For six weeks, the Tennessee Titans had been the victims of identity theft. Never mind that they might have been not only the victims, but also accessories to the crime.
And whom do they have to thank for helping them find their identity on Sunday? How about 86-year-old owner Bud Adams, who all but forced the switch back to Vince Young at quarterback after an 0-6 slide to start the year?
Young was solid in his return to the starting lineup for the first time in 14 months. But his performance was not the key reason the Titans were able to defeat the Jacksonville Jaguars. His presence was.
I'm not talking about Young's poise in the huddle or on the field—which to most people looked surprisingly good, as he completed 15 of 18 passes for 125 yards with one touchdown.
No, the real hidden accomplishment behind the move back to Young was that it forced the Titans to rely again on what they do best (or did best) before their current struggles—running the football.
It was evident Sunday as they made their best use yet of dynamic running back Chris Johnson, who set a franchise record with 228 yards in the 30-13 victory. It allowed Young to settle into a complementary role and manage the game, similar to the way Kerry Collins did for a good part of last year when the Titans went 13-3.
Simply put, running the football is what the Titans are built to do, and what they should do with the league's leading rusher in Johnson in their backfield. But before Sunday, Johnson had just two 100-yard rushing games in the first six losses. And one of those deserved an asterisk, coming in the 59-0 fiasco in New England when his 128 yards were simply a product of the Titans trying to kill off the clock and get out of frigid Foxboro ASAP.
Who would have thought that a conservative Jeff Fisher-designed team could fall into the trap of throwing the football too much?
Early in the season, in part because of a spotty pass defense, the Titans found themselves on the short end of too many shootouts with any number of teams better equipped then they to play quick-strike football. The Titans might as well have been trying to win a drag race in an SUV.
Consider these numbers: Through the first six losses this year, the Titans averaged 33.7 passes per game, putting the ball in the air 202 times. That's a number that would have been much higher, if you factor out the fact that they threw only 14 passes in trying to escape as quickly as they could from the lost cause in Foxboro two weeks ago. Through the first five games, Tennessee passed an average 37.6 times per game—all losses, with Kerry Collins passing more than 30 times in each contest.
Even last year, when everything went right, throwing the ball was Tennessee's last resort. The Titans were just 3-3 (counting the playoff loss) when throwing at least 30 times a game versus 10-1 when throwing under 30.
This isn't an indictment of Collins, by any means. He's a savvy veteran whom the coaches trusted to execute the plays that were called. But turnovers and poor execution on offense, combined with inexplicable defensive lapses, created Obama-sized deficits on the scoreboard week after week. In turn, it fueled the endless cycle of passes and losses.
The end result was the Titans getting too far away from the things they did best.
When Adams forced the Titans to give the reins back to Young, Fisher and offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger then tailored a game plan around his strengths. That meant scaling things back in the passing game, and going back to Johnson as their primary weapon with the quarterback as a game manager.
It had to be that way. As Young's supporters like to point out, he is 19-11 as starting quarterback in the NFL, a nice statistic no matter how you slice it. But in games where he has thrown the ball 30 times or more, Young is only 2-5.
Even Fisher, who didn't want to change the status quo by going back to Young, had to be happy to see the winning formula finally return. The payoff was two long rushing TDs from Johnson.
"The plan was good. You run the football, then things happen," Fisher said. "We are going to continue to put plans in that we think gives us our best chance to win...with the priority being the run. We have to run the football."
It's the only way the 2009 Titans could regain their lost identity.
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