OTAs have wrapped for the summer, and as players, coaches and staff scatter for a much-needed break before training camps start, we have the opportunity to assess where each team in the AFC South stands relative to their ultimate goal: winning the Super Bowl.
Because of the volatile nature of the NFL playoffs, I've never been a "championship or bust" guy. I think teams can have successful seasons without hoisting Lombardi in February. There are a lot of intermediate steps the Titans could take before winning it all. Winning the South would be a great first step and make for a successful season.
However, given that last year's champion, the Giants, won it all after going 9-7 in the regular season, it's not impossible to imagine the Titans making a run. Here's what would have to happen for the dream to become reality.
1. Jake Locker has to make the leap
The 49ers and Ravens showed us that there is an alternate path to greatness that doesn't involve great quarterback play. However, both of those teams featured elite pass rushes, and the Titans didn't build in that direction.
If you aren't winning with the pass rush, then you are winning with the passing game. This fits with the way Tennessee is built right now. By taking Kendall Wright in the first round, the Titans declared their intention to rule the sky. But if they want to field an elite passing game in 2011, Jake Locker would have to provide it.
At this stage of his career, we know who Matt Hasselbeck is and what he's capable of. He can be a slightly-above-league-average passer. That's fine, but the Titans don't have the 2000 Ravens defense you need to win it all with an average quarterback. There's a limit to how far Hasselbeck can take this team.
No, if the Titans are going to make the jump, Locker will be the guy to push them. Locker may have another gear in him that Hasselbeck lost a long time ago. If he could win the starting job and become a top-10 or even a top-12 passer, the Titans could be a threat in January.
2. Kamerion Wimbley has to have the season of his life
The Titans didn't do enough, in my estimation, to bolster one of the worst pass rushes in football. The one guy they did sign was Wimbley. He had 11 sacks as a rookie (back in 2006) and nine sacks two years ago.
The Titans need him to become a 12-sack player and play on a Pro Bowl level. I covered Passer Rating Differential a few weeks ago, and a great way for the Titans to improve theirs is to generate more pressure.
I know the Titans are probably going to blitz more this year, and they'll seek to generate pressure apart from just the front four. Their athletic linebackers should help, but unless someone on the line does more to help without blitzing, I can't see the defense taking the necessary step forward.
3. They have to beat the Texans twice
Obviously, the Titans don't mathematically need to beat Houston to make the playoffs and go to the Super Bowl, but functionally, it's a must.
The road to New Orleans is much shorter and easier when you win the division. The Titans' schedule isn't the most favorable, and I think the only way they close the gap on Houston this year is if they force it closed.
To beat the Texans, Tennessee will have to protect the quarterback and attack with secondary receiving weapons. If they can do the first part, the second fits their style perfectly. On defense, they'll have to shut down Andre Johnson, limit the run game and force Matt Schaub to throw to his other, less talented targets.
These are things the Titans can do. The Titans have to get better if they want to win the Super Bowl, but there is at least a plausible path to winning the division. It won't be easy, but it's not metaphysically impossible (see Colts, Indianapolis).
As I warned Texans fans, the playoffs are all about luck. If you can get there, you can win it all. The Titans would make for unlikely champions, but there's a path they can travel that leads all the way to New Orleans.
Looking at the Titans' roster, they are probably a year away from serious contention, but these timetables are always fluid. If the Locker Train arrives at the station early, the Titans could have another Music City Miracle.