The last five seasons as a Tennessee Titans fan haven’t exactly been that smooth.
2008 was the last time Tennessee made the playoffs, when they shocked the NFL landscape by finishing the regular season 13-3 – which was good enough for the best record in the league. Exactly three weeks after defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers to clinch the AFC’s top seed, the Titans were shocked by the Baltimore Ravens in the Divisional Playoffs, bringing their season to an abrupt end.
(I still say that if Chris Johnson wasn’t intentionally injured by Ed Reed in the second quarter of that game, then the Titans go on to win their first Super Bowl. Yes, I’m still bitter.)
Before the 2009 season, then head coach Jeff Fisher proclaimed that this was the most talented team he has ever coached.
Oops. An 0-6 start brought Fisher under fire, and made Bud Adams force his hand for a quarterback change. Vince Young came in and rejuvenated his career, directing Tennessee to five straight wins (including this walk-off winner), and an overall 8-8 record, which put them right on the edge of returning to the playoffs.
That Chris Johnson fella was pretty good too, becoming the sixth player (now seven with Adrian Peterson last year) to rush for 2,000 yards and setting an NFL record in yards from scrimmage with 2,509.
The Titans built off the late-season run by starting 5-2 in 2010, good enough for the top spot in the AFC South. The wheels fell off immediately after, as Young left a game against the Redskins with a thumb injury and missed the rest of the season (although an incident with Fisher played a part in that too), and the Titans dropped eight of their last nine games to finish 6-10.
The rocky relationship between Fisher and Young ended in the off-season, and offensive line coach Mike Munchak took over the reigns for 2011. Picked to finish in the bottom of the AFC South, the Titans again shocked national writers by finishing 9-7, missing the post-season by the way of a tiebreaker. Free agent acquisition Matt Hasselbeck provided Tennessee with the franchise’s best quarterback performance since Steve McNair wore the two-tone blue, while first-round pick Jake Locker impressed in limited time.
Locker won the starting quarterback job in the 2012 pre-season and got off to a great start, before an re-injury of his non-throwing shoulder halted his progression. The team themselves struggled from the get-go, finishing 6-10 to clinch another top ten drafting position.
I talked a little about the Chance Warmack pick and what he means to the franchise in a previous post, but I’d like to reiterate how important he is in regards to the Titans’ potential success in 2013. Last season, Tennessee’s struggles were partly because of injuries that ravished the offensive line. Players such as Daniel Baldridge, Kyle DeVan*, Steve Hutchinson, Deuce Lutui, Kevin Matthews, Mitch Petrus, and Fernando Velasco. Out of that group, only Velasco was a legitimate starting offensive line option last year – and he was recently given a pink slip as the last cut before the 53-man roster was set.
(* – DeVan was cut and re-signed at least five times last year, and it got to the point where I would joke to Tennesseean beat writer Jim Wyatt that reporting on that roster move wasn’t even news anymore.)
With the drafting of Warmack, and the signings of Andy LeVitre (6 years, $46.8 million) and Rob Turner, it was made known that the Titans would get back to the roots. Under Fisher’s watch, Tennessee would always possess one of the best ground attacks in the league, and that in turn would set up the passing game. Shoring up the interior line will open up holes for Chris Johnson, and new acquisitions Shonn Greene and Jackie Battle.
Not only that, consistent line play will help with Jake Locker’s development. It’s pretty clear that this is a make-or-break season for the third-year quarterback out of Washington, and although he receives far too much hate from the national media (59.4 completion percentage, 1,323 yards, 8 TD, 2 INT in six games* before second shoulder injury at Houston), he still has to take the next step in order to keep the Titans from searching for another franchise signal-caller.
(* – Technically, Locker played in eight games before the game against the Texans, but he threw a total of two passes in his first two appearances. He also didn’t start a game during his rookie season, entering one game in the second quarter, and two games in the fourth.)
Locker has every opportunity to succeed this year – provided he stays healthy. I touched on the running game and offensive line already, but the receiving corps that Tennessee general manager Ruston Webster has put together is the best the franchise has ever had. Kenny Britt and Kendall Wright are two former first-round picks that have impressed in spots, while Nate Washington in 2012 became the first 1,000-yard receiver for the Titans since Drew Bennett and Derrick Mason both did it in 2004. Behind those three are Damian Williams, this year’s second-round choice Justin Hunter, and intriguing former practice squad player Michael Preston.
The offense doesn’t worry me as a fan – even if Locker struggles, the running game should keep things afloat. The other side of the ball, however, is a different story.
Even with the historically-bad struggles from the Tennessee defense last season, there’s a lot of talent compiled throughout the unit. Derrick Morgan quietly put together a spectacular season, grading out as the third-best 4-3 defensive end according to Pro Football Focus. Jurrell Casey and Mike Martin are forces inside, and the interior adds Sammie Lee Hill, formerly of the Detroit Lions, and Antonio Johnson, formerly of the Indianapolis Colts.
Akeem Ayers and Zach Brown lead the linebacking corps. Ayers, who lines up at defensive end on some passing downs, had six sacks last season, while Brown deserved more love in the Defensive Rookie of the Year balloting with his five-and-a-half sacks, three interceptions, and two touchdowns. The biggest wildcard of this group that could push them over the top is Colin McCarthy. The third-year linebacker from Miami (Fla.) isn’t listed as the starter currently, but he had a nice rookie campaign, grading out positively in numerous categories according to PFF. Injuries derailed his sophomore season, and they took away most of his pre-season, but when he’s healthy he gives the Titans one of the better young linebacker units in the league.
The defensive backfield is led by Jason McCourty, who has progressed very nicely since his first real appearance in the 59-0 drubbing from the New England Patriots in 2009. Opposite of him is mystery, as Alterraun Verner and Tommie Campbell split time during the pre-season. Verner was announced as the starter for the opening game against the Steelers, but Campbell is rumored to start the following week at Houston. The California (Pa.) University product is an awesome story and a freak of an athlete, and the coaching staff would like for him to take Verner’s starting spot, but he hasn’t shown much on the defensive side of the ball to warrant that.
Bernard Pollard comes over with his Super Bowl ring and an attitude the Tennessee defense hasn’t had in a while. I love what he brings to the table – even with the numerous late hits – but the duo of him and Michael Griffin won’t scare many quarterbacks from taking shots deep. Even with Pollard’s below-average coverage skills, the two should fare better than Griffin and Jordan Babineaux from last year, especially since George Wilson can slide in for one of them on passing downs.
Rob Bironas returns for his ninth year as the Titans kicker, and although he had one of his worst years as a pro in 2012, he still is as reliable as they come. Darius Reynaud got a little trigger-happy in regards to returning the ball out of the end zone on kickoffs, but I can live with that if he provides the same Pro Bowl-level production (1 kick return touchdown, 2 punt return touchdowns) from a season ago.
With the success the Titans had in 2011, I expected another run at a playoff berth in 2012. That obviously didn’t come to fruition, which has tempered my expectations for 2013. If I had to guess, I’d say this year’s club will finish around the 7-9 to 9-7 mark, with the worst case scenario being 6-10 and the best case being 10-6 and a playoff berth. This team isn’t as bad as the national writers believe they are, but they’re not going to satisfy owner Bud Adams’ wishes of a Super Bowl this season either.
As for my league predictions, I like the 49ers to finally get over the hump and win their sixth Super Bowl this year. I picked them last season and they were a series of bad Jim Harbaugh goal-line playcalls away from proving me right, but with a full year of Colin Kaepernick under center and the moves they made in the off-season, I can’t help but pick them again.
Their opponent? How about the team that thrashed the Super Bowl champions last night? (No, I’m not picking them just because of that.) The Denver Broncos were a Rahim Moore mental lapse away from advancing to the AFC Championship Game last season, and made enough moves in free agency to get to New York in February.
The rest of my predictions can be found below. Happy football season everyone, and go Titans!
AFC East – NE*, MIA, NYJ, BUF
AFC North – BAL*, CIN*, PIT, CLE
AFC South – HOU*, IND, TEN, JAX
AFC West – DEN*, KC*, SD, OAK
NFC East – DAL*, WAS, NYG, PHI
NFC North – GB*, CHI, DET, MIN
NFC South – ATL*, NO*, TB, CAR
NFC West – SF*, SEA*, STL, ARZ
Bengals over Texans (Finally!)
Ravens over Chiefs
Broncos over Bengals
Ravens over Patriots
Broncos over Ravens
Packers over Saints
Seahawks over Cowboys
49ers over Sehawks
Packers over Falcons
49ers over Packers
Super Bowl XLVIII
49ers 34, Broncos 31