THE BUZZWORDaround Nashville lately is footwork, and it's used to tout quarterback VinceYoung's chief improvement under offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger. AfterYoung threw just nine touchdown passes and 17 picks in 2007, coach Jeff Fisherbrought in Heimerdinger to replace Norm Chow, who never meshed with Young. Chowtried to force him to stay in the pocket and go for short gains rather thantailor schemes to Young's skills, which include airing it out and creating onthe run.
This isHeimerdinger's second stint as the Titans' coordinator. He had the job from2000 to '04, and with his guidance Steve McNair, another gifted rusher with astrong arm, was the '03 league MVP. Heimerdinger is known for ridingquarterbacks to get the best out of them while also playing to their strengths,and Young has embraced the approach. Despite leaving Nashville in theoff-season to take classes at Texas—fulfilling a promise to his mother to gethis degree—Young flew back on Wednesday nights to hit the field withHeimerdinger on Thursdays and Fridays, honing his, yes, footwork before headingto the video room to dissect plays.
The focus on thefeet should give Young a better feel for how and when to use his big arm."We always say, Let your feet talk to you," says Heimerdinger. "Wedid a lot of pass-rush drills so he could feel the pocket collapsing on himwhile remaining composed. When his feet move too much, he knows to pull theball down and run."
In his first twoseasons Young tended to take one look downfield and then tuck and run if no onewas open. In contrast, during the preseason he was standing firm and scanninghis options more. "He learned how to be a quarterback this off-season,"says 15th-year center Kevin Mawae, "instead of just being anathlete."
It'll helpYoung's development that Tennessee has added free-agent Alge Crumpler, 30, whospent the last seven seasons with the Falcons. The four-time Pro Bowl tight endis a reliable target who knows how to get open, qualities the Titans needdesperately in the red zone, where they ranked last in the league in touchdownefficiency (36.4%) last season. "Throw it in the zip code, and he'll catchit," says Heimerdinger, who also praises Crumpler's leadership in thelocker room and his commitment to building an on-field rapport with Young.
Still, Young'snot going to turn into Dan Marino overnight. That's where a solid running gamecomes in. Third-year back LenDale White gained 1,110 yards in 2007 and ispoised to build on that. While acknowledging that he's well over his listed 235pounds, White insists he's in shape. "I'll let you speculate as to theactual number," he says, "but I'm at my fighting weight." Fishersays that White improved his conditioning in the off-season, giving him moreseparation speed. Be assured, however, that White won't be trading in hisnickname, Thunder, anytime soon.
And where there'sThunder, there's usually lightning. When White was at USC, Reggie Bush filledthat role; now it looks to be Chris Johnson, the first-round pick from EastCarolina, who was the fifth back taken in the draft. The 5'11", 200-poundJohnson led the NCAA with 2,960 all-purpose yards, and he blew away scouts atthe combine last February by running the 40 in 4.24. "He's just a littlebit faster than most guys," says Fisher with a grin. Mawae is more direct."Blazing," he says of Johnson's speed. "You don't realize how fast4.24 is until you see it on the field." The Rams got an eyeful in the firstpreseason game, when Johnson took a handoff from backup quarterback KerryCollins and rocketed virtually untouched for a 66-yard touchdown.
Knowing that hehas more weapons at his disposal can only speed Young's development as anall-around quarterback. Add a coordinator who can maximize his talents, acalmer head and better foot ... well, you know, and he should lead the Titansto the postseason dance again this year.
PROJECTEDSTARTING LINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH JEFF FISHER (115--99 in NFL), 15thseason with Titans
Jake SCOTT -- NewACQUISITION
Justin McCAREINS-- New ACQUISITION
Alge CRUMPLER --New ACQUISITION
Jevon KEARSE --New ACQUISITION
SACKS 3 1/2
2007 RECORD 10--6NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 5/27/21 DEFENSE 5/10/5
14 at Cincinnati
5 at Baltimore
19 at Kansas City
27 INDIANAPOLIS (M)
2 GREEN BAY
9 at Chicago
16 at Jacksonville
23 N.Y. JETS
27 at Detroit (T)
14 at Houston
28 at Indianapolis
(M) Monday (T) Thursday
NFL Rank: 10
Opponents' 2007 winning percentage: .543
Games against playoff teams: 6
SI.com's NFL personnel expert Michael Lombardievaluates the Titans' units.
Decisive year for Young; he has to become a passer.
Rookie Chris Johnson is potential playmaker; White is inside power.
There's not much here in the way of speed or depth.
Free-agent Crumpler must prove he can stay healthy.
Very good in both run blocking and pass protection.
Great talent; Haynesworth cannot be single-blocked.
Return of Fowler would boost the run defense.
Finnegan is good in coverage; looking for a big year from Griffin.
Bironas makes clutch kicks; coverage teams are solid.
After four unproductive and injury-plagued years inPhilly, the Freak is back where he started in '99, looking to rebound. The manwho set a rookie mark with 14 1/2 sacks in the Titans' Super Bowl seasonascribes his falloff to a poor fit in the Eagles' scheme. "I'm back in acity I know, with coaches I know and a scheme I know," he says. "I'm inmy comfort zone."
NOW AT SI.COM
EXCERPTED FROM SI
May 1, 2006
ON THE football field at Texas Southern in mid-April,class is in session under a blazing sun. Veteran assistant coach Jerry Rhome,hired by Young to tutor him in the ways of the NFL, is not sparing the rod."No!" Rhome yells, after a bad sideline pass. "Don't swing yourbody! Hit, turn and boom—throw! You eliminate the bad throw with goodmechanics." Young gets it right on the next play.
-- Peter King
Free access to all TITANS stories and photographs from the SI archives, plusvideo clips.
JOSH UMPHREY/GETTY IMAGES
BIG BANG While Johnson, the rookie, explodes past defenders, White (25) prefers the direct hit.
GREG NELSON (COVER)