The Tennessee Titans have been in this situation before.
In 1999, after a 36-35 opening week win over the Cincinnati Bengals, starting quarterback Steve McNair was lost for a few weeks with an inflamed disk. McNair enjoyed one of his finest games as a pro against the Bengals, compiling a total of 368 yards of offense, while tossing three touchdowns and rushing for another. It was a breakthrough performance for a young signal-caller who hadn’t lived up to his first-round billing to that point.
Neil O’Donnell stepped in and the team didn’t miss a beat, going 4-1 in McNair’s absence – one of those wins coming in Jacksonville against the 14-2 AFC Central champion Jaguars. (I bet that’s weird to think about nowadays.) O’Donnell was asked to throw the ball more than 25 times a game in each of his starts and only turned the ball over four times – a pretty impressive number considering this was his first year with the franchise.
Does this sound familiar at all? Well it should. The parallels between 1999 quarterback situation and this year’s are nearly identical when you look at it.
The young quarterback who hasn’t lived up to his billing? That would be Jake Locker. Locker has had his critics since coming out of the University of Washington, and a disappointing sophomore campaign with the Titans did nothing to quiet them. But just like McNair in 1999, 2013 Locker has gotten off to a great start. Sure the basic statistics feel somewhat unimpressive after you get past the 7:0 touchdown/interception ratio, but when you look at advanced statistics*…
[160 DYAR (10th), 10.3% DVOA (7th), 72.3 QBR (6th)]
– DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement – value of a quarterback’s performance compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated to yardage)
– DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average – value per play over an average quarterback in the same game situations)
– QBR (Total QB Rating)
…that should show you the jump Locker has made between last season and this year. I don’t know about you guys, but when your quarterback is one of only seven quarterbacks (P. Manning, Rivers, Brees, Romo, Ryan, Rodgers) to have a DVOA over 10, I’d say that he’s playing pretty damn well.
In the midst of possibly his best game as a pro, Locker was tackled awkwardly by New York Jets defensive linemen Muhammad Wilkerson and Quinton Couples. As luck would have it, the third-year quarterback from Washington was taken off on a stretcher with a hip injury, forcing new free agent signing Ryan Fitzpatrick into the game.
Fitzpatrick has had a very erratic career, but has produced with depended upon. (Fitzpatrick’s QB rating during his three seasons with the Bills is very similar to O’Donnell’s prior to joining the Titans.) With Locker out for the forseeable future, the reigns would be handed over to Fitzpatrick. All the Titans could ask from the ninth-year quarterback from Harvard is to serve as a game manager while Locker recovered.
So far Fitzpatrick has floundered. He’s faced a stingy set of defenses in Kansas City and Seattle, but games that were winnable because of the defense’s outstanding play were ultimately lost because of an ineffective offense and back-breaking turnovers.
Let’s look at the game at the Chiefs. Fitzpatrick missed on his first six passes before finally completing a short out route to Kendall Wright, and went 5-14 in the first half. He caught a break on the first drive of the third quarter, as he flipped the ball to Chris Johnson on a third and seven and the runningback sprinted 49 yards for a score. Fitzpatrick then scrambled for a touchdown to start the fourth quarter, and after a touchdown run by Jammal Charles, the Titans had the ball on their own 20 down by a field goal.
The first play from scrimmage, Fitzpatrick drops back and rifles a ball in Nate Washington’s direction. The ball is behind him and is picked off by Marcus Cooper, despite Washington trying to wrestle it away from the cornerback. The Chiefs could put the game away with a touchdown, but the Titans defense held strong and forced Kansas City into a field goal. Now at 23-17 with 4:10 left, Fitzpatrick had another chance to be the hero.
After completing two passes in a row, the Titans offense looked to have life. With 2:51 and all three timeouts left, Fitzpatrick took a quick three-step drop and saw Wright open downfield near the right hashes. He threw it in his direction, but it was behind him again and subsequently picked off by Quintin Demps.
This past Sunday was even worse. In a game that was begging to be lost by the Seahawks, Fitzpatrick made sure that wouldn’t happen with inaccuracy on the gimme throws and interceptions to start drives. On his first pick (shown below), he had a wide open Nate Washington the first play of a drive. Most quarterbacks in the NFL make this throw, but Fitzpatrick sailed it and it fell right into Earl Thomas’ arms. Even though it didn’t lead to any points for Seattle, this is a throw that should have been made if you want to beat good teams without your starting quarterback.
Following a field goal to take the lead in the fourth quarter, Fitzpatrick and the Titans offense took over from the 20 yard line with a little bit of offensive momentum. On the previous drive, Tennessee picked up a first down and were in Seattle territory, but a bonehead call of running Darius Reynaud up the middle on third and short killed that.
Still, the one thing you cannot do is turn the ball back over to your opponent, even if their defense is among the best in the league. That’s exactly what Fitzpatrick did however, as he tried to test Richard Sherman on a first play deep ball and the cornerback easily brought in the underthrow. It was a bad throw, but an even worse decision.
These are things you can’t do when your defense puts you in position to win a game. Granted, I didn’t expect Fitzpatrick to play two completely clean games (and same with Locker if he were healthy) and he hasn’t gotten help from the running game, but the decisions and missed throws he made against the Chiefs and Seahawks came at the most inopportune times.
With the Houston Texans struggling and the Indianapolis Colts dropping a contest last night to the San Diego Chargers (right as they welcome the Denver Broncos this weekend), the AFC South is up for grabs. The Titans have a tough game with the San Francisco 49ers at home on Sunday, but it’s certainly a winnable one with the Tennessee defense playing the way it has been.
The most important thing Fitzpatrick has to do this weekend is take care of the ball. I never expect him to be perfect in this regard (his track record doesn’t suggest it), but he needs to avoid throwing an interception at the worst time. That means after a 49er score in the fourth quarter, he can’t go out there and chuck up a deep ball on the first play. Know your limitations and try to sustain a long drive that will wear down the defense, and in turn get your own defense some rest.
Fitzpatrick also needs to hit on the easy throws. He has a group of receivers (Nate Washington, Kendall Wright, and Damian Williams) that work on underneath routes and have good hands; it’s just a matter of hitting them in the numbers instead of throwing at their feet or behind them. Wright had to bring in two short passes last week one-handed – something that shouldn’t need to happen when the defense is giving you that route.
The Titans have proven in the past that they can win games with their back-up quarterback against good teams. Now it’s up to Ryan Fitzpatrick to pull a Neil O’Donnell and keep his team in the playoff hunt.