Sometime New Year's afternoon, the lengthening shadows swallowed up Nashville's football year.
Despite a win against Houston's B-team, the Titans wound up on the wrong side of the NFL's tiebreaking matrix — the hazard of pinning playoff hopes on Tim Tebow's faith and Carson Palmer's ego. While 9-7 is one win better than the usual and three wins better than expected, the Titans — despite being the only team of the clutch of stragglers for the AFC's sixth seed to win Sunday — will have to experience the playoffs in glorious HD like the rest of us.
As shocking as 9-7 is — a winning record with two new quarterbacks, a new coaching staff, an injured No. 1 receiver and a newly minted jillionaire running back playing like a jabroni — the 2011 Titans will, perhaps appropriately, go down as just the second most surprising football team in this town.
Twenty-four hours before the Two Toners' mediocrity was affirmed, Vanderbilt finished its season with a losing record.
That, of course, is no great shock. It's the 28th time in 30 seasons that's happened. But to simply dismiss the Commodores as having yet another losing year is a spin move worthy of Barry Sanders (or Karl Rove).
Sure, the 'Dores lost in the Liberty Bowl to Cincinnati, victims of the usual hodgepodge of bad luck and bad plays that is standard fare on West End. But those had largely been avoided this season. When Jordan Rodgers left the field with a hip injury, Vandy fans were reminded of a truth best forgotten: Larry Smith has yet to graduate.
Much was denied the Commodores by the Bearcats — they were, after all, Big East co-champions, y'all. A senior class denied the chance for two bowl wins. A senior class denied the chance to become the first class of Commodore seniors in six decades to have two winning seasons. James Franklin denied the chance to be the first Commodore coach to open his tenure with a winning season since Doby Bartling went 3-0-1 in the war-shortened '44 season.
While Nashville's gridiron story of New Year's weekend may be success denied, it should instead be success delayed.
The Titans will have plenty of questions to answer in the off-season — one of them should be, "You lost to the Colts?!?" — with more than a third of the roster entering free agency. And they aren't just practice squadders or special-teams hustlers. These are guys like Cortland Finnegan, Ahmard Hall, Michael Griffin and Jason Jones — long-time keystones at LP Field.
The Titans, too, will have questions to answer in April's draft. Falling on the wrong side of all the playoff tiebreakers put them on the wrong side of the draft-order tiebreakers too. While another win would have had the team in Houston this weekend, another loss would have improved the draft spot from 20th to somewhere in the low teens — the difference between the third-best player at a position and the best.
There are a lot of unknowns, but there are knowns too: The coaching situation is stable, Kenny Britt will be back, it will be hard for Chris Johnson to have a worse year. The quarterback quandary is still there, but the choice of Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker is better than last offseason's choice of, "Uh, Kerry Collins or somebody, but we don't know who."
True, the 2012 schedule does the Titans no favors. But for the first time in awhile, things look headed in the right direction.
At Vandy, too, 2012 is promising. Franklin has Vanderbilt poised for a Top 25 recruiting class (yes, in football, not physics). Commodore fans turned out at the Liberty Bowl in a way they haven't turned out at Dudley Field in eons. Franklin's well-documented enthusiasm has proven infectious. Six wins again seems attainable; seven looks to be totally achievable.
And for once, folks in Black and Gold are asking when spring practice starts — the football off-season no longer an afterthought during baseball season.
The disappointment of New Year's — on the East Bank and West End — will fade. And when the shadows get shorter, the future will look brighter.
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