It's hard to have much bigger expectations this year for a team that finished 13-3 last season. Unfortunately, the sweet memory of that 13-3 regular season was erased by an early (and ugly) exit in playoffs to the Baltimore Ravens. That taste will not go away for many fans. It won't for many players either. Just ask LenDale White how he feels about his role in the debacle: “I’m beyond motivated. That’s the only play I think about. I feel like if I had never fumbled the ball, we would have kicked the field goal and we probably would have won,” White said. “I feel like I lost the game, and I told y’all that at the end of the last game against Baltimore and I’m telling you now." (Nashville City Paper, 05.06.2009)
No matter how bad that loss hurt (especially coming against Baltimore), that's the great thing about the NFL. "There's always next season" and "Any give Sunday" are commonplace sayings these days to most fans, but if you have watched the NFL much over the last couple of seasons, never have either of those phrases been more evident. With that said, let's take a peek at next season and what Titans fans should watch for in the months to come.
Here are the five key storylines to follow throughout training camp and the upcoming season:
1. The D-Line: Life After Albert - The Titans have less holes to fill this off-season, but they may have lost the one player in the league who leaves the most gaping one, when defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth signed with the Redskins at the beginning of free agency. To offset the loss, the Titans went out and signed Javon Haye in free agency and then used their second round selection on Sen'Derrick Marks out of Auburn. They join an already deep group that includes second-year pro Jason Jones, Tony Brown, Kevin Vickerson, and undrafted free agent Mitch King.
Right now, I'd say Haye and Brown are the starters, with Jones and Marks right behind them. King may be someone to keep an eye on during training camp as well. The Titans don't expect to replace Albert Haynesworth with any one player, but they do feel like they are deeper at the position than they were a year ago.
2. The Importance of the O-Line - Outside of the secondary, the offensive line may have been the most pleasant surprise last season. Center Kevin Mawae is the leader of the group, but his age, 38, is starting to catch up with his body. Michael Roos is a mauler at left tackle and should be a Pro-Bowler for years to come. David “Big Country” Stewart is coming into his own at right tackle and Eugene Amano and Jake Scott seem to have a pretty good grasp on the guard positions. Leroy Harris is a versatile lineman who will serve an important role as well, as he is able to play any of the interior positions. The Titans lost another young, multitalented lineman this off-season when Daniel Loper defected to Detroit with a host of other Titans players (and coaches), but the selections of Troy Kropog (4th round) and Ryan Durand (7th round) in this year’s draft should help offset any questions of depth.
3. Kerry Collins - Some of this has to do with the offensive line's ability to protect Collins. Last year, the Titans O-Line allowed only 12 sacks, good for best in the league. Even though the line was able to help keep Kerry upright, it didn't mean he was all that good when he did throw the ball. His numbers last year were pedestrian to say the least (2676 yards, 12/7 TD-to-INT ratio and a 58% completion percentage), but when it came to managing games and making big plays, Collins was able to get it done. Still though, the fact of the matter is that Collins is 36 and is not the most nimble of QB's. The thought of giving up only 12 sacks again is a bit unrealistic, but if the O-Line can keep it around 20, there should be plenty of opportunities for Collins to make some plays given the talent around him on offense.
4. The progress of the offense under Mike Heimerdinger - There has been a long-standing belief that the Titans value the wide receiver position differently than most others. While it is true that the run-first/stop-the-run style of football has been Jeff Fisher’s philosophy from day one as a head coach in the NFL, many are quick to forget that he presided over four of the most prolific offensive seasons in Tennessee Titans/Houston Oilers history.
From 2001-2003 QB Steve McNair passed for almost 12,800 yards (and won and MVP award in 2003), Derrick Mason had over 4,300 yards receiving and Eddie George rushed for over 4,600 yards. It just so happens that Mike Heimerdinger presided over the offense during those years (2000-2004) before leaving to serve the same role for the New York Jets in 2005. No, in his second year back with the organization,
Collins is no McNair, but his role is much different than when Steve was the signal caller. This offense will be much more balanced and will ask Collins to make shorter throws and quicker progressions as opposed to the days of “Air McNair & Co.” And where Collins is not nearly the athlete McNair is, the Titans have surrounded him with as many, if not more playmakers (Chris Johnson, Justin Gage, Nate Washington, Kenny Britt and Bo Scaife) than those teams of the early aughts. Where in past years the offense may have been considered a liability for the Titans, there will be lofty expectations placed on this team to spread out defenses and open up the playbook even more.
5. The transition of the defense under Chuck Cecil - When defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz chose to accept the Lions head-coaching job in January, the Titans found themselves looking for a defensive coordinator for the first time since 2001. That didn’t last long though, as the Titans tapped one of their own for the role in defensive backs coach Chuck Cecil. Cecil and Schwartz have very different backgrounds, but when it comes to coaching, both approach the game in an incredibly level-headed, methodical manner. They also both have a knack for bringing out the best in their players and exposing the worst in opponents. And even though many players appreciated Schwartz's calm, composed demeanor, Cecil's fire and passion to compete should resonate well with both veterans and rookies alike. The Titans will need this transition to be a relatively seamless one if they hope to get back to the playoffs.
The expectations for 2009 are as high as they've ever been for any Jeff Fisher coached-team. After the success of last season and the new weapons they've added this off-season, anything less than a deep run into the playoffs, and ultimately a trip to the Super Bowl, will be considered somewhat of a failure. And even with the losses in free agency and the addition of rookies and free agents not used to the system that will be counted on to produce, this team seems primed to build on the successes, and failures, of last season.