From Terrible Towel to Terrible Team: Tennessee Titans Continue Fall from Grace

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From Terrible Towel to Terrible Team: Tennessee Titans Continue Fall from Grace
(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Pictured here is the last game that the Tennessee Titans won, all the way back in December 2008. This was the same game, mind you, that was to decide who was the likely top seed in the AFC playoffs, not to mention being a grudge match from way back.

The Titans and the Steelers used to share a division, and games between the two franchises have always been a knock-down drag-out affair. This one was no different: smash-mouth football of the finest degree, resulting in a Titans win to catapult them to a 13-2 record and the recipient of home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Then a strange thing happened. LenDale White (pictured above), swooning with celebratory glee, committed, in the eyes of many—particularly the Pittsburgh Steelers and Steeler Nation—an unspeakable, unforgivable act.

He, along with Keith Bulluck and a couple of other Titans, defaced one of Myron Cope's official Terrible Towels, arguably the most recognizable team symbol in sports and THE first rally towel ever to be used by sports fans.

The following week they were decimated—not beaten, decimated—by the Indianapolis Colts. Big deal, supporters cried; it was a meaningless game and they were already preparing for the playoffs.

Okay, maybe.

Then came the divisional game against Baltimore, led by a rookie quarterback and coached by a rookie coach. In their previous meeting, Tennessee had prevailed 13-10 in Baltimore, but this was Nashville, and this was the playoffs. The rookies didn't stand a chance.

Except they did stand a chance, and they took advantage of it. With maddening efficiency and unflappable cool, Joe Flacco led his Ravens over the Titans by a score of...13-10. Same score, different result for the Titans.

Supporters claimed the "Any Given Sunday" defense, used by players and fans who know their team lost a game they had no right losing but lost anyway. They typically don't point out the mistakes made that led to the loss, the superior play of the opponent, or the fact that they simply blew it in critical moments (Alge Crumpler, anyone?).

The Titans were one-and-done for the playoffs, and got to watch their nemesis, the Pittsburgh Steelers, go on to win Lombardi trophy No. 6.

In comes the 2009 season. First up: The World Champion Pittsburgh Steelers, a game that many, including yours truly, considered to be the AFC Championship that never was.

Tennessee had returned 21 of 22 starters, had a dynamic new defensive coordinator, and had publicly put the Terrible Towel incident behind them.

We know this because every time they were asked about it, they reminded us that they had put it behind them and did not consider it a factor in their game preparation.

Maybe they should have, considering the result.

Once again, the teams engaged in a slugfest. When the dust had settled, Ben Roethlisberger had thrown for over 350 yards, and the Steelers had prevailed 13-10 in overtime.

No sign of a Terrible Towel being stomped at the game, but a curious thing happened in the days leading up to it: Leland Statom, a local weatherman, made a display of publicly stomping a Terrible Towel during a midday newscast.

Oops.

Maybe there really is something to this karma thing.

How else do you explain what has happened to the Titans since then?

It got worse from there, with the Titans dropping every game they have played in the 2009 season. Now they sit at 0-5, with people calling for Kerry Collins to be replaced by Vince Young and Jeff Fisher to be fired.

Funny thing is, none of those three names is the problem OR the solution. Or maybe they are.

Fact is, pinpointing any one person as the cause or the cure is actually rather difficult.

Sure, Collins has thrown six interceptions. He has also accounted for six touchdowns, one of them a rushing touchdown.

Vince Young came into the game against the Colts and looked completely lost. Sure, blame it on lack of preparation, but for all those clamoring for him to be in the game, he got in the game and didn't even complete a pass.

He is not the end-all-be-all that everyone wants to make him, plain and simple. 

Sure, Alge Crumpler is continuing his fumbling ways, but he has also hauled in some great catches.

Yeah, Kenny Britt isn't exactly lighting up the highlight reels, but he is just a rookie, and on a struggling team like this, he is going to struggle more than most.

Nate Washington has been hot and cold, but so has Justin Gage.

The defensive secondary is most suspect; they have allowed four of the five quarterbacks they have faced to gain 300+ yards through the air. But which defensive back do you point the finger at? Cortland Finnegan? Nick Harper? Chris Hope? Vince Fuller? Rookies Ryan Mouton and Jason McCourty?

Fact is, they have all made boneheaded mistakes, and they have all made great plays.

Well, how about the linebackers? They must be dropping the ball, right?

Not necessarily. In fact, the linebackers and the front four have held opponents to under 100 yards per game rushing, so they are pretty solid up front. Of course, they can't cover a pass to save their lives.

Then it must be new defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil, right? He's calling bad plays, sending in the wrong coverage at the wrong times. Gotta be Chuck's fault.

Again, not so fast. He calls the plays, but he can't do much about a deep safety biting on a play-action fake and allowing a receiver to run by him deep for a wide open reception and touchdown.

Injuries are already taking a massive toll on the defense: Finnegan is hamstrung by a hamstring injury, Bulluck by a knee problem, Harper by sore ribs, and Jason Jones and Nick Harper are both out long term, Jones with a bum shoulder and Harper with a broken arm sustained in Sunday's loss to the Colts.

But all of these guys started the season healthy.

Whatever it is, the Titans are now in salvage mode. They have little chance of making the playoffs, even if they run the table, which, at their current level of production, is almost a laughable concept. Eleven wins will not make the playoffs. Too many teams are playing high level football to allow for that.

Even teams that are currently at 3-2 are running the risk of missing the big show if they lose one or two more games.

The only option they have is to try and end up with a somewhat respectable final record. The last thing they want is to be this year's Detroit Lions.

Throw a rock in Nashville, and you will hit someone who knows what the Titans need to do to fix the problem. Put Vince Young in, they will say, and all will be well. He should be the starter anyway, they bellow; all Collins does is manage the game.

This would be the fan whose knowledge of what it takes to manage a football game from under center has been gleaned from too many late night sports radio shows.

Throw another rock and you will hit a different fan with a different answer. Fire Fisher! He's too stubborn to admit he screwed up! This is all his fault!

This same fan would have likely gotten into a fistfight with anyone who dared to impugn the good name of Jeff Fisher, the football genius, who coached the Titans to 10 straight wins and a 13-3 record last year.

Fans are notoriously fickle, no matter the town.

Even within the Titans organization, people are at a loss. Coach Fisher sounded more deflated in his last press conference than he did after the Titans lost the Super Bowl after the 1999 season.

Regardless of the questions, one thing is certain: the Tennessee Titans have fallen from grace harder than any team in recent memory. And no one can explain why.

Yeah, I know it's not really the towel, folks. But as far as explanations go, it's as good a one as any right now.

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