Tuesday, March 13, 2007
Offseason hasn't been kind to Titans
By Len Pasquarelli ESPN.com
Compliments of a late-season six-game winning streak, and the breathtaking performance of rookie quarterback Vince Young, the Tennessee Titans finished the 2006 season as one of the NFL's hottest franchises, and marked themselves as a team that might emerge as a playoff contender in 2007.
The momentum generated over the second half of 2006, a sudden surge in which the Titans recovered from an ugly 0-5 start, figures to carry over into the coming season, most Tennessee veterans agree.
"[Young] has a year under his belt now, and we used a lot of other young guys who found out what it takes to play at this level, and who will use the experience to move forward," said free safety Chris Hope. "There's really no reason, with the foundation that we laid, that we can't take the next step, right?"
Titans QB Vince Young watched both of his top WRs depart this offseason.
Well, maybe. But as Lee Corso might caution: Not so fast, my friend.
Because for the Titans to pick up where they left off in 2006, when they stunned even themselves with an 8-8 mark, they'll first have to pick up the pieces of what to this point has been a somewhat fractured offseason. And while Tennessee isn't quite the equivalent of a football Humpty Dumpty, there is considerable work to be done to regain the positive vibe created in 2006.
Which is why the youthful Titans, even with Young a year older and probably a year better, could display some slippage in 2007. Not a precipitous decline, one that negates the strides taken a year ago, but a step back.
There are, after all, a lot of holes to fill. And while the Titans are an early chic pick of some pundits to emerge as a surprise contender in 2007, that might prove to be just wishful thinking.
The leading rusher from a year ago, resurgent tailback Travis Henry, is gone. Ditto for the top two wide receivers, Drew Bennett and Bobby Wade, both of whom also departed in free agency. Onetime standout guard Zach Piller, victimized by injuries for much of the past three seasons, was released. The franchise's highest-profile defender, troubled cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones, is apt to appear in a police lineup before he steps into the starting lineup again.
General manager Floyd Reese, whose crafty machinations annually rescued the Titans from some of the league's worst salary-cap messes in recent years, was not retained. And coach Jeff Fisher, the key to the Tennessee operation and a guy who would break the bank if he hit the free-agent market, is entering the final year of his contract, with little discernable progress in extension talks. For the most part, players aren't all that concerned with the status of their coach, but the uncertainty surrounding Fisher's future could be a distraction.
It might not quite be a formula for disaster, but it's not exactly a recipe, either, for the kind of success the Titans might hope for coming off the excitement of 2006.
"You don't want to get stuck in a rut, with the rest of the NFL world passing you by," one veteran Tennessee defender told ESPN.com last week. "But right now, it seems like we're standing still. We've got some work to do."
To his credit, new general manager Mike Reinfeldt, a terrific administrator, has not panicked. Flush with salary-cap room, the kind of potential maneuverability the Titans haven't enjoyed in several years, Reinfeldt hasn't fallen into the trap of tossing good money after the mostly suspect players in the free-agent pool. And he seems determined to take the next steps in the rebuilding process through the draft, not with quick fixes.
That said, a repeat of last year's 8-8 record, and reprising the degree of progress the Titans realized over the second half of the season, might be difficult. It shouldn't be overlooked that, despite the momentum of 2006, the Titans still ranked just 27th in total offense and were dead last in the league in defense.
This is still a team in transition and sometimes that means retreating a step or two before moving forward.
Here's a look at four more franchises that could slide a bit, too, in 2007:
Kansas City: One of the NFL's most stable franchises, the Chiefs still have front office direction from president Carl Peterson and on-field motivation from coach Herm Edwards. But the talent base has waned a bit in the last few years and, even with a tailback capable of gaining 2,000 yards in Larry Johnson, the offense could be entering a transitional phase. There is a chance quarterback Trent Green, who has been asked to restructure his contract, won't be back, and that the Chiefs will count on journeyman Damon Huard as a potential bridge to youngster Brodie Croyle. A model of consistency under Peterson's stewardship, the Chiefs nonetheless have some catching up to do in the division.
Atlanta: The Falcons have a rookie head coach, a new offensive system and a quarterback in Michael Vick who, despite his wondrous athletic gifts, is coming under increasing scrutiny. Maybe the Falcons will prove the naysayers wrong but, from a personnel standpoint, this is a team that has a distinct 7-9 feel to it. Rookie coach Bobby Petrino has spent the offseason talking about how his offense gets the ball to its playmakers. But the Falcons' wide receivers still have to demonstrate they can make plays. The signing of veteran wideout Joe Horn last week was a reach. Defensively, the Falcons are perilously thin up front.
Miami: Even with some roster refurbishing, the defense is still aging and the Dolphins are counting a lot on a couple of 30-something pass rushers, Jason Taylor and Joey Porter, to combine for 20-25 sacks. The bigger concern, though, is at quarterback, where no one knows yet if Daunte Culpepper is ready to play, or if first-year head coach Cam Cameron will have to look elsewhere.
N.Y. Giants: As good a coach as Tom Coughlin has been, some of the Giants' veterans simply haven't bought into him. And there remain doubts over just how good quarterback Eli Manning will become.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.