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Fisher uses McNair as source of motivation

Michael Silver
Yahoo Sports

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If I had told you on Halloween that the Tennessee Titans would be playing a meaningful game on Christmas, you'd have wondered if it were some kind of April Fools' joke.

Yet here they are – the team that brought you an 0-6 start, topped off by a humiliating 59-0 defeat to the New England Patriots – getting ready to host the San Diego Chargers on Friday night in a game crucial to Tennessee's playoff hopes.

The Titans (7-7), one of eight teams battling for two AFC wild-card spots, remain a huge long shot: With a 4-7 conference record, they'd likely lose out on a tiebreaker to every team but the Miami Dolphins, who they defeated in overtime last Sunday, and the Houston Texans, who have a worse divisional record. But even if Tennessee's quest falls short, its unlikely journey back to contention has been inspirational.

The story of the Titans' turnaround begins with a coach and a quarterback, as these things so often do – only it's not the quarterback you'd expect.

It begins on Thursday, Oct. 22, when the Titans conducted their final practice before dispersing for their bye weekend. Four days after their debacle in snowy Foxborough, Mass., the players' attention to detail was predictably poor.

"Practice was horrible that day," Titans coach Jeff Fisher recalled earlier this week. "I cut it short and called a team meeting – told them to be in the auditorium in 45 minutes. They didn't know if they were going to get lectured or get their butts chewed out or just told to stay out of trouble during the bye week or what."

Two days earlier Fisher had caused a stir by showing up at a Nashville-area charity event and donning a Peyton Manning(notes) jersey when introducing Colts coach Tony Dungy, joking, "I just wanted to feel like a winner."

On this day, he went with a far more serious approach.

When Tennessee's players filed into the room, they looked up to find an image of former Titans quarterback Steve McNair(notes) on the screen, his arms raised in triumph after a dramatic touchdown pass. McNair was smiling; everyone in the room was a bit choked up.

The Titans' players were well aware of Fisher's deep connection to his former quarterback, slain July 4 by his mistress in a murder-suicide. Yet aside from his eulogy at McNair's memorial service, this would be the first time the coach had gone into any depth with them about the bond they shared.

Fisher recounted a story from Tennessee's 2000 home opener against the Kansas City Chiefs, which came after a disappointing defeat at Buffalo: McNair, who eight months earlier had led the Titans to their only Super Bowl, left the field on a cart after suffering a severely bruised sternum in a game in which he'd struggled. As McNair was heading up the tunnel, he heard the fans roar at the announcement that his backup, Neil O'Donnell, had entered the game, and he was devastated.

McNair would spend several days in the hospital, and when Fisher came to visit two days after the game, the quarterback was physically exhausted and emotionally drained.

"I can't do this," a despondent McNair told Fisher. "I'm going to quit. It's not fun anymore. I just don't have the passion. I'm done."

Recalled Fisher: "I spent countless hours with him over the next few days trying to talk him down … to get him back. Fortunately, we didn't have a game the next Sunday. That was the key."

Fisher told his players that McNair, who'd planned to go to Chicago with friends during the bye weekend, instead went to Houston and met with a former team chaplain, with whom he hashed out his feelings. "When he got back, he was still a little shaky, but he was better," Fisher said. "He still wasn't sure he wanted [to keep playing], but he agreed to be the No. 2 quarterback for our game in Pittsburgh."

Late in the fourth quarter against the Steelers, O'Donnell was knocked out of the game with the Titans trailing by four points. "I looked at Steve," Fisher recalled. "He looked at me. He winked and ran out on the field, threw [three passes] and completed them all. The last one was a [game-winning] touchdown pass to Erron Kinney(notes), and we were on our way."

The Titans went 13-3 in 2000, the same record they would achieve in the '08 season. Each time, they suffered a crushing divisional-round playoff defeat to the Ravens – and in both cases a hangover ensued the following season.

By recounting the story about McNair, Fisher wasn't merely trying to inspire his players to fight through adversity. He was also trying to encourage them to flee from football for a short spell and return with the intention of starting anew.

"You can make the most of the bye weekend by getting away," he told them. "Take a few days to yourselves, come back on Monday and let's just start over."

When the Titans returned to their training facility a few days later, they saw a revised "2009 schedule" that Fisher had displayed: It consisted of just 10 games, beginning with the upcoming Nov. 1 matchup with the Jacksonville Jaguars at LP Field.

"Jacksonville is our season opener," Fisher told the players. "Let's go out and get it done."

The Titans did, with one key personnel change: Fourth-year quarterback Vince Young(notes), who as a rookie had sparked a similar revival that pushed Tennessee to the brink of the postseason after a 0-5 start, had replaced veteran Kerry Collins(notes). Owner Bud Adams had prodded Fisher into making the move a week earlier than the coach had otherwise planned, and it turned out to be the right call.

With Young displaying a previously unseen degree of polish and calm, the Titans beat the Jags, then came from behind the next Sunday to beat the 49ers in San Francisco. They crushed the Bills at home, won a tight road game against the Houston Texans and came home to defeat the Arizona Cardinals in dramatic fashion, winning 20-17 on Young's fourth-down, last-second touchdown pass to rookie wideout Kenny Britt(notes) in the back of the end zone.

After playing poorly in a road defeat to the Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee beat the St. Louis Rams and Dolphins to keep hope alive.

Fisher's memories of McNair might have resonated most deeply with his young quarterback. Like Fisher, Young had enjoyed a close relationship with McNair, who had mentored him since his days as a Houston high school star.

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Fisher and McNair during the QB's last year with the club (2005).
(Scott Halleran/Getty)

People in the Titans' organization say Young has displayed a newfound maturity in the wake of McNair's passing. He has remained in close contact with two of McNair's surviving sons, Trent and Tyler, who stood between Young and Fisher in the locker room after the victory over the Dolphins as the team conducted its postgame prayer.

Young's ascent – and the brilliance of second-year halfback Chris Johnson, the league's leading rusher with 1,730 yards – gives Fisher an abundance of hope for the future. But even though the math doesn't work in his favor, he's not giving up on doing something big in '09.

Fisher knows the score: Even if the Titans win out against the Chargers and Seattle Seahawks, at least one of the AFC's two 8-6 teams, the Broncos (at Eagles, vs. K.C.) or Ravens (at Steelers, at Raiders), would have to lose twice. In all likelihood the Jaguars (at Patriots, at Browns) and Steelers (vs. Ravens, at Dolphins) would each have to suffer at least one defeat, and the Jets (at Colts, vs. Bengals) might have to as well.

Throw in the fact that San Diego has won nine consecutive games – and 17 in a row in December – and a trip to the postseason seems remote. Fisher, however, is feeling lucky.

"If we win two, I think we're going to make it," he said. "And then I don't think anybody's going to want to play us."

Presumably that would include the Patriots, whose 59-point blowout came against a much different team, in what Fisher would describe as a different season. I, for one, have this strange feeling that if the Titans get in, they'll be heading back to Foxborough the second weekend of January.

"I do too," Fisher said.

Even if the dream dies on Christmas night, this won't have been a lost season for Tennessee.

"I still feel like this can be an example for anybody, at any level," Fisher said. "You're just never out of it, until [it's official]. You just keep doing what you're doing – if you believe in what you're doing, don't change it – and find a way to keep battling. Now look at us … "

And though anything that happens on the football field is trivial compared to the tragic events of last July, this much is true about McNair: In an eerie way, the late quarterback's grit has sparked another improbable comeback.

TAKE IT TO THE ATM

Johnson will run wild for the Titans as they keep hope alive Friday with a victory over the Chargers. … The Steelers' defense will regain some respect in a tense, physical victory over the Ravens on Sunday. … An early Brian Dawkins(notes) takeaway will fire up the Broncos in Philly, but in the end they'll succumb to Donovan McNabb(notes) and the Eagles.

PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …

The cozy confines of my family room where, through the magic of NFL Sunday Ticket, I can monitor the ever-changing developments in the crowded playoff derby, in hi-def. And if my wife asks me to do anything around the house or help with the kids, I can shrug and say, with complete truthfulness, "I'm working." Hey, it's a tough job, but someone's got to do it. …

LIES, LIES, LIES

1. No Eagles player is more courageous than Michael Vick(notes), for it takes unimaginable bravery to go straight from a prison term for involvement in a federal dog-fighting conspiracy to a job with a six-figure salary requiring you to make sporadic appearances on game day, all while avoiding the temptation to get in trouble again.

2. New Redskins GM Bruce Allen hasn't talked to Mike Shanahan about the possibility of them working together in Washington.

3. When asked by NCAA investigators why he was driving an SUV owned by a Santa Monica, Calif., businessman, USC tailback Joe McKnight said, "When they tell you ‘you're getting a full ride' here, they're not playin' around."

MY BUDDIES' ANNOYING FANTASY ADVENTURE

Well, so much for foot massages. After a minus-one-point contribution from his sleeper special, Arian Foster(notes), helped doom Harsh Reality to a blowout defeat in the semifinals, Y! Sports guru Brad Evanshas his foot in his mouth – and UCSB women's basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb is looking for somebody to kick.

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Foster's fumble doomed his day … and that of many fantasy owners.
(Scott Rovak/US Presswire)

In truth, Harsh Reality was doomed from the start, its 123-63 defeat to Dear Meat a swift kick to the groin from the fantasy gods. Things started out badly Thursday night (Peyton Manning and Maurice Jones-Drew(notes) pushed Dear Meat to a 53-9 lead), got worse Sunday morning (Foster fumbled on his third carry and never got the ball again) and officially degenerated when Braylon Edwards(notes), Gottlieb's least favorite athlete on Earth, scored a 65-yard touchdown for the Jets weeks after we'd discarded him. The bloodbath included poor outings from most of our players, including Terrell Owens(notes) (two points), Antonio Bryant(notes) (three), Vernon Davis(notes) (four), the Broncos' defense (six) and even the ever-productive Chris Johnson (13). Meanwhile, three guys we sat – Carson Palmer(notes) (21), Marion Barber(notes) (19) and Greg Jennings(notes) (17) – had surprisingly strong outings. But even if we'd made all the right moves, it wouldn't have mattered. And when Gottlieb's Gauchos suffered a 56-49 defeat to Pepperdine on Sunday marred by 17 UCSB turnovers, the coach's postgame text message was priceless: "I said it 37 times this week, and it still was the story of the game. I got screwed by TOs multiple times this weekend."

Not surprisingly, Gottlieb was all for it when I advised her to bench T.O. for Harsh Reality's third-place battle against Hurricanes (Philip Rivers(notes), Thomas Jones(notes), DeAngelo Williams(notes), Steve Smith, Sidney Rice(notes), Derrick Mason(notes), Heath Miller(notes), Lawrence Tynes(notes), Arizona). In fact, I successfully advocated for the following lineup overhaul: returning Palmer and Jennings to the lineup; picking up backs Jerome Harrison(notes) and Jason Snelling(notes) off waivers and playing both (along with Johnson); replacing kicker Josh Scobee(notes) with Shayne Graham(notes) and picking up Atlanta's defense (vs. Bills).

Meanwhile, while my buddy Malibu's long-past-relevant Sabbath Bloody Sabbath won a random consolation game (with another still to come), the real excitement in his household came when his son, A-Man, reached his first-ever fantasy-league championship game in dramatic fashion. Trailing Slobber Knockers by 27.6 points heading into the Monday night game, A-Man's Man Up Willis U … roared back to win by 4.5. It took strong efforts from Eli Manning(notes) and Fred Davis(notes) and a pedestrian one by Knockers' Kevin Boss(notes) to make it happen – and a whole lot of other exemplary efforts the previous day, such as Nate Kaeding's(notes) 52-yard field goal against the Bengals. "Sunday night I was so mad my blood was boiling," A-Man says. "That Monday night game was pure torture. I finally pulled ahead in the fourth quarter, and I was pacing and freaking out ‘till the final gun." Oh, and Evans will love this: A-Man had tried to claim Foster earlier in the week, but a controversial commissioner's decision instead awarded him to Slobber Knockers. "That ended up being the reason I won!" A-Man says.

Now, with a $4,000 first prize on the line – "That would change my lifestyle as a college student," the Cal freshman says – A-Man has a much less formidable matchup. Somehow, "Divers" (have I mentioned this is a classy league?) managed to make the finals with a lineup that includes Vince Young, Matt Cassel(notes), Ryan Grant(notes), Ricky Williams(notes), Roddy White(notes), Sidney Rice, Owens, Kellen Winslow(notes), the Texans' defense and Matt Prater(notes). I don't think A-Man needs much help, but I advised him to pick up the Browns' Harrison (over Snelling) and to play him over Laurence Maroney(notes) and Fred Jackson(notes).

Here's Evans' breakdown of our final weekend of fantasy action:

Disgruntled fantasy owners, including Coach Gottlieb, have devised several creative ways to punish me for my passionate recommendation of Arian Foster. Most have clamored for monetary retribution or resignation. Suffice it to say, the Noise's chestnuts are roasting on an open fire. When you gamble on high-risk, high-reward players controlled by treacherous coaches, unfortunate events typically follow. Gary Kubiak, a disciple of Lucifer Shanahan, will surely scorn the fantasy masses again, assuming he'll retain his head coaching job. Bummer my endorsements didn't pan out for Da Coach. I was really hoping for a Hillshire Farms gift basket brimming with coronary-inducing tubed meats (Mmmm, summer sausage) and processed cheeses. Damn you, Kubiak. Damn you.

Redemption could come in the form of a bronze trophy for Harsh Reality. With DeAngelo Williams likely a game-time decision (ankle) and Philip Rivers slated for a difficult matchup in Tennessee on Christmas night, her odds of winning the consolation matchup are favorable. Snelling (vs. Buf) and Harrison (vs. Oak) are gifted incredibly generous run defenses. The Bills have yielded the most fantasy points to rushers this season. Meanwhile, the Raiders, though improving, have surrendered the fourth-most.

As for the A-Man's all-important dead Presidents chase – $4,000 could by an entire vat of Keystone Light – his unintentional circumvention of Foster is a sign the fantasy gods are on his side. Though his matchup against the Divers appears lopsided, it's important not to assume an easy victory. Young, Grant, Williams and Rice are poised to post terrific numbers. His lineup is stacked, but I'm a bigger fan of Snelling this week, assuming Michael Turner(notes) finally decides to shut it down. The converted fullback is a versatile force who should be able to net roughly 100 total yards and a touchdown. Buffalo has conceded 4.9 yards per carry and 1.4 touchdowns per contest to rushers this season. Harrison is a viable option, but can we really trust Augustus Gloop (Mangini)? With sound crutches to lean on, it's sage to minimize risk. Stockpile the eggnog, A-Man. The Divers won't be a pushover.

OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE

In mid-November, when Vikings owner Zygi Wilf gave coach Brad Childress a contract extension through 2013 (with a reported annual salary between $4 million and $5 million), my first reaction was to cringe. Minnesota was 8-1 at the time, but much of that success seemed attributable to the amazing play of 40-year-old quarterback Brett Favre(notes). Childress had a career total of zero playoff victories, and his brusque management style and mishandling of the quarterback position had made him an unpopular figure in the locker room during the '08 season. Sure, it seemed the Vikings were headed for bigger and better things in '09, and they still may be. But what was the big hurry?

It's one thing when an innovative coach comes in and completely changes the culture of an organization, as Tony Dungy did in Tampa Bay, Jon Gruden did in Oakland or Sean Payton did in New Orleans. You lock up a guy like that with a fat raise as quickly as you can – unless you are Al Davis, who decided to let Gruden remain underpaid and ripe for the picking until it was too late – and the franchise prospers because of it. But when we're talking about the Childresses of the world, what exactly is the harm in waiting for more evidence to present itself that the right man is in charge? Did Wilf really worry that if Favre were to lead the Vikings to a championship, Childress' stock would be so insanely high that he might elect to coach out his deal and jump to another organization that was hot to hire him? Look, Wilf has done some very good things since taking over the Vikings, and if the team overcomes the recent tension between Favre and his coach and gets to the Super Bowl, the owner will deserve a ton of the credit. But as it becomes clear that Favre is openly disdainful of the coach's approach, I'm wondering whether Wilf is wishing he'd waited until season's end to hammer out that extension. And as harsh as it sounds, I think Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has the right approach. Coach Wade Phillips' contract is up after this year, and Jones holds a one-year option. He has said that a strong performance by the team down the stretch and in the playoffs will bode well for Phillips' job security, but he's not committing to anything until he sees how things play out this year. In this economy, especially, that's a prudent and reasonable way to do business.

LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …

My uncle, Michael Johnson, whose inventive sculpture, Quarrel Tree, is part of a cool display – No. 23 in your programs, No. 1 in your hearts – at the Port of San Diego. I got to check it out in person on Monday (it's on Harbor Drive, just south of Grape Ave.), and the seven, eight-foot-long crossbow arrows shooting through the 16-foot tall "urban tree" were a glorious vision. My uncle took up archery a few years ago, and when I ask him what he's been up to, his typical reply is "Shootin' arrows and drinkin' beers." How can you not do a shot for the man who utters that mantra?

DISPATCHES FROM THE LAIR OF THE BEAR

When Cal jumped out to a 14-0 lead over Utah in the Poinsettia Bowl on Wednesday evening, I figured sophomore kicker David Seawright would be filing his season-ending missive from some raucous Gaslamp Quarter hot spot in San Diego while watching his coach, Jeff Tedford (5-1 in bowl games coming in), cut up the dance floor with lampshade on head. It didn't work out that way – the Utes punched back, hard, and rolled to a 37-27 victory – but Seawright, the consummate (budding) professional, still managed to meet his deadline while capturing the somber mood. The kid may have a soft touch on the keyboard, but I fear for the footballs on which he'll be taking out his frustration over the next eight months with his mighty right foot.

Losing hurts. And we lost a lot more this year than expected.

But the thrashing that the nation witnessed on Wednesday night's prime-time airing of the Poinsettia Bowl hurt in a different sort of way.

When a team loses during the regular season, a bitter aftertaste tortures everyone, from coaches and players to trainers and the equipment staff, for a long, dreadful week. This one will be rotting in our minds for the next eight months.

Even worse, for our seniors, most of whom will never play football again, this defeat will last forever. Instead of bidding them farewell while joyously hoisting a bowl trophy, we were left tearfully saying goodbye in a silent San Diego Chargers locker room.

Mike Tepper, a sixth-year senior and starting left tackle, was the only Cal player to have experienced a bowl loss prior to our performance in San Diego. Now we all know the aching feeling that he ardently warned us of before taking the field.

The feeling of defeat will be carried into every team meeting, every early morning conditioning practice, and every lift in the weight room. Not until we take the field again will we be able to fully wash our hands of the mess we made at Qualcomm Stadium.

It would be easy to go Tim Tebow in this situation and promise that no team will work harder this offseason, but that should be assumed. And after our performance Wednesday night – and four other occasions throughout the season – it's clear we need the work.

We have eight months to endure the fermentation of this loss. Eight months to make sure that we don't feel this again in 2010.

YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK

Obama socialist Christmas

ROLLIN' WITH THE ROYALS

It's still unclear who'll succeed the ousted Brendan Rodgers as Reading's manager, but right now interim boss Brian McDermott is feeling pretty good about his debut. Facing a tough Bristol City side at its own grounds, the Royals fell behind in the 12th minute on a dubious referee's decision: The Robins were awarded a soft penalty kick following Jay Tabb's brush of Nicky Maynard in the box. Paul Hartley converted, and Reading's repeated attempts to equalize were rebuffed. Then, in second-half stoppage time, two of McDermott's subs made it happen: Simon Church flick-headed a Jimmy Kebe cross into the upper left corner of the net, setting off a wild celebration among the 1,195 away fans at Ashton Gate. The point kept the Royals four clear of the relegation line in the Championship table, and Reading will try to increase its comfort zone in a pair of upcoming games: Swansea City visits Madejski Stadium on Saturday (Boxing Day, if you must know) and the Royals face Plymouth on the road two days later. Swansea, which Reading played to a 0-0 draw way back on Aug. 18, marks the Royals' first repeat opponent of the league season while Plymouth is the last of the 23 foes in the Championship that Reading has yet to face. Then new year begins in style: On Saturday, Jan. 2 Liverpool will face the Royals in an FA Cup match at Madejski Stadium.

LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK

If Childress, aka Coach Chilly, were more, you know, chill, he'd have taken his inherent subservience to Favre in stride and counted up ways to spend the reported $18 million or so guaranteed to him when he signed that extension in November (for which Favre was about 98 percent responsible). Alas, after Childress tried to assert his alleged authority – apparently not for the first time – to the quarterback he picked up at the St. Paul airport in August, Favre vented publicly. Five days later, it's pretty clear that, like Randy Moss(notes), the quarterback will play when he wants to play, the whims of the bearded dude in the headset be damned. Many of you see Favre as the aw-shucks dude in the Wranglers who just wants to sling footballs and sit on his tractor without being bothered by life's complexities. I see him as a shirtless, ranting Trent Reznor coming to terms with his own power. (To the tune of Nine Inch Nails' "Only")

I'm becoming less refined, as years go by
Speaking my mind, well you might say I'm causing drama
Kind of airing our dirty laundry in ways that drive my coach crazy
Sometimes, I just have to get it off my chest
Sometimes, I just have to get it off my chest
Sometimes, gonna have to tell y'all

Less concerned, about following the rules
Your rules, that is
'Cause it doesn't really matter anymore
(No, it doesn't really matter anymore)
No, it doesn't really matter anymore
What you think doesn't matter anymore

Yes, I am in charge, but then again I always was
As far back as I can tell, I think maybe it's because
Because you were so desperate for help to begin with
I just called you up to help myself

I just called you up to help myself
Yeah, and when you picked me up, you hurt yourself
I just called you up to help myself
Yeah, and I knew that you could not help yourself
And it worked
Yes it did!

There is no you, there is only me
There is no you, there is only me
There is no Coach Chilly, there is only me
There is no Coach Chilly, there is only me

Only
Only
Only
Only

When, we were tryin' to kill the clock on Green Bay
And I checked off and called a pass
Just to stick it to Ted Thompson
And to kick McCarthy's ass

You just couldn't leave it alone
You told me to take a seat
I grabbed a staple gun and made your mouth shut
With Super Glue

Now you're somewhere you are not supposed to be
And you have the audacity to try to pull me
So yeah I got pissed, and then you got dissed
Things aren't as pretty with Tarvaris

There is no you, there is only me
There is no you, there is only me
There is no Coach Chilly, there is only me
There is no Twin Cities, there is only me

Only
Only
Only
Only
Only
Only
Only
Only

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