Titans' hopes now pint-sized

One-time perennial NFL contender now dealing with pains of rebuilding

September 15, 2005|By Bill Ordine | Bill Ordine,SUN STAFF

Remember the Titans?

Seriously, remember those guys?

Tough defense. Smash-mouth offense. Perennial playoff team.

If the current group that has lost 12 of its past 17 regular-season games, including a 34-7 embarrassment Sunday to the Pittsburgh Steelers, provides only a dim reminder of those hard-as-nails Tennessee clubs, imagine how quarterback Steve McNair feels.

"It is very different, but it's an adjustment we all have to make, as far as dealing with veterans and dealing with young guys," McNair said yesterday.

"We have quite a few young guys on this team and right now ... people need to be more vocal in the leadership role and lead by example. It's challenging to get all the young guys to stay up week in and week out, and realize how important the preparation and practice is for us going into a game."

Titans coach Jeff Fisher, heading into his 11th season, said that last week in a team meeting he asked for a show of hands of players who were on the team that played in the January 2000 Super Bowl.

There were only four -- McNair, punter Craig Hentrich, offensive tackle Brad Hopkins and guard Zach Piller.

The process of remaking the team, no matter how traumatic, was necessary, the 47-year-old coach said.

"We anticipated change, like everybody does if they're doing their job," Fisher said. "You could argue that if you're doing your job, you can avoid it. But sometimes it's unavoidable."

In the offseason, Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason and cornerback Samari Rolle were the most recent former members of the Titans playoff teams to move on. Both left because they had become salary cap liabilities.

"They were very productive and key components in our successful years," Fisher said. "It was difficult, but you hope, as you put things back together, that you continue to build."

For a while, even McNair's return was in doubt. He missed eight games, and seven of the last nine, with a sternum injury last season. In 2003, he failed to finish the season because of an ankle injury.

After enduring two surgeries in 10 months, the 11-year veteran was pondering retirement. But improved health and his family's encouragement led to his return, he said.

Still, he has to consider if there's a misalignment between the respective stages of his own career and the development of his team.

"As long as I'm here I'm going to do the things it takes to get this team back to the playoffs and, hopefully, to the Super Bowl," McNair said. "But I believe with the core of young guys we have now, two or three years down the road, regardless of whether I'm here or not, they're going to have a great chance of getting to the Super Bowl."

Fisher hired former University of Southern California offensive coordinator Norm Chow to do the same job with the Titans, and Chow's priority is to keep McNair from taking too many hits. That means three- and five-step drops, along with roll-outs and sprints, all designed to keep the quarterback out of harm's way.

"On third-and-13, we might be better served to take what we can, punt the ball and come back on another drive," Fisher said. "The philosophy is to get rid of the ball and get rid of it quick, and give people a chance to do things with it ... don't put it all on the quarterback's shoulders where he has to throw the ball 30 yards down the field and take a hit."

On Tennessee's only scoring drive Sunday, the first of the game, it was vintage Titans -- reminiscent of the Eddie George era -- as they used runs by tailback Chris Brown and medium-range passes for a short-lived 7-0 lead.

"They still try to beat you with the run and use that to set up the pass," said Ravens linebacker Jim Nelson, who faced the Titans twice a season when he played with the Colts.

However, Fisher's young team went into a quick meltdown, committing four turnovers and tackling poorly. Still, the coach eschews the term "rebuilding" and insists that a little experience is the cure.

"We can all look around the league last year and see how four key teams flipped their records," Fisher said, referring to clubs that went from 2003 also-rans to 2004 contenders. "The Atlantas, the Pittsburghs and the San Diegos -- they're motivation for us.

"So even though we are a little young, if we can keep people healthy and make them experienced players, we can win ballgames."

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