Thrill of Victory

Three storylines to watch with the Titans offense this fall

It’s hard to believe, but just a few weeks from now, NFL players will be reporting to training camps, and from there, the season will be just around the corner. For the Titans, 2012 could prove to be one of the more interesting seasons for the franchise in a while for one reason: an abundance of offensive talent. On that topic, here are perhaps the three biggest storylines surrounding the offense this fall”

1. Can Chris Johnson approach the Chris Johnson of old again?
Chris Johnson is convinced that he can rush for 2,000 yards this fall, just as he did in 2012. Johnson may be the only person who appears to believe that, and for good reason: his yards-per-carry have dwindled from 5.6 to 4.3 to 4.0 the last three seasons.

Johnson has taken a lot of criticism for that, but let’s not forget that he played that 2010 season at under 200 pounds and touched the ball an incredible 449 times that fall. Even bigger backs (paging Eddie George) have seen their careers fall off cliff after a similar workload.

However, it may be premature to write Johnson off just yet. While he averaged just 3.0 yards per carry in the first half of 2011, he improved to a more CJ2K-like 4.8 in the last eight games. Johnson’s also not a one-trick pony: he caught 57 balls for 418 yards last season, so even when his rushing numbers decline, he still offers some production.

There’s one other thing that might encourage Titans fans: a quick look at the career of Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk, a guy whose size, speed and pass-catching ability are very similar to Johnson’s. Faulk’s yards per carry his first five years: 4.1, 3.7, 3.0, 4.0 and 4.1. (Note: that also came with 300-plus carry seasons in years one and four, and a 400-plus touch season in year five). Then at age 26, 27 and 28, Faulk exploded for 5.5, 5.4 and 5.3 yards the next three seasons.

Johnson will turn 27 on September 23, and also has added 10 pounds of weight. Like Faulk, might he be headed for a career resurgence this fall?

2. Who’ll start more games at quarterback: Matt Hasselbeck or Jake Locker?
Veteran Matt Hasselbeck was everything the Titans hoped he’d be last year, and a bit more. The 36-year old had been a rather average NFL quarterback for much of his career – not that there’s anything wrong with that – but had fallen off a bit the last three seasons before coming to Nashville.

He responded by throwing for more yards (and yards per attempt) and touchdowns than he’d put up in any year since 2007, and his 3,571 yards and 18 touchdowns were certainly respectable numbers considering his best target by far (Kenny Britt) got hurt in the third game and missed the rest of the year. The only real negative was 14 interceptions, but even then, that’s not an awful number.

But Hasselbeck will turn 37 on September 25, and so it’s highly unlikely that he’ll bust out and become Drew Brees this fall. And then, there’s the matter of his backup, Jake Locker, who performed with exceptional poise in his five appearances last season. The Titans didn’t draft Locker to sit for too long, which is why they signed a starter in his mid-30s last year.

The percentage play is that Hasselbeck begins the season as a starter, but when a team starts slowly, fans get restless, and it puts pressure on a coach to make a switch to the young back-up. That’s where the schedule adds an interesting twist to the season: Tennessee’s first six games are against New England, San Diego, Detroit, Houston, Minnesota and Pittsburgh.

Even if Hasselbeck is playing well during those games, he could find himself on the bench for Locker if it appears the team is heading for yet-another season without a playoff berth.

3. Can Kenny Britt stay healthy and out of trouble?
Kenny Britt always looked like a potential star, and was playing like a top-five NFL wideout his first two games of last season. Then came week three, which brought a season-ending injury, and so Titans were only left to wonder what might have been.

Of course, Britt always seemed to get in his own way before last season’s mini-breakout. A series of arrests his first three seasons had him in the news more for his behavior than his play. When Britt had nothing to do but rehab an injury, the fear was that it would lead to more trouble… but it didn’t. Evidently, Britt hasn’t been arrested since suffering the injury last year, though with his history of knuckle-headed behavior, it’s hard to proclaim that the Titans are out of the woods there, yet.

Now, though, the injury is starting to appear a bit of a concern. Modern advances in surgery make recovering from ACL injuries a snap for the dedicated athlete, but Britt’s hasn’t progressed quite as hoped. Last week, he said he’s “praying” to get on the field for week one. That’s not quite what you’d hope to hear in mid-June.

So, all eyes will be on Britt when training camp starts later this summer. If he’s healthy and has his head screwed on, the Titans offense could be the best it’s been in years.