The movie Groundhog Day is one of my favorites. In it, a weatherman named Phil (played by Bill Murray) is assigned to cover the most famous rodent of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, a groundhog also named Phil, whose behavior on February 2 is supposed to determine whether residents of the Keystone State see another six weeks of winter weather or get an early spring.
Phil (the weatherman) has been on the story for four years, and is clearly resentful of the assignment, plodding through the day with disdain for everything around him. After the coverage is done, a snowstorm forces Phil to stay behind an extra day in a hotel, but when he wakes up again, he finds that it’s the morning of February 2 again.
Unfortunately for Phil, this happens over and over again for many mornings. Evidently, someone’s trying to teach him a lesson about his poor attitude, and when Phil finally learns his lesson, February 3 arrives and he gets to move on with the rest of his life.
Yes, readers, there’s a sports analogy coming here.
Since going 12-4 in the 2003 season, the Tennessee Titans have become a perpetually-average franchise, with a combined record of two games under .500 in the three seasons since. Want to know why? The Titans seem to have their own Groundhog Day, and it’s the NFL Draft.
So many times in the second or third round of the draft, the Titans seem to forget that football is a contest played on a 100-yard field that involves blocking and tackling, and isn’t a track and field event. The trend started back in 2003, when the franchise became enamored with MTSU’s Tyrone Calico, who was an athletic freak but didn’t have much production in college. Calico ended up being a complete waste of the 60th pick of the draft.
The 2007 draft was perhaps the best example of this. The Titans took Arizona running back Chris Henry, who wowed everyone with his blazing speed at the combine. The problem was that Henry’s best college season was his senior year in which he gained 581 yards rushing and averaged 3.5 yards per carry. For his NFL career, Henry carried just 32 times for a 3.8-yard average.
One round later, the Titans also reached on Fresno State’s Paul Williams, who ran well at the combine. Williams had productive numbers playing against a weak schedule, but most felt he was a reach as a third-round pick. His NFL career consisted of one catch for seven yards.
In 2009, the Titans felt compelled to spend a third-round selection on Hawaii defensive back Ryan Mouton, who had all of three interceptions in his two years of Division I football. Two seasons later, Mouton was no longer on an NFL roster.
Only time will tell, but you get the feeling that the Titans may have also whiffed badly with their second round pick this year, North Carolina linebacker Zach Brown. Que NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock, one of the most astute guys in the business, who had this to say about Brown as soon as the Titans picked him.
“I’m going to give you the positives and the negatives with this kid. This is one of the most gifted athletes of this draft. At 244 pounds, he’s the fastest football player that ever went to North Carolina in the 60-meter dash. He’s the fastest linebacker in this draft. That’s the good news. He flies all over. He’s the ideal “will” linebacker,” Mayock said.
“The bad news is that he’s somewhat allergic to contact. He doesn’t take on anybody at the point of attack. He is a space player, meaning that if there’s a screen and there’s a place to sift through, he’s going to make a play.”
Uh-oh. I’m no NFL scout, but here was my first thought: if Brown is, indeed, “allergic to contact,” the NFL isn’t exactly the appropriate training ground to break him of that fear.
I decided to see for myself. This YouTube video shows the good and the bad of three of Brown’s games this year against Clemson, Florida State and North Carolina State. Brown is indeed fast, and he does play well in space. He appears to be able to cover college slot receivers.
The bad news: I only noticed him making one really good play in a crowd. He seems to get blocked out of the play by one man too easily. He’s far from a sure open-field tackler, and he sure didn’t deliver any memorable hits.
Brown will get a chance; teams are too unwilling to admit they made mistakes this high until a couple of years have passed, and I could see his speed helping the Titans on special teams immediately.
But if Mayock is right and he can’t handle contact, that pretty much negates everything else, including his ability to cover in the slot. If you’re not physical enough at linebacker, you’ll never see the field to get the chance.
Every NFL team is going to miss on players, but the Titans seem to be slow to figure out what the most successful teams have learned: picking tremendous athletes is great, but you have to make sure the production is there, too.
Perhaps that’s why every season is starting to feel like Groundhog Day for Titans fans, too.