns for the first time in his career, two to Justin Gage, while Chris Johnson topped 100 rushing yards for the ninth consecutive game.
The defense took the ball away from the Dolphins three times near scoring territory.
But the Titans could have severe linebacking issues Christmas night against San Diego. Keith Bulluck left the game in the second half with a knee injury, which meant Gerald McRath, who started for the injured David Thornton, was working opposite Colin Allred, another young linebacker.
The training room may be full after a physical game, but the hopes remain high.
The Titans will head home as fans of the Bears against the Ravens, the Packers against the Steelers and the Raiders against the Broncos.
|Fernando Medina-US PRESSWIRE|
|LenDale White and Tennessee Titans are 3-8 in their last 11 regular-season and playoff games dating back to last season.|
Posted by ESPN.com’s Paul Kuharsky
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- How does a team that started 10-0 a year ago and posted a league-best 13-3 mark plummet to an 0-4 start just a season later, especially when it returned 20 of 22 possible starters on offense and defense and all but one coach?
It’s a tough question to answer, but here are some of the main ingredients in the reversal of fortunes for the Titans, who play the division-leading Colts (4-0) on Sunday night:
Production: That big 2008 produced eight Pro Bowlers and seven returned. Of them, only Chris Johnson is close to playing at a similar level. Michael Roos hasn’t been bad. The rest of the bunch have all dropped off at least to some degree, with free safety Michael Griffin and quarterback Kerry Collins nowhere close to 2008 form.
A year ago, they were excellent in giveaway/takeaway ratio (plus-14), fourth-quarter scoring differential (plus-59) and sack differential (plus-32). Now they are minus-5 in turnovers, minus-5 in fourth-quarter points and minus-4 in sack differential.
Age: I can’t fault the Titans for their frontline roster construction. Coming into the season, it would have been very difficult to choose which guys might slip and address their spots.
Leadership: The veteran element of this team has a lead-by-example quality to it, not the sort of fire-and-brimstone one that might change a bad tone. Consider that ever-steady Jeff Fisher’s big shake-up this week was altering the team’s practice schedule.
Bulluck has always said he takes care of his business and expects everyone else to do the same. Collins, Mawae and Crumpler are low-key guys on offense, where Marine veteran Ahmard Hall has as much fire as anyone but still rates as less experienced and isn’t in position to jolt the team to life.
The defense also lacks a player suited to lead in these circumstances. Vanden Bosch can do it, but since he’s not producing he knows he carries less weight and he’s the type to be quiet if he’s not taking care of his own business. Cortland Finnegan is a spark plug who can have too much temper, and that may mean he’s not ready yet to drag guys to the light if he knows where it is himself.
|AP Photo/Wade Payne|
|First-year coordinator Chuck Cecil has yet to put his stamp on the defense.|
The Titans know what they want to be: a run-first offense that eats clock and a defense that forces long drives, gets off the field on third down and limits points. But that’s not what they’ve been through four games. Just look at where they rank in some of their key categories: tied for 26th in points a game allowed (27) and ahead of only Buffalo and Oakland in time of possession at 26:23.
Johnson’s explosiveness means they’ve scored quickly at times, but they have to find ways to piece together long drives on other possessions.
There is no defensive swagger and players on that side of the ball are looking to a first-year coordinator, Chuck Cecil, who's still figuring out some elements of his job and has not crafted a unit that reflects his playing personality.
1. Tempo and rhythm: Kerry Collins had a lot of slow starts in 2008 and we know he and the first team offense aren't going to play very long. Tennessee's offense looks to have significantly better personnel than Tampa Bay's defense. Can the Titans first-team offense find a good flow?
2. A corner to stand out. Has one of the four candidates to be the chief corner backup stepped forward yet? I've not been with the Titans for a while, but haven't heard any great buzz yet either about Cary Williams, DeMarcus Faggins, Ryan Mouton or Jason McCourty.
3. Young linebacker play. Ryan Fowler will start in the middle with Stephen Tulloch (knee) out. Josh Stamer probably works with the twos in David Thornton's spot on the left with Stanford Keglar taking over for Keith Bulluck on the right. Rookie Gerald McRath should see significant time outside as well. Keglar or McRath could have a big opportunity in a year if Bulluck's not re-signed. Do either show signs?
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