Recognition not on minds of unbeaten Titans
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The Tennessee Titans are the NFL’s only undefeated team. From a publicity perspective, they’re also one of the sports world’s undiscovered treasures.
Sure, you’ve heard of Vince Young – the quarterback who doesn’t play – and you’re familiar with a few other Titans, though you might not recognize them without a helmet. Hell, you might not even recognize Tennessee’s 15th-year coach, Jeff Fisher, without his highway-patrolman’s mustache.
But in the wake of yet another impressive Titans victory on Sunday, a merciless dismemberment of the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium that pushed Tennessee to 6-0, you’d better recognize.
“We’re not worried about recognition, buddy,” cornerback Cortland Finnegan said after the Titans’ 34-10 victory. “We’re a family – we’re one, big team – and we’re not really worried about how the outside world perceives us. We play for each other, and we’re on a quest.”
The obvious conclusion is that Tennessee, which leads the AFC South by three games over the Jacksonville Jaguars and Indianapolis Colts, is on a mission to capture the franchise’s first Super Bowl championship. But when you watch the Titans play, their collective goal seems even less complex.
They behave like they merely want to beat the snot out of the people opposite them, in unison, relentlessly and indefatigably.
“We all fly around, and there aren’t enough footballs to keep us satisfied,” linebacker Keith Bulluck said of Tennessee’s defense, which leads the NFL in fewest points allowed (11 per game). “There ain’t enough plays in the day. And all the guys around me are unsung heroes.”
If the Titans keep it up, they’ll get plenty of exposure come December and January. In the meantime, in honor of their 6-0 record, here are six things you need to know about football’s least glitzy powerhouse:
1. Their most important player is a grunt worker
Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth became a dominant presence last season, which some cynics dismissed as a salary drive. The Titans were clearly skeptical as well, franchising the seventh-year veteran rather than signing him to a lucrative extension. In July, Haynesworth signed a one-year, $7.25-million deal in exchange for a written promise not to franchise him after this season if he meets one of four incentives (including making the Pro Bowl). If he stays healthy, he’s almost certainly headed for unrestricted free agency. With his sixth sack of the season on Sunday – he also put the second-quarter hit on Brodie Croyle that ended the young quarterback’s season with a sprained right knee – Haynesworth continued to add value to his 6-foot-6, 320-pound frame. “Not even thinking about that,” Haynesworth insisted afterward. “I’m just going out there and playing my game. I’m starting to figure it out, and because of that you see more plays out of me.” I wonder if, as he’s about to take down a quarterback, Haynesworth sees dollar signs on the opposing player’s jersey. Finnegan offered a different theory: “I think what he sees out there is a hot dog or a hamburger.” Fisher is confident the Titans will be able to re-sign Haynesworth after the season, but even if they don’t, they’re comforted by the knowledge that he’ll play hungry throughout ’08.
2. Their running backs can run
On Sunday, the Titans rushed for a franchise record 332 yards, which was also the most ever given up by the Chiefs. Included was a 66-yard scoring dash down the left sidelines in the fourth quarter by rookie Chris Johnson (18 carries, 168 yards), who has already established himself as one of the league’s foremost breakaway threats. Less than four minutes earlier big back LenDale White (17 carries, 149 yards, three TDs) – who, teammates joke, is one of the league’s foremost breakfast eaters – rambled an unfathomable 80 yards for a score. “I owe it to Chris,” said White, whose greatest assets are his nimble feet and eagle eyes (Titans linemen say he never misses a hole.) “Because of him, the defenders were in the mode of waiting on a cutback. When the big fella came in, it was one cut and go. Next thing you know, they saw smoke coming from my feet.” When they used the 24th-overall pick on former East Carolina star Johnson, who ran a 4.24-second 40 at the combine, the Titans knew he was fast. They came to find out he’s really fast. Said Fisher: “We watched him get past the defense in training camp, and we’d say to ourselves, ‘Would this translate to a breakaway in a game?’ Then he did it against the Rams in a joint practice, and we thought, ‘Does this translate?’ Then we played them in the preseason and he went up the middle and hit a crease and went 66 yards – and we looked at each other and said, ‘Yep, it transfers.’ ” White, who played with Reggie Bush at USC, said of his current backfield mate: “That man’s fast. Fast fast. Him and Reggie are the fastest guys I’ve seen.” Incidentally, the last time the Titans had two 100-yard rushers in the same game was in 1977 – and neither one of them was Earl Campbell.
3. The star linebacker thinks the defensive coordinator talks too much
When the NFL changed the rules to allow a designated defensive player to wear a speaker in his helmet for 2008, coordinator Jim Schwartz was thrilled. A stat freak with an uncanny grasp of opposing teams’ tendencies, Schwartz viewed the tool as a great equalizer. “The original intent of the rule was for the coach to be able to relay the play call to the quarterback, but it evolved,” Schwartz explained. “For years enterprising offensive coaches have said, ‘We can not only call the play, but we can coach ‘em through the play and tell ‘em what to look for.’ Particularly with the no-huddle teams, we were one step behind. Now we can tell our player what to look for based on the (offensive) formation, and it’s leveled the playing field.” It sounds terrific, except that the man to whom Schwartz speaks, surly Bulluck, sometimes wishes his coordinator would, you know, shut up. “Schwartz talks too much sometimes,” said Bulluck, who is otherwise a huge fan of his coordinator. “He’s trying to tell me some alerts as they’re about to snap the ball, but I want to tune him out and talk to my guys. If I’ve got time I just take the helmet off for a few seconds and then put it back before the snap.” At one point on Sunday, Schwartz saw Bulluck make a gesture to the upstairs coaches’ box for him to pipe down. Naturally, after the ball was snapped, Bulluck did exactly what his coach hoped he would and helped stuff the Chiefs on third down.
4. The quarterback has his swagger back
Kerry Collins, who led the Carolina Panthers to the ’96 NFC championship game and the New York Giants to Super Bowl XXXV, was considered a castoff when Young replaced him in October of ’06 and ended up earning NFL offensive rookie of the year honors. But in September – after Young struggled in the season opener, suffered a sprained left knee ligament and the next night became so despondent that friends and team officials feared he might harm himself – Collins became Tennessee’s starting signal-caller. Surprise.Though Young is now healthy, Fisher has no intention of taking the 35-year-old Collins out of the lineup. “The game has slowed down for Kerry,” Fisher says. “You know how a baseball player who gets in a groove will talk about how the ball looks like a volleyball? With Kerry, it’s like he’s back there watching everything play out, with plenty of time to do what he needs to do.” He’s certainly carrying himself as though he’s the man, winning over his teammates in the process. In a Week 3 game against the Houston Texans at LP Field, Collins threw an interception on Tennessee’s first offensive play that cornerback Jacques Reeves returned to the Titans’ 14. As he came off the field, Collins barked at the Tennessee defenders, “Nut up and get the ball back, and I’ll put us in the end zone on the next drive.” The fired-up Titans forced a fourth-and-22 to hold Houston to a field goal, then marveled as Collins backed up his words by leading an 11-play, 77-yard touchdown drive.
5. They lead the league in nasty no-names
It seems like half the time you see someone in a Titans uniform physically overpowering an opponent, you end up asking yourself, “Who the hell is that guy, and where did he come from?” For instance, who are Michael Roos and David Stewart? If you knew that they were the bookend, 26-year-old offensive tackles who will likely anchor the impressive Tennessee line for the next half-decade or more, give yourself 10 points. As for the defense, Kevin Vickerson, Stephen Tulloch, Dave Ball and Jason Jones were among those flying to the ball and making plays on Sunday. Who? Exactly. The scary thing is, Tennessee didn’t need anything from standout pass rusher Kyle Vanden Bosch (who barely played because of a groin strain) or defensive tackle Tony Brown (inactive with an ankle injury). Tony Brown? Again – who? Not that Brown, originally signed by the Panthers as an undrafted free agent in 2003, failed to make his presence felt. “I missed a tackle in the second quarter,” Finnegan said, “and he yelled, ‘You scared? It’s OK.’ He cracked me up, as usual. Tony Brown is our biggest clown, and he’s the catalyst of our defense. He adds so much excitement.”
6. They keep their friends close and their enemy closer
When Indianapolis comes to LP Field for next Monday night’s AFC South showdown, Peyton Manning and friends will encounter an opponent that has been targeting them for years. If the Titans are successful in ending Indy’s streak of five consecutive division titles, they’ll do so with big contributions from three former Colts they signed as free agents: guard Jake Scott, outside linebacker David Thornton and cornerback Nick Harper. Whereas other teams have been disappointed with some of the players they’ve plucked from Indy – the New Orleans Saints (cornerback Jason David) and Cincinnati Bengals (tight end Ben Utecht) being prime examples – Tennessee is three-for-three. Tony Dungy’s proud players won’t go down quietly, but they’ll face a Titans team that has won 10 of its past 11 regular season games and hasn’t given up more than 17 points to a 2008 opponent. Oh, and Adam Vinatieri won’t be the best the kicker on the field; Tennessee’s Rob Bironas has nailed his last 18 kicks over the last two seasons.
So there you have it: A primer on a well-coached, unselfish, hard-hitting team that remains decidedly devoid of sexiness.
“We may not win the beauty contest,” Schwartz said Sunday. “We don’t have a lot of guys who get a lot of national media attention. But we have a lot of really good football players who work hard, and we go deep at a lot of positions. As a defensive play-caller, because we don’t have any weaknesses that have to be covered up, it gives you impunity, and I think our offense is similar. We might not be the best in the league at anything, but we’re good at just about everything.”
The scary thing is, they seem to be getting better.
I’M HOT CAUSE I’M FLY …
• Was it really that simple? The Rams fired Scott Linehan, promoted defensive coordinator Jim Haslett to interim head coach and, voila, rattled off a pair of upset victories over NFC East powers to vault themselves into the NFC playoff picture. There’s no way their transformation has been as cut-and-dried as it seems, but owner Chip Rosenbloom can’t help but wonder what might have happened had St. Louis started its season with the unpretentious, upbeat Haslett in charge. After Sunday’s 34-14 thrashing of the Cowboys at the Edward Jones Dome, the Rams are rolling. They trail the Cardinals by two games in the NFC West, with two games remaining against Arizona, and quarterback Marc Bulger and halfback Steven Jackson (25 carries, 160 yards, three TDs) have gotten on track in a major way. “Big (expletive) win,” Jackson said via text message. If he can fight through a quadriceps pull, he and the Rams can harbor hopes of making the Patriots their next victim in Foxborough on Sunday before returning home to face the Cardinals on Nov. 2.
• So far this season, I’ve heard a ton of talk about Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Redskins halfback Clinton Portis as the early MVP frontrunners, whatever that actually means. Both men are hard workers who have put up some impressive statistics – Brees is on pace to finish one yard shy of Dan Marino’s single-season record for passing yardage (5,084 in 1984), and Portis had 175 rushing yards on 27 carries in Sunday’s 14-11 victory over the Browns to increase his league-leading total to 818. But if you’re asking me which player has had the biggest impact so far on the ’08 season, I’m going with Big Ben in a big way. Ben Roethlisberger had another strong game for the Steelers on Sunday, completing 17 of 28 passes for 216 yards and two TDs in a 38-10 victory over the Bengals, as the fifth-year quarterback continues to shake off severe shoulder pain and show how insanely macho he is. Despite the recent absence of star halfback Willie Parker and an offensive line that has been shaky on occasion, Pittsburgh is 5-1 – and I shudder to think where the Steelers would be without their deceptively mobile and exceptionally tough quarterback. I don’t really care what his numbers are, but I will give you one stat that illustrates Roethlisberger’s value: Sunday’s victory over Cincinnati pushed his career record in games against AFC North opponents to 20-4 (including the playoffs).
• While we’re talking about quarterbacks fighting through shoulder pain, Aaron Rodgers came through again on Sunday as the Packers (4-3) crushed the Colts, 34-14, to remain tied with Chicago atop the NFC North. Then again, Rodgers didn’t have to go up against the Pack’s potent pass defense, which despite the continued absence of cornerback Al Harris and safety Atari Bigby, confounded Peyton Manning and produced a pair of interception returns for touchdowns by Nick Collins and Aaron Rouse – Green Bay’s fourth and fifth of the season. Best of all for the Packers, halfback Ryan Grant finally looked like the player who carried a big share of the offensive load throughout the second half of the ’07 season, running for 105 yards on 31 carries and his first touchdown of ’08. Green Bay gets a bye before traveling to Nashville to face the Titans in what some people – OK, perhaps just this person – regard as a potential Super Bowl preview.
… YOU AIN’T CAUSE YOU’RE NOT
• OK, so you’ve learned all about the undefeated Titans – but what about the NFL’s worst and the dimmest? The Bengals and Lions (28-21 losers to the Texans) remained winless on Sunday in typically inept fashion; sadly, they won’t play one another this season in what would be one hell of a Stupor Bowl. After a glorious playoff run in ’05, the team with the striped helmets is officially Nasty ‘Nati once more, a condition that has been the norm since Mike Brown began running his legendary father’s franchise in 1991. Since that time, 18 teams have started the season with seven consecutive defeats. Brown’s Bengals have been responsible for a low-five of those brutal beginnings. Fugly. As for the Lions, the recent firing of team president Matt Millen puts the glare squarely on third-year coach Rod Marinelli, whose team has been outscored 54-0 in the first quarter this season. How’s that for a Motor City Meltdown? Marinelli, who had never been a coordinator or head coach at any level, was supposed to be a master motivator. But how can you see that stat and conclude in any way that he has his team ready to play?
• Unlike the rest of the football-watching world, I’m going to try not to overreact to the Cowboys’ brutal showing in St. Louis, Dallas’ third defeat in its last four games. After all, quarterback Tony Romo sat out with a broken pinkie on his throwing hand, and 40-year-old backup Brad Johnson threw three interceptions. Also, the absence of cornerback Terence Newman (sports hernia surgery) and the suspension of Adam Jones has left the secondary susceptible to the big play. Reality check: Dallas, with a potentially dominant offensive line, still has a legitimate chance to reach the playoffs and peak when it matters most. But because the Cowboys get so much attention, their struggles inevitably are magnified, to the point where owner Jerry Jones felt compelled to comment on the job security of coach Wade Phillips after the game. Asked if Phillips, who went 13-3 and won an NFC East title last season in his first year as Dallas’ coach, was in danger of losing his job, Jones told reporters that the answer was “emphatically no.” This much I will concede: Until Romo returns – and perhaps even after he does – this team’s mental toughness will be severely tested.
• Cleveland Browns, you have a problem, and I’m not just talking about the fact that you’re a disappointing 2-4 and fading fast. Whatever the cause, your organization has become Staph Central, and that is a scary thing. Over the last four years, Browns players have suffered from seven known staph infections, and the latest victim, tight end Kellen Winslow, understandably isn’t happy about it. For one thing, Winslow was infected once before, back in 2005, and has now twice had to fight off an ailment that might have been responsible for ending center LeCharles Bentley’s career. (The now unemployed center described his infection as “life-threatening.”) On Sunday, after returning to play in the Browns’ defeat to the ‘Skins, Winslow, who spent three days last week in the Cleveland Clinic, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Mary Kay Cabot, “There’s obviously a problem (with staph) and we have to fix it. Just look at the history around here. It’s unfortunate, because it happens time and time again.” Another reason Winslow says he’s miffed is that, according to him, the team kept the nature of his illness quiet while claiming it was he who insisted it remain confidential. There were all sorts of unflattering rumors on the Internet about the source of Winslow’s affliction, and a statement from the team could’ve diffused them. How mad is Winslow? The Pro Bowl tight end told Cabot he felt like “a piece of meat” and that he considered asking to be traded before last Tuesday’s deadline. None of this is good, and general manager Phil Savage has some damage-control to do with Winslow. However, the Browns’ larger organizational focus should be on their employees’ medical well-being. I’m no infectious-disease expert, but a temporary relocation by all personnel to an alternate training facility while the team’s current headquarters is scoured and sanitized by highly trained professionals seems like a perfectly reasonable response.
TWO THINGS I CAN’T COMPREHEND
1. Why, no matter how tired I am or how early I have to wake up, I must watch at least 20 minutes of bad TV before going to sleep in a hotel room.
2. How the NFL has the gall to commence Pro Bowl fan balloting in mid-October. As early as a week ago, with some teams having played less than a third of their games, anyone could go online and start deciding who belongs in an all-star game that is supposed to reflect the performance of players over an entire season. Say what? Like we can make informed decisions right now about who deserves to go to Hawaii – not to mention which players get their reputations enhanced and, in some cases, fat bonuses based on contract incentives. For you political junkies, I know many states are currently offering early voting for the upcoming general election; this is the equivalent of letting people cast their votes for president in February. How premature is this? Two years ago, Romo didn’t throw his first pass until Oct. 15 and didn’t become a starter until eight days later, yet he still ended up in Hawaii. Heaven forbid we hold off on casting ballots that will carry the exact same weight as those submitted in December. I know there used to be complaints back when Pro Bowl spots were determined strictly by player voting, but this makes me think we should end this madness and go back to that system.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
Brett Favre, please be speaking the truth, because if you aren’t, there are going to be some very hard feelings in Green Bay. On Sunday, you told my former SI colleague Peter King that there was no merit to an earlier report by FOX’s Jay Glazer stating that you called then-Lions president Matt Millen before his team played the Packers in Week 2 and then spent 60-90 minutes giving a scouting report on your former team to Detroit’s coaches. I want to believe you, but then again, you are the person who insisted of last summer’s initial report about your desire to end your retirement, “it’s all rumor,” when, in fact, you knew damn well it wasn’t. Could you really be so bitter in the wake of your departure from Green Bay to the New York Jets that you’d go that far out of your way to try to stick it to your former team? I have a hard time buying that. What I do know is that, while I assume you meant well, you apparently called Romo last week and urged him to play with a broken right pinkie if he could tolerate the pain. In doing so, you basically set him up to look like a wimp if he were to sit out (which, of course, you would never do), and for that I’m sure he’s eternally grateful. If you called Romo, might you have called Millen? I’m taking your word on this, but I do know that Glazer is a very reliable reporter, and I’m bummed that this story is out there. Unfortunately, on a night when I should be thinking only of the impressive drive you led from the shadow of your own end zone in Oakland at the end of regulation – the 37th game-tying, fourth-quarter drive of your career – I’m instead working very hard to get my mind out of the gutter.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
“You are by far the worst (coughs) football analyst on the planet. Your bias towards the Green Bay Packers and against the Dallas Cowboys is a joke and an absolute disgrace. It is non-professionalism at its finest. We all saw what happened when your Packers played the Cowboys not only this year but last year as well and now you are picking the Rams? And the Packers to beat the Colts? I cannot believe you actually get paid to do this when you don’t even have the professionalism to be objective. It is an absolute disgrace! FYI: Cowboys win and the Packers lose this week. The Packers couldn’t stop my 86-year-old grandmother from running for 130 yards. You are the worst and most unprofessional analyst on the planet!”
Email Friday from Rich Brown of Woodbridge, N.J.
Text Sunday evening from Chargers center Nick Hardwick, giving a succinct but telling take on his team’s effort in Buffalo.