NASHVILLE, Tenn. – It may be the most important meal of the day, but breakfast was the last thing on Jeff Fisher's mind as he sat down at the lobby-level restaurant of the Loews Vanderbilt hotel bright and early Sunday morning, a good four hours before his Tennessee Titans would play another wretched football game.
Waving off a menu-wielding waitress, Fisher explained that what he really wanted to devour was the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team that had rallied remarkably since getting blown out by the Titans on "Monday Night Football" in mid-October.
"We thought we finished 'em," Fisher said of his AFC South rivals. "Well, that was round one. We knocked 'em down, and to their credit, they got back up. We've got to knock 'em down again."
Nine hours later, Fisher sat in his makeshift office in the home locker room at LP Field looking as dazed as a late-1980s heavyweight on the wrong end of a Mike Tyson haymaker. His team had just been manhandled by the Jags 17-6 to extend its losing streak to five games and its string of consecutive quarters without an offensive touchdown to 13. While Jacksonville (7-5) moved into undisputed possession of first place in the division, Tennessee (5-7) saw its once-promising season slip closer to oblivion, with the similarly reeling Indianapolis Colts (6-6) coming to town for a game this Thursday night.
The Titans played like a disheveled, distracted team, undone by dropped passes, missed tackles and a worn-down and banged-up defensive line that has become increasingly ineffective against the run.
Fisher, by far the longest-tenured coach in the NFL, has guided his teams out of similarly daunting funks on several occasions since taking over as the franchise's head coach in 1994. There is growing evidence, however, that this may be his last stand in Music City, where his authority is in danger of being undermined by a quarterback who blatantly disrespected him and an owner who may not have his back.
Fisher's relationship with Vince Young(notes), a Bud Adams favorite even before the owner mandated the selection of the former Texas star with the third overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft, has had its share of choppy moments and seems to be in an unsalvageable state.
Things bottomed out two weeks ago after Young tore the flexor tendon in his right thumb late in the third quarter of a home overtime defeat to the Washington Redskins. Upset that he hadn't been asked to return to the game, Young dressed without showering as Fisher delivered his postgame address in a crowded locker room that included numerous team officials, including general manager Mike Reinfeldt, and Fisher's son, Brandon, a former Montana linebacker who is assisting the team's coaching staff. According to several witnesses, Fisher stopped his speech and tried to smooth over the situation with Young, saying, "Vince, calm down – we'll work this out later." When Young ignored him and headed toward the exit, Fisher said, "Vince, don't walk out on your teammates."
"I'm not walking out on my teammates," Young replied. "I'm walking out on your [expletive] ass." (The expletive was a four-syllable word that is particularly offensive.)
Said one witness: "It was loud … and pretty brutal." Another Titans player familiar with Young's antics added, "He just loses his mind sometimes. It's a joke."
The following day Fisher told Young not to attend a team meeting so that he could address the situation with the rest of the Titans. Young, who was placed on injured reserve and later underwent surgery to repair the thumb, has not been back to the facility since. He eventually sent an apologetic text message to Fisher – "I want a head coach and organization that will support me," it read it part – who didn't send a response, telling reporters, "I think face-to-face is a man thing."
Adams, meanwhile, told The Tennesseean that he hadn't given up on Young and that the coach and quarterback "are going to have to work together." With Fisher and Young both under contract through the 2011 season, Adams said he expected the two parties to move past their differences and coexist.
At this point Fisher is unlikely to accept such an arrangement, and it's unclear how the 87-year-old Adams would react to such a stance. Adams and Fisher haven't discussed the issue in substantive terms, and things are likely to come to a head shortly after the end of the season. Young is due a $4.25 million roster bonus on the 10th day of the 2011 league year, a deadline that is expected to occur in early March. Fisher, according to a source familiar with his contract, has a clause granting him the right to control which players are carried on the 53-man roster, setting the stage for a potential showdown with Adams.
Complicating matters are a potential work stoppage and the fact that Fisher, according to several ownership sources, would likely attract interest from numerous teams seeking head coaches were he to hit the open market.
On Sunday morning, Fisher declined to answer any questions about his future, saying, "My focus is on ending this streak. The last two or three weeks have been quite revealing from a human side, an emotional side, but I couldn't be more proud of this football team and how they've responded. They've picked each other up."
While he might have felt a bit differently after the Titans' meager performance against the Jags, there was no downplaying the emotional backdrop of the team's recent struggles: Three days after Young's locker-room outburst, Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.
Fisher has marveled at his close friend's work ethic while undergoing chemotherapy and other treatment. On Sunday, Fisher was prepared to turn over play-calling duties to quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains, but Heimerdinger was able to make the calls from an upstairs coaches booth.
"It's inspirational," Roos said. "He's fighting a lot tougher battle than we're fighting. Our prayers are always with him."
Perhaps it was coincidental, but on Sunday the Titans looked as emotionally drained as they were physically overmatched.
After forcing a Titans punt on the game's opening drive, the Jags marched 77 yards on 12 plays – 11 of which were runs – and took a 7-0 lead on Rashad Jennings'(notes) 11-yard burst up the middle. Jacksonville went up 14-0 in the second quarter when quarterback David Garrard(notes) reached the end zone on a four-yard bootleg around left end, freezing Chris Hope(notes) on a modest head fake and shedding the safety's attempted tackle.
It was that kind of day for the Titans, who had the ball for 8:31 in the first half and allowed the Jags to rush for 258 yards (the second-highest total in franchise history) on 53 carries. A career-high 186 of those yards came courtesy of star halfback Maurice Jones-Drew(notes), a 5-foot-7 marvel who provided the game's signature moment when he floored safety Michael Griffin(notes) with a fierce stiff-arm on a 37-yard burst just before the two-minute warning.
Offensively, the Titans were equally embarrassing, with 37-year-old quarterback Kerry Collins(notes) throwing a pair of interceptions and his receivers dropping at least five passes, most unconscionably tight end Bo Scaife's(notes) failure to gather a well-placed third-down throw over the deep middle at the Jacksonville 2-yard line with six minutes left in the third quarter.
Recently acquired deep threat Randy Moss(notes), who Fisher said has been "awesome" in terms of attitude, failed to gather a low fourth-down pass from Collins near the goal line late in the second quarter and finished with just one catch for 13 yards. All-Pro halfback Chris Johnson was held to 53 yards on 13 carries.
"Maybe they were more physical than us," Roos said. "It's a rough patch we're going through – unfortunately, it's similar to when we started 0-6 last year. You wish it was just one little thing you could pinpoint, or one guy you could cut. But it's bigger than that."
Several Titans players, including Griffin and linebacker Stephen Tulloch(notes), conceded that the recent turmoil involving Young, as well as the concern over Heimerdinger's health, might have impacted the team's focus and collective emotional state.
"Some of this might have to do with that stuff, but at the end of the day, we're professionals, and we have to learn how to deal with adversity," Tulloch said. "All that can't distract you from the task at hand. We've been in a funk for five games, and we need to dig deep, evaluate ourselves and be real with ourselves as men about what the problems are."
After telling his players to "man up, square your jaws and get ready to go to work," Fisher stuck around long after the locker room had cleared out and shifted his focus to Thursday night's clash with the Colts. As Fisher prepared to make the short drive to the team's training facility, where he planned to watch film on Peyton Manning(notes) and the Colts deep into the night, he noted that injured players would also be headed there in the hours following the game for treatment. When the full team reported Monday morning, the coach said, signs would be posted throughout the building reading, "Today Is Thursday," a reminder that game day was quickly approaching.
It was going to be a long night, and Fisher planned to spend it in his office, to the possible dismay of his four dogs.
"There's a little couch there," he said, "and I'll probably use it. It's one of those nights where it's better to stay, so you don't pass yourself on the way home when you're coming into work."
As for the prospect of facing Manning, whose team has been plagued by an inability to run the football (and who has thrown 11 interceptions in his past three games, including four in Sunday's 38-35 overtime defeat to the Dallas Cowboys), Fisher said, "We go from one extreme [the run-oriented Jags] to the other. We're worn down up front, and we're not built to stay on the field 35 or 40 minutes on defense. It makes every offensive possession incredibly crucial, and you have to be perfect. It can't be that way. You can't be out there worrying about turning it over or dropping balls and what that might mean. You need to play."
Fisher gestured toward a wall-mounted TV set – Manning had just thrown a touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon(notes) to cut Indy's deficit to 17-7. "The good news?" Fisher asked. "We've got a three-hour head start [on preparation]."
Perhaps Fisher's sense of humor is the only thing he hasn't lost over the past five weeks. And while this may be his last round with the Titans, he made it clear that if it is, he'll go down swinging.
"We'll fight," he said softly. "That's all we can do."
THE HIGH FIVE …
• In the final stages of an ultra-tense game between evenly matched division rivals on Sunday night, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu(notes) came up as big as his hair in that Head and Shoulders commercial, stripping Joe Flacco(notes) on a perfectly executed blitz to set up Pittsburgh's winning touchdown in a 13-10 victory. The Steelers (9-3) moved a game ahead of the Ravens (8-4) in the AFC North, own a better division record and play their next three games at home. If this victory turns out to be the difference between being the second and sixth overall seed in the AFC – as it appears it might – Polamalu will have been the difference-maker. He had guessed wrong on a couple of the Ravens' earlier big plays, including Flacco's 61-yard heave to Anquan Boldin(notes) from the shadow of his own end zone that set up a first-quarter touchdown. "Usually when Troy sees something it's right, but sometimes it leaves others in a bind," Pittsburgh wideout Hines Ward(notes) wrote me (via text) afterward. "But they back him up because he's special. I kept saying, 'Come on, Troy, do what you do.' " Polamalu did – and the Steelers scored their most significant victory since Super Bowl XLIII. If Baltimore's Ray Lewis(notes) isn't the most clutch defender in football, it's Polamalu, by a hair.
• As we've known since Matt Ryan's(notes) rookie year and were reminded again last Sunday, Ice is niiiiiiice. The quarterback's late-game brilliance in leading the Falcons (10-2) to a 28-24 victory over the Buccaneers (7-5) Sunday provided further proof. For the second time in four weeks against the Bucs – and for the sixth time this season, and 13th time in his three-year career – Ryan led a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime. Highlights of the decisive drive included Ryan's 25-yard hookup with Roddy White(notes) on a deep out (his specialty) on third-and-20 and his crisp, nine-yard touchdown pass to Michael Jenkins(notes) while rolling to his left with 4:31 remaining. And yes, he's definitely an MVP candidate – along with fellow quarterbacks Michael Vick(notes), Tom Brady(notes), Philip Rivers(notes) and Aaron Rodgers(notes).
• The Saints (9-3) stayed within striking range of the Falcons in the NFC South by rallying to defeat the Bengals 34-30, with Drew Brees(notes) driving New Orleans 68 yards in the final minutes and hitting Marques Colston(notes) with a three-yard TD. And just like that, Who Dat defeated Who Dey, and the defending champs somehow remained the NFL's least-hyped Super Bowl contender.
• After getting manhandled in consecutive defeats to the Steelers and Dolphins, the words reality check seemed to apply to the Raiders. To its credit, Oakland (6-6) responded with a season-saving 28-13 thrashing of the Chargers in San Diego, imposing its will physically on both sides of the ball. Though the Raiders trail the Chiefs (8-4) by two games in the AFC West, they own an earlier victory over Kansas City (and a 4-0 record against division foes) and close the season with a rematch at Arrowhead Stadium. This means the Silver and Black need only get to within a game of the Chiefs by Week 17 to have a crack at the division crown. That's reality.
• I'm a big believer that interim coaches should be evaluated more on the way players respond to their leadership than on wins and losses, and that's why I'm less impressed by Dallas coach Jason Garrett's 3-1 record since replacing Wade Phillips (including Sunday's overtime triumph over the Colts) than by what veteran linebacker Keith Brooking(notes) told me afterward: "He's the real deal. Our entire team feels that way."
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. That Flo, the Progressive Insurance pitchwoman, apparently is a sex symbol.
2. That the old pretend-we're-running-a-play-to-try-to-draw-'em-offside trick actually worked for the Saints on Sunday, dooming the Bengals (2-10) to defeat. With New Orleans trailing by three and facing a fourth-and-2 from the Cincinnati 7-yard line, coach Sean Payton instructed Drew Brees to perpetuate the ruse through the end of the play clock, as a five-yard delay-of-game penalty wouldn't have severely impacted the ensuing field-goal try from close range. Unless, of course, the Bengals were to fall for it. Sure enough, with the home crowd screaming to drown out Brees' dummy signals and only seconds remaining on the play clock, defensive lineman Pat Sims(notes) jumped, giving the Saints a first down. Brees connected with Colston for the game-winning score on the next play. If you're wondering why Cincinnati has gone from AFC North champion to contender for the No. 1 overall pick of the 2011 draft (and loser of nine consecutive games), this was Exhibit A.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
You know that switch the Chargers habitually flip at this time of year under coach Norv Turner that allows them to overcome a sluggish start and go roaring into the playoffs? Well, I have a feeling the Raiders might have ripped that sucker right out of the wall at Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday. I'm not saying San Diego (6-6) is finished – I've learned the hard way not to make premature proclamations about this team – but the Bolts will now need some help to win their fifth consecutive AFC West title, and a defeat to the Chiefs (8-4) at Qualcomm next Sunday would free up everyone's January calendar.
Here are some dirty little secrets about Turner's team: 1) Though the Chargers had won 17 consecutive regular-season games played in November or later, there is nothing automatic about it. Turner's players constantly claim they don't believe they can turn it on when it counts and conquer any obstacle, but you know there's at least a subconscious belief that they possess that power. 2) San Diego is not an elite team. Rather, it's an average team with a terrific quarterback playing at a high level. As one member of the organization put it a few days ago, "Philip Rivers is carrying a whole organization on his back." And when a team puts Rivers on his back (Oakland had four sacks and numerous pressures) and harasses him enough to throw him off his game, the Chargers are in big trouble. 3) A team that was better prepared to play at a high level at the start of the season, rather than in November and beyond, would be able to overcome rough outings like Sunday's. The Chargers, however, have almost no margin for error. Additionally, the assumption that the rest of their division would be as substandard as in recent years has proven to be flawed – the Chiefs and Raiders have both improved vastly in 2010. San Diego, meanwhile, has gotten almost nothing from No. 1 draft pick Ryan Matthews, for whom general manager A.J. Smith traded up 16 spots to select last April. On Sunday Matthews suited up as part of the 45-man roster and never got on the field, which is essentially an admission that he's not ready for prime time (and who knows if he'll ever be). Another atrocity: On Oakland's game-clinching drive, the Chargers were flagged for illegal-substitution penalties on consecutive plays. OK, that concludes today's diatribe. And when the Chargers respond by beating the Chiefs to get right back into the race? Yep, they can thank me, as always.
TEXT/TWITTER/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Get ur popcorn ready!!!"
– Text Sunday afternoon from Jets tackle Damien Woody(notes), looking ahead to Monday night's showdown with the Patriots (and hoping he fares better than the last New England opponent to make that statement).
"That was amazing"
– Text Sunday evening from Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, referring to Donald Driver's(notes) 61-yard catch-and-run for a third-quarter touchdown in Green Bay's 34-16 victory over the 49ers.
- Jeff Fisher