The other day, my 5-year-old son Connor told me he and his kindergarten buddy Landon had been discussing football—in particular, the Tennessee Titans. That's how bad it's gotten. Even 5-year-olds know the Titans are off to a terrible start.So what were they saying? "The Titans gotta start playing tougher and scoring more points."
There you have it. Connor and Landon just might have a future in coaching. Too bad that assessment was before Tennessee's drubbing Sunday night at the hands (or hooves) of the Colts. Let's look at the grim record so far and see how the Titans dug this hole—and if there's a way out.
1. What's wrong with the defense?
Everyone expected a drop-off with Albert Haynesworth's departure. But nobody expected the defense to drop off the face of the earth.
You can almost think of the Titans/Haynesworth relationship in terms of Hall and Oates. Together, they had plenty of hits and a nice run of success. Apart, each is barely a blip on the radar. Without the Titans, Haynesworth has struggled in Washington to live up to his $100 million billing.
As for the Haynesworth-less Titans, they put up a decent defense against the run. But after seeing how poorly they play against the pass, opposing teams aren't even trying to run the ball anymore. Instead, they just play pitch and catch 10-20 yards down the field. The Titans have to tighten the coverage, even if it means more bump and run coverage at the line with safeties helping over the top.
Certainly, that presents risks when a team is not getting a pass rush. But opposing receivers and tight ends keep getting fat cushions coming off the line, and that's letting the secondary get picked apart.
Some will point to injuries as the cause of the Titans' defensive woes—and with Nick Harper, Cortland Finnegan and Vincent Fuller all now hurt, they're looming as a major problem. Remember, though, that the Titans were taking just as much of a shredding when the team was at full strength.
One final factor: Perhaps there is a learning curve for a first-time defensive coordinator in the league. Chuck Cecil is having to pick it up on the go, just as it took Jim Schwartz some time to learn in his first season in 2001.
2. What's wrong with the offense?
The Titans entered last weekend with the NFL's leading rusher in Chris Johnson, at 434 yards. But too many runs have been for negative or short yardage. Six of Johnson's 16 carries against Jacksonville went for two yards or less, even though he finished with a respectable 83 yards.
That was the case again Sunday night, as Johnson managed just 34 yards on nine carries. Three of those nine rushes were for two yards or less, and two others were wiped out by penalties. Johnson did so much juking and faking, he might as well have been on Dancing with the Stars instead of Sunday Night Football.
In fact, 38 percent of the time—and this was before Sunday night—first down plays for the Titans have gone for zero or negative yards. Against the Colts, the Titans never made it to the red zone against one of the NFL's weaker defenses. And that was with the Colts missing three-fourths of their starting secondary.
All that is forcing the Titans to take to the air too often, as shown by Kerry Collins' sharp increase in pass attempts. On average a year ago, Collins was 15 of 26 passing. So far in 2009, in five games, he's averaged 21 completions in 37 attempts—and he's already matched his total interceptions from last year, with seven.
3. What's wrong with the special teams?
One thing gets fixed and another area breaks down for the Titans' special teams. Good special teams play can sometimes bail out a struggling offense or defense, but the Titans' special teams have done their part to sabotage the season in the early going.
Rob Bironas missed one field goal and had another blocked in the opener at Pittsburgh, even if since then he has been perfect on field goals. Against the Jets, Ryan Mouton lost the ball on both a kickoff and a punt, necessitating the re-signing of Mark Jones.
Returns have been a problem even when the ball has been caught cleanly. Tennessee is no threat to break a long return and help out the offense with good field position. The Titans' longest punt return has been just 15 yards, and the longest kickoff return has gone for just 27 yards.
Coverage units have also done their share of struggling. Case in point: against the Jags, when Jacksonville started seven times on the Titans' side of the 50.
4. How low can they go?
With the Titans coming off a 13-3 season in 2008 and beginning 2009 in freefall mode, an ugly question is unavoidable: Just what is the biggest single-season drop in victories from one year to the next? Much as Jeff Fisher might not want to remember it, he was there.
In 1993, the Houston Oilers went 12-4. The following season—with the institution of the salary cap that forced the team to shed such stars as Warren Moon—the Oilers fell flat on their face, plummeting to 2-14. Fisher came on board that season as the team's defensive coordinator, replacing Buddy Ryan, and wound up having to clean up Jack Pardee's mess in the final six games of that season. He eventually went 1-5 as the Oilers' interim coach. Of course, at this stage in the season, Titans fans would consider that a step in the right direction.
5. Who's going to step up?
At 0-5, the 2009 season is lost in terms of the playoffs. Yes, the Titans can point to their 8-8 turnaround in 2006 after the same start. But circumstances were markedly different then. That team had little to no expectation of success but rode the heroics of Vince Young and Pacman Jones to unexpectedly close the year strong.
This team, however, is veteran-heavy. The words "Super Bowl contender" were hung around their necks from the start, and the presence of so many 30-something veterans who can be free agents dictated that '09 was a one-year window for success. That window is now closed.
It's time for the Titans to turn things over to Kenny Britt, Jared Cook and other young players to begin the rebuilding process, for the third time in Fisher's tenure. And with the season lost, let's see now which Titans really are going to "play tougher and score more points."
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