The Titans and Dolphins will be sporting different looks when they meet at Pro Player Stadium to open the 2004 season.
On Thursday, the teams agreed to move the game to Saturday from Sunday because of approaching Hurricane Ivan. The storm could reach southern Florida as soon as Sunday, forecasters said.
The departures of Eddie George, Jevon Kearse, Robaire Smith and Justin McCareins, as well as the retirement of Frank Wycheck, have left the 31-year-old McNair—last season’s co-MVP—as the veteran leader on a team of youngsters.
With second-year running back Chris Brown, third-year defensive end Carlos Hall and second-year receiver Tyrone Calico looking to fill some big shoes, it may seem the Titans are looking to the future—despite going 12-4 last season and reaching the playoffs.
But don’t tell that to Titans coach Jeff Fisher.
“We don’t want to ever have to identify a year or two as being rebuilding years. What we want to do is constantly rebuild, maintain the core group of players, which gives us a chance to win every single year,” he said.
Entering his 10th season, McNair will anchor that core following a stellar 2003 campaign in which he led the NFL in passer rating at 100.4, throwing 24 touchdowns and just seven interceptions in 14 games.
“You’ve always got confidence you can do better. That’s what I’m going to do this year,” he said.
With the exit of George, who left in a contract dispute, the Titans lose their all-time leading rusher and most steady presence. George started 128 straight games, lining up behind McNair for eight seasons.
“Very few backs, if any, play eight or nine or 10 years like Eddie without missing a game,” Fisher said.
Brown gives the Titans speed in the backfield, which they have lacked as George began to decline. Brown led the AFC in the preseason with 240 yards rushing, and can help improve a running game that was ranked 26th in the league in 2003.
“Chris Brown brings a new dimension to this offense with his quickness and his explosiveness in the backfield,” McNair said. “We need that to help this offense in the way we want to go.”
The main question mark for the Titans will be the health of their defense, which has been one of the best in the NFL the past few seasons.
After Kearse departed for Philadelphia and Smith for Houston in the offseason, linebacker Peter Sirmon tore left knee ligaments in training camp to further weaken a running defense that was first in the league with just 80.9 rushing yards allowed per game in 2003.
But the Titans still boast All-Pro linebacker Keith Bulluck, and the secondary should only get better with cornerbacks Samari Rolle and Andre Dyson and safeties Lance Schulters and Tank Williams beginning their third straight season together.
The Dolphins will need to prove that they can be even remotely competitive without Williams, who surprisingly decided to retire before the start of training camp.
Williams ran for 3,225 yards the past two seasons, but Miami still failed to win the AFC East. Without him now, the Dolphins may find themselves at the bottom of the division.
Travis Minor, who backed up Williams the last three seasons, or newcomer Sammy Morris will start at running back against Tennessee. The Dolphins also acquired Lamar Gordon from St. Louis on Wednesday.
“We’ve been forced to deal with a lot of stuff,” coach Dave Wannstedt said. “Every great team meets challenges. Every great team has to overcome obstacles. And we have people at all positions that will do that.”
Miami does have several standout players returning from last season’s 10-6 team.
Defensive end Jason Taylor, linebacker Zach Thomas and cornerback Patrick Surtain anchor a defense that should once again be one of the NFL’s strongest, and Miami boasts one of the NFL’s best kickers in Olindo Mare.
But the Dolphins’ biggest offseason acquisition, receiver David Boston, suffered a season-ending knee injury before the first preseason game, and a contract dispute with defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, who led the AFC with 15 sacks last season, prompted his being traded.
Wannstedt finally chose Jay Fiedler to start at quarterback against the Titans over A.J. Feeley, but Fiedler will have to contend with a poor offensive line while trying to connect with receivers Marty Booker, acquired in the Ogunleye trade, and Chris Chambers.
The Dolphins traded a second-round draft pick for Feeley, who was Philadelphia’s third-string quarterback, before signing him to a five-year deal worth $21.6 million.
“You know A.J. Feeley has talent, and you know we can line up and win with Jay Fiedler,” Wannstedt said. “We’re going to be better however that situation works out.”
2003 STANDINGS: Titans - 2nd place, AFC South. Dolphins - 2nd place, AFC East.
TITANS LEADERS: Offense - McNair, 3,215 passing yards and 24 passing TDs; George, 1,031 rushing yards and 5 rushing TDs; Derrick Mason, 95 receptions, 1,303 receiving yards and 8 receiving TDs. Defense - Bulluck, 104 tackles; Kearse, 9 1/2 sacks; Rolle, 6 INTs.
DOLPHINS LEADERS: Offense - Fiedler, 2,138 passing yards and 11 passing TDs; Williams, 1,372 rushing yards and 9 rushing TDs; Chambers, 64 receptions, 963 receiving yards and 11 receiving TDs. Defense - Thomas, 84 tackles; Ogunleye, 15 sacks; Surtain, 7 INTs.
2003 TITANS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense - 101.4 yards per game (26th in NFL); Passing Offense - 242.4 ypg (5th); Total Offense - 343.8 ypg (8th). Rushing Defense - 80.9 ypg (1st); Passing Defense - 225.4 ypg (30th); Total Defense - 306.3 ypg (12th).
2003 DOLPHINS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense - 113.6 yards per game (17th); Passing Offense - 174.5 ypg (26th); Total Offense - 288.1 ypg (24th). Rushing Defense - 90.8 ypg (5th); Passing Defense - 208.4 ypg (19th); Total Defense - 299.2 ypg (10th).
LAST MEETING: Nov. 9; Titans, 31-7. At Nashville, Tenn., McNair passed for a pair of touchdowns and the Titans forced five turnovers.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Titans - Fisher has 56 regular-season wins over the past five years, most in the NFL … QB McNair was one of only two quarterbacks in 2003 to produce a touchdown in every game played (Brett Favre). … The Titans’ offense scored a franchise-record 435 points last season. Dolphins - Since 1970, Miami is 29-5 (.853) in home openers, the best mark in the league … WR Chambers led the AFC with 11 receiving TDs last year, most by a Dolphin since 1991 … CB Surtain was tied for the AFC lead with 7 INTs in 2003. Miami has won 14 of the past 15 games when Surtain has an interception.
2003 ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Titans - 5-3 on the road; Dolphins - 4-4 at home.
INJURIES: Titans - OUT: WR Calico (knee); LB Brad Kassell (Achilles). QUESTIONABLE: LB Rocky Calmus (back); DE Carlos Hall (ankle); TE Erron Kinney (calf); DE Travis LaBoy (concussion); WR Jake Schifino (hamstring). Dolphins - OUT: DT Tim Bowens (back); RB Rob Konrad (thigh). PROBABLE: RB Doug Easlick (hamstring); LB Derrick Pope (ankle); DT Bryan Robinson (hand); DT Dario Romero (ankle); LB Junior Seau (quadricep); CB Patrick Surtain (groin); LB Thomas (hip).