All things considered, the Tennessee Titans ought to feel pretty good about what they accomplished last season. After all, it was hardly a smooth ride last year with the franchise making some significant adjustments on the fly and not having a normal offseason to work out some of those kinks due to the spring and summer lockout.
Remember, the Titans switched coaches after the 2010 campaign, as Jeff Fisher was relieved of duties that he had held since the franchise was still based in Houston. Mike Munchak was promoted in Fisher’s place, but the ex-Penn State lineman was embarking upon his first head-coaching assignment. Tennessee was also going to breaking in a new QB, whether it be recently-acquired vet Matt Hasselbeck from Seattle or rookie first-round draft pick Jake Locker from the University of Washington, neither having the normal offseason routine to indoctrinate themselves into new systems.
Moreover, there were distractions related to star RB Chris Johnson’s well-publicized holdout, which endured through almost the entirety of preseason, and WR Kenny Britt was lost for the season to a torn ACL in September.
Despite all that, the Titans did pretty well to finish at 9-7. But at the risk of sounding a bit snarky, let’s see Tennessee do it again.
Oddsmakers are taking a similar approach, as the Titan season-win total is being quoted at a very modest seven at the majority of Las Vegas wagering outlets. Although Tennessee is the second choice in the AFC South (priced at 5/1 to win the division), the Titans are still rated far behind prohibitive division favorite Houston.
The Titans are also being quoted long shot prices to win the AFC (28/1) and Super Bowl (60/1). In other words, expectations are not too high in Nashville.
Prices are also posted for opening week regular-season action, and the Don Best NFL odds screen notes that Tom Brady and visiting New England are currently 6½-point favorites for the September 9 opener, with a total hovering between 47½ and 48.
Why aren’t the Titans being taken seriously after their encouraging performance a year ago?
Many AFC South insiders still have questions about the strike force, which could be looking at more unwanted distractions after WR Britt found himself in more off-field trouble during the offseason, this time for a DUI. Consensus among league insiders is that Britt has used up his mulligans with commissioner Roger Goodell, who is expected to soon announce punishments that will likely include game suspensions, perhaps severe.
Britt’s most recent run-in with the law was his eighth such incident since being drafted in 2009, and he was spared punishment by Goodell after a meeting a year ago that followed repeated police incidents that occurred during the NFL lockout. Don’t expect Goodell to be so lenient this time around.
Even if Goodell displays additional mercy (which, as the climate of the times would suggest, is unlikely), Britt is still on the “PUP” (Physically Unable to Perform) list in camp as he rehabs last year’s knee injury. So it is unlikely that the Titans, at least at the outset of the season, are going to line up with their top-flight wideout combo of Britt and Nate Washington, who delivered a 1,000-yard season a year ago. Baylor rookie Kendall Wright will apparently be given every opportunity to step in for Britt and join Washington in the starting lineup.
Former South Carolina tight end Jared Cook (49 catches last year), however, appears to be emerging as a legit star on the attack end.
Meanwhile, there’s the matter of RB Chris Johnson, whose subpar (by his standards) 2011 should not, according to many AFC insiders, be simply chalked up to his long summer holdout. Johnson, who rushed for 2,006 yards in '09, might have already started the downside of his career, which isn’t always too long for RBs. Johnson has gained just 2,411 yards rushing combined the past two seasons and saw his per carry dip to a career-low 4.0 yards in 2011.
Then, there’s the QB situation, which could become awkward as Munchak and offensive coordinator Chris Palmer weigh the dynamics of the pending transition from Hasselbeck to Locker. Though no longer among the league’s elite QBs, Hasselbeck still enjoyed his most-productive season a year ago since 2007 at Seattle, completing 61 percent of his passes. Locker flashed considerable upside in limited work a year ago but still doesn’t appear ready to take over the offense on a full-time basis, and Hasselbeck’s history of injuries is another concern.
The quarterback spot thus looms as a delicate one for Munchak and Palmer to figure out this fall, which is a bit concerning for an offense that has adjusted into a pass-first mode for 2012. Along with Britt’s status and Chris Johnson’s apparent decline, and camp injuries to Andre Johnson and C Eugene Amano (perhaps lost for the season with a torn triceps muscle), there are some questions to be answered on the strike force.
Moreover, there have been other distractions in the summer related to the apparent suicide of WR O.J. Murdock at the outset of training camp.
The Titans held their own defensively a year ago, ranking eighth in total defense stats with a platoon that squeezed more than they could have imagined out of last year’s rookie class. Especially along the front seven, where rookie DTs Karl Klug and Jurrell Casey plus LBs Akeem Ayers and Colin McCarthy, all fared much better than expected.
Still, defensive coordinator Jerry Gray would like to locate a few more big-time playmakers, especially from the DE spots that produced just 11 sacks in 2011. The offseason addition of ex-Browns and Raiders LB Kamerion Wimbley, who is slated to put his hand on the ground and line up as a pass-rush DE in the Gray defense, will be an important development in the progress of the stop unit this fall.
A disconcerting early camp development has been the demotion of former first-round pick DE Derrick Morgan to second string. The team is reportedly losing patience with Morgan, slow to develop as the sort of force the Titans envisioned when investing highly in him two years ago.
The departure of veteran CB Cortland Finnegan via free agency (to the Rams) leaves the “D” very young on the corners, where Alterraun Verner and Jason McCarthy will be expected to hold up this fall. The safety combination of Michael Griffin and Jordan Babineaux, however, is a veteran one.
Special teams remain a solid constant, especially with Rod Bironas a field-goal threat whenever the Titans cross midfield; Bironas was a near-perfect 29-of-32 on FG tries a year ago, including six of seven conversions from 50 yards or more. Punter Brett Kern also dropped 31 parachutes inside of the opponents’ 20-yard line.
Although the Titans slightly overachieved to get to 9-7 a year ago, they were underachievers vs. the spread, covering just six of 16 on the board. Munchak’s first edition was also especially unreliable as a favorite, recording a subpar 2-6 chalk mark a year ago.
The Titans were also 'under' 10-6 for Munchak in 2011.
Summary: Despite finishing above .500 last season, the Titans still have the look of a team in transition. Although the pieces seem to be present on offense, where they fit remains a concern with lots of “ifs” at all of the skill positions; the QB situation, Chris Johnson’s waning effectiveness and Kenny Britt’s status are all potential concerns. Meanwhile, the defense, while overachieving a year ago, is still quite young. We suspect the Titans are going to be hard-pressed to match last year’s nine wins or make a run at a playoff berth this fall.
No matter, Titans fans will still be able to enjoy the best buckwheat pancakes in the country at Nashville’s Pancake Pantry, located near Vanderbilt.
Follow Bruce Marshall's NFL team previews all summer here at Don Best Sports: Buffalo Bills ... Chicago Bears ... Cleveland Browns ... Dallas Cowboys ... Denver Broncos ... Green Bay Packers ... Houston Texans ... Indianapolis Colts ... Jacksonville Jaguars ... Miami Dolphins ... Minnesota Vikings ... New England Patriots ... New York Giants ... New York Jets ... Oakland Raiders ... Philadelphia Eagles ... San Francisco 49ers ... Seattle Seahawks ... Tennessee Titans ... Washington Redskins