Jeff Fisher went through the off-season without speaking to any
of his players about the strangest, bitterest loss in his memory.
Then, when he met with the full squad for the first time in
training camp, on the night of July 27, the Titans' coach said,
"I want to show you guys something." Up on the big screen in the
meeting room went this chart:
POSSESSION TIME 19:31 40:29
FIRST DOWNS 6 23
NET YARDS 134 317
COMPLETIONS 5 25
POINTS SCORED 24 10
TEAMS BALT. TENN.
"When the players saw it, they gasped," Fisher says. The numbers
showed how the winningest team of the last two seasons (26-6)
lost in the AFC divisional playoffs in Nashville last January.
"We knew that was the Super Bowl game," says quarterback Steve
McNair. "We felt strongly these were the best two teams in
football." A blocked field goal and an interception, both
returned by the Ravens for touchdowns, decided the game in the
fourth quarter. Fisher wanted his players to enter the season
knowing how formidably they'd played against Baltimore, which
went on to manhandle the Raiders in the AFC Championship Game and
the Giants in the Super Bowl, but not to be obsessed with the
Ravens. So he turned off the stats and went straight into the
business of training camp.
Neat. Tidy. Effective. In the locker room this summer there was
plenty of evidence that Fisher's ploy had worked. The players
didn't seem devastated by their early exit from the playoffs. "We
have to do against Baltimore what we have to do against the other
good teams we play," says McNair. "We've got to spread the field
and establish the passing game to take the pressure off Eddie."
Eddie George, that is, the sturdy and speedy running back who's
the key to Tennessee's offense. So the Titans, who let ace
fullback Lorenzo Neal escape to the Bengals as a free agent, will
play more three-receiver formations, with Frank Wycheck playing a
unique hybrid role--blocking back, slot receiver, tight end and
wideout--to force opponents to spend more energy accounting for
him. This, Fisher hopes, will make it harder for defenses to
stack up to stop George. Assuming that wideout Kevin Dyson
recovers from knee surgery enough to play a solid third receiver,
he and starters Derrick Mason and Chris Sanders should also give
George some relief.
Of course, that assumes that George and McNair stay healthy.
McNair finally emerged as an accurate passer (62.6% completions)
last year, but he also ended the season with a throbbing throwing
shoulder. After an MRI showed no damage, McNair visited renowned
orthopedists James Andrews in Alabama and Richard Steadman in
Colorado. Although McNair was sore, the doctors found nothing
wrong with the shoulder. On Feb. 5, however, McNair awoke in
severe pain. The joint was infected, though no physician could
figure out how it got that way.
Doctors decided that the best way to treat the problem was to
drill three holes around the shoulder and flood the infected area
with purified water. "They flushed 15 gallons of water into the
shoulder," says McNair, "and for six weeks after the surgery I
had to give myself a shot of antibiotics at 6 a.m. and another at
6 p.m. Finally the shoulder felt good."
George, meanwhile, had surgery on his right foot to repair a
frayed tendon that had nagged him all last season. He was held
out of the first two preseason games. Although it seems a
stretch, George says he'll be at full speed for the season opener
against the Dolphins on Sept. 9.
One thing that will help McNair and George is the consistency of
the offensive line, which returns intact from a stellar 2000
season. Only one blocker, right tackle Fred Miller, isn't at
least a two-year starter for the Titans. More tinkering was done
on the other side of the ball, where Tennessee traded for end
Kevin Carter, the 1999 NFL sack leader, but lost corner Denard
Walker (to the Broncos) and free safety Marcus Robertson (to the
Seahawks) as free agents.
One day during training camp, as he sat in his office, Fisher was
asked how much time he spent in the off-season trying to solve
Baltimore's defense. "Well, we don't play [the Ravens] until...
wait a minute," said Fisher, and he spun around in his chair to
the schedule on the wall behind his desk. "October 7. That week
is when we'll worry about 'em."
Just a hunch: The man who doesn't have his dates against the
Super Bowl kings memorized won't put all his eggs in the Ravens'
basket. As it should be.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Wycheck will become a jack-of-all-trades in an offense designed to ease the load on George.
COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA OLSON
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Titans
"You start to get worried when Eddie George and Steve McNair both
have off-season surgery and seem slow to come back. But assuming
they're O.K., the Titans should be playing deep into January
again....McNair seems to know what he can and can't do. He
doesn't force the ball much anymore, though he still needs to be
a little more accurate....George is the definition of a good NFL
back, tough and strong and fast....They'll miss Lorenzo Neal
because they don't have a blocking hammer for George now....
Pedestrian receivers, which could be a problem. The fourth year
is about time for Kevin Dyson to show something....I am amazed
to see that Bruce Matthews, at 40, is still one of the top two
or three guards in the league. If he's not a first-ballot Hall
of Famer, then Jerry Rice isn't either....Nobody's ever heard of
Benji Olson, but that won't last. He's a Pro Bowl guard, one of
the most underrated run blockers in football....I like the move
of Jevon Kearse to right end--but only if Kevin Carter's going
to bring his A game. He dogged it for the Rams last year, and
everyone knows it....Josh Evans is a Sam Adams-type hole
plugger at defensive tackle. He'll be a great help against Corey
Dillon and Fred Taylor and Jerome Bettis, big backs who need to
get stuffed by a physical noseman....Samari Rolle could be a
Deion-type cover guy. He's a great player. I worry about the
other corner, unless the rookie, Andre Dyson, can play. Every
other guy they're trying will get beat in man coverage."
Sept. 9 MIAMI
23 at Jacksonville
30 Open date
Oct. 7 at Baltimore
14 TAMPA BAY
21 at Detroit
29 at Pittsburgh (Mon.)
Nov. 4 JACKSONVILLE
12 BALTIMORE (Mon.)
18 at Cincinnati
Dec. 2 at Cleveland
9 at Minnesota
16 GREEN BAY
22 at Oakland (Sat.)
2001 SCHEDULE STRENGTH
NFL rank: 7 (tie)
Opponents' 2000 winning percentage: .516
Games against playoff teams: 6
with 2000 statistics
COACH: Jeff Fisher; eighth season with Tennessee (58-44 in NFL)
2000 RECORD: 13-3 (first in AFC Central)
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total): offense 7/16/14; defense 3/1/1
OFFENSIVE BACKS PVR*
QB Steve McNair 48 396 att. 248 comp. 62.6% 2,847 yds.
15 TDs 13 int. 83.2 rtg.
RB Eddie George 7 403 att. 1,509 yds. 3.7 avg. 50 rec.
453 yds. 9.1 avg. 16 TDs
RB Jonathan Linton 303 38 att. 112 yds. 2.9 avg. 3 rec.
[N] 8 yds. 2.7 avg. 1 TD
FB William Floyd 167 16 att. 33 yds. 2.1 avg. 17 rec.
[N] 114 yds. 6.7 avg. 2 TDs
RECEIVERS, SPECIALISTS, OFFENSIVE LINEMEN
WR Derrick Mason 72 63 rec. 895 yds. 5 TDs
WR Chris Sanders 238 33 rec. 536 yds. 0 TDs
WR Kevin Dyson 264 6 rec. 104 yds. 1 TD
TE Frank Wycheck 87 70 rec. 636 yds. 4 TDs
K Joe Nedney[N] 147 24/24 XPs 34/38 FGs 126 pts.
PR Derrick Mason 72 51 ret. 13.0 avg. 1 TD
KR Derrick Mason 72 42 ret. 27.0 avg. 0 TDs
LT Brad Hopkins 6'3" 305 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
LG Bruce Matthews 6'5" 305 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Kevin Long 6'5" 295 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Benji Olson 6'3" 315 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Fred Miller 6'7" 315 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LE Kevin Carter[N] 35 tackles 10 1/2 sacks
LT John Thornton 28 tackles 4 sacks
RT Jason Fisk 38 tackles 2 sacks
RE Jevon Kearse 52 tackles 11 1/2 sacks
OLB Greg Favors 37 tackles 5 1/2 sacks
MLB Randall Godfrey 118 tackles 3 sacks
OLB Eddie Robinson 60 tackles 4 sacks
CB DeRon Jenkins[N] 55 tackles 1 int.
SS Blaine Bishop 83 tackles 2 1/2 sacks
FS Bobby Myers 12 tackles 0 int.
CB Samari Rolle 39 tackles 7 int.
P Craig Hentrich 76 punts 40.8 avg.
[N]New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 119)
"Olson is a Pro Bowl guard, one of the most underrated run
blockers in football."