Monday, December 31, 2012

A Titanic Ending: The Two-Tone Boys Call It a Season

Posted by on Mon, Dec 31, 2012 at 3:41 AM

This is what it looked like an hour before gametime.
  • This is what it looked like an hour before gametime.
Before the season started, Tennessee Titans fans didn't know what they had, but they hoped they wouldn't miss the playoffs for a for a fourth straight season. By the time the Jaguars came to town on Sunday, those hopes were a distant memory, as a mediocre team squared off against a legitimately awful one with only pride (and maybe a job or two) on the line.

Scenes from the end of a lost season . . .

— What if you threw an NFL game and nobody came? Twenty minutes before the kickoff to the Titans' season-ending contest against Jacksonville, LP Field could charitably be called a quarter full. If you said it was a tenth full, nobody would argue that either. NFL fans can be a bit of a late-arriving crowd, but this was a lot.

— Tickets in section 113 — primo sets, right behind the visiting bench, and important for the season, in the sunshine — were going for as little as $28 on StubHub. Tickets in the nosebleed sections could be had for as little as $2.55.

— Titans mascot T-Rac drove onto the field at 10 minutes to kickoff, firing soft footballs into the stands. Most of the balls hit seats, not fans. At 8 minutes, the Jaguars came out and the LP sound system cued up Beck's "Loser." For a battle between teams which were a collective 7-23 entering the day, it was an appropriate theme.

— It seemed like even the Air National Guard has given up on the Titans — on a crystal clear day, there was no flyover at the end of the national anthem.

— In the first quarter, Chad Henne shredded the Titans defense, completing six of seven passes for 83 yards and two touchdowns. This is the same Henne who was cast off by the woeful Dolphins in the offseason.

— After a big run by Chris Johnson got the Titans near midfield, the next three plays produced, in order: a holding penalty, a Jake Locker sack and a CJ run for a loss. City Paper sports editor David Boclair leaned over and asked, "So, what play do you call for 3rd and 27?" A 10-yard pass that Locker had to scramble to produce, apparently. The boo birds were out and let the team have it. To prove how misleading the quarterback rating statistic actually is, Locker's was now over 100 for the game.

— An illustrative moment at 6:47 in the second: The Titans defense produced a sack as Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley combined to bring down Henne. The Titans brought in Tracy Rocker to improve the pass rush this year, but the team was sitting 19th in the league in sacks. They needed to feast on a Jacksonville offensive line that lost six players to the injured reserve list and featured non-household names like Austin Pasztor and Guy Whimper.

— It wasn't exactly a packed house on press row, either. The Jacksonville media contingent numbered five.

— Zack Brown picked off Henne and returned it 79 yards for a touchdown. Is it hyperbole to say a second quarter play saved a game? Maybe, but it stopped Jacksonville from likely going up 21-7 and getting the ball to start the second half. Instead, it was 14-14. After Darius Reynaud returned a punt 69 yards for another touchdown, the Titans took a 21-14 lead and all of the momentum into halftime.

— At halftime, the Titans gave Phil Vassar a No. 7 jersey. Somewhere, Dan Pastorini should be outraged. With any luck, Vassar will retire after the season, too.

— After returning his second punt for a touchdown at the beginning of the third quarter, Reynaud took a spot on the bench to a virtual receiving line of Titans players, coaches and staff. He had more return yards in this game (160) than Locker did passing (152) or Chris Johnson did running (56). Mark Mariani, the Titans injured all-pro return guy, may have started looking at real estate listings in other cities at halftime.

— With 10:25 to go in the third, Locker and the offense returned to the field. In the interim, the defense and special teams intercepted three passes, scored four touchdowns and spotted their teammates a 35-14 lead. They ran four plays and turned the ball over on downs. For the Titans, defense is the new offense.

— Surreal image at the end of the third quarter: For a solid two to three minutes, the "wave" worked its way around the stadium while Locker and the offense struggled to move the ball. The only thing that stopped it? The ritual jumbotron karaoke of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," surely the most downbeat song to ever pump up a stadium of NFL fans.

— The defense played well after giving up 55 in Green Bay last week. That probably says more about how bad the Jaguars are (terrible offensive line; injuries at running back and quarterback), although seven sacks in a game is more than Titans fans have had to cheer for in a while. The Titans gave up a league-worst 472 points for the season, which likely means changes are in store for both personnel and the coaching staff on that side of the ball.

— Sports teams and leagues tell varying lies about their attendances, some of them big, some of them little. If you just read the box score, you would think 69,143 fans were in the stands. Were this to be checked by PolitiFact, it would be rated "Pants on Fire."

— In his post-game press conference, a little of the blame game began with coach Mike Munchak in front of the cameras: "“This will be our first — really — offseason as far as free agency,” he said. “We didn’t have free agency my first year. There was a lockout, camp [started] and it was a different type of free agency. Last year, we know, we were spending some time trying to get a quarterback signed so we really didn’t do a lot last year.” Translation: If team owner Bud Adams hadn't been so infatuated with Peyton Manning, they could have signed some more help on defense. Munchak may be right, but the problems with this team run deeper than a few personnel tweaks here and there.

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