The Tennessee Titans have many of the requisite accoutrements of
an NFL team-on-the-rise: new name; new riverside stadium in an
up-and-coming city; new lakeside practice facility in the burbs;
new uniforms (to which even resident clotheshorse and wide
receiver Yancey Thigpen gives a thumbs-up); balanced combination
of cagey veterans and young talent; soft division in which a
half dozen or so wins are virtually guaranteed; and--whaddya
know!--an ultimatum from the the guy who pays the bills.
Playoffs, or heads will roll.
That was the message that owner Bud Adams gave to general
manager Floyd Reese and coach Jeff Fisher before this season.
Considering the distractions those two have endured--the death
watch as the team, which was known as the Oilers until this
season, played its final season in Houston in 1996; the
so-called home games it played at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis in
'97 after the franchise moved to Nashville; the use of cramped,
aging Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville as home base last
season--Adams should be worshiping at the feet of Reese and
Fisher instead of putting their necks in a guillotine. But give
an owner a strong-armed quarterback like Steve McNair, a durable
running back like Eddie George and a stud rookie like defensive
end Jevon Kearse, and visions of Roman numerals start dancing in
The idea that these erstwhile nomads could be in Atlanta on Jan.
30 isn't utterly preposterous. Following a typically grinding
16-10 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at Adelphia
Coliseum, 8-2 Tennessee shares (along with the Indianapolis
Colts, Miami Dolphins, St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks) the
second-best record in the NFL and has already beaten the team
with the best (the 9-1 Jacksonville Jaguars, 20-19, on the
road). The Titans are reasonably healthy and ecstatically happy,
especially considering that last year at this time they were
homeless and heading toward the playoff-less .500 purgatory that
had been their usual fate. Three straight 8-8 seasons may make
you the favorite of the parity-loving NFL office, but they don't
do much to dazzle your new fan base. Or your owner. "You'd have
expected that if we hadn't had all those distractions, there
would've probably been some changes at the top," says Reese.
"I'm taking what Bud said seriously. It's time to stop being
Even though the Titans have been anything but mediocre, they've
remained practically invisible, both within and without the
great state of Tennessee. You can call them low-profile, you can
call them boring, or, as offensive tackle Brad Hopkins
intriguingly puts it, you can call them "unnotarized." It
amounts to the same thing. No Titan has been more unnotarized
than George. With 1,368, 1,399 and 1,294 yards in his first
three pro seasons, George, the 1995 Heisman Trophy winner from
Ohio State, has been nothing if not consistent, yet around the
NFL there's the feeling that he needs a breakthrough, that he's
on the verge but not quite there, that, to damn him with faint
praise, he's atop the league's second tier of running backs,
well behind Terrell Davis, Jamal Anderson and Emmitt Smith.
His performance on Sunday was typical of his career and the
season he's having--83 yards on 21 carries, mostly between the
tackles, with a long gain of 14. Though the superbly conditioned
George (6'3", 240 pounds, 3% body fat, 4.5 in the 40) suggests a
sleek BMW, his role isn't much different from that of the Bus,
the Steelers' Jerome Bettis, who churned out 88 yards on 14
carries against Tennessee. One keeps waiting for more from the
conservative Titans offense, as well as more from George. George
included. "Sooner or later, I will get there," he says. "I don't
know whether I'll ever get 2,000 yards. That's not my goal. I
don't play for numbers. But I want to have the kind of season
where people say I'm among the very best backs in this league."
In the off-season veteran free-agent fullback Lorenzo Neal was
brought in to help George achieve that goal, since it was widely
believed that George would be more effective in a two-back
alignment, rather than running solo or getting backfield
interference from an H-back. More often than not, though, Neal
has been on the sideline as Tennessee goes with its Ace set (two
tight ends, two wide receivers) rather than with Grunt (the
fullback takes the place of either a tight end or a wide
receiver) or Tank (the fullback and both tight ends are in). Of
the 52 plays from scrimmage in which George was on the field
against the Steelers, Neal was with him on only 14. The results?
George gained 47 yards on 10 carries with Neal as his blocker,
32 on 11 without him.
George and Neal locker next to each other at both the Titans'
Baptist Sports Park practice facility and Adelphia, and some of
their recent conversations have been about Neal's near
invisibility. They talk, too, about things that backs talk
about, like what to do when George gets into the secondary.
"Eddie always wants me to get my head on the sideline side of
the cornerback and he'll go outside," says Neal.
Says George, "This is no slam on our tight ends, but Lorenzo is
a running back, so he does things instinctively. In one game
Lorenzo chip-blocked on a lineman he knew I was going to get
past, then nicked a linebacker, then went out and got the
safety. Three men on one play. You can't coach that." Privately,
Neal is frustrated and angry but won't be drawn into public
controversy. "All I know is that I'll do anything to help
Eddie," he says.
George and Neal's keep-a-lid-on-any-controversy restraint
typifies the good-soldier Titans. "Four years, four stadiums,
three cities, two states, two names," says Reese, "and we heard
almost no complaints. The way our players handled the adversity
has made everyone in the organization proud."
George is foremost among those players. He sucks up the weekly
pounding, takes his medicine and hasn't missed a game in four
seasons. Probably the thing that most worries the Tennessee
brass about George is that he works out too much. He checked
himself into a Columbus, Ohio, hospital in June because he
experienced dizziness and cramping while training in extreme
humidity; he was given intravenous fluids and released. While
other players take a breather during downtime at practices,
George hops on a stationary bike or runs sprints, taking care
not to disturb the hit-the-helmet passing game that might be
going on between Hopkins and fellow offensive line veteran Bruce
Matthews. He's legendary for having ripped off 60 dips--an
agonizing reverse pull-up maneuver in which the player lowers
and then raises himself while gripping parallel bars--during a
training camp workout. Before he decided on Ohio State, George
got the ultimate we-love-your-athleticism-son nod: Joe Paterno
wanted him at Penn State as a linebacker.
George wasn't always so motivated. He was a slacker for his
first two years at a suburban Philadelphia high school until his
mother, Donna, stepped in with a two-word solution: military
school. Off he went ("in tears," says George) to Fork Union
(Va.) Military Academy, where soon he had an awakening. "My
coach, Mickey Sullivan, told me one day, 'Anything you want you
can get if you change your attitude,'" George recalls.
"Suddenly, it was like a new world clicked in. It changed my
whole philosophy. I'd miss lunches and dinners to get in a
Fisher frets about George's perfectionism. The two have talked
lately about Walter Payton, to whom Fisher was close when they
were Chicago Bears teammates from 1981 to '85. "Eddie detests
making mistakes," says Fisher. "It's part of his competitive
drive. That's good. But I tell Eddie that he should ease up on
himself. Walter had as much drive as anyone, but he used to
laugh off mistakes, forget about them and move on."
George never met Payton, but he has adopted him as a role model.
"I know I can't be exactly like Walter because I don't have his
outgoing personality," says George, "but I want to understand his
work ethic, the process it took for him to get to the top. I'm
more of a leader by example, but I've tried to be a little more
vocal this year, be a guy that players can come to."
Tennessee needs more of that because its other franchise player
on offense, the 26-year-old McNair, is also a quiet,
behind-the-scenes guy. In keeping with the Titans' image, he is
also rock-ribbed tough. McNair could spend his days complaining
that Fisher and offensive coordinator Les Steckel have turned
his cannon of an arm into a BB gun by ordering conservative
routes for tight ends Frank Wycheck (Tennessee's leading
receiver the last three seasons) and Jackie Harris, rather than
letting him throw down-the-field crowd-pleasers to wideouts
Kevin Dyson and Chris Sanders. (Thigpen missed Sunday's game
with a sprained left ankle.) Instead, there was McNair against
the Steelers, lurching into the end zone from two yards out for
a first-quarter touchdown and then making a flying leap from the
one to score later in the period. He was just 10 weeks removed
from the back surgery that had kept him out of five games. "It
means something when your quarterback lays his body on the line
the same as everybody else," says Wycheck. "The sacrifices that
Steve has made for this team are unbelievable." George, sounding
leaderlike, put it this way: "Steve's performance was uplifting."
As was that of the Titans' defense. Fisher, who played safety in
Buddy Ryan's 46, has brought that system to Tennessee, where two
ingredients are in place to make it work: an imposing front line
and quicksilver cornerbacks. After only 10 games the 6'4",
260-pound Kearse has officially reached the scary stage. His
speed off the ball--he's as fast as George in the 40--twice
caused Pittsburgh linemen to move prematurely; this was after
Kearse, who ran his sack total to 7 1/2 with a fourth-quarter
takedown of Kordell Stewart, lost his breakfast on the sideline
early in the game. "I guess I just got too excited," he said
with a smile. (Prediction: In five years Kearse, ferocious on
the field, engaging off it, will be the game's dominant
defensive player as well as a popular pitchman.)
As for the speed of corners Denard Walker and Samari Rolle,
consider these two plays. In the third quarter Stewart threw a
perfect bomb toward wideout Hines Ward. Rolle came flying out of
nowhere to tip it away. In the fourth quarter Stewart noticed
that Tennessee was in an eight-in-the-box,
go-and-get-the-quarterback alignment, a characteristic scheme of
the aggressive 46. Stewart called an audible and went long to
wideout Troy Edwards. It didn't matter: Walker was right there,
as was free safety Marcus Robertson, and they broke up the pass.
The Titans are the proud owners of a pair of one-point
victories, three three-point wins and a six-point triumph. This
is starting to look less like an accident and more like Fisher's
guiding philosophy--score early, close up the bag of tricks (a
small bag to begin with) and pray that the defense can hang on.
That's not the case, the Titans say, but subconsciously that's
what they might be doing. It's a dangerous formula. Either way,
barring a collapse, the franchise should make the playoffs for
the first time since 1993, when Warren Moon was under center.
No, Tennessee hasn't overwhelmed anybody, but it appears there
will be no head-lopping ceremony at season's end.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Mr. Reliable George is on pace for his fourth straight 1,000-yard season, but he's still rarely mentioned as an elite back.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Hot corner Dainon Sidney (37) flashed the speed needed in the Titans' 46 defense when he broke up a pass intended for Ward.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Follow the leader McNair, who had back surgery in September, has impressed his teammates with his rugged play.
George got motivated as a teen not long after his mother, Donna,
uttered a two-word solution: military school