Those of us whose memories of Tennessee football go back to the first years after the Houston Oilers moved here have a certain image of what Titans football is burned into our memories, for no team exemplified conservative, old-school football like Jeff Fisher’s three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust style. Whether it was Eddie George, Chris Johnson, or Len Dale White in the backfield, most years you knew that the Titans were going to run the ball as much as anyone.
To wit: in Fisher’s 16 full seasons as coach of the Oilers/Titans, the team finished in the top-half of the league in rushing attempts 13 times. Eight times, the team finished in the top 10, with six of those seasons coming in the top five.
And in 2000 and 2007, no NFL team ran the ball more than the Titans.
But lately, there seems to have been a change in philosophy. In Fisher’s last season, 2010, the Titans were 23rd in rushing attempts. Last year, in coach Mike Munchak’s debut season, only two teams ran the ball fewer times than did the Titans.
Part of that undoubtedly was due to Johnson’s numbers steadily falling off a cliff after his record-breaking 2009 season. But if you wondered whether last year’s run-pass balance was due to Johnson’s decline or a change in organizational philosophy, Tennessee’s first-round pick of Baylor receiver Kendall Wright may have given us a clue.
Most experts thought the Titans would take a defensive end with their first selection, and Chandler Jones, Whitney Mercilius and Nick Perry were still on the board. If the Titans did decide to go offense, Stanford guard David DeCastro, regarded as a “can’t-miss” prospect by many, was surprisingly still available as well.
Historically, taking a receiver that high can be a risky proposition. Even when early-selected receivers work out, it generally takes a few years. Lately, that trend has changed a bit, as Dez Bryant, A.J. Green and Julio Jones – all first-round picks by their respective teams between 2010-11 – have had immediate success.
The common denominator with the three is high-level college production. That’s good news for the Titans, because nobody out-produced Wright the last four years. For his career, he caught 302 balls for 4,004 yards and 30 touchdowns, and finished with a bang in his senior season: he was an All-American pick after hauling in 108 catches for 1,663 yards and 14 scores.
“When he gets the ball in his hands, he’s special. He’s built like a running back – he’s 5-10, 205, he’s a little thicker than wide receivers usually are. I kind of like that. He also has potential as a return specialist,” said one of the NFL Network’s analysts after the Titans made the pick last night.
NFL Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin also praised the pick, comparing Wright to former Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes and Patriots’ star Wes Welker.
The Titans, for years, filled their receiving corps with a rather pedestrian bunch of players, but that is quickly changing. Kenny Britt has shown signs of being a top-five NFL receiver if (and it’s a big “if”) he can stay health and out of trouble. While Britt was out last year, speedy Nate Washington came into his own with a 1,000-yard season, and youngsters Damian Williams and Lavelle Hawkins provide good depth. For good measure, tight end Jared Cook is one of the league’s most gifted receivers at his position.
Meanwhile, Johnson is only 26 and two years removed from one of the greatest seasons in NFL history. At quarterback, last year’s first-rounder Jake Locker, who can beat you with his arm or his feet, waits in the wings behind Matt Hassellbeck.
Add Wright, who was of college football’s premier play-makers, and it’s not hard to see how the Titans could have one of the league’s speediest and most explosive offenses. A three-receiver lineup, with Washington and Britt on the outside, Wright in the slot, Cook at tight end, and Johnson in the backfield, is a potential nightmare for defensive coordinators.
The Titans’ still have plenty of needs on the defensive side of the ball. Adding a pass-rusher is a must, and the loss of cornerback Cortland Finnegan hurts the secondary. Add in a tough schedule, and winning more than nine games could be a challenge.
One thing’s for sure, though: the Titans won’t be boring.