Sitting in the press box awaiting kickoff of the Titans-Jaguars game, I surveyed the half-empty stands at L.P. Field and flashed back to September 12, 1999. That day, our city’s new team graced the field at what was then called Adelphia Coliseum for the first time; I sat in section 315 with my father and brothers as we eagerly awaited kickoff between the Titans and the Cincinnati Bengals. A dramatic win, punctuated by an Al Del Greco (Al… Del… Greco!) field goal with eight seconds left was a harbinger for a terrific thrill ride ahead of us that fall and winter, one that included a Music City Miracle and even a Super Bowl that ended with Kevin Dyson falling a yard short of a world championship.
Fifteen years later, the thrill is gone. It’s been a slow death since that magical season. The great careers of Eddie George and Steve McNair faded and bad personnel decisions (drafting Vince Young and Adam “Pacman” Jones in the first round) followed. Consequently the Titans slipped, only to see a brief resurgence with the 10- and 13-win campaigns of 2007 and 2008 before slipping into extended mediocrity.
So, here sit the Titans at 2-6, tied for Atlanta with the fifth-worst record in the NFL. That’s where a history lesson is useful in explaining the importance of where things head from here.
The last time the Titans were 2-6 was in 2009, which, of course, was the year the Titans started 0-6 before owner Bud Adams ordered coach Jeff Fisher to reinsert Young, the quarterback he’d ordered his franchise draft in ’06, as his starting quarterback. Fisher did so begrudgingly, and to everyone’s shock, the Titans finished 8-8 and Young earned the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year honors.
But both Young’s resurgence and the Titans’ record were fool’s gold. Young never had the intelligence or the maturity to succeed long-term in the NFL, which is why he was out of football two years later.
The worst thing, though, was this: the Titans subsequently landed a draft pick in the middle of the first round, where they landed defensive end Derrick Morgan, who has been solid, but far from spectacular. How much better off would Tennessee be today if, instead of Morgan, it had, say, Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy, Trent Williams, Eric Berry, Russell Okung or Joe Haden, all of whom were off the board by the Titans pick?
Back to the present time. Coach Ken Whisenhunt, the second Titan coach since Fisher, faces about what Fisher faced five years ago. Thankfully now, the Titans no longer seem to be content to put lipstick on a pig, a decision that has had no small bearing on the fact that the Titans are about to miss the playoffs for the sixth-straight year.
Quarterback Jake Locker, a first-round pick in 2011, is likely not going to be an answer for Tennessee because the fourth-year veteran can’t stay healthy for any significant period, and both his accuracy (57.3 percent career completion rate) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (26-19) are sub-standard for the NFL. Knowing this, Whisenhunt has now turned to rookie Zach Mettenberger for better or for worse.
Don’t let the fact that Mettenberger was a sixth-round pick fool you; he was a potential first-rounder before injuries and off-field baggage killed his stock. Mettenberger’s results through 46 NFL throws have been mixed. Blessed with a tremendous right arm, Mettenberger fits Whisenhunt’s system and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the move works out.
But even if it doesn’t, does anyone really care if the Titans go 3-13 instead of perhaps 6-10. The worse the record, the higher the draft pick in the subsequent spring… again, how would that have worked out in past seasons?
There’s also this: by facing reality, Whisenhunt is giving increased time to left tackle Taylor Lewan and running back Bishop Sankey, both of whom have the chance to be franchise cornerstones for years to come.
Whisenhunt has also started the transition on defense, trading Akeem Ayers, who was going to be a free agent this winter anyway, to the Patriots, and finding playing time for promising young players like promising rookie linebacker Avery Williamson. He’ll also have an another off-season to adjust his personnel to the team’s new 3-4 defense, which generally requires an adjustment period of a season or so, anyway.
But maybe the biggest reason for hope is that the franchise may have some long-needed leadership. Whisenhunt, who won’t be hamstrung by a meddling owner, can leave his own mark on the team. After his work with Kurt Warner (Arizona), Philip Rivers (San Diego) and Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh), there are few men you’d rather have mentoring quarterbacks than Whisenhunt. He’s also shown the ability to lead teams out of mediocrity, taking one of the league’s worst franchises (Arizona) to its only Super Bowl.
The remaining two months will try the patience of Titans fans. With four 5-win teams left on the schedule, Tennessee will take its lumps, but at least this time, those same fans can know that the franchise is doing the best it can not to let the bad sort of history repeat itself.
Perhaps some of those empty seats will soon be filled again.