Third and Short 

Sure, the Titans look bad now, but it's way too soon to write them off

Sure, the Titans look bad now, but it's way too soon to write them off

While we were gardening late Sunday afternoon, our neighbor Judy from down the street strode purposefully up the driveway and announced that she was getting up on her soapbox. I didn't see one but decided just to go with it.

I figured Judy was going to go off about Moped Guy, the crazy rider with the shorn head who zips around the neighborhood stealing Kerry signs and putting up homemade posters booby-trapped with firecrackers. Or maybe it was going to be something about the latest exploits of another neighborhood resident who has been known to saunter around nude in his unfenced backyard and who seems to regard anyone of Polish extraction as a mortal enemy bent on violence. Actually, just to keep the pot stirred, I've been thinking of enlisting my neighbor Zinkiewicz to walk down the street with me to Naked Guy's house and pretend to be soliciting contributions to the Polish-American Benevolent Fund, but my wife has strongly discouraged this.

Anyhow, it turned out that Judy had stopped by to complain about neither of the above, but about the performance of Titans fans during the final three minutes of the Houston game earlier that afternoon. While she and husband Mike remained firmly fixed in their seats, thousands upon thousands of the less-than-faithful up and left, either to beat the traffic out of the Coliseum or to get an early start on drowning out their memories of the team's train-wreck-ugly performance.

To Judy, this was conduct unbecoming a Titans fan. "You need to write something about this," she said.

Judy has a point. Me, I told her, I almost never leave games early. I can count on four fingers the number of times it has happened, and one of those was because Way-Way Insider Warren G.Q. Denney and I were under police escort. Two of the times were when I was at games with my friend Dee from Atlanta (and police escorts were distinct possibilities if we remained much longer). The other was in the last five minutes of Tennessee's 65-0 win over Vanderbilt a few years back, when I concluded it was unlikely that the Commodores would rally for a W.

So I could commiserate with Judy. I've seen much stranger things in the NFL than a team pull off two scores in the final three minutes.

On the other hand, as the old Tennessee politician used to say, "I have friends on both sides of the question, and I always stand by my friends." Given the caliber of their play throughout the first 57 minutes of the game, I can understand why some folks thought that getting a head start on the traffic might be a more profitable investment than sticking around. Even Bud Adams bolted well before the final gun.

This is not just (dare we say?) flip-flopping. It reflects a duality of reality about this Titans' team: they're not very entertaining to watch right now, but stick around; they might surprise you.

So far, both sides could agree that this year's on-field product has been disappointing compared to recent vintages. They're firmly holding onto hind teat in the improving AFC South after losing solidly to the Tex-spansions, who had never beaten them before, and to Jacksonville, whom Titans coach Jeff Fisher can no longer justifiably tease about owning.

They've lost three times in four games at the Coliseum, where victories once were almost as reliable as the sunrise.

They've only managed to beat Miami—a squad that UN inspectors could search for months without finding any offensive weapons—and a Green Bay bunch that surrenders yardage faster than the Iraqi army.

There are several theories about the team's shortcomings thus far. The most frequently heard alibi is that the Titans have looked as if they mailed in several of their performances (remember the three-touchdown loss to San Diego?) because so many of them literally weren't there.

The Titans have endured well above the NFL average for injuries this year. Steve McNair was sidelined against the Chargers and didn't look like his usual self in two other games. The linebacking corps has been riddled with injuries. They're down two tight ends and an interior offensive lineman. Tyrone Calico is out. The loss of Joe Nedney's long-distance kicking reduces the Titans' field goal options.

Most NFL teams would do little more than tread water in the face of such a pool of injuries. And yet injuries alone may not explain the team's transformation. Even before McNair sat out with a bruised sternum—Billy Volek filled in quite ably—the Titans struggled to sustain drives and score points. And it wasn't just because Calico was unavailable to furnish a deep-ball threat.

One of the way-way insiders at the Scene Sports Desk at McCabe Pub suggests that part of the problem is that the Titans still need Eddie George. After everyone finished snorting—Chris Brown, after all, is not only better than Eddie was during the past several seasons but may be better than EG ever was—we decided that there was a sort of squirrelly logic to the argument.

In his prime, Eddie's running and McNair's relative inexperience made the Titans predictable on offense. They'd work for third-and-short and hand the ball to George. For over two years, however, the team could not reliably churn out first downs with third-and-Eddie. So they began passing the ball more and became less predictable. And they relied on McNair as a regular runner.

Now, instead of third-and-Eddie, it all too often is third-and-Chris. And despite Brown's sublime skills, the Titans aren't moving the ball like they did last season.

Finally, there's the unpleasant-to-consider theory that the Titans are a team in transition whose Super Bowl window of opportunity has closed. Proponents of this theory point out that, as they do with so many teams, success and the salary cap may have finally caught up with the Titans, who had to let valuable contributors like Jevon Kearse and Robaire Smith leave to preserve their core.

On the other hand, the Titans have been unusually adept at shuffling their roster and blending young draftees into their lineup; they haven't suffered the fate of the Cowboys and 49ers.

Yet even though pundits don't like to think this way, there may be some truth in all of these theories. But there's one other, even larger truth: the only Media Genius theories worth trusting at this point are those that tell you no one knows what will happen from here out.

It was just two seasons ago, remember, that the Titans were sucking wind worse than a jogging club of chain smokers—and then they sucked it up and came within one game and two fumbles of the Super Bowl.

Neighbor Judy is right to keep her seat. And, of course, I'd have been right there till the end, too, in my favorite chair, had my wife not invited me to quit watching and help her plant some bushes.

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