The odyssey of the Titans so far brings to mind the story of a certain newly married couple who went to San Francisco on their wedding trip. In a 1965 Ford Galaxie, they drove all over Northern California: up the coast, down the coast and across I-80 over the mountains. The car performed beautifully, the trip was idyllic, until the couple headed back over the Sierras.
It was here the car lost power on a bridge spanning a high gorge. There was no shoulder, so, against the traffic, they rolled a quarter of a mile downhill to get off the bridge. After pulling over, the husband opened the hood and discovered water pouring from the radiator, forming a stream that was rapidly seeking the shortest route down toward Sacramento.
No other travelers stopped to offer assistance. The Galaxie, whose most modern appurtenance was seat belts, was not equipped with emergency flashers. As twilight approached, the couple concluded it wasn’t safe to remain in the car. So they scrambled up the steep outcrop that had been blasted to make way for the road, clung to a couple of scraggly bushes and waited in the dark.
After an hour, a highway patrolman discovered the stranded couple, set out a road flare and radioed for a wrecker from the closest town, 10 miles away. About 45 minutes after that, an old man and his grandson pulled up in a tow truck. On the way to the garage, the couple explained where they had been and what had happened. “Wa-alp,” drawled the old man after hearing this tale, “honeymoon’s over, ain’t it?”
That’s about where the Titans find themselves after Monday night’s humiliating 34-7 defeat at Pittsburgh. The once proud machine is broken down, our heroes are stranded in the middle of Last Place and, boys, the honeymoon is definitely over.
As poorly as they had played thus far, the Titans had a chance to vault back into the AFC Central race with a win against their longtime rivals. It was the kind of big game on which Jeff Fisher’s team usually thrives, and in the NFL’s premier television venue too. All of these factors led most of the Media Geniuses to envision a close, brutal, ugly game.
They were half right. The brutality was administered by only one side, and it wasn’t close. The Steelers didn’t simply run over the Titans; they outpassed, outkicked, out-fake-field-goaled, out-tackled and out-everythinged them. In fact, Pittsburgh had more than Tennessee in almost every relevant category except turnovers, missed tackles, errant field goals and dropped interceptions.
Amid the debacle, the Titans managed two miracles. They added two more to what, if the NFL recorded such stats, would surely rank as the leading number of unpardonably stupid, drive-sustaining defensive penalties that lead to opponents’ scores. And, somehow, they made Pittsburgh’s Kordell Stewartwho, on many days, couldn’t throw a ball into a barn from 10 paceslook like the second coming of Terry Bradshaw. (They even allowed Tommy Maddox, most recently of the tanked XFL, to look like he should have been nicknamed “He Burn Me.”)
Monday night’s embarrassingly woeful performance forced Tennessee fans to confront a sobering, painful reality. After the poor performance against Miami, they could rationalize that even great teams have bad nights. After the 13-6 loss to Jacksonville, they could carry away the consolations that their team could have won and at least went down while playing the hard-nosed style they favor. After the blowout at Baltimore, they could remind themselves that such things happen in hostile environments against defenses like the Ravens’. Now, however, fans cannot ignore the pattern that is apparent in the Titans’ play (or in the subsequent mediocrity of the Ravens and Jaguars).
Nashvillians can no longer tell themselves that the Titans are a great team struggling to overcome a couple of subpar performances. This is not a team experiencing difficulty in a specific, fixable area, as the St. Louis Rams did last year with their defense; Bonnie and Clyde wound up with fewer holes than these guys. This is not a team that saved a stinky showing for a national TV audience. Right now, for all their talent and all their Pro Bowlers, the Titans are playing as one sorry team.
If nothing else puts it in perspective, this should: With more than a third of the season gone, the Titans own only half as many victories as Cleveland and Cincinnati, who in recent years have been to the NFL what Mississippi and Arkansas are to the Union. Scarier still, the Titans’ record is no better than pitiful Dallas and pathetic Washington.
At least the woes of those two dogs were predictable. But the Titans were a consensus pick to reach the Super Bowl. Fisher, who is not prone to self-aggrandizing hype, predicted that this team would be stronger than last year’s (and, specifically, that this defense would be improved over the one that ranked as the NFL’s stingiest a season ago).
As a result, Titans fans have not spent this week commiserating but wondering how the mighty could have fallen so far and so inexplicably. You have to think the coaching staff are either scratching their heads themselves or are simply overwhelmed by the number of fresh leaks in the boat.
None of the once acceptable alibis holds up any more. Injuries, for example, have depleted the secondary. But that alone doesn’t explain the porousness of the Titans’ pass defense. It doesn’t account for the absence of what was supposed to be one of the league’s most fearsome pass rushes; on Monday, the pressure was so absent that Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward tauntingly wondered whether Kevin Carter and Jevon Kearse (whom he mislabeled “Jerome”) had been on the field.
And, yeah, you could point out that the Titans this year have one of the league’s toughest schedules. But that doesn’t explain their lack of competitiveness against Baltimore and Pittsburgh, or their frantic struggle to slip past winless, almost defenseless Detroit.
Now, even the presumed pillars of the team are sources of concern. Going into Monday’s game, when he picked up only 13 yards before exiting, Eddie George had the worst average-per-carry among NFL starters. Was he just rusty from missing most of training camp? Has he lost some explosiveness? Has the veteran line gotten weak? Or do the Titans miss FB Lorenzo Neal that badly?
Even more disturbing, Fisher prides himself in his team’s hard-nosed, never-quit attitude. But in the second half against the Steelers, that attitude was nowhere in sight. For all the world, the Titans looked like a team that lay down and submitted like an overmatched dog.
Oh, here’s one more fingernail to chew on. The league’s salary cap for next year looks to be a little over $72 million. That would put the Titans, just one year after a tough, cap-induced housecleaning, more than $18 million over the limit.
The honeymooners’ Ford was repaired with a new thermostat, and the car still runs. Right now, the Titans appear to need far more than a single part. Even an 8-8 record is beginning to look optimistic.
So far Titans’ fans aren’t proving to be fair-weather. But this surprising breakdown is perhaps their first reminder of the vows, “for better or for worse,” that come with any marriage.
How it looks from the La-Z-Boy
Jaguars 23, Titans 20
Florida 49, Vanderbilt 16
Tennessee 21, Notre Dame 14
Alabama 24, LSU 17
Ole Miss 26, Arkansas 14
Mississippi St. 31, Kentucky 21
Steelers 17, Ravens 14
Bears 20, Browns 10