Sports, Thrill of Victory

Tennessee Titans, A New Chapter: Sankey, Whisenhunt hope to change Titans’ fortunes

Titans running back Bishop Sankey is a threat to do damage in the open field. PHOTO COURTESY OF DONN JONES/TENNESSEE TITANS

Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt has become one of the NFL’s top offensive minds. PHOTO COURTESY OF DONN JONES/TENNESSEE TITANS

Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt has become one of the NFL’s top offensive minds. PHOTO COURTESY OF DONN JONES/TENNESSEE TITANS

Though it’s often said that the NFL stands for “Not For Long,” the Tennessee Titans have been a model of coaching stability throughout the franchise’s history, which dates back to 1960 when the Houston Oilers were part of the newly-founded American Football League. Since the Oilers’ move to Tennessee in 1997 through the end of 2013, the Titans had only two head coaches, Jeff Fisher and Mike Munchak.

The same can be said of the franchise’s history at running back, even dating back to the late-‘70s in Houston, when Hall of Famer Earl Campbell toted the rock for the Oilers. Except for a brief period in the mid-2000s, when the load was split between Chris Brown, Travis Henry and LenDale White, the face of the franchise has often been whoever lines up at tailback; even Nashvillians who didn’t much follow the Titans knew who Eddie George and Chris Johnson were.

In time, things always change, even in Nashville. While Fisher had been the longest-tenured NFL coach after 16 seasons and change with the franchise, Tennessee let him go after the 6-10 season of 2010. With Munchak failing to crack the playoffs after three years, he, too, got the pink slip this past off-season. Meanwhile, the Titans also decided it was time to part ways with Johnson, the franchise’s third all-time leading rusher, after he checked in with a career-low 3.9 yards per carry last season.

Now, the Titans turn their hopes to Coach Ken Whisenhunt and 2014 second-round draftee Bishop Sankey to fill the vacancies at those respective spots this fall. Here’s a closer look at each.

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Ken Whisenhunt guided the Arizona Cardinals to the only Super Bowl in franchise history in 2009. PHOTO COURTESY OF DONN JONES/TENNESSEE TITANS

Ken Whisenhunt guided the Arizona Cardinals to the only Super Bowl in franchise history in 2009. PHOTO COURTESY OF DONN JONES/TENNESSEE TITANS

Ken Whisenhunt knows all about “Not For Long.”

When the Cardinals franchise relocated from St. Louis to Arizona for the 1994 season, it had been 11 seasons since the team had made the playoffs. That drought went on for four more years when the Cardinals teased everyone with a 9-7 season and then a win over the Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs, only to be followed by eight more years of losing seasons.

Enter Whisenhunt, who snapped that drought with an 8-8 campaign in his first year as the team’s head coach. As a follow-up, the Cardinals won their division in 2008—something that had not happened since 1975—and promptly got hot in the playoffs before losing Super Bowl XLIII to Pittsburgh.

Whisenhunt followed that up with another playoff win the next year, but when a pair of 5-11 seasons sandwiched an 8-8 campaign, Whisenhunt was canned after 2012. That’s when the Titans reached out to extend a head coaching opportunity, which Whisenhunt took on January 14.

Just after the hire, Titans play-by-play announcer Mike Keith asked Whisenhunt about his second chance as a head coach.

“It’s always different. You learn a lot. You go through different situations where you hope to grow from, so I’m excited about that. I’ve said this before, but I’ve been in here as an opponent and seen what an environment this is. The fans have been great, from what I’ve seen,” Whisenhunt said. “Our goal is to put the type of team out there that our fans can be proud of, that will work hard, that will win some games.

“Having had the experience of being a head coach, of going to a Super Bowl, of being in the playoffs—I think it gives you a perspective on things, on how you want to do them, what type of team you want. We’re going to work hard to do that.”

It has been four years since the Titans have ranked in the top half of the NFL in either points or total yards, and with uncertainty at quarterback, Whisenhunt has his work cut out for him this fall.

Recent history is on his side. Whisenhunt landed on his feet in San Diego a year ago, where he was the offensive coordinator for the Chargers. In one season, San Diego improved from 20th in the NFL in points scored to fifth, and from 31st in total yards to fifth.

Can Whisenhunt work his magic again? A lot of that depends on the Titans’ other new face in the spotlight.

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The Titans’ Bishop Sankey finds some running room in the team’s 2014 exhibition contest against Green Bay. PHOTO COURTESY OF DONN JONES/TENNESSEE TITANS

The Titans’ Bishop Sankey finds some running room in the team’s 2014 exhibition contest against Green Bay. PHOTO COURTESY OF DONN JONES/TENNESSEE TITANS

If you believe in omens, here’s one a Titans fan will like: before nabbing Sankey out of Washington this spring, the last time Tennessee spent a draft pick this high on a running back it was when it took Johnson out of East Carolina with its first-round pick in 2008. Here’s the other commonality: both averaged exactly 5.71 yards per touch in their college careers between rushes and receptions.

Johnson, of course, made the Pro Bowl as a rookie and then became one of the few players in NFL history to surpass 2,000 yards in his second professional season. When the Titans cut Johnson loose in early April, everyone knew Tennessee was in the market for a running back, including Sankey, who sat nervously by his phone on the evening of the NFL Draft just over a month later.

“I knew [the Titans] were a possibility,” Sankey recalled from his locker during an early-August practice. “They were the only team that I visited throughout the whole process. I knew they were definitely interested, and I was kind of anxious. You never know what’s going to happen draft day, but once I got the 615 area code across my phone, I knew who it was and it was just a big celebration. I was glad to be a part of the Titans program.”

There are some similarities. Neither is big, but both catch the ball well and see the field well, and neither player is one an opposing defense wants to see running loose in the open field.

Bishop Sankey ran for 1,870 yards in his last season at the University of Washington and caught passes for another 304 as he earned second team All-American honors in 2013. PHOTO COURTESY OF DONN JONES/TENNESSEE TITANS

Bishop Sankey ran for 1,870 yards in his last season at the University of Washington and caught passes for another 304 as he earned second team All-American honors in 2013. PHOTO COURTESY OF DONN JONES/TENNESSEE TITANS

Of course, the comparison isn’t entirely exact. Sankey lacks Johnson’s top-end speed; while he ran an excellent 4.49 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, Johnson’s 4.24 still remains the best ever. Neither might the comparison be fair. The way the NFL uses running backs is changing; Johnson had over 250 carries in each of his six seasons, and over 300 twice. Coaches seem to be increasingly splitting carries, and Sankey will probably never see that kind of workload. For that reason, no team has used a first-round draft pick on a running back during the last two seasons. Sankey, in fact, was the first back selected in 2014.

Still, there are things that suggest Sankey could be the better player at this stage of his career. His 5.4 yards per carry in college surpass Johnson’s by over a half-yard, and the competition Sankey faced in the Pac-12 Conference—which rivals the Southeastern Conference as the toughest league in America—is a lot tougher than what Johnson saw as a collegiate.

When it comes to rebuilding a team, Sankey knows a bit about that, too. The Huskies’ 9-4 record last season was the team’s best since 2000.

“Before I was there, we went 0-12 [in 2008] and started turning it around once I got there – actually, a little bit before I got there. We were just steady climbing the past few seasons,” he recalls.

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Both Sankey and Whisenhunt have made the move from the West Coast to Nashville, but it won’t be a complete culture shock for either.

Titans running back Bishop Sankey is a threat to do damage in the open field. PHOTO COURTESY OF DONN JONES/TENNESSEE TITANS

Titans running back Bishop Sankey is a threat to do damage in the open field. PHOTO COURTESY OF DONN JONES/TENNESSEE TITANS

Sankey grew up in Wadsworth, Ohio before moving to Spokane, Wash. when he was 14, thanks to the military life his father had. The family would often go down to Montgomery, Ala. to visit Sankey’s paternal grandfather Albert, who took a keen interest in Sankey’s career.

Throughout high school, Albert would come to visit Sankey, who was then becoming a star at Gonzaga Prep. But Albert had gone blind in his left eye 30 years prior, and he lost sight in his right eye as Bishop grew into a teenager. Thanks to a cornea transplant a year ago, Albert saw his grandson play last year, and he will continue to watch him in the NFL.

“Me and my grandfather have gotten really close throughout the years. He used to always come up every football season and stay for a few months. Having his sight be revived has been great for him and for the rest of the family. I feel really good about it that he’s now able to come and watch me play, as opposed to not being able to see me before,” Bishop says.

Whisenhunt’s Southern roots are deeper. He grew up in Augusta, Ga. and walked on to the football team at Georgia Tech, where he eventually became a first team All-Atlantic Coast Conference tight end as a junior and senior before a seven-year NFL career with Atlanta, Washington and the New York Jets.

Of course, the Masters Golf Tournament is played in Augusta every spring, and so Whisenhunt, who helped operate the Masters scoreboard as a high-schooler, caught the golf bug. He became an outstanding player, once shooting a 65, and he later pondered a professional future in that sport.

Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt surveys his team from the sidelines. PHOTO COURTESY OF DONN JONES/TENNESSEE TITANS

Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt surveys his team from the sidelines. PHOTO COURTESY OF DONN JONES/TENNESSEE TITANS

“I didn’t think very long about that,” he told Keith in January. “I realized there were some pretty good guys [on the PGA Tour], and I wasn’t on that level.”

Instead, Whisenhunt stayed in football as a coach. His first job came just a few miles down the road when then-Vanderbilt head coach Rod Dowhower hired him as an assistant coach during the 1995 and ’96 seasons.

“To get the opportunity from Rod Dowhower to come here—I’m certainly thankful for him and for Vanderbilt University for giving me an opportunity. It’s ironic that I get a chance to come back here as a head coach for an NFL team where I started as a tight ends/special teams coach at Vanderbilt. I’m very grateful for that,” he told Keith.

Now, Sankey and Whisenhunt team up in Nashville to help the Titans end a five-year playoff drought. If past history is an indicator, it won’t be long before the two help Tennessee turn things around.