NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Neatly arranged in the lower right corner of Pacman Jones' locker at the Tennessee Titans facility is a small group of religious symbols, an almost comical sight considering Jones' preoccupation with houses of the unholy.
But for those who might think Jones' absence leaves the Titans' secondary without much hope, let alone a prayer, the truth is Tennessee might be better off. At least that's the belief from the guys who are left to clean up the mess created by Jones' year-long suspension for violation of the league's personal conduct policy.
"Oh yeah, every time we hear, 'Yeah, they lost Pac, they're going to be weak back there,' guys get fired up to prove something," said aptly named safety Chris Hope. "We acknowledge that Pac is a great talent and it's going to be a challenge, but we have guys back here who are out to prove something. Nick Harper is out to prove he's a good man-to-man cover guy because people say he's never done it. Bring that stuff on."
Hope and Harper, who was signed away from Indianapolis as a free agent, are joined by an interesting assortment of talent. Ranging from first-round pick Michael Griffin to 2006 seventh-round whippet cornerback Cortland Finnegan, the Titans have some potential in the secondary.
And regardless of how long it takes the new parts to establish cohesion, the unit theoretically can't be worse off than it was last year with Jones.
The Titans, using a bend-but-don't-break philosophy, were last in yards allowed (369.7 per game) in '06. They allowed a league-high 1,062 plays run against them which contributed to them finishing second to last in the league in time of possession (32:50 per game). They allowed opponents to convert 90 of 221 third-down situations, ranking in the bottom quarter of the league.
"I think we had four games where the other team ran 80 plays or more against us and that's absurd," said defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, an energetic and extremely bright man who presided over the unit when Tennessee made Super Bowl XXXIV with a loaded group and now is juggling a decidedly thinner roster.
No game demonstrated how the Titans played last season better than when they faced Philadelphia. Despite losing quarterback Donovan McNabb early in the game to a knee injury, the Eagles ran 91 offensive plays against Tennessee. Philadelphia dominated possession of the game, converting 10 of 23 third downs and holding the ball for more than 36 minutes.
Still Tennessee won, 31-13, part of a surprising 8-8 season. The deciding factor in that game was four big plays, including an interception of McNabb in the end zone and a 42-yard touchdown return on a fumble.
The game was also a testimony to Jones' impact, both for better and worse. There were times he gambled in coverage, allowing third downs to be converted or putting players around him under more stress.
"He had his reasons for why he was (gambling in coverage), but it was something we were going to talk about him doing less of this season," Titans secondary coach Chuck Cecil said.
The flipside of that is that Jones could change a game with his electric and sometimes unconventional ability, which he showed against the Eagles. In the second half, Tennessee was going for a punt block. The call was for Jones to fair catch because he wasn't going to have much blocking.
Jones opted to change plans and ended up with a 90-yard touchdown return, one of those four plays that turned a game the Titans had little business winning.
"The thing about Pac is that he was really getting better in coverage and if he got his hands on the ball, he was a threat to take it all the way every time," defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch said. "That's tough to lose, but I've been pleasantly surprised with how we've been working in the secondary. I think all the defensive backs as a group have been really focused on making sure the coverage is good."
Cecil said the group has worked harder than at anytime since he joined the franchise in 2001. "From doing film work to lifting, the entire group has been really focused and it has paid dividends already."
Finnegan is a great example. With Reynaldo Hill nursing an injury, Finnegan has had a chance to show off his stunning footwork and quickness. For the time being, Finnegan is holding off Griffin for the starting weak-side job.
In Jones' old spot on the strong side, Harper has been much more than the Titans expected. Labeled a zone, Cover 2 corner from his days playing with the Colts, Harper has handled all the man-to-man and quarters schemes that the Titans like to play.
"He's been really good at everything, way beyond what anybody thought he would be when we first signed him," Schwartz said. "I joke with him now in practice. He goes out and executes the man coverage or the quarters exactly the way we want and I go over and say, 'Well, looks like we can't play that coverage with you, you're just a Cover 2 corner.'"
Harper has been mystified that he's been labeled strictly a Cover 2 guy.
"All I ever did before I got to the Colts was play man-to-man," Harper said. "I had that down. The hard part for me was going to Indy and learning to play zone. That was really hard."
Standing in front of his locker, Harper shakes his head and chuckles a little at how the image didn't match up with the facts. Sort of like the religious symbols that reside in the locker next to his, it's yet another example of how the image doesn't always match up with the facts.