Midway through a passing drill during the first week of Titans
training camp, wide receivers coach Steve Walters jumped onto
the field to applaud the efforts of wideout Chris Sanders. A
fifth-year veteran, Sanders had read a change in coverage and
switched from a short route to a fly pattern. "Great job,
Chris," yelled Walters. "You see that defender standing there,
you just run right past him. Head downfield. Go deep. Don't ever
"Go deep" appears to be Tennessee's motto for 1999. Last season
quarterback Steve McNair completed only three passes of more
than 40 yards, and one of those was a Hail Mary. The Titans were
so conservative that the team's leading receiver was a tight
end: Frank Wycheck caught 70 passes for 768 yards. Only one of
Tennessee's top four pass catchers was a wideout (Yancey Thigpen
finished third, with 38 grabs).
"The key to the offense, and probably the season, is the wide
receivers," admits Thigpen. "Big plays are backbreakers. Last
year we had one or two all season. This year we need to have one
or two a half."
For coach Jeff Fisher's sake, one a game would be nice. After
three consecutive 8-8 seasons, it's no secret that Fisher is on
the hot seat. The Titans move into 67,000-seat Adelphia Coliseum
in Nashville, and owner Bud Adams, who brought in former Vikings
executive Jeff Diamond as the club's president and chief
operating officer, is talking of the franchise's first playoff
appearance since 1993. "With this talent," Adams said this
summer, "I'd be real surprised if they don't play outstanding
If Tennessee doesn't have a receiver who can stretch the field,
however, defenses will again stack eight men at or near the line
of scrimmage and punish running back Eddie George, who became
less productive as the game wore on--he averaged 4.1 yards in
the first quarter, 3.1 in the fourth--and less effective as the
'98 season wore on. Last year George gained 1,294 yards, but in
the final eight games he had only 420 yards. "Teams just didn't
respect our deep ball," says Fisher. "But we didn't throw it
less than anyone else. We just didn't catch it."
The team is still waiting for moves made before last season to
pay off. After signing a five-year, $21 million free-agent deal
in March 1998, Thigpen missed seven games with a variety of
ailments and caught only three touchdown passes. The Titans
signed Sanders to a five-year, $9.5 million extension. The
188-pound Sanders is a burner, but he had only five catches in
1998 and was deactivated for two games. The club also used its
first-round pick last year to select Utah wideout Kevin Dyson,
who quickly became known as the receiver taken five spots ahead
of Randy Moss. Dyson struggled to learn the offense and finished
with only 21 catches and two scores.
McNair suffered accordingly. "Steve just didn't have any
confidence in his wide receivers last year," says Thigpen. "For
this team to win, it has to become second nature for him to let
the ball fly and know we'll make a play for him."
Fisher has encouraged McNair to become more vocal about sloppy
routes and miscommunications, and he wants the fifth-year
quarterback to look downfield before working back to the tight
end. The team also plans to use more three-wideout sets with
Dyson and Sanders spread wide and Thigpen in the slot.
The biggest hurdle, however, may be getting McNair to unlearn
the edict that coaches have drilled into his head since he was
drafted in 1995: Whatever you do, do not throw interceptions.
McNair has carried that directive to an extreme; he was picked
off a franchise-record-low 10 times last year. "Steve needs to
cut loose with a throw once in a while," says Fisher. "He has
unfolded his game a little bit each year. This season he needs
to unfold his game all the way."
Fisher would like to see McNair run less and not be so quick to
dump the ball to a tight end or a running back. McNair, however,
doesn't appear to have fully embraced the new philosophy. "The
object of the game is to move the chains, not throw deep,"
McNair says. "My slogan is still, 'Don't force the ball.' You
don't understand. I hate interceptions."
One would hope that McNair doesn't hate losing the football more
than he hates losing football games. Fisher's job may depend on
COLOR PHOTO: JONATHAN DANIEL Deep thinker The Titans want McNair, who last year threw a franchise-record-low 10 interceptions, to take more chances downfield.
COLOR PHOTO: PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY
Sept. 12 CINCINNATI
26 at Jacksonville
Oct. 3 at San Francisco
17 at New Orleans
24 Open date
31 ST. LOUIS
Nov. 7 at Miami
14 at Cincinnati
28 at Cleveland
Dec. 5 at Baltimore
9 OAKLAND (Thurs.)
Jan. 2 at Pittsburgh
1998 Record 8-8 (2nd in AFC Central)
NFL rank (rush/pass/total): offense 9/15/9; defense 9 (tie)/20/16
1999 Schedule strength NFL rank: 24 Opponents' 1998 winning
percentage: .482 Games against playoff teams: 5
A FALL FROM MEDIOCRITY?
The rechristened Oilers have finished with an 8-8 record in each
of the last three years. Only two other teams (below) have had
three consecutive seasons with a .500 record. The bad omen for
the Titans: Both of those teams slipped badly in the fourth
season. At the opposite extreme are the Rams, who have now gone
41 consecutive years without finishing a season at .500, the
second-longest such streak in NFL history. (Chicago did not have
a .500 record in any of its first 48 years in the NFL.)
Team Year 1 W-L-T Year 2 W-L-T Year 3 W-L-T Year 4 W-L-T
Braves/Redskins 1932 4-4-2 1933 5-5-2 1934 6-6 1935 2-8-1
Packers 1983 8-8 1984 8-8 1985 8-8 1986 4-12
Oilers/Titans 1996 8-8 1997 8-8 1998 8-8 1999 ?
PLAYER TO WATCH
In 1995 Florida State retired the jersey of All-Pro cornerback
Deion Sanders. But before jersey number 2 was retired, Samari
Rolle wore it as a Seminoles cornerback. All Rolle did was have
an All-ACC career, which culminated with his being selected in
the second round of the 1998 draft by Tennessee. If Rolle
continues to develop as he has in the NFL, the school may have
to retire it in Rolle's name as well. Like Deion, Rolle has the
two components of a great cornerback: speed (a 4.32 in the 40)
and a craving for challenges. Last year the 6-foot, 175-pound
Rolle overcame a neck injury during training camp to lead the
team's rookies with 30 tackles. He also had two sacks and a
forced fumble. At a June minicamp, coaches were raving about
Rolle, who seemed to get his hands on almost every pass thrown
in his direction. It may be only a matter of time before he
replaces Darryll Lewis in the starting lineup.
PROJECTED LINEUP WITH 1998 STATISTICS
Coach: Jeff Fisher
Sixth season with Titans (32-38 in NFL)
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Steve McNair 40
492 att. 289 comp. 58.7% 3,228 yds. 15 TDs 10 int. 80.1 rtg.
RB Eddie George 19
348 att. 1,294 yds. 3.7 avg. 37 rec. 310 yds. 8.4 avg. 6 TDs
RB Rodney Thomas 249
24 att. 100 yds. 4.2 avg. 6 rec. 55 yds. 9.2 avg. 2 TDs
FB Lorenzo Neal 321
5 att. 25 yds. 5.0 avg. 5 rec. 14 yds. 2.8 avg. 1 TD
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Yancey Thigpen 97 38 rec. 493 yds. 3 TDs
WR Kevin Dyson 149 21 rec. 263 yds. 2 TDs
WR Chris Sanders 199 5 rec. 136 yds. 0 TDs
TE Frank Wycheck 117 70 rec. 768 yds. 2 TDs
K Al Del Greco 80 28/28 XPs 36/39 FGs 136 pts.
PR Derrick Mason 310 31 ret. 7.4 avg. 0 TDs
KR Mike Archie 324 42 ret. 21.7 avg. 0 TDs
LT Brad Hopkins 6'3" 306 lbs. 13 games 13 starts
LG Scott Sanderson 6'6" 296 lbs. 15 games 3 starts
C Bruce Matthews 6'5" 298 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Benji Olson 6'4" 310 lbs. 13 games 1 start
RT Jon Runyan 6'7" 308 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LE Pratt Lyons 32 tackles 2 sacks
LT Mike D. Jones 34 tackles 2 1/2 sacks
RT Jason Fisk 17 tackles 1 1/2 sacks
RE Kenny Holmes 33 tackles 2 1/2 sacks
OLB Eddie Robinson 90 tackles 3 1/2 sacks
MLB Barron Wortham 4 tackles 0 sacks
OLB Joe Bowden 103 tackles 1 1/2 sacks
CB Denard Walker 83 tackles 2 int.
SS Blaine Bishop 85 tackles 3 int.
FS Marcus Robertson 43 tackles 1 int.
CB Darryll Lewis 69 tackles 4 int.
P Craig Hentrich 69 punts 47.2 avg.
New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 122)